Camping at North America’s largest alpine lake

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There’s a lot more to California than San Francisco and LA. Heading east of San Francisco, you’ll find beautiful national parks and pristine lakes, including North America’s largest alpine lake.

Lake Tahoe straddles the Californian and Nevada border, and is so big it’s split into two distinct sections – north and south.

On a recent road trip through America’s west coast, my friend and I tackled the south section on the Californian side. You can take your pick of activities at South Lake Tahoe during the summer months.

You can check out the sights from just driving around the lake and stopping at various viewpoints; kayak in Emerald Bay; hike into the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains; or go for a swim. Or do all of the above if you have a few days.

Hiking around Lake Tahoe

They have a thing for eagles at Lake Tahoe and the highlights of my trip to South Lake Tahoe were to Eagle Lake and Eagle Rock.

It only takes a couple of minutes on the Eagle Lake trail to reach good views of Lake Tahoe.

After taking in the view, you can then continue on another kilometre or so to Eagle Lake. The hike to Eagle Lake is 1.8km one way.

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The trail keeps going to Dicks and Fontanillis lakes but the path is strenuous due to steep sections and the altitude. Some parts of Lake Tahoe have an elevation of more than 2500 metres – so hiking can be hard going if you’re not used to high altitudes. I hike a lot, and admit that I struggled and had to stop a lot to catch my breath!

Eagle Rock is a short and dirty hike and will only take you about 15 minutes to get up to a lookout point over Lake Tahoe. The signage isn’t very obvious until you’re right next to the rock, but the trailhead is located on the left hand side of the road about a 15 minute drive north of Meeks Bay Campground.

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Other recommended hikes in the South Tahoe area include a strenuous 17km return hike to Mt Tallac or the Bayview Trail to Cascade Falls and Granite Lake.

Swimming Spots

South Lake Tahoe has also got plenty of swimming spots to choose from. A personal favourite was Emerald Bay.

To get to Emerald Bay, you can park in the Eagle Lake Trailhead carpark or the Vikingsholm carpark and walk down. Fees apply for both options but Eagle Lake is cheaper. It’s a steep walk down to Emerald Bay and will take you about 20-30 minutes but you can take in the views on the way down.

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Once you reach Emerald Bay you can go for a swim, visit Vikingsholm house or hire a kayak to reach Fannette Island – Lake Tahoe’s only island. Vikingsholm was built with Scandinavian influences by Lora Knight, who purchased the site in 1928. You can take a look inside the house for a small fee in the summer months.

Lora also built a teahouse on Fannette Island for her visitors. You can hire a kayak on the beach from $A32 and paddle out to Fannette Island and take a short hike up to the teahouse. These days, all that remains is the walls of the teahouse but the viewpoint offers a good panorama of the bay.

Another good viewpoint of South Lake Tahoe is the Inspiration Point Vista. Head here early to avoid the crowds.

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There’s plenty of camping options at Lake Tahoe. Meeks Bay Campground was where we set up and it has direct access to the beach. The Meeks Bay beach is another great place to go for a swim. If you’re not staying at the campground, you can pay a day use fee of $A11 per vehicle to use the beach.

Campsites include a fire ring, picnic table and bear proof food storage locker.

Things You Should Know:

  • There’s no vehicle entry fee to enter Lake Tahoe, however fees apply for some carparking areas. Signage indicates where fees apply.
  • You are spoilt for choice with campgrounds at South Lake Tahoe, and there are also a range of hotels, cabins, and motels as you approach from the south end along Highway 89. The majority of campgrounds are concentrated in the south and south west of the lake. Campgrounds range from very basic with pit toilets to campgrounds with pay showers.
  • East California is bear country and there’s a chance you might stumble onto a bear around Lake Tahoe. It’s not recommended to leave food in your car and keep backpacks etc out of site as bears know what items may contain food. If you’re camping, you’ll need to store your food in beer proof storage lockers provided at your campsite.
  • Parts of Lake Tahoe have an elevation of more than 2500 metres so you may need some time to get used to the altitude. Take it easy on your first day in the area while your body acclimatises to the thinner air. It can also get very cold at Lake Tahoe at night (even in summer) due to the altitude so bring some warm clothing.
  • If you need any camping supplies such as sleeping bags, cooking equipment, and utensils, there’s a great Goodwill second hand store located in the South Lake Tahoe township so you can pick up some cheap gear.

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