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72 Mile Loop Around Lake Tahoe

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It’s no wonder that Lake Tahoe is a vacation paradise.  Everything you could want is here: mountains, snow, skiing, sparkling blue water, and of course the one thing that every road tripper looks for: a great way to see it all, from behind the wheel.

It’s easy to navigate your way around Lake Tahoe.  Just remember these route numbers: 50, 28, 89.  US 50 enters at the southern end of the lake and travels up the eastern shore, before turning away at Glenbrook.  Pick up NV Rte. 28 for the trip up and over, then CA Rte. 89 for the trip south along the lake’s west side.

For me, Day 5 started in the casino town of Stateline.  Forecasters had predicted several inches of snow, but only a dusting arrived.  Since the roads were clear, I set off on a counter-clockwise trip around the shore.

Road Geeks: NV Rte. 28 is one of only two 2-digit route numbers in Nevada.  Most state roads were renumbered to 3-digits back in 1980, but Rte. 28 was probably left alone, so it would continue to match its California counterpart.

One of the first interesting landmarks you’ll encounter is Cave Rock.  US 50 goes through a tunnel here, so turn off at the public boat ramp just before the tunnel, for the best view.

I can’t find much information online about Cave Rock, but according to one website, the mountain has long been considered sacred by the Washoe Indians.  Long ago, they conducted ceremonies inside the largest of the caves, which were formed in the side of the mountain through erosion from the waves, long ago when the water level was higher.  Cave Rock is now popular with rock climbers.

The view from the boat ramp at Cave Rock is pretty good, but it gets better, just down the road.

You probably won’t want to linger long here, because this parking area, and many others along the loop, charge a day use fee of about $5.  To avoid paying, look for small overlook stops along the side of the road.  Many of these are free, and while they don’t offer picnic tables or boat ramps, the view is often just as good.

As you head north, the road cuts inland, and US 50 turns east.  Follow Rte. 28, and you’ll eventually return to the coast.

One of the prettiest spots along Lake Tahoe’s shore is Sand Point, an area where huge round boulders, sandy beach, and turquoise-blue water all come together.  Unfortunately, the day-use fee here is an outrageous (in my opinion) amount, somewhere around $8.  If there’s no one in the toll collection booth, you can always take a chance, and drive past the self-pay station.  But, there are plenty of signs warning of expensive tickets.

The good news is, you don’t have to pay.  Drive just a short distance further, and watch for a turnout on the left side of the road.  It’s only big enough for a few cars.  Park here, and make your way down to the water, by climbing over a few boulders.  With a little effort, you can see the secluded spot pictured above (looking south)…

… and this one (looking north).  It’s a nearly perfect spot, and just difficult enough to get to, that you might have it all to yourself.

At the top of the lake, you’ll pass through several small towns (Incline Village, Crystal Bay, and Kings Beach), and you’ll pass by a small park.  Check out the relief map of the lake, carved out of granite, for a little perspective on just how big and deep Lake Tahoe is.

Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the United States (behind only Crater Lake in Oregon, which we’ll visit later on this trip), and the 12th deepest lake in the world.  Lake Tahoe has 191 miles of shoreline, about 2/3 of which is in California.  The lake contains 39 trillion gallons of water, enough to cover the entire state of California, about 1 foot deep.

You might find a few geese hanging out on the park’s small beach.

Make another stop as you pass through Tahoe City, California, at the dam that controls Lake Tahoe’s only outlet.  The Truckee River flows into Lake Tahoe from the mountains on the south side, and flows out here, on its way to Pyramid Lake in the desert north of Reno (we’ll visit Pyramid Lake later today).  This dam was completed in 1913, and controls only the top six feet of water in the lake.

You can explore the gatekeeper’s cabin, next to the dam, or wander around the grounds.  That’s the original fire house pictured above, amongst the trees.

Emerald Bay

If there’s one place along the coastline of Lake Tahoe that you should definitely see, it’s Emerald Bay.  This is the most photographed part of Lake Tahoe.

I found two places for viewing Emerald Bay.  The first one is a parking area (as you make the counter-clockwise circle around Lake Tahoe) is a day-use-fee area.  Once you’ve ignored the signs that tell you to pay $5, you should also ignore the signs that tell you not to climb on the huge sandstone hill.  As you can see from the picture above, the view is absolutely awesome from the top of the rock.

The island in the middle of Emerald Bay is Fannette Island, the only island in all of Lake Tahoe. 

Emerald Bay is a California State Park, an Underwater State Park (the first of its kind in California), and a National Natural Landmark.

Don’t forget to turn around and look at the surrounding mountains, that loom over Emerald Bay.  When I was here, the clouds were just beginning to break, and when the light hit the mountainside, it burst out in color.

The second viewpoint you’ll pass allows free parking, but isn’t nearly as good.  I didn’t take a single picture there, because trees and people were in the way.

If you don’t want to make the full-circle trip, you should still visit Emerald Bay.  From South Lake Tahoe, take Rte. 89 northwest.  It’s only about 9 miles.

Consider taking a cruise on Lake Tahoe–one that will take you into Emerald Cove.  Here’s one cruise provider.

Once I completed the 72 mile loop around Lake Tahoe, I was back where I started, in Stateline, Nevada.  I had heard that the drive down the Kingsbury Grade was steep and exciting, so I decided to take Route 207 east.

Route 207 climbs up from Lake Tahoe, until it crests at Daggett Pass.  I figured there should be a good view of Lake Tahoe somewhere up here, so I took a side road to see if I could find one.

Now, I’m not exactly sure what road I took–I think it was Benjamin Drive, which led to Andria Drive.  The road drove past some homes, and even though the road was clear, there were still signs warning that chains or snow tires were mandatory.  Heck, it was hardly the first sign I had ignored today, so I kept going.  Eventually the road dead-ended at a trailhead for the Tahoe Rim Trail.  A sign promised a viewpoint, 1/4 mile up the hill.

I enjoyed this hike immensely.  A fresh layer of snow made the trail just a little treacherous, while at the same time making it feel pristine and new, as if I was the first person to ever walk here.  For the most part, the trail was easy, and didn’t require any difficult climbing.

Everything was silent up here–just the sound of my boots on the snow, my breath, and my thoughts.  Along the way, there were great views of the surrounding mountains.

I’m not sure how far I walked, but I never found a spectacular view of the lake.  Perhaps I should have gone a little farther.  But by this point, I didn’t care.  It had been a long time since I had taken a hike through newly-fallen snow, so I didn’t need a great view to make it all worthwhile.

It almost goes without saying that Lake Tahoe is a skier’s paradise.  There are several ski areas on the mountains surrounding the lake.  If you don’t ski, you could consider a snowmobile ride.  I had hoped to take a guided tour of the mountains overlooking Lake Tahoe, but I arrived near the end of the snowmobiling season, and I didn’t really have the time to spend on a half-day adventure.  But, I’m definitely coming back someday for a snowmobile ride.  You can check out several local tour providers here.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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