When we decided on a short getaway to Lake Tahoe, the first thing that I was worried about was the crowds. It’s a gorgeous part of California so why wouldn’t it be packed?
We visited in the late Fall, which gave us beautiful weather and a distinct lack of people. And there are so many things to do in Lake Tahoe in Fall that we had no trouble filling our days.
Why visit Lake Tahoe in Fall?
Fall is a shoulder-season of sorts for Lake Tahoe, and while the area is never really quiet, you’ll have to battle much smaller crowds and cars for parking spaces.
While Fall is a quieter time to visit, there are still so many great activities that you can take part in during the Autumn months. Visiting in September, October, and even mid-November will give you gorgeous sunny days, even as the nights get chillier as the season progresses.
Is October a good time to visit Lake Tahoe?
If your main aim for visiting Lake Tahoe in Fall is to see some beautiful Autumn foliage, you’re in luck!
Visiting Lake Tahoe in mid-to-late October is probably the best time to see the leaves change from green to orange, yellow and red. Those in higher elevations will change first though, so stick to the southern lake area during October.
You won’t get any snow in South Lake Tahoe during October, and the average temperatures range from 59°F (14.9°C) to 32.4°F (0.2°C). Keep in mind that those are just averages. We visited in early November and the temperature hit 69°F (21°C) during the days.
Meanwhile, North Lake Tahoe averages about 2.4 inches (61mm) of snow during October.
Things to do in Lake Tahoe
Just because the weather is starting to turn, doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things to do in Lake Tahoe in Fall.
While swimming might be reserved only for those brave enough to handle the frigid temperatures of Lake Tahoe, the region is bursting with fun, exciting things to see and do.
See the Fall colors up close
Once the weather starts to change, you might need a little help accepting that winter is on it’s way.
Seeing the brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds of the leaves will remind you just how gorgeous Fall can be.
You’ll mostly be seeing shades of yellow on the quaking aspens and cottonwood trees, clumped amongst the Jeffery, Ponderosa, and Sugar Pines (amongst other evergreens).
The region starts to show it’s Fall spirit around the end of September, so visit in mid-October if your heart is set on experiencing Fall colors in Lake Tahoe.
Where are the Fall colors in Lake Tahoe?
Visit South Lake Tahoe for the best showing of Fall colors, however there are also some spots in North Lake Tahoe where you can see the Fall foliage.
Here are some of the best spots:
- Hope Valley: Just south of South Lake Tahoe. Drive Highway 88 over Carson Pass and for the best views, making stops at Red Lake Overlook, Sorenson’s Resort, and the Highway 88 Viewpoint.
- Zephyr Cove: On the eastern side of South Lake Tahoe, you can easily get to Zephyr Cove from Highway 50. It features a grove of aspens that change color in October.
- Emerald Bay State Park: Head to Emerald Bay State Park Lookout for swathes of Fall color along the mountains. If you’re feeling energetic, hike down (and back up) the Vikingsholm Trail for more Fall foliage. Parking costs $5 in the trailhead lot, which fills quickly).
- Spooner Lake: Visit Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park’s Spooner Lake and hike the easy 2.5 mile loop trail for some beautiful Fall leaves. If you want to spend a little longer amongst the trees, continue onto the Marlette Lake Trail.
- Mt. Rose Scenic Byway: Drive this scenic byway on the northwest side of Lake Tahoe early in the Fall season. It’s higher elevation means leaves turn and fall earlier than other spots on this list. Stop at Mt. Rose Summit for spectacular views of the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Visit a Viking Castle
Be warned that visiting Vikingsholm, the Viking Castle on the shores of Emerald Bay, requires you to walk a fairly steep incline.
While the Vikingsholm Trail‘s 1 mile (1.5km) hike down to the castle is fine for most, it’s the trek back up covering a 400 foot (121 metre) elevation change that is the most grueling.
The castle was commissioned by Lora Josephine Knight in 1928, as her summer home in an area that reminded her of Scandinavian fjords. Hence the Viking-inspired home on the lake. Looking out into Emerald Bay, it’s easy to feel transported to Europe.
The castle is open for daily tours from June through September, so you’ll just catch it if you visit in early Fall. However, the hike down to the shores of Emerald Bay, for the views of Fanette Island are worth it even if Vikingsholm is shut.
I would not describe this activity as “accessible”. While the trail is wide and fairly even, it’s not a grade that you’d easily push yourself up in a wheelchair.
Where: Vikingsholm, California Highway 89, Tahoma, 96142.
Tours: Daily tours for the 2021 season will run May 29 through September 30, 10.30am-4pm, each half hour.
Cost: Adults $15, students (7-17 with college ID) $12, seniors/active duty $12, children under 7 are free. Parking at the trailhead lot, which fills quickly, costs $5.
Watch the sun rise or set
We visited South Lake Tahoe in early November, just after the change back to “normal” time from Daylight Savings. So my body clock was shot enough to wake me up at 4am each day.
That meant I awake in plenty of time to watch the sunrise! A small consolation to the tired. Then I dragged Mr M out for a round of sunset watching in the evenings so he didn’t miss out.
Best places to see sunrise in Lake Tahoe
- Emerald Bay: Along Highway 89 inside Emerald Bay State Park, you’ll find lots of pullouts to witness the sunrise. You can also park in the lot near Eagle Falls trailhead. Stop in at Inspiration Point Lookout for more views while you’re there.
- Eagle Point Campground Lookout: Also inside Emerald Bay State Park you’ll find this campground at the end of Emerald Bay Road. Walk over to the lookout for spectacular sunrise views. This is also a great sunset spot.
- Eagle Falls Trail: Just off Highway 89, you’ll find a parking lot for the trail to Eagle Falls. You can cross the highway from the parking lot for a good view, or try a spot along the trail.
- Kings Beach: The location of Kings Beach means it straddles the sunrise and sunset divide.
Best places to see sunset in Lake Tahoe
- Zephyr Cove: We stayed here (South Lake Tahoe) so it was easy to wander down to the lake around sunset. There are plenty of picnic tables and benches along the length of the water’s edge that allows you to sit and watch the sunset behind the mountains.
- Sand Harbor: If you’re closer to North Lake Tahoe, Sand Harbor is a beautiful sunset option, with miles of shore to spread out along and enjoy. There is a $7 entrance fee.
- Hidden Beach: You might want to get to Hidden Beach a little earlier than sunset, since there is limited free parking about a mile north of the beach at Incline Village. The beach is 750 feet long, littered with rocky alcoves.
- Cave Rock: There are just three parking spaces at the Cave Rock trailhead so arrive early to avoid disappointment. It offers an uninterrupted 180 degree view of Lake Tahoe. From the parking area, you’ll walk up a dirt trail up to the look out.
Go for a bike ride
There’s no shortage of bike rental choices in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
And for good reason – with so much beautiful landscape to cover, you might want to do it from the seat of a bike, instead of whizzing past in a car.
There are even great options for families with young (or not-so-young) children. Hire a 2-person or 4-person surrey (pictured above) and combine your pedal power.
You can also rent an electric or hybrid bike, if you’re not sure how much energy you’ve got in your own tank.
The Lake Tahoe Bicycle Coalition provides maps of the area’s bike paths. We picked a few of the best ones for you:
- Pope-Baldwin Bike Path: This flat 3.6 mile (5.8km) path starts at Pope-Baldwin Beach and runs south past Camp Richardson, the Tallac Historic Site, and Fallen Leaf Lake.
- Tahoe East Shore Trail: This 3 mile (4.8km) path connects Incline Village south with Sand Harbor State Park. It has been dubbed “America’s most beautiful bikeway”, probably because it runs parallel with the lake and offers great views. The self-paid parking in the lots along the route pays for it’s maintenance.
- Flume Trail: This 14 mile (22km) trail is for seasoned riders and rewards with views of Marlette Lake and during the climb up Mt. Rose Highway. Remember that you’re riding at (up to) 8,000 feet of elevation, and you’ll climb 1,000 feet in the first four miles, so pace yourself. This trail has been voted one of the 10 best mountain bike rides in the country.
- El Dorado Beach Cruise: Ride from South Lake Tahoe to the Meyers area in El Dorado County that runs parallel to Highway 50. The combination of three bike paths will give you a 6-mile (9.6km) ride.
Visit a historic resort
In a bygone era, Tallac Historic Site was the summer retreat for San Francisco Bay Area elite families. The Pope, Baldwin, Tevis and Heller families would flee the Bay Area for the quiet of their ‘resort’ homes on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Visit to see how ‘the other half’ lived a century ago, and go on an estate tour of Pope House, visit the Baldwin House, boathouse, see the operating blacksmith shop, or visit the pond and arboretum.
The homes and tours are only open from Memorial Day weekend until late September, so if you visit in early Fall, you’ll just scrape in.
However, the site is open year round so you can stroll the gardens and catch a glimpse of the outside of the homes and cabins. It’s a popular winter spot for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Where: 1 Heritage Way, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
When: The homes and tours are available from Memorial Day through late September. The estate grounds are open year-round and free to enter.
Tours: 11am, 12.30pm, 2pm daily. Reservations recommended.
Cost: Adults $15, students, military and seniors $10, children under 10 are free.
Experience Tahoe Terror & Winter Wanderland
Despite closing the homes and tours in late September, Tallac Historic Estate reopens the Baldwin Estate for a ‘haunted walk’ in mid-October.
Known as Tahoe Terror at Tallac, the event features a tour of the estate, complete with ghost stories and tales of woe for unlucky souls and servants on the estate.
It reopens for a weekend in November to host the Holiday Gift Shop and Winter Wanderland.
The forest surrounding the Pope-Baldwin estates is lit up for the holiday season, and entertainment brings some old world charm to the season.
Note: Both the Tahoe Terror at Tallac and Winter Wanderland & Forest of Lights events are cancelled for 2020 due to the pandemic.
See Tahoe from the sky in a hot air balloon
If the advent of drones as photographers have taught us anything, it’s that everything looks way better from above.
So if you thought Lake Tahoe was beautiful from the ground, you probably also need to see it from way up in the sky.
Wake up early for a morning tour that launches just after sunrise and cross your fingers for perfect conditions that will allow you to see all of the Sierras and even some of Yosemite’s famous peaks.
Take a hike
You can’t visit Lake Tahoe without heading out on at least one hike. The area’s natural beauty is best experienced on foot.
And the milder weather of Fall means that you’ll feel much more comfortable hitting the trails around Lake Tahoe.
Here are a few great hikes to try:
- Eagle Lake Trail: (2.4 miles/3.8kms out-and-back) This moderate trail is in Emerald Bay, close to the Vikingsholm parking lot. Head into Desolation Wilderness to find this trailhead. The trail is steep and rocky at the beginning, but offers beautiful views of Emerald Bay and Eagle Lake.
- Marlette Lake Trail from Spooner Lake: (10.2 miles/16.4kms out-and-back) This longer hike is also considered a moderate hike. Located in North Lake Tahoe’s Glenbrook area, this popular hike offers views of Lake Tahoe near the end, and is a great spot to stop for a picnic.
- Cave Rock Trail: (0.8 miles/1.4km out-and-back) This short hike packs a veritable punch where views are concerned. If you’re brave, scramble up to the top of Cave Rock, which will have you standing on top of the tunnel over Highway 50.
- Rubicon Trail: (16.4 miles/26km out-and-back) Rated as moderate, you can choose just how much of this hike you’d like to do. What makes it special is that it’s one of the only hikes to follow the Lake Tahoe shore. Stop for a swim in one of the coves along the way.
- Cascade Falls Trail: (1.4 miles/2.2kms out-and-back) Be careful on this short mountain trail – the views are gorgeous from beginning to end and it’s easy to take your eyes off the path. This easy hike will take you to Cascade Falls and give you a view from the lake of the same name out to Lake Tahoe.
Visit a mountain resort
Even when there’s no prospect of skiing or snowboarding, mountain resorts are worth the visit.
Many, like Heavenly, offer scenic Gondola rides during the off-season. But check ahead of time because they sometimes close this option during the Fall.
It’s not all about the sports though, mountain resorts usually have shopping villages, restaurants, day spas, and sometimes even cinemas to keep you occupied!
Take a tour on horseback
We’ve covered hiking and biking, but what if you’d like to see the Lake Tahoe area from the saddle?
There are quite a few horseback riding trails in South Lake Tahoe that take in meadows and forests and allow even the least experience riders the chance to have an awesome experience.
Take a tour with:
- Camp Richardson Corral and Pack Station: This family-owned business offers scenic guided trail rides, pony rides for children, and extended trail rides.
- Piping Rock Equestrian Center: Touted as being “less crowded” and “less dusty”, these trail rides will cross mountain streams and experience is not necessary.
- Zephyr Cove Stables: Offers lunch and dinner rides, as well as guided rides between 10am-4pm in Fall.
- Alpine Meadows Stables: Is open through September (but the season can be extending if the weather is good). Another family-owned business where you can choose from a scenic tour, half day ride, mountain ride, or pony ride for kids.
- Sheridan Creek Equestrian Center: The center gives private trail rides on it’s ranch in Gardnerville, Nevada.
Venture out on a day trip
Not that it’s ever possible to get bored at Lake Tahoe, but if you’re keen on spending the day away from one of the most beautiful places on earth, we’ve got a few ideas for you.
There’s lots to do in Reno, yes even apart from visiting a casino or two!
Visit during September to witness the Great Reno Balloon Race – a festival of Hot Air Balloonery that fills the skies with more than 100 colorful balloons!
Where: Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, 1595 N. Sierra St, Reno
When: September 10-12, 2021
If you’re more into transportation with an engine, try the Street Vibrations Fall Rally in September. It features music, motorcycles, and a tattoo expo.
When: September 23-26, 2021
Head to Apple Hill to go apple picking, try some fresh apple cider or stick to the apple pies if you’re teetotal, and enjoy Fall!
Virginia City, Nevada
Just an hour from Lake Tahoe is the historic mining town of Virginia City that exudes some old world charm.
As long as that charm includes cowboys and miners. In it’s heyday, Virginia City was a metropolis of miners trying to make their fortune on the silver and gold buried beneath their feet.
That fortune turned the town into one of the most important cities between San Francisco and Denver, and its residents built mansions, hospitals, and schools.
Step back in time while you wander past saloons on wooden sidewalks. Take a tour of the Comstock Gold Mill, Chollar Mine (May-October), or Marshall Mint (year round), amongst many others.
You can also ride the Virginia & Truckee Train, take a trolley tour if your legs need a rest, or do a historic walking tour.
Yosemite National Park, California
This is going to be a biiiig day trip, so you’ll want to get an early start to the day or plan an overnighter.
It’ll take about three hours to drive to Yosemite National Park’s Tioga Pass Road from South Lake Tahoe.
From there you can do a few hikes, or decide whether you want to continue onto Yosemite Valley and the famous Glacier Point where you get views of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Yosemite Falls.
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