Lake Tahoe, California
Although the foliage clock is ticking – and winding down in many spots – there’s still time to visit the Sierra high country’s aspen groves in their golden splendor. But I wouldn’t wait much longer.
My recent visit (10/17 and 10/18) featured a drive into the Tahoe region along Interstate 80 (Donner Pass), and a trip around the lake on Thursday. Friday was a more active day with a splendidly hard hike from Emerald Bay up to Middle Velma Lake in Desolation Wilderness, followed by a late afternoon drive back to the Bay Area along Highway 50 with some Technicolor foliage along the South Fork of the American River.
If not in a rush to reach Lake Tahoe, I recommend getting off the interstate at the Sugar Bowl/Donner Ski Ranch exit and driving along Old Highway 40 along Donner Lake. Even without fall colors, this is a beautiful drive. In a previous article I wrote about hiking in this area (Mt. Judah & the Pacific Crest Trail).
While there are many places to stay in and around downtown Truckee, vacation rentals abound adjacent to Donner Lake. One of the most picturesque is Donner Lake Village, which sits on the lakeside of Donner Pass Road. The area above the lake (towards Sugar Bowl) is a haven for hikers and rock climbers. On both sides of the road along the lakeshore, aspens and other trees were in peak color. There are several public access points along the road.
South of Donner Lake, slowing creeping toward South Lake Tahoe, my next stop was at Squaw Valley Ski Resort to revisit the Shirley Canyon trail in a search for autumn colors. Although I found an open Starbucks for a much needed caffeine jolt, it seemed a bit depressing to see the mountain without snow. A short hike up the trail, where in May I found wildflowers and a robust creek, revealed little in the way of foliage and the barest of trickles in the creek so I beat a hasty retreat.
Along highway 89 to Tahoe City, south of Alpine Meadows, the road parallels the Truckee River and a scenic section of the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway. There are some aspens along the river, but it’s mainly pine and fir forest. Nevertheless, it’s a great spot to explore by bike or on foot and the wild grasses along the shore lend some color. There are also some late blooms of bloomer goldenbush along the bike trail.
In Tahoe City, I continued my foliage safari clockwise along highway 28 on the north and east shores of Lake Tahoe rather than along the west side towards Tahoma and Emerald Bay. In either direction the views are stunning. There are no bad choices when it comes to deciding on a route: they’re all scenic. I did find however, as I made my way along the developed north shore – Kings Beach, Crystal Bay, Incline Village – that most of the colorful foliage was on the private properties of the impressive homes along the shore. Scenic route alert: along this stretch are two roads that lead north: highway 267 towards Northstar, and highway 431 towards Mt. Rose and Reno.
It wasn’t until highway 28 made a southerly turn towards Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, on the Nevada side that better opportunities for public access presented themselves. Be aware, however, that some state parks, especially on the California side of the lake have already closed for the season and may have limited access. There are places to park along the road, but care should be taken, especially when children are in tow. Please review regulations carefully.
Between Sand Harbor and Spooner Lake I found a particularly impressive large stand of aspen trees on the east side of the highway (see photos). South of Spooner Lake, the road intersects with highway 50. Keeping to the right leads towards Zephyr Cove and South Lake Tahoe, to the left (east) leads to Carson City. At Zephyr Cove, the resort allows access to the lake and a sand beach with some small stands of aspen nearby. Finally, approaching Stateline there are larger groves to explore. Wherever you decide to stay, (Stateline, South Lake Tahoe, or elsewhere) this area is a good starting point for other autumn color spots that I wrote about in my previous article (link).
For the more active-minded:
For those more inclined to visit the backcountry, my favorite choices center around Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. Many of the trailheads are accessible along highway 89 north of the highway 50. On my recent trip, I took the Bay View Trail up to the trio of alpine lakes called the Velmas (Upper, Middle, and Lower). The trailhead is inside Bay View Campground (closed for the season) so parking along the road was required followed by a short trek to the trailhead.
Keep in mind, this is not an easy hike (details). It’s nearly four miles to Middle Velma Lake with most of the hard climbing in the first half of the hike. Less than half a mile up the trail, there’s a spectacular overlook that affords a view of Emerald Bay hundreds of feet below. A bit further is a small lake, Granite Lake. This could be a good turn around point for those who don’t want to exhaust themselves. Past Granite Lake, the trail climbs steeply again up a deeply shaded bowl. There was still snow on the ground from a recent flurry. As I always do, I recommend a topographic map, and if continuing on into backcountry, some emergency supplies, water and food. There are no streams before reaching the Velma Lakes so carry enough water to get there.
A word about fall foliage: there isn’t a lot of it on this hike. There’s a little below Granite Lake. If foliage viewing is the main goal, but you still want a hike, the Mt. Tallac Trail (previous article) is a better choice, at least up to Cathedral Peak. But my mid-October hike to Middle Velma still had its allure. I hadn’t seen a soul on the trail all morning. Once I got to the shore, with a short walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, and ate my lunch, it felt as though I had my own personal lake. The beauty, and the silence, were breathtaking. All I could hear were birdsong, the splash of an occasional trout breaching the lake surface and the light breeze in the pines.