Home » 2015 Yosemite and Northern California

South Lake Tahoe area, CA

Monday, August 17, 2015 - 1:45pm by Lolo
120 miles and 3 hours from our last stop - 3 night stay


Secret CoveSecret CoveOur drive from Lee Vining to South Lake Tahoe took us north along one of our favorite roads - US 395, also known as the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. However, Google Maps suggests that you turnoff 395 onto 89 in the town of Topaz and go through Monitor Pass to get over the Sierras. We had done this on a previous trip, and swore to never to do it again.

In fact, we now know to avoid any road that starts off with the warning “Kingpins not advised.” Since that time, we purchased a book on Amazon called “Mountain Directory West for Truckers, RV, and Motorhome Drivers.” It’s pretty expensive – I think Herb paid about $30 for it used, but when you consider the dangers it helps you avoid, it is money well spent. The guide tells you where the steep grades are, how long they are, how steep (%) they are, etc. For example, it describes Monitor Pass as having a 7–10% grade for 7 ½ miles. We really don’t like grades steeper than 6%.

So now, we stay on 395 and go into Nevada to the town of Minden and then take 88 back down to 89 after the Pass. It adds a few miles, but saves us from getting a few more gray hairs.

Our destination in South Lake Tahoe was Camp Richardson, a lakeside resort with RV camping, lodging, a full-service marina, and restaurant on the water. It was quite nice and really in the heart of things.

Lake Tahoe WatersLake Tahoe WatersAfter driving the motorhome, Herb usually likes to just sit and relax for awhile, while I, on the other hand, am a bit hyperactive and can’t wait to get out and explore. He suggested I go out for a run, knowing that that was his only chance of getting any peace and quiet. Ok, I can take a hint, so I put on my sneakers and set out across the road towards the lake.

I ran along the beach a bit before finding a paved trail that took me into the Tallac Historic Site where I found myself weaving amongst the buildings of what were obviously parts of an old estate. It was really cool and I was anxious to go back and tell Herb all about it. I’m not sure if he was as anxious for my return, however.

After telling him that we definitely had to go back there so he could see it, I looked up Tallac Historic Site on the internet and learned that what I had seen were three private estates from the early 1900s – the Baldwin Estate, the Pope Estate, and Valhalla. Back then, Lake Tahoe was a summer retreat for socially prominent families from the San Francisco Bay area -- sort of a Newport of the West Coast. Today thanks to the Tahoe Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service, visitors can step back in time and visit these estates, each designed in the “Old Tahoe” style.

For now, however, cocktail hour was approaching, so we threw our beach chairs and a bottle of wine in the car and drove the short distance down to the Camp Richardson beach and marina to watch the sun set over the mountains by Emerald Bay. Very nice. I also took note of the people happily dining al fresco at the beachside Beacon Bar and Grill and added that to my list of things to do while in South Lake Tahoe.

Secret Cove

Herb at Secret CoveHerb at Secret CoveIt was a beautiful warm sunny day, so we drove up to Secret Cove, one of a series of secluded, pristine beaches along Highway 28 on the remote Nevada eastern shore of the lake. We had discovered it on our last visit to Tahoe, and it remains one of Herb’s favorite beaches – and that is saying a lot, as he is quite the beach aficionado.

Along this section of the lake, the highway is way above the lake, so we had to hike down a fairly long, steep path to the beach, lugging our beach chairs and cooler. At least this time, we didn’t have our tubes along, so it was a bit more manageable.

This beach really is stunning – sandy, but scattered with boulders, which you can tuck behind to get a bit of privacy, even when it’s crowded. Did I mention this is a clothing optional beach?

The water is so clear and incredibly deep Tahoe blue—a bit chilly as well, but there are plenty of rocks and boulders in the cove to climb up on to dry.

We met a nice couple, just around the next boulder, who we struck up a conversation with. They were from Southern California and loved camping in their little teardrop trailer, especially in remote, secluded places. They had even equipped their teardrop trail with heavy duty tires. Herb’s ears perked up as he likes the idea of being somewhere miles from the next human being, except me, of course.

Lolo at Secret CoveLolo at Secret CoveThey told us how they camped at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park – the place where rocks mysteriously move on their own. To get to it you have to drive 25 miles on a dirt, washboard road - high clearance vehicles with heavy duty tires required. No one has actually ever seen the rocks move. The only evidence that they do move is the tracks they leave behind on the mud surface of the playa.

Herb was getting pretty excited about this – I not so much. The thought of driving on a bouncy road for hours to watch rocks not move when I was looking just wasn’t doing it for me – just kidding (kind of). I think it would be cool to do for one night or two the max, but not a whole week like they did.

When we got back at Camp Richardson that evening, we went back down to the beach to watch the sunset. I also asked someone at the marina about kayaking and whether a paddle to Emerald Bay the next day would be feasible. He told us that although not impossible, it was about an 8 or 9 mile round trip where we would most likely encounter strong winds in the afternoon. He recommended that we try nearby 3-mile-long Fallen Leaf Lake instead. I liked the idea. Tahoe seemed so large and intimidating, but this sounded much more intimate.

Kayaking Fallen Leaf Lake, Dining at Beacon Bar and Grill, and Strolling through the Tallac Historic Site

Lolo Kayaking Fallen Leaf LakeLolo Kayaking Fallen Leaf LakeThe Camp Richardson marina guy was right. Fallen Leaf Lake was exactly what we were looking for in a kayaking destination. It was only about a mile south of Camp Richardson, there is a great boat launch at the southern end of the lake, it’s beautiful, and its size is just right for a leisurely paddle – 3 miles long by 1 mile wide.

While the Lake Tahoe Basin was formed by the rise and fall of the landscape due to faulting, Fallen Leaf Lake was formed by glaciers. Fortunately, the glacier ran out of steam and stopped just short of what is now Lake Tahoe; otherwise it would have been just another bay in a very large lake.

The land surrounding the lake is privately owned, leased from the U.S. Forest Service, and part of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Except for a marina and store at the southern end of the lake, there is very little commercial development. As a result, the water quality is extremely good.

Herb at Fallen Leaf LakeHerb at Fallen Leaf LakeThey take their water quality seriously. Before launching the boat, a person from the marina came over and hosed off the bottom of our kayaks to ensure that we weren’t bringing and zebra mussels along for the ride. These invasive mollusks can wreak havoc on the natural food chain in a lake, so it is a precaution that is well worth taking to preserve the pristine waters of this lake.

We circled the lake in a counter-clockwise direction, paddling close to the eastern shore so that we could peek at the beautiful lake homes. The shore was quite heavily forested, and therefore shaded, so several people were sitting out on the very ends of their docks with their morning coffee, catching those first rays of sun. At this elevation, the temperature varies a great deal between sun and shade.

Towards the northern end of the eastern shore, there were no longer any houses, but just forest. At the very northern end of the lake, we pulled our kayaks up on a beach that was accessible either from the water, as we had come, or along a trail from the Fallen Leaf Campground, about 1/3 of a mile away.

After a chilly swim, we continue paddling along the western shore, which was much less developed except for a few smaller homes near the southern end.

As so often happens in the afternoon, the winds picked up, making it difficult to paddle. I hung close to the shore so that I would know that I was at least making some progress. A kayak with a sail on it passed us right by – what a good idea when the wind picks up!

Lolo Kayaking Fallen Leaf Lake ShorelineLolo Kayaking Fallen Leaf Lake ShorelineWe made it back to the launch with no incident, threw the kayaks back up on top of the Subaru, and drove back to Camp Richardson.

There was still plenty of time left in the day, so we switch to sneakers and headed out for a run, this time sticking to the beach rather than turning off into the Tallac Historic Site. We made it as far as Baldwin Beach. Besides it being a beautiful beach, it was the closest place to launch a kayak to get around the promontory into Emerald Bay. Despite all the people I had asked about kayaking to Emerald Bay, nobody had told me about using this as a starting point. This was definitely something to consider for future visits here.

That evening, rather than cook in the motorhome, we went out for dinner at the Beacon Bar and Grill on the beach by Camp Richardson. We sat at a table on the outside patio, where we could watch the paddleboarders meandering around the bay. The food and service were good as well.

After dinner, we strolled through the Tallac Historic Site, listening to the sounds of a classical concert emanating from the Boathouse and sitting on the porches of the historic estates. I can’t believe they let you do this. There was no one else there. It felt like we owned the place. For a brief moment in time, I was a socialite in the early 1900s spending a lovely summer evening on the veranda with my wealthy husband. Then we went back to the RV.


Sandals in Fallen Leaf LakeSandals in Fallen Leaf LakeI am not even going to attempt to give a full description of what Lake Tahoe has to offer, as we only spent a short time on its southern shore.

However, briefly, Lake Tahoe is one of the highest elevation lakes (6,255 feet high) in the U.S., as well as the second deepest (1,645 feet deep) – Crater Lake is the deepest. It is located along the border between California and Nevada. The four shores of the lake are each quite different. The north is quiet and upscale, the west and east are more rugged and less developed, and the south shore is busy and tacky with neon-lit hotels and casinos. The 72-mile drive around the lake is very scenic.

Lake Tahoe is known for its clear blue and green waters and the panorama of mountains that surround it on all sides. It is a year-round destination with swimming, boating, kayaking, and various other kinds of water sports during the summer; hiking, backpacking, and camping all year round; and tremendous skiing and snowboarding in the winter.

Two interesting nearby sites we did enjoy, include:

Tallac Historic Site

The Tallac Historic Site is comprised of three private estates dating back to the early 1900s, which served as summer retreats for three very socially prominent families from the San Francisco Bay area. In an effort to preserve “Old Tahoe,” the U.S. Forest Service acquired 74 acres, which included the three estates and a quarter mile of lakefront between Emerald Bay and Camp Richardson.

Today the remains of the restored estates attract thousands of visitors interested in recapturing this bygone and significant era in Tahoe’s history. Although the architecture of each is unique from its neighbors, each captures some aspect of the “Old Tahoe” style.

A list of activities and tours is available at the Visitor Center and the Baldwin museum.

Fallen Leaf Lake

Fallen Leaf Lake SkyFallen Leaf Lake SkyIf the thought of kayaking in a lake as large as Tahoe is a bit intimidating, as it was for me, there is a wonderful alternative just a mile south of Camp Richardson. Fallen Leaf Lake, which was created by glaciers, is approximately 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. If the glacier had continued, Fallen Leaf Lake would have been just another bay in Lake Tahoe.

The land surrounding the lake is privately owned, leased from the U.S. Forest Service, and part of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Except for a marina and store at the southern end of the lake, there is very little commercial development. As a result, the water quality is extremely good.

South Lake Tahoe area location map in "high definition"

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