Monday, June 15, 2015

Exploring Lake Tahoe in the summer: 4 unique adventures

Whenever we plan a big family vacation, I tend to grow anxious as we approach the big day. There is a little voice in the back of my head that wonders if we will have fun? Will the kids adjust to a new environment and sleep well at night? Will there be enough to do to entertain everyone? Our recent week long trip to Tahoe was no exception. I spent hours and hours researching things to do in the area and left for the trip with a pretty short list. In trying to find family friendly destinations that were unique and didn't cost tons of money, I was hitting some major road blocks. Thankfully, with the help of some good finds from my brother-in-law and his wife (who also joined us on the trip) we ended up with some great day trips to share with everyone.

In no particular order, here they are!

Skunk Harbor

Lake Tahoe is dotted with dozens of amazing beaches, but a lot of them can become over-crowded with visitors. The best way we found to avoid the crowds was to visit during the weekdays and to find beaches that require a hike, which seems to deter most people. The hike down to Skunk Harbor is a piece of cake. It's all downhill and approximately 1.5 miles with wide fire trails to follow. The beach at the bottom is nothing short of spectacular. The juxtaposition of the large white boulders against the vibrant blue water is so beautiful, and the peacefulness of the setting is only enhanced by the fact that there is hardly anyone else there! We might have seen 3 other groups of people during our hour long stay.

I mentioned that the hike down to Skunk Harbor is a piece of cake. The walk up however, was borderline torture with a kid on each of our backs. The trail is 1.5 miles of switchbacks, so the  incline is not horrible, but it is a continuous uphill climb covering almost 650 feet of elevation gain. With that said, it was worth every last ounce of energy that it took from us and I would do it again in a heartbeat. The dirt road is also stroller friendly, so if you have a great off-road stroller (like a BOB), then it might be a little less painful...but I would imagine it would still be a tough trip up the hill.

You know it's a special place when even your 4 year old wants to relax!
Directions: The trailhead is located approximately 2.4 miles north of the intersection of Hwy 50 and Hwy 28. If you are traveling from South Lake, you will see a green iron gate that blocks the entrance to the hiking trail on the left side of the highway, followed by a couple of turnouts for people to park. We arrived late morning and had no issues finding parking. About half a mile into the hike, the trail splits into 3 directions, the right takes you to some old railroad trestles, the left takes you to a large meadow, and if you go straight, you will find yourself at Skunk Harbor. Parking and access to the trail is FREE. BONUS: The trail and beach are both dog friendly.

Angora Lakes

We had an amazing time on our trip to Tahoe and had a lot of really great days, but this might have been my favorite. Visiting Angora Lakes is like stepping back in time. Both lakes are dotted with small cabins, most of which were built in the 1920's and exude so much charm! It was hard to control my urge to immediately book another week long vacation! The lower lake appeared to have privately owned cabins (if anyone knows how to rent these, please let me know!), while the upper lake was home to Angora Lake Resorts, which offers nine rustic cabins that are rented on a weekly basis.

I think it was in the moment of taking this picture that I looked over at my husband and said "staying here might need to go on the bucket list"
The hike from the parking lot is approximately half a mile along a dirt path, and most of it is uphill. Compared to Skunk Harbor it was a breeze and we arrived at the first lake in no time at all. The typical season for the cabins is mid-June to mid-September, so with the exception of a few other hikers that were headed to the upper lake, we were the ONLY people on the lower lake! We took the opportunity to snoop around explore the different cabins, peaking in the windows and taking in the view from each of the decks. Afterwards, we settled down on one of the boat docks for a small picnic. We spent about an hour at the lower lake, and it wasn't until we started walking around the upper half of the lake that we even realized there was another lake!! I am thankful for this mistake, because we got to enjoy the first lake in it's entirety instead of bypassing it on the way to the second.

We eventually made our way to Upper Angora Lake and it was icing on the cake! Another beautiful lake to enjoy, and this one had boat rentals and a snack shack!! This was a fun surprise for us, since we were expecting the resort to be closed, but they happened to open a couple of weeks early this year. We rented a row-boat and bought an It's-It to enjoy on our leisurely paddle (side note: I haven't had an It's It in forever...and they are soooo good!). The upper lake is surrounded by some dramatic cliffs and we had the pleasure/horror of watching a couple of people dive from ledges more than 50 feet high!

Look closely and you can see the guy who did the back flip off the top of this rock! So scary!
Despite the fact that our oldest cried for the first 15 minutes of our boat ride (she was convinced the boat was going to sink after Clay made a joke) it was a really fun way to enjoy the lake as a family. And a bonus to the crying was that she was too distraught to eat the It's It, which meant more for me!

A funny side-note: I mentioned to my dad this amazing trip we took to Angora Lakes and it turns out this wasn't my first trip! Apparently we had gone a couple of times when we were kids. Ha! 

In order to calm the kids, I had to sit on the floor of the boat and hold them. I love how grumpy they look! The frowns went away after the first 15 minutes or so :)
Directions: from South Lake Tahoe, Take Highway 89 north approx. 3 miles and turn left on to Fallen Leaf Lake Road. From Fallen Leaf Lake Road, make a second left on the first paved road and then make a right on Forest Service Road 12N14 (There is a street sign that has 1214 on it, also referred to as Angora Ridge Rd.). This road initially looks like a dirt road, but soon turns into a paved road that takes you along the ridge line above Fallen Leaf Lake. It eventually dead-ends into a parking lot, shortly after the Angora Lookout. Parking was $7 at the time of our visit, and boat rentals were $20/hour. A special thanks to Hither and Thither for writing about this unique find!

Hiking at Northstar

Taking in the views from the edge of a black diamond ski-run!
Have you ever wondered what happens to ski resorts in the summer when there is no snow? It was to my great delight to find out that Northstar opens some of their ski lifts to mountain bikers and hikers during the warmer months. You can take a scenic gondola ride to mid-mountain and then another to the summit, where there are miles of hiking trails and amazing views of the surrounding valley. An added bonus is that kids 4 and under are free and adults are only $13! This is a huge bargain compared to the tickets to ride the gondola at Heavenly ($40/adult, $20/child...a whopping $120 for a family of 4!).

We were expecting to ride in an enclosed gondola the entire way up the mountain, but the lower gondola was under repair, so we took a regular chair lift to mid-mountain. I was a little nervous about this since we have young kids, but it ended up being fine and the kids LOVED the thrill of being up in the air.

Once we arrived at the top of the mountain, we decided to hike to Lookout Mountain. It was so fun to see all the ski slopes turned into hiking trails, and since they are usually used for skiing, the trails were wide and easy to tackle with kids.

Directions: Once you arrive at the Northstar Resort, you can follow signs for the Bike and Hike Park and lift tickets. At the time of our visit, adults were $13, kids 4 and under were FREE, and kids 5-12 were $6. The hike from the Zephyr Express Gondola to Lookout Mountain was 2.4 miles roundtrip. For an easier hike, the hike to Sawmill Lake is also 2.3 miles roundtrip, but with less elevation gain and we were told you could see fish in lake. Note that the Bike and Hike Park is open June through August, with limited hours in June. You may want to call ahead to confirm that all gondolas are operating if you have young kids or an infant and do not want to take the chairlift.

Donner Pass: Abandoned railway hike

For those of you who keep up with the blog, then you will probably recall the post I did on our hike through the abandoned railway along Donner Pass. This was such a fun hike for us, and since it's only a short drive from Lake Tahoe I had to include it in this post. High above Donner Lake you can see the remnants of the railway that was originally constructed in 1867. From the freeway, most would safely assume that these are still operating train tracks, but this particular portion of the railway has been out of commission since 1993.  Since it's closure, the tracks have been torn out (which gave us some much needed piece of mind knowing that we weren't accidentally going to walk through an active train tunnel!) and much of the interior has been covered with graffiti. Along the tunnel there are openings where you can step outside and get some pretty amazing views of Donner Lake and the Sierras.

Directions: Please refer to my original post for additional pictures and directions. And a special thanks to California through my lens for writing about this hike!

What are your favorite places in Lake Tahoe? 

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You might also like:
Sutter Creek and Hope Valley 
Visiting Tahoe City
Weekend Getaway: Truckee

Travel tips: If you are planning a trip to Lake Tahoe, Truckee is a great place to call home base and offers some more affordable options than staying in Lake Tahoe (we booked a great place on our recent trip to Truckee on airbnb for ~$125/night). And while I find the casinos kind of depressing, they are centrally located and offer some great mid-week deals on accommodations if you are just looking for an inexpensive place to sleep at night. Plus, hopefully you are going to be spending your time outdoors, right?



  1. So glad I happened to see this post today! I haven't been to any of these places--I always enjoy finding new spots around Tahoe but especially like ones that are less crowded. There are just so many beautiful and interesting places to discover.

  2. I agree! It's such a beautiful place to spend time. Angora lakes can get really crowded during peak season, but if you can go a week or two before their official season starts (mid-June) then you will have the place to yourself! Skunk Harbor is also well worth the hike for a secluded beach!

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