NORTH LAKE TAHOE — Fall, without a doubt, is the best time to savor North America’s largest alpine lake.
The winter ski season is several months away and the seemingly wall-to-wall humanity that is the summer season is in the rear view mirror.
They call it the off season mainly because the demand drops for vacation rentals and South Shore casino-hotel rooms bringing with them a drop in rates.
It’s not the off-season for Mother Nature as fish, fowl, beast, and flora are savoring the warm days signing off with a growing chill in the air as Mother Nature prepares for the coming winter.
Having spent the first half of my life in Placer County that takes in the northwest corner of the 191-square-mile lake, I literally enjoyed the charms of Lake Tahoe more than a hundred times with the bulk of it along the north shore.
There was a three-year-period where almost every Wednesday afternoon from May to October I’d throw a racing bicycle on top of the car and drive 90 miles to downtown Truckee, hop onto my bicycle, climb up to Brockway Summit at 7,221 feet, savored rapid 1,000 foot descent to the lake, pedal west along the lake and then jam to Truckee past Squaw Valley.
That was my weekly stress re-set ride. Once a month from July through October I’d take “the ride” — the 72-mile loop of Lake Tahoe.
The best time by far to take a spin around the lake was between mid-September and late October when traffic is at low ebb. If you opt to do it my advice from experience is go clockwise. This keeps you on the side of the highway farthest from the lake and the prospect of motorists doing more sightseeing than driving.
But even if just relaxing is your thing, it’s hard to beat Lake Tahoe in the fall.
My favorite haunts are the motels in Kings Beach just east of the Brockway Summit Road. There are a few directly on the beach including my favorite — Ferrari’s Crown Resort. One year we scored a room literally a half a stone’s throw from the water with a narrow path of sand just beneath our window that connected two broader beaches. There was a lot of foot traffic during the day but when the sun went down we were treated to a soothing scene of the lake’s gentle wind-blown water lapping against the rocky shore.
If you’re into golf there are several courses nearby including the Old Brockway Golf Course.
The only bad thing about the fall is after Labor Day the rafting companies at the north shore close down for the season. The Truckee River offers some of the mellowest rafting — more like floating — in Northern California.
There are always the casinos and shows not to mention dining options galore.
But when it comes to the fall season there are four “must” attractions that stand out and are more enjoyable in September and October.
First there is the Tahoe Rim Trail that rings the lake in the higher elevations going as high as 10,000 feet. Keep in mind the lake’s elevation is 6,225 feet. The trail is ideal for hiking and mountain biking.
I’ve only done a few segments but my favorite among them is Mt. Rose to Relay Ridge.
Your absolute best source of information about the trail can be found at tahoerimtrail.org. It includes an interactive map with trailhead locations as well as a wealth of useful information.
The hike that jams the most awe-inspiring scenery into a round-trip is the 4.5-mile outback excursion to Maggie’s Peak. It is easy to understand why this trail is always teeming with hikers — although a lot less in the coming two months.
The trail offers stunning views of Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay, Fallen Leaf Lake, Cascade Lake, Mt. Tallac, and glimpses of Desolation Wilderness. You will gain 1,850 feet with a peak elevation of 8,659 feet.
The trailhead is just south of Emerald Bay at the Bay View Campgrounds across from Inspiration Park. The actual trailhead and day use parking can be found at the back of the campgrounds.
Although I like to normally avoid the south shore if at all possible, in the fall it has an appealing charm — Kokanee salmon spawning in Taylor Creek. There are 63 tributaries flowing into Lake Tahoe but Taylor Creek is where 95 percent of the salmon spawn.
Depending upon the year between 25,000 and 80,000 fish will make their way up the creek to spawn. The peak time to view the spawning season is generally between mid-October and the first of November.
Walk along the Rainbow Trail and glance across the water. At times it will seem like the salmon are wall-to-wall in the clear creek water.
At the Taylor Creek Visitors Center there is a viewing room at the lower level that gives you an underwater view of the creek allowing you to see salmon and occasionally trout.
And while it isn’t Lake Tahoe per se, it is well worth the 30-minute drive out of the South Shore to reach Hope Valley.
As fall unfolds and late October approaches the colors are stunning. There are masses of aspens changing into golden and reddish hues against evergreen backgrounds below mountain vistas.
You take Highway 89 out of the Lake Tahoe Basin to reach Hope Valley that is spread out along Highway 88.
If you don’t mind adding an hour to your daily plans in the Tahoe Basin in terms of travel time, on the eastern edge of the Hope Valley you will find one of the top three places to stay in the Sierra — my opinion of course — in terms of location/scenery, accommodations and the ability within minutes to be among incredible solitude and inspiring surroundings. Keep in mind my idea of grand accommodations aren’t the Ritz-Carlton but a place that offers tranquility and comfort where you can drift off to sleep at the end of a summer’s day snuggled in a blanket as slightly chilled air flows gently through an open window. For me that’s decadence with a capital “D”.
I discovered Sorenson’s Resort 32 years ago when I wanted to replicate the Death Ride experience that I was unable to get into due to registration being maxed out. For sane people the Death Ride is a once-a-year organized ride out of Markleeville south of South Lake Tahoe. It consists of bicycling five mountain passes covering 129 miles with more than 15,000 feet of climbing. My quads are aching just thinking about it.
Sorenson’s is located on Highway 88 near the junction with Highway 89 west of Markleeville on the eastern edge of Hope Valley.
It offers cottages and cabins along with a full-service restaurant on 165 acres. There’s a wood-fired sauna and even hammocks to take a nap or enjoy a good book.
Cabins for one to two people start at $155.
Here are a few odd facts for you to ponder while deciding on whether to head up to Lake Tahoe. It is the second deepest lake in the United States at 1,645 feet; second only to Crater Lake in Oregon at 1,949 feet.
Lake Tahoe is the sixth largest lake in the country topped only by the five Great Lakes.
Roughly 75 percent of the Lake Tahoe Basin is managed by the United States Forest Service meaning there are a lot of public lands to access.