Favorite Fall Trails at Lake Tahoe

Visiting Lake Tahoe in the fall is a must. The summer crowds have fled, and the skiers are still waiting for that first major winter storm. As a result, trails that only weeks prior buzzed with hikers have become much quieter. The vehicle traffic dies down, and the whole area seems to take a collective sigh of repose.

If you’re lucky enough to visit Lake Tahoe in the fall,  here are a few hikes you must experience. Moreover, most of the trails listed are easy and family-friendly.

Lake Tahoe fall hikes: close up of fall colors on trees

Autumn colors begin appearing by late September in the Tahoe Basin. Photo: Luke Harris

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Taylor Creek Area

A stop at Taylor Creek Visitor Center will delight nearly anyone traveling through South Tahoe. Whether you have an hour or the entire day, you’ll find plenty of entertainment, beach access, and picnic opportunities.

Rainbow Trail

If limited in time, you’ll want to hit the Rainbow Trail. This short 0.5-mile paved trail takes you on a well-signed educational journey through a marsh area. The path eventually leads to an enclosed structure officially named The Stream Profile Chamber, which hosts a large viewing window to allow an intimate anatomical view into Taylor Creek. Stand at the window long enough, and you may find yourself standing face to face with a Lahontan Cutthroat Trout or a Kokanee Salmon.

Introduced to Tahoe in 1944, the landlocked Kokanee Salmon is a much smaller version of the coastal Sockeye Salmon. However, its coloration and life cycle are just as dramatic. Most of their lives are spent as lake dwellers until they begin their final journey up the creek of their birth to live out their last days, spawning future generations.

The Kokanee spawn takes place in the fall. Their bodies turn bright red while the tail takes on a fluorescent green. Whether viewed from the large window at the Stream Profile Chamber or just from along the shore of Taylor Creek, the migrating schools of Kokanee are one the best sites of the Tahoe fall. But, of course, human visitors aren’t the only ones attracted to the annual Kokanee spawning run. Black bears gather here, too, to eat salmon in preparation for winter hibernation—so be sure to use caution if you spot one in the area.

Forest Tree and Lake of the Sky Trails

If time allows, the Forest Tree Trail and Lake of the Sky Trail at the Visitor Center are worthwhile and educational excursions. The wildlife voyeur will find a potential of more than 30 different species populating the area. Also, the aspiring botanist will not be disappointed with many plants to identify.

The first weekend in October is an excellent option if you’re planning a trip, especially if you’re bringing kids. The annual Kokanee Salmon Festival, now called the Fall Fish Festival, goes on Saturday and Sunday. Enjoy activities facilitated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, including treasure hunts for kids, informational booths, and food and beverage vendors.

Read More: Fishing Guide for Beginners: Catching Your First Fish (River Sports Mag)

close up of salmon in a river

Catching a close-up glimpse into the world of the Kokanee requires patience and a little stealth. Photo: Luke Harris

Eagle Falls Trail

This short but sweet steep hike draws big crowds, and for a good reason. The Eagle Falls Trail has all the classic elements of a Tahoe hike – dramatic sweeps of Granite, big views of Tahoe, and a rough-and-tumble stream cascading alongside the trail. In addition, the destination itself, Eagle Lake, is a high Sierra lake idyllic. But, the advantage of hitting this trail in the fall is that you might get parking.

The trailhead, about 8 miles from the City of South Lake Tahoe, resembles nothing short of a traffic circus during the summer season. The park service recommends using mass transit to get to the trailhead. Beginning after Labor Day, it’s a different story as you can usually get a spot and will not have to share the trail with swarms of people. Remember, though, to purchase your wilderness permit at the trailhead.

Even if you can’t make it here in the fall, this two-mile roundtrip hike is considered a rite of passage for any Tahoe visitor. But, if a summer visit is your only option, don’t be discouraged. Just go very early and choose a weekday whenever possible.

Read More: Lake Tahoe Snowshoeing Offers Variety and Solitude

wilderness reflected in a lake

Eagle Lake is in Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness Area. Photo: Luke Harris

Spooner Lake

This trail on the East Shore of Tahoe is an excellent venture for children and adults looking for a leisurely stroll rich with great photo opportunities. The short 1.8-mile trail circles the entirety of Spooner Lake and is abundant with wildlife. In the fall, a resident grouping of Aspens located at the lake’s inlet reflects the magnificence of autumn on the water. It will surely draw the attention of even the most reserved shutterbug.

Also, carry cash, as there is a fee for entering Spooner Lake State Park. The park has full facilities, including running water, BBQ pits, and picnic tables. Bikes can be rented here, too, for anyone looking to ride the famous Tahoe Flume Trail nearby. Finally, the area has a few rental cabin options for those wanting to extend their stay.

Fall is a great time to fish Spooner. There is plenty of fish, and the limit is 5 per person (make sure you have your Nevada fishing license). The lake is best fished from small watercraft, including canoes, kayaks, and float tubes. However, fish can also certainly be caught from the shore.

Spooner Lake also serves as a great starting point for other nearby hikes, including the scenic trip to Marlette Lake and access to the Tahoe Rim Trail, amongst others. Don’t forget once winter arrives that this area provides some of the East Shore’s best snowshoeing and cross-country opportunities.

Read More: Snowshoeing Nevada’s High Country

Lake Tahoe fall hikes: Spooner Lake welcome sign

A familiar sign to local mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Photo: Luke Harris

Chimney Beach Trail

No list of Tahoe hiking recommendations would be complete without mention of a trail leading to the shores of Tahoe itself. Chimney Beach is recommended here because getting a parking spot at the trailhead during summer can require divine intervention.

The hike into Chimney is short, especially if you’re only going as far as the lakeshore, which is only about a half mile. Most people, though, will want to continue further down that shoreline another half mile or more, making for about two miles roundtrip. The length of this trek can be challenging if bringing your beach equipment.

Also, on a warm autumn day, hikers may be tempted by a swim in the lake. Tahoe water reaches its warmest temperatures of the year in September. The water averages typically around 70F degrees which can be higher than the air temperature in later September and certainly in October. The clarity levels at Tahoe (though declining) are spectacular, and a trip to Chimney Beach will undoubtedly testify to why Lake Tahoe is one of the world’s premier destinations.

Read More: A Beginner’s Sandshoeing Perspective: Breaking Trail on the Beach

side by side L: water with rocks in foreground and mountains in background R: black and white large chimney with trees surrounding

L: Enjoy the trails and water of Tahoe – a dip can tempt visitors on warm fall afternoons. Photo: Luke Harris R: Hikers will encounter this rustic classic at Tahoe’s aptly named Chimney Beach. Photo: Luke Harris

Enjoy the Fall Hikes of Lake Tahoe

Don’t miss out on the beauty and fewer crowds of Lake Tahoe in the fall season by exploring the hikes above. To find more hikes for the area, I recommend picking up a copy of Afoot and Afield: Tahoe-Reno by Mike White. Published by the Wilderness Press, this trail guide is indispensable for the Tahoe hiker.

Have you hiked any of the Lake Tahoe trails above in the fall season? What are some of your other favorite trails in this area? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

This article was first published on October 13, 2014. It was updated, re-formatted, and re-published on August 11, 2022. 

Read Next: Five Star Adventuring and Lodging in South Lake Tahoe

Author

  • Luke Harris is a Reno/Tahoe based freelance writer. His passions include fly fishing, snowshoeing, hiking and just generally spending time enjoying the outdoor world.

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2 Comments

  • Great information and some new places to check out! I agree that Taylor Creek is a great spot to visit and I look forward to visiting the others in beautiful Tahoe! -AW