Discover adventure on these Lake Tahoe day hikes

Lake Tahoe offers far more than casinos and crowded (if beautiful) beaches. Pack some adventure into your Sierra Nevada vacation this year by hiking among the mountains which surround the lake. Here are three rewarding outings arranged from easiest to more challenging. 

Martis Peak

Martis Peak boasts a fine view of Lake Tahoe, and the easy trek on forest roads to reach it provides good experiences for hikers and cyclists. A historic fire lookout near the 8,742-foot summit makes an excellent destination. 

Martis was the name of a 19th century rancher in these parts. The fire lookout atop the mountain was constructed in 1914, vandalized in the early 1990s and restored in 1997. 

To reach the trailhead, take Highway 267 between Truckee and Kings Beach. Find Martis Peak Road north of the highway, either 8 miles from the signed Placer County line if eastbound or 0.5 miles from Brockway Summit if westbound. When the gate is open, you can drive as close as 0.5 miles from the fire lookout; otherwise, it’s an eight-mile round trip. Follow the paved road leading east. Turn left (north) when you reach an intersection at 1.3 miles, and left again at 3.2 miles. 

Martis’ fire lookout looks over Tahoe National Forest to the southwest and Mt. Rose Wilderness to the northeast. But its view of Lake Tahoe itself and the many peaks that crown its southeastern shore will take your breath away and provide the best payoff for your climb. The lookout is open for visitors all year. Look above its windows for drawings and labels identifying the surrounding mountains.

There are many ways to include Martis Peak as a destination on other routes including Tahoe Rim Trail. 

Mount Rose

Mount Rose stands beside the Tahoe Rim Trail – image: Matt Johanson

As pretty as its name and the third-highest peak in the Lake Tahoe area, Nevada’s Mount Rose makes a much better bet than most wagers in the Silver State. 

This peak’s name has competing explanations. A stage coach driver saw the image of his daughter Rose in the mountain. An 1800s settler named Jacob Rose built a lumber mill in nearby Franktown. And a Washoe City newspaper editor honored Rose Hickman, the first known woman to climb the mountain.

Park at Mount Rose summit plaza on Highway 431, about 8 miles north of the turn from Highway 28 near Incline Village. Find the trail’s start to the actual summit behind the bathrooms. 

Our path starts on a few stairs and then contours northeast of Tamarack Peak on Tahoe Rim Trail for about 2.5 miles. Mount Rose will dominate your view and perhaps your thoughts as you approach. Galena Creek Falls near the end of this segment makes a nice spot for a break and a drink before the steeper climbing begins.

At the first trail junction, turn right toward Mount Rose. You’ll reach a saddle and another junction at 9,700 feet. Turn right again for the final segment to the 10,776-foot summit. This 10.4-mile round-trip outing climbs 1,876 feet and takes most people five to seven hours. 

Mount Tallac

A hike up Mount Tallac climbs more than 3,000 feet and delivers a terrific workout – image: Matt Johanson

The most prominent peak in the Tahoe basin, 9,735 feet tall, provides the best view of the lake and perhaps the best adventure in the area. Despite a thigh-burning climb, it attracts thousands of hikers each year. 

Whitney Survey maps labeled the mountain as “Crystal Peak.” But the Washoe called it “Talah-act,” meaning “big mountain,” and members of the Wheeler Survey adapted the name as “Tallac” in 1877. A snow cross appears on the northeast face. Legends predicted that when it melts, it forebodes a heavy winter, war, or even the end of the world. 

From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 89 northwest from the Highway 50 junction and drive 3.9 miles toward Emerald Bay. Turn left onto Mount Tallac Road and drive about a mile to the parking area and trailhead. 

Get a self-issued permit at the trailhead to enter Desolation Wilderness. Hike through the forest as the trail begins to climb. Fallen Leaf Lake comes into view in about half a mile. The wilderness boundary and Floating Island Lake follow within the next mile. Enjoy the shade of the forest while you can because you’re about to climb into a realm of rock, sun, and wind. Stay right as a side trail leads left and steeply down to Fallen Leaf Lake. Continue south to Cathedral Lake. This is the last reliable source of water and you’re going to need plenty before the climb is over. 

There are four trail junctions between Cathedral Lake and the summit, some offering variations that also lead to the summit, but the simplest approach is to simply turn right at all four going up (and left at all four going down). Our path veers west through Cathedral Basin as we climb above the treeline. Here the route becomes steep and leads over a large talus slope. After gaining a ridge, the climbing eases as the path turns north and leads through scattered trees on the mountain’s south slope. 

Those who complete the Mount Tallac climb earn this broad and rewarding view of Lake Tahoe – image: Matt Johanson

As you take the final steps, you will reach a perch overlooking magnificent Lake Tahoe. Hang onto your hat in the wind, find a good sitting rock and take some time to enjoy the peerless view before descending. This 9.6-mile round trip outing climbs 3,255 feet, taking most people six to eight hours. 

Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.

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