Distance: 10.2 miles Time: 6 hours Type: There and back
Lake Tahoe is northern California's mountain playground. In the summer months, holiday-makers descend in their hordes to enjoy the placid water and sand-strewn beaches while in the winter the area hosts multitudes of skiers, snowboarders and other snow sports enthusiasts. There is a good reason why Tahoe is so popular: it's the largest alpine lake in North America, the second deepest, and is known its clear waters and beautiful mountain surrounds. The area is especially popular with families and there is plenty of non-outdoors entertainment on offer too, in particular on the Nevada side of the lake which is lined with gaudy casinos.
We spent a long weekend at Tahoe over Thanksgiving when the lake was, surprising for us, not overly busy. I had been told tales of snow storms and chain restrictions from past Thanksgivings so we were prepared for full winter weather; in fact, in 2017 the weather was very mild and the only snow was on the upper-most peaks. So with perfect weather conditions and without the crowds, we perhaps got to see the Tahoe at its best.
The hike to the summit of Mount Tallac is perhaps the best day-hike in the area: you gain the highest of the mountains which circle the lake and, as a result, enjoy unparalleled views of the lake and surrounding area. Be aware, however, that this is a fairly tough hike and, except for during the summer months, you can expect to find snow on the upper slopes. In fact, although the weather was mild when we visited there was plenty of snow toward the summit which made for a fairly tough slog. The views were, of course, sublime.
The trailhead is situated at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, just off the Emerald Bay Road in between Cascade Lake and Fallen Leaf Lake. There are plenty of parking spots, but be aware that this is a popular hike - not just with those who are intending to summit but also with people making a walk to Fallen Leaf of one of the other lakes along the route. Out of season (i.e. not summer), the road to the trail-head is closed so you need to park just off the main road (it will be fairly obvious) and walk the mile or so to the trail-head.
The hike begins with a fairly gentle ascent through the forest to a vantage point above Fallen Leaf Lake. Enjoy the views here before you begin to climb more steeply, winding your way through the forest to the first of the two small lakes on the route, Floating Island Lake. Another half hour or so of climbing brings you to the second, Cathedral Lake, which makes for a nice pit stop. Some hikers make this their final destination, and turning back here would still make for a fairly enjoyable walk, although you have not yet reached the good views.
After Cathedral Lake, the work begins. You soon leave the forest and ascend to a small plateau, where you look up to a big climb (unfortunately, not the last for the day, although the steepest). This slope was covered with snow when we were hiking and was pretty tough going. Don't be fooled into thinking the top is the end goal: you still have a fair way to go.
From the top of the ridge you have glorious views south, east and west. Here, the path turns north and you continue to climb, although much less steeply, to the summit, which remains painfully just out of view for most of the way. We were hiking through fairly deep snow from here on, and it was a real workout. The summit is a steep, rocky shelf and the views north over the lake suddenly spring into view as you reach the top, quite a thrilling finale.
The return is by the same trail but given the panoramic views, repeating the same journey does not detract from what is one of the best hikes in the area.
For a map of the hike go here: