Category Image Day trip to Lake Tahoe and the Sierras 


After a week of sitting around Stockton, I convinced Rhonelle to head for the hills, to Lake Tahoe. To be honest I haven't had much of an interest in Tahoe before. It's a huge tourist destination and I had all sorts of preconceived notions of loud families with large SUVs backing up traffic for miles. And, since I don't really "do" lake-type activities (fishing, boating, waterskiing, etc.) I wasn't sure what was really "in it" for me. The communities around Tahoe are also quite urbanized and there's not much real charm to the place in my opinion. While I wasn't entirely wrong after having visited this past weekend, we certainly did enjoy ourselves.

Since the drive is fairly direct (US 50 to CA 89), I also suggested that we visit the Sugar Pine Point State Park, which abuts part of the western shore of the lake. My handbook of state park day hikes pointed out some moderately easy hikes (c. 7 miles, fairly level) and the state parks in California are the best in the nation, so we made the park our real destination for the day.

The drive up US 50 has a lot going for it. There are some amazing stretches of countryside, particularly as you climb through the foothills. At CA 49 in Placerville the highway narrows to two lanes and begins the winding climb up to Echo Summit (7000-odd feet) paralleling the middle fork of the American River (perhaps "echoing" the path of the river...). Traffic was surprisingly light for a Saturday late morning. Once you're over the summit you do a rapid descent of about 1000 feet tight against the cliff wall. You also get your first view of the lake at that point and a short while later you arrive in South Lake Tahoe and the land of vacationers and their SUVs. Since it was about 1 pm we decided to get lunch, and had some very tasty burgers at a local joint called Columbo's Burger A-Go-Go. We just beat the rush (fortunately) and were soon back on the road (CA 89 by this point), winding our way along the shore of the lake. Amazing scenery here: Emerald Bay (also a state park, incidentally) is gorgeous and every bit as "emerald" as its name indicates.

So, we arrive at Sugar Pine Point, get in "free" with one of our California State Parks Foundation passes, load up the backpack with water and stuff and move out. The trail we took was a loop trail of about 7 miles, following part of General Creek. The trail itself is also a fire road, a situation which makes for a wide trail but also detracts a bit from a sense of being out in the wilderness. Nevertheless, the trail was relatively flat and easy and gave ample opportunity to look around. We were curious about the fire damage that was evident as well as some very dead trees still standing amidst normally living ones. We also debated (lightly) the question of whether taking non-native plants from a state (or national) park was a good or bad thing. Rhonelle tended to argue that it wasn't a terrible sin, while I argued (somewhat from a Devil's Advocate position, though not entirely) that the park was a living monument or museum, and that non-native species were a part of that living ecology. As you can tell, we weren't huffing and puffing from the hike here.

After making the loop we then walked through one of the campsites attached to the park and crossed into the Edwin L. Z'Berg Natural Preserve (Z'Berg was something of an environmentalist in the state legislature during the 1970s) and then down to the lake itself. Off came the shoes and socks and we walked into the lake for a quick cool-down. Brrrrrrrr. Oh my god. Not only is the water icy cold (at first, of course), but the lake bottom is all rocks so you're not only freezing from the thigh on down, but you're trying not to stumble and get reeeeaally wet. Enjoyable and refreshing though. Then it was a short walk through the rest of the preserve to the parking lot and the car.

From there we continued up CA 89 to CA 28, which winds around the north shore of the lake, and to the Nevada border. Immediately the commercial landscape changes as you're met with two rather large casinos. Fortunately there was a local brewery next to the casinos so we could get a refreshing drink without having to go in one of the casinos. Since we needed to get back "down the hill," we skipped participating in the (dead) octopus toss held by the brewery and got back on the road toward I-80 and home. CA 267 was our pathway to the interstate and it deposits you on some large plains above the Truckee River. On I-80 it's only a short distance to Donner Lake and Donner Pass and then it's nothing but downhill, from 7300-odd feet to 16 feet (or less, depending), to the Sacramento valley. Surprisingly rough road though -- it's not broken up from use in the way you might expect, but it's not very smooth either. If I knew more about road surfaces, I'd tell you more, but suffice it to say that the Interstate pavement itself was interesting. Overall it was pretty drive, heading west into the sunset (the colors are amazing when there are clouds -- like someone's turned the contrast setting way up in Photoshop) and back home. Total mileage: 331 miles.

If you've made it this far, you may as well check out the photos

Posted: Sunday - July 18, 2004 at 10:04 PM