MEEKS BAY, Calif. — Drive around the Lake Tahoe Basin during a busy peak season weekend and you’ll probably find trailhead parking lots packed to the gills like a car dealership.
Coupled with even the smallest of hillsides being jammed with newly purchased sleds and 30 or more people, finding that pristine wild side of Tahoe can be a challenge.
At least it may initially appear that way. But it doesn’t have be. Even at Tahoe’s iconic postcard destination, Emerald Bay, there are options to get away from the masses.
The big secret? All it takes is a little walking.
Even during a jam-packed Christmas weekend, with Highway 89 closed a mile from Emerald Bay and an improvised parking lot slammed with SUVs and minivans, all it took was about a mile of flat hiking.
No matter what the season, the general rule is the farther you get from the parking lot the fewer people you will encounter. And Emerald Bay is no different.
Take a short hike up from the Bayview Campground — closed during winter — either toward Cascade Falls or Desolation Wilderness and there’s a good chance you’ll end up solo with some pretty great views.
IF YOU GO
From where Highway 89 closes, it’s less than a mile to access the campground across from one of Emerald Bay’s primary scenic overlooks. A few hardy sightseers may venture far enough along the closed-but-plowed highway to the vista point, but once you make the turn up into the campground that number drops substantially.
While there may be a broken trail, snowshoes or touring skis are a virtual necessity from that point, eliminating more casual foot traffic.
Since that’s not in the average visitor’s repertoire, a good set of snowshoes are key to finding winter solace. For those not accustomed to them, they’re pretty inexpensive to rent for a day.
From the campground, follow the main road to the summer trailhead access point. The map there shows summer trail routes. Hikers can either take the short roughly mile long hike to Cascade Falls to the left or a more aggressive route uphill to the right, toward Desolation Wilderness. Each route leads to impressive panoramic views with minimal effort.
Cascade Falls Trail stays mostly above Cascade Lake with views of Maggies Peak, Mount Tallac and surrounding areas.
Alternately, taking the Granite Lake Trail toward Desolation Wilderness will bring hikers higher above Emerald Bay to a clearing with views of Tahoe.
Granite Lake trail includes considerably elevation gain and will be tougher to find if the trail isn’t already tracked. Only more experienced hikers should consider that option.
A third shorter alternative involves hiking up the ridge of the smaller hill to the left of the campground from the trailhead. Less than a half mile uphill will get snowshoes to a pretty Isolated hilltop, which makes for a solid winter picnicking option. With low-angled safe slope, skiing back is an option.
While generally of low consequence, hikers should be aware that it doesn’t take much travel to be in a fairly remote location that can have consequences. Portions of the Emerald Bay area can be prone to avalanches during or following a winter storm.
With fresh snow, any slope above 30 degrees is susceptible to a slide. Generally speaking, treed areas are more secure, but it is worth noting that the Cascade Lakes Trail traverses a fairly steep graded slope.
If in doubt, always turn around. Traveling with someone who has been trained in winter backcountry travel is also a good idea; and always bring a map. Look for the weatherproof Tahoe Basin trail map at any number of area retailers.