On Lake Tahoe’s East Shore, a craggy rock formation juts out from the shoreline, looming some 300 feet above the blue waters. Cave Rock is arguably the most prominent geological feature on Big Blue — and it has an interesting history that matches its hulking presence.
Cave Rock was once part of a volcanic vent that existed about 5 million years ago. The rock’s namesake caves were carved out by waves 70,000 to 120,000 years ago during the glacial periods when the lake’s level was hundreds of feet higher.
For Lake Tahoe’s original “locals,” the Washoe Tribe, Cave Rock is a sacred site charged with spiritual energy. The tribe believes that only shamans should visit the rock, which was once the site of religious ceremonies.
A trail used by the Washoe traversed the mountain slope behind the rock, and later, a wagon trail was made along that same path as well as along the outside of the rock, which was established during the Gold Rush and used by the Pony Express.
Despite these primitive roads, Cave Rock remained an impediment to early travel, so in the 1860s, a wooden trestle bridge, supported by stone buttresses, was constructed around the outside of the rock.
“When the trucks couldn’t get over the Sierra because the trestle bridge was there, the decision was made to put a road through the rock,” explains Beth Smith, lead archeologist for the Nevada Department of Transportation.
In 1931, the first tunnel was blasted through the rock and a one-lane highway was constructed. The trestle bridge remained in operation for pedestrians until 1964, when it was removed for safety reasons. The second tunnel, along with the boat ramp, was built in 1957 to accommodate increasing traffic pressure.
It wasn’t until 2016 when the tunnels were widened and additional safety features were enacted due to rock falls that the tunnels were updated again.
These creation of the tunnels through the sacred rock came as a great shock to the Washoe Tribe. But in 2003, the tribe celebrated a victory when recreational climbing was prohibited by the U.S. Forest Service on the immensely popular climbing site, an activity the tribe deemed disrespectful.
The first permanent bolted climbing route on Cave Rock was established in 1987, and it grew to nearly 50 over the years.
Climbers, who argued that they helped tend the area with garbage clean up from those using the area as a party spot, appealed the decision in a lawsuit spearheaded by the Access Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting recreational climbing areas. Ultimately, the climbing ban was upheld by the courts in 2007.
What’s more, Cave Rock was designated a Traditional Cultural Property and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.
Today, visitors can enjoy Cave Rock from below at the State Park and boat ramp, or by hiking the 0.8-mile out-and-back trek to the top of the rock. Though the hike is short, the final stretch is steep and rocky and not suitable for all skill levels. The result, however, is an unparalleled, sweeping view of the lake.
But remember, Cave Rock is steeped in history, spirituality — and a little bit of controversy — so tread lightly.