Summer’s best swimming holes

Story & photos by Tim Hauserman · 

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Paradise Lake provides some of the same jumping-off-granite-into-cool-waters joy that you will find in Desolation Wilderness · 

There is something oh so special about finding your exceptional place to swim in the mountains on a warm Sierra afternoon.
Whether it’s a private cove on the shore of Lake Tahoe, or a mountain lake surrounded by smooth granite, a dip into the water just says summer. For me, it brings back fond memories of my childhood, when once you escaped school for the summer your goal was to spend as much time as possible in the water. And, given how cold it gets in the Sierra at night, a swim in the mountains is always a brisk and invigorating experience. Here are some of my favorite spots to get wet, but please, don’t tell anyone:

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Lake Aloha, the largest lake in Desolation Wilderness, is also a reservoir and will decrease in size quickly this season · 

Desolation Wilderness
This land of granite to the southwest of Tahoe is also where dozens of sparkling mountain lakes are just calling you to jump in. Or, perhaps gingerly and slowly easing into the often-frigid waters.
Some of my favorites are Dicks Lake, Middle Velma, Fontanillis, Half Moon, Crag, Stony Ridge and what can be the best of all, Lake Aloha, the largest lake in the wilderness. The edge of Aloha is one enormous smooth piece of granite that is made for warming up after a swim. You can also swim from granite island to granite island, working your way around the lake. Bring some water shoes to enable a swim-walk combination. Aloha is also a reservoir, one that will decrease in size dramatically as the season progresses, so get there early in the season.

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Dicks Lake in Desolation Wilderness · 

Donner Lake
The northern side of Donner Lake has 37 little public piers that are perfectly sized for just a family or a group of friends. They are awesome spots to lounge, swim and enjoy the amazing view of the Pacific Crest high above. The problem is that those little suckers get grabbed up quick. So, like Tahoe, your best chance of finding your piece of swimming hole bliss is to get there earlier in the day or later in the afternoon. Or, you can dish out a few bucks for the entrance fee to enjoy the lovely West End Beach.

Lake Tahoe
While in many ways, anywhere is a great place to swim in Tahoe, what makes it more enjoyable is to find the out-of-the-way spot where you can find peace and tranquility. The two longest sections without roads along the shoreline are on the West Shore from D.L. Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay, and along the East Shore between Sand Harbor and Skunk Harbor. These are amazingly beautiful stretches of lakeshore, but finding seclusion might still be a challenge. Get off the beaten track and away from the main hiking trails. Or, go early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the crowds begin to disperse. Or, best of all, find a friend with a lakefront estate for a bit of late night skinny dipping.

Loch Leven Lakes
About 10 miles west of Donner Summit, the 3-mile jaunt to Loch Leven Lakes is a swimmer’s dream. Both the middle and upper lake are granite-lined beauties, and since they are both shallow and sit at a lower elevation then most Sierra lakes, they might be the warmest choice on this list.

Paradise Lake
It’s a hefty 7-mile hike north of Donner Summit, but Paradise provides some of the same jumping-off-granite-into-cool-waters joy that you will find in Desolation Wilderness, except usually without the crowds.

Showers Lake
Between Carson Pass and Echo Summit on the Tahoe Rim Trail lies Showers Lake. A lovely bit of wetness that makes for an enticing swim. It is a busy place, however, so be ready to make some new swimming friends.

Star Lake
Sitting at the base of the Tahoe Basin’s highest peaks at 9,200’, Star Lake is the highest elevation lake in the Tahoe region. It’s cold, and a bit murky with suspended decomposed granite, but the views are amazing, and since you walked a long ways to get there, it’s a wonderful swim.

Truckee River
Unfortunately, until we get the winter that we sure as hell better get this winter, the upper sections of the Truckee are not swimmable. But when the water returns, my favorite way to swim the Truckee is to walk into the river around the bike trail bridge in Tahoe City. Start swimming/floating downstream, then get out on the left side where a portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail follows the river. Walk back to the bridge, and do it again.

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The author from above Fontanillis Lake in Desolation Wilderness · 

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Tim Hauserman
Tim Hauserman wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, as well as “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and the children’s book “Gertrude’s Tahoe Adventures in Time.” Most of the year he writes on a variety of topics, but you will find him in the winter teaching cross-country skiing and running the Strider Gliders program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. He has lived in Tahoe since he was a wee lad and loves to be outdoors road and mountain biking, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking and cross-country skiing.