Kayak adventures on Lake Tahoe


Spending a few hours on a kayak is a perfect way to see Lake Tahoe. Sitting just above the surface of the water, you not only get a unique perspective of the lake and mountains around you, but you also are treated to a view of the bottom of the lake as it slowly unfolds below you.

Your kayaking adventure can begin from almost anywhere around the lake. All you need is a kayak, public access to the lake and a place nearby to park your car. A few good choices on the north end are Hurricane Bay on the West Shore, Commons Beach in Tahoe City, Patton Landing in Carnelian Bay and the public boat launch in Kings Beach. But, if you only have one day to kayak, choose one of these two places, which to me are the places to go:



Sand Harbor to Thunderbird Lodge

There is nothing quite as enchanting as the meeting of the granite boulders and the clear green water along the shore of Sand Harbor. Well, with the possible exception of the coming together of that luscious green water and the deep blue waters off-shore. The east shore of Lake Tahoe is an unbelievably beautiful place to go kayaking, but you need to get there early.

First, because you have to get a parking spot in a busy place, and second because while it might be smooth as glass in the morning, once those prevailing southwest winds whip into action the lake can transform from calm to white caps in short order.

Put your boat in at the Sand Harbor boat launch at Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. From here, paddle south through the boulder fields and along the Sand Harbor shore line. Once you get around the bend, you will see the sandy amphitheater that is home for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, and then the long expanse of sandy whiteness that is the Sand Harbor beach. Continue past the beach and begin going in and out through the various boulder fields close to shore. You can tuck into a small beach or two before eventually arriving at the imposing and bizarre edifice that is the Thunderbird Lodge. The older rock buildings and the extensive network of walking trails are the creations of the eccentric George Whittell Jr. in the 1930s. This estate was the centerpiece of his land holdings that included much of Tahoe’s East Shore. Unfortunately, you cannot just pull up to the beach and take a tour, but the guided tours are an awesome treat and well worth the price of admission. For more information, visit thunderbirdtahoe.org.

Getting tired? The Thunderbird Lodge is a good turn around point, but if you continue past the lodge you will encounter miles of secluded beaches and rock outcroppings. Find your own private enclave and do what the natives do, drop trou and jump in to Tahoe’s chilly waters.

Sand Harbor to Thunderbird Lodge
Go in the morning to avoid afternoon winds
Explore granite boulder fields
Enjoy sandy, white beaches
Marvel at the Thunderbird Lodge
Head to secluded East Shore coves & beaches



Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay

The trip from D.L. Bliss State Park to the Vikingsholm Castle in Emerald Bay has it all, and if kayaking is not enough, you can easily combine it with a shoreline hike on the Rubicon Trail. First, just like Sand Harbor, you need to get there early, as the beach parking lot fills up quickly, and once it does, you are out of luck.

Drive through the park to the beach and carry your kayak across the pristine sand, resisting the urge to lay down your towel and take a nap. That can come later. Enter the emerald green waters, and kayak south past the rock cliff walls and pristine little coves toward Emerald Bay.


Stay close to shore to enjoy all of the little inlets, and stay away from any early morning boaters. Keep an eye open for ospreys, whose large nests may be seen along the shoreline sitting at the top of large dead trees. Eagles also are occasional visitors to the area. Eventually, you reach the entrance to Emerald Bay, where a whole other set of awe-inspiring views will hit you.

Wind your way along the north shore of the bay toward Vikingsholm. Pull in anywhere for a private lunch spot. Restrooms are available at the boat campground and at Vikingsholm. You can also paddle over to Fannette Island and do a quick circumnavigation of Tahoe’s only island. Emerald Bay can be a busy place and many boaters may be more focused on the spectacular views then your little old kayak, so keep your eyes open and make sure you are seen.

After returning to the beach at Bliss State Park, it might be time to give your arms a break, and give those legs a whirl, by hiking the Rubicon Trail. It starts just at the southern end of the parking lot and goes 3 miles to the entrance to Emerald Bay, much of it hugging the shoreline. Once you are in the bay, another 1.5 miles of trail brings you past the boat campground to the Vikingsholm where tours are available. Another one-quarter mile brings you to the base of Eagle Falls.

Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay
Paddle over emerald green waters
Marvel at high, rock cliffs
Explore tiny coves
Look for ospreys and Eagles
Tour Vikingsholm Castle
Head to Fannette Island
Hike the Rubicon Trail



Take precautions

Wear bright clothing to go along with your bright kayak, and stay close to shore, so that you are not only seen by boaters, but are not in their fast moving path.

The general trend on Lake Tahoe is light or non-existent winds in the morning, followed by increasing winds as the day progresses.

Plan accordingly. Be sure to bring a friend or at least tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back.

Always bring a life jacket, water and food.

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Tim Hauserman
Tim 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.