Tahoe visitors and locals alike tend to focus on the best-known adventures when they think of enjoying Tahoe’s outdoors. They ride the Flume Trail, hike to the edge of Emerald Bay to see Vikingsholm castle or trek into the granite paradise of Desolation Wilderness. They paddle through the emerald-green waters of Sand Harbor or take a sedentary glance at the lake from the bow of the “Tahoe Gal.”
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These are all amazing experiences and good additions to your Tahoe bucket list, but if you have an hour or two to kill, try a lesser known, off-the-beaten-track, off-the-tourist-radar kind of place where you will find time for quiet contemplation — such as Ward Creek State Park. Never heard of it? That’s a good thing and one of the reasons I like it.
Ward Creek State Park is 180 acres tucked in between Ward Creek, the fourth largest stream to enter Lake Tahoe, and the Timberland development 3 miles south of Tahoe City on State Route 89. Access to the park is via the West Shore bike trail or you can park at the Tahoe City Public Utility District’s nearby Kilner Park, where you will find restrooms, water, a playground and tennis courts.
Ward Creek is still roaring with spring snowmelt and the meadow on the edge of the park is packed with water-loving flowers showing off their colors.
Ward Creek State Park is undeveloped, except for a network of trails for hikers and mountain bikers and a few information signs. To the west, it backs a wide expanse of National Forest land where trails eventually lead to the Pacific Crest Trail and the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Wildflowers wave in the breeze during a recent visit to Ward Creek
Late spring and early summer is the perfect time to take a stroll or a roll through the park. Ward Creek is still roaring with spring snow melt and the meadow on the edge of the park is packed with water-loving flowers showing off their colors, especially the camas lily in waves of purple sometimes appear like shimmering water from a distance. The park’s trees were thinned a few years ago at the same time the trail network was created and the result is a pleasant open forest dotted with enormous Jeffrey pines and incense cedars.
Stampede Rock & Stanford Rock trails
Starting from Kilner Park, at the corner of Highway 89 and Ward Avenue, ride or walk along the bike trail along Highway 89 to a crossing of Ward Creek. You can park at Kilner Park. Just after crossing the creek, a dirt trail heads off to the right (look for the Park Boundary sign on a post). Note a trailside map giving you the lay of the land. Right away the trail meanders close to the bluff above Ward Creek and in several spots accesses stairs leading down to creek side. Not in a hurry? Find a place creek side, shut your eyes and listen to the rushing water.
The trail soon heads south away from the creek to a junction. Here a right turn ascends on a series of rolling switchbacks toward the west. In about a half mile, the trail leaves the park and becomes the Stampede Rock Trail, which is a fun, gentle climb through bushy terrain with white fir and Jeffrey pines.
After another mile, you reach a junction. Here, a right turn leads to a likely wet crossing of Ward Creek. A left turn begins a 4-mile grueling and challenging mountain-biking route to Stanford Rock. There, glorious views of the Pacific Crest and Twin Peaks can be found, as well as access to a rocky, technical downhill on the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Meadow Loop Trail
Back at that first junction in the park, still within ear shot of Ward Creek, a left turn is quickly followed by a right, which leads to a series of lush and, before mid July, very wet, meadows. A loop trail with a boardwalk keeps your feet dry and close to the waves of colorful flowers. Midway around the loop, a trail leads off to the west, providing access to more forest within the park and more ways to add mileage to the trip. Eventually, this trail leads to the main Stanford Rock trail described above.
Once you’ve had your full of meadows — if that is that possible — turn around and head back to the junction on the main trail. A right turn leads across a teensy stream and over a bridge back to the West Shore bike trail about half-mile further south from where you first entered the park.
If flowers and whitewater is not enough, keep your eyes peeled for colorful moss growing on granite boulders, ancient Jeffrey pines and cedars and a variety of birds and animals including pine martins and bear. This hike is designed for one to experience that peaceful feeling of being connected to nature without having to work too hard.
For more information, visit parks.ca.gov.