The jutting promontory of Cave Rock on U.S. Route 50 between Zephyr Cove and Glenbrook, Nev., is a signature geologic feature that you see from nearly every vantage point on Lake Tahoe. This dramatic extrusion towering more than 300 feet above the surface of Big Blue is the eroded remnant of an ancient volcano that spewed hot lava into the Tahoe Basin 3 million years ago. Washoe Indians called it “dE’Ekwadapoc,” meaning gray rock, but by 1861 it bore the name Cave Rock for the shallow grottos hollowed out of the hardened magma by prehistoric high-water levels in the basin. Lake Tahoe has been up to 800 feet higher than it is today.
The trailhead starts at a small parking lot on Cave Rock Drive. Turn in at the Cave Rock Estates sign — just west of the U.S. Route 50 tunnels —and drive uphill 200 yards until you see a small parking area on the left. There you will find a dirt trail that trends slightly uphill parallel to the highway below. The half-mile jaunt from your car to Cave Rock barely qualifies as a mountain hike, but all excursions in the Sierra deserve respect. Don’t forget water, a hat and proper footwear.
Evidence of early road construction is readily visible today, as is the precipitous drop into Big Blue that took the breath away of grizzled wagon freighters and intrepid auto enthusiasts.
In July and August get an early start because this walk can get hot in the afternoon sun. The top of the lava plug requires a 40-foot scramble up broken rock. It’s short and well used, but fairly steep and definitely not advised for small children. This final effort requires moderate hand-foot coordination, so the less you carry the easier it is. The scramble up is worth every minute — just be careful to take your time. The views are unforgettable. On a recent visit, the robust Cascade and Eagle waterfalls at Emerald Bay were clearly visible.
You can also visit the Cave Rock boat launch area, near the west base of the lava pinnacle. There is a day-use fee for this Nevada State park, but it’s a beautiful spot for lunch or from which to launch your boat or kayak. Paddling crystal-clear, tropical-hued water along the base of the Cave Rock cliffs is a bucket-list adventure. Fishing in this part of the lake is renowned for trophy-sized mackinaws approaching 30 pounds.
From near the entrance to the park, you can walk east along the U.S. Route 50 guardrail to the lower section of Cave Rock that is inaccessible from above. This stretch of road through South Lake Tahoe dates back to the old Carson City — a Placerville wagon road established during the California Gold Rush. It was also the route for the legendary Pony Express. Unlike today with a pair of smoothly bored tunnels enabling motorists to drive under the rock formation, the first rendition of this busy road went around Cave Rock.
A centuries-old Washoe Indian trail worked its way over the mountain slope above Cave Rock and a primitive wagon road was later constructed along this path. Even so, it was among the most challenging sections of Tahoe’s southern route for transport at that time. In the early 1860s, construction crews built the new Lake Bigler Toll Road around the bulging Cave Rock massif on a narrow man-made ledge along its west face. Stone buttresses were hand-chiseled and the rectangular-shaped granite stones were stacked to create a solid wall that could support a 100-foot-long trestle and heavy wagons. Testament to the workmanship on this infrastructure project, automobiles and trucks would continue to use the same route until the first tunnel was blasted in 1931.
This extension past Cave Rock was also known as the Johnson Pass lakeshore turnpike, a mile-long improvement project that cost $40,000. It was the most expensive section of roadwork between Placerville and Carson City. Over the decades much of the original work deteriorated and ultimately collapsed into Lake Tahoe, but evidence of early road construction is readily visible today, as is the precipitous drop into Big Blue that took the breath away of grizzled wagon freighters and intrepid auto enthusiasts.
Cave Rock represents a sacred place in the history and spiritual beliefs of the Washoe Tribe, descendants of the First People at Lake Tahoe. Out of respect for Washoe heritage and culture, technical rock climbing is banned on the sacred site, but respectful exploration is not. Leave nothing behind but footprints.