Solo on Big Blue A Five-Day Paddle on Lake Tahoe

Courtesy Lake Tahoe Water Trail

In the crisp, blue light of morning, sapphire waters seduce me as I set my paddleboard on the beach at Sand Harbor. After rearranging my schedule, I have five days to paddle the circumference of Lake Tahoe heading north from the East Shore. I strap three dry bags, wrapped in an extra-large life vest, to the middle of my board and step in. It’s cold. The shadow of a dark Sierra peak chills me. I stand on my board. My gear shifts. I twist, drop to my knees — and almost fall in before I begin.

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Pessimistic second thoughts torment me: A woman paddling the circumference of Lake Tahoe alone is stupid. The weather forecast changed this morning; it calls for a storm in two days. I’m out of shape and have only a surf paddleboard, not at all efficient for flat-water paddling. Turn back now, before my ride leaves, I think. I take deep breaths, paddle and focus on the opportunity to get better acquainted with Lake Tahoe.

Beginning the adventure
at Sand Harbor. | Lisa Michelle

 

Day 1 | Sand Harbor to Tahoe City | 14 miles

Crystal Bay allows me to make better time than I expect at 3 mph. I float by Stateline Point where emerald waters accentuate hoodoo-like lava formations below, past Kings Beach, then Tahoe Vista. With my paddle on my shoulder, gear dangling off the end like a hobo and my board under my arm, I make the 10-minute hike from the beach to Lake Forest Campground in Tahoe City. After throwing down an air mat and sleeping bag, I cover my bed with a waterproof fly and stare at the stars most of the night.

 

Day 2 | Tahoe City to Meeks Bay | 13 miles  

Just before 7 a.m. the sun paints the dark sky a brilliant abstract of fuchsias and tangerines as I push off toward downtown Tahoe City. The water becomes rough for nearly 3 miles, swells constantly slap the bottom of my board. Nearing Sunnyside Beach, a resort and market await; the waters calm and I think I smell bacon. Thoughts of hot coffee and the opportunity to thaw my feet pull me to the beach. I hide my board under the dock, then dodge traffic while crossing State Route 89 to the Fire Sign Cafe.

Giant sugar pines dance with golden aspens along the West Shore as I approach Sugar Pine Point. Below the water’s surface, a maze of rocks, like flooded ancient ruins, crowd the mile-wide point. I’m back in the awe of Tahoe as I pull alongside a rock, perfectly carved for reclining, lie back and watch a jet streak the sky — aware that there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Clouds churn as I enter Meeks Bay. After a long day, I’m thankful rare winds from the east blow me into Meeks Bay Campground. The peppery scent of wet pavement and drizzle accompany me as I design a waterproof shelter using a tarp, my paddleboard and a picnic table.

 

Day 3 | Meeks Bay to South Lake Tahoe | 14 miles

The black waters of Rubicon Bay at 7 a.m. are magical and I’m obliged to serenade nearby cabins with the Doobie Brothers song “Black Water.”

Baldwin Beach is picture perfect for a relaxing lunch. I open my backpack and break out last night’s previously dehydrated lasagna. The warm sun, a full belly and water lapping the shore lull me into a nap.

South of Tahoe Keys, the wind is a relentless opponent. I hoped to make Zephyr Cove Campground, but dark clouds threaten rain and Timber Cove offers shelter. A storm is forecast for tonight and tomorrow, so I reward myself with a room at the Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe in South Lake. The bed is a white marshmallow cloud and way too comfortable in which to sleep. Rain pounds my window while I wait.

Headed to Cave Rock, retreating from a summer
storm in South Lake Tahoe. | Lisa Michelle

 

Day 4, Part I | Timber Cove to Nevada Beach | 3 miles

At daylight the storm explodes. I wait and wait and watch. At 8 a.m. there’s a break and I drag my board through Timber Cove. Like divine intervention, a brilliant sun blooms above Heavenly Ski Resort and I hope the storm allows me the 5 miles to Zephyr Cove. In less than an hour of paddling, rain pummels me at Nevada Beach and wind prevents progress.

By 9:30 a.m. I’m back at the hotel and it’s seriously storming. Even the ducks have fled the lake and retreated to the heated hotel swimming pool.

 

Day 4, Part II | Nevada Beach to Cave Rock | 5 miles

The storm fills most the day, but at 4:30 p.m. winds change from east to southwest. To complete the paddle in five days, I must get to Cave Rock tonight or add 5 miles onto tomorrow’s 14 miles — 19 miles in wind and forecasted thunder showers is not an option. Nevada Beach is unruffled compared to this morning as I paddle out. Zephyr Cove is surprisingly calm while the setting sun lights the deep water. Shadows streak beneath me, causing my mind to drift to local legends such as Tahoe Tessie an 80-foot, humped-backed, scaly serpentine creature whose sightings date from modern day to the 1800s and of angry Washoe water babies who swim in the sacred green water under Cave Rock. Century-old drowned souls float in my wake. The water begins to quake. Raindrops hit my face and I feel like I do when the roller coaster summits. The ride from Zephyr Cove to Cave Rock is bumpy, but beautiful. The radiant sunset mixed with blustery storm clouds have an exotic effect on the lake and I suddenly understand the attraction John Muir had to storms. The water becomes turbulent as I round stacked boulders, like colossal cairns nearing Cave Rock. At dusk, I surf into the beach at Cave Rock reeking of happiness and catch a ride to Zephyr Cove Campground.

Reaching Sand Harbor at the end of a five-day
journey around Lake Tahoe. | Lisa Michelle

Day 5 | Cave Rock to Sand Harbor | 14 miles

The weather is accommodating for the first hour, but at Deadman’s Point the wind advances and I realize that making it to Sand Harbor today will not be easy. Sloshing swells and wobbly legs force me to my knees near Skunk Harbor, but I keep paddling. At noon, Secret Harbor provides a warm section of sand. I nestle between huge boulders, put my feet up and force down some grub before paddling on.

Finally, the long stretch of shore at Sand Point comes into view, but seems impossibly far. Near Chimney Beach, swells jump to 2 feet. At first, I fight to paddle, then relax and sit on my board. Rolling and bouncing on the rocking water is hypnotic — I’ve only 1 more mile and am in no hurry.

After an hour of paddling on my rear, I approach the granite temples at Sand Harbor. With little help from my legs, I attempt to stand, but can’t. The cold water punches the air out of me. After a second tumble, I stand and paddle as fast as I can through the jade swells of Sand Harbor until the nose of my board runs aground. I’m physically exhausted and have never felt better. My intimacy with Tahoe will last a lifetime.