Lake Tahoe is certainly a world-class beauty, but sometimes Big Blue can feel downright crowded, noisy, even frenetic. A scenic, casual stroll through the soothing forest surrounding Fallen Leaf Lake is an excellent cure for that. Fallen Leaf Lake is nestled near the base of majestic Mount Tallac — a distinctive 9,735-foot-high granite escarpment that indigenous Washoe Indians called “Great Mountain” — south of Emerald Bay. The charming lake and the mellow terrain encompassing its basin boasts old-growth cedar and pine trees, twittering aspen groves and dazzling views of rugged, glaciated Sierra high country.
There are many enjoyable hikes in this area, but the Moraine Trail is an easy, short excursion for those seeking a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of Tahoe’s busy summer scene.
Fallen Leaf Lake is located west of Highway 89, about 3 miles north of South Lake Tahoe. It’s thought that the lake — at 3 miles long the second largest in the Tahoe Basin — is named after a Delaware Indian scout who guided an early Tahoe Sierra exploration party led by Colonel Jack “Cock-Eye” Johnson around 1850. Johnson was a noted early pioneer in the region who, among other things, blazed the Johnson Cut-off through the mountains, later to become Highway 50. To reach the Moraine Trail, drive up Fallen Leaf Lake Road and turn right into the campground. At the entrance bear left and continue on to the no-fee, day-use parking lot near campsite No. 75.
There are many enjoyable hikes in this area, but the Moraine Trail is an easy, short excursion for those seeking a quiet respite. A moraine is the term for the unconsolidated glacial debris consisting of rock and till that forms on both sides and terminus of a glacier. Active mountain ice caps formed over the Sierra Nevada during past climate regimes when year-round temperatures were lower and snowfall greater than now. Glaciers of various sizes surged down from the upper elevations, carving sawtooth ridges, pyramidal peaks and lake basins. Fallen Leaf Lake was formed this way, as was nearby Cascade Lake and even Emerald Bay. The Fallen Leaf and Cascade lake basins were caught behind the massive terminal moraine piled up by the snout of the glacier, but at Emerald Bay the ice movement was dynamic enough to punch into the main gorge now filled by the waters of Lake Tahoe. Emerald Bay’s lovely Fannett Island is simply a relic of granite that was so obdurate that the glacial ice cleaved around it.
The Moraine Trail is a basic up-and-back route about 2 miles roundtrip, but it offers access to classic old-school lake swimming, fine fishing, boating and historical exploration. The hike parallels crystal-clear Taylor Creek as it flows downhill toward its discharge into Lake Tahoe at Baldwin Beach. The creek is well-known for its Kokanee salmon spawn each October. Named after Elijah W. Taylor, who settled 160 acres near the creek in 1864, the stream was a popular fishing site for the Washoe Tribe and represents one of the most significant Indian campsites in the Tahoe Basin. Taylor Creek’s source is the spillway at Fallen Leaf Lake dam, built by Anita M. Baldwin in 1934 to enlarge the natural lake. Anita was the daughter of Elias Jackson Baldwin who purchased 2,000 acres of lakefront land in 1880 from hotel owner and tourism promoter Ephraim “Yank” Clement.
“Lucky” Baldwin had made a fortune investing in Comstock mining operations and bought the Tahoe property to develop a fancy summer resort and to protect the remaining old-growth forest from the loggers’ axe. When hiking in the area keep your eyes peeled for these ancient monarchs from Lake Tahoe’s ancient timberlands.
When you reach the Fallen Leaf Lake dam cross to the other side on the pedestrian walkway. Bear left on the trail near the lakeshore and continue to the ruins of early 20th Century summer homes, evidenced by foundations and standing rock chimneys. The section of trail that leads to the historic building foundations was underwater during my reconnaissance but is probably passable now. Instead of returning back to the trailhead along the same route, consider re-crossing the dam and taking the path to your right alongside Fallen Leaf Lake. This lakeview trail meanders back to the day-use parking lot.