What does a perfect summer day at Lake Tahoe look like?
The answer may vary, but the key ingredients are fairly simple: sunshine, some paddling and a cold beverage … or several cold beverages.
Paddling on Big Blue is summer’s equivalent to skiing or riding in winter — until you do it, you can’t fully understand what makes Lake Tahoe … well, Tahoe.
While simply getting out anywhere on the lake is worth the effort, not all paddles are equal.
To truly maximize your outing, look for three key factors: ease of access, scenery and beach availability.
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The latter two are arguably the most critical, although nobody wants to lug a kayak or paddleboard several miles. (Tip based on embarrassing experience: Chimney Beach is a terrible access point for paddling.)
Based on the three factors above, here are three paddles worth putting on your summer to-do list.
Sand Harbor to Whale Beach
In terms of favorite Tahoe paddles, this is No. 1.
It checks all the boxes, with unmatched scenery stemming from the lack of development on the East Shore. There are also plenty of beach options.
Access is the biggest drawback here. Although Sand Harbor is easily accessible off State Route 28, its skyrocketing popularity means nabbing one of the few parking spaces in the park is a major challenge.
Seriously, if you’re not out the door by 7:30 a.m. on a weekend then you might as well go somewhere else. Also, there is a $10 park entry fee. (Pro tip: The park’s credit/debit card machines do go down occasionally, so bring cash.)
If you’re lucky enough to get into Sand Harbor, try and park as far south as possible. From the beach you’re going to head south.
Some people inexplicably paddle out a great distance from the shore when they’re on the lake. This is a dumb mistake and should not be repeated. The most interesting views are along the shoreline — don’t venture too far from it.
Not long after starting your paddle you’ll cruise past the historic Thunderbird Lodge. Take your time so that you can soak in the impressive masonry of the buildings and stone walkways leading down to the water.
Paddle a little longer and you’ll reach the aforementioned Chimney Beach. While a terrible access point for paddlers, it is a perfect first stop on this trip. And assuming you started your journey shortly after Sand Harbor’s 8 a.m. opening, Chimney Beach will be largely empty when you reach it.
The long haul comes after Chimney Beach. From there you’re going to continue south toward Secret Beach. A heads up in advance: Secret Beach is clothing optional, so be prepared to see some unobscured bronzing bodies.
While we recommend heading to Whale Beach, which is located a little farther south and named after a rock resembling a whale, Secret Beach is the first of quite a few beaches where you can pull over and spend the afternoon. You’ll want to pack a lunch to enjoy with your beverages.
And if the beaches are looking crowded, there are quite a few large boulders that — depending on lake level — you can swim out to and climb on. (Another pro tip: Bringing some rope and a soft shell cooler will keep your drinks cold and give you something to tie your kayak or paddleboard to if you decide to sunbathe out on a boulder.)
One last thing about the East Shore: Pay close attention to the weather and don’t stay out on the lake too long. The wind tends to really whip up later in the afternoon, which can make paddling close to impossible. Start heading back no later than 2:30 p.m.
The trip is roughly 3-4 miles in one direction (6-8 miles roundtrip).
More info: bit.ly/Sand-Harbor-Tahoe
D.L. Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay
Similar to the first paddle, this route checks all the boxes.
The cliffs off Tahoe’s West Shore offer quite the contrast to the East Shore. In the afternoon it’s perfectly common to see people cliff jumping, with Rooster Rock being a popular choice for thrill seekers looking to take a plunge.
Like the first suggestion, the biggest drawback here is access. D.L. Bliss is easily accessible, and the beach parking lot is literally right next to the beach. But there aren’t many parking spots, and the lot fills up quickly. Don’t waste time getting out the door in the morning. The entry fee is $10 (bring cash).
From the beach at D.L. Bliss, head south, sticking close to the shoreline. The aforementioned cliffs come up quickly after making the turn at Rubicon Point. Keep paddling at a pace comfortable to take in the towering views along the shore.
Shortly before entering the mouth of Emerald Bay, you’ll reach the first of two secluded beaches. Aside from foot-traffic from the neighboring Rubicon Trail, the beaches are largely empty and make for perfect break spots.
From there continue heading south. You’ll eventually reach the mouth of Emerald Bay, which is deceptively far from your ultimate destination point — Fannette Island.
Emerald Bay experiences some of the heaviest boat traffic of any place on the lake, so you will want to stay pretty close to the shoreline until it’s time to paddle out toward the island.
If you’re looking to get out on the island, which we highly recommend, the easiest access is on the back side facing toward Vikingsholm, the large Scandinavian castle in the bay. You can either pull your kayak or paddleboard ashore or tie it up to one of the trees on the island.
Along with enjoying lunch on Tahoe’s only island, you can take a short hike up to visit the remains of an old tea house built atop the island. The south side of the island has several quality cliff jumping spots.
Expect to see plenty of people and boats. The trip is approximately 3 miles in one direction (6 miles roundtrip).
More info: bit.ly/DL-Bliss-Info
Kiva / Baldwin beaches to Emerald Bay
OK, OK, we’re being a little redundant here with another paddle into Emerald Bay. But there are good reasons for including this on our list.
For starters, both Kiva Beach and Baldwin Beach on the South Shore tend to be less crowded than other destinations. On numerous occasions when finding a full Sand Harbor or D.L. Bliss, I’ve headed to Baldwin Beach and had zero trouble getting in. There is a parking fee (it was $8 in 2018) for Baldwin Beach, and most of the parking spots are fairly close to the water.
Kiva Beach, on the other hand, is free to access. There is a little bit longer of a walk to reach the water, but it’s worth it. And what makes Kiva Beach especially popular is the fact it’s one of the few dog-friendly beaches at the lake.
While dogs are not allowed in Emerald Bay, Kiva is a short enough trip that you can take the whole family to the beach and have people take turns paddling to the bay while someone stays behind watching your four-legged friend.
Baldwin Beach is an even shorter trip to Emerald Bay and offers a relaxed atmosphere that makes it perfect for hanging out before and after your paddle.
Admittedly, the scenery is not as great (but hey, it’s still Tahoe) as the other two paddles. But it is shorter, which is convenient if you’re looking to avoid spending the entire day out on the water.
This route takes you past Eagle Point, located right on the southern corner of Emerald Bay’s mouth. About halfway between the mouth of the bay and the beach at the opposite end, there is one of four designated diving spots on an underwater maritime trail. This location is the only one shallow enough to easily dive down and take a look at the wreckage (IMPORTANT PRO TIP: DO NOT TOUCH THE BOATS).
The southernmost shoreline also has a small beach that can be accessed for a break before heading to Fannette Island.
If you’re looking to mix it up or if Fannette looks too crowded you can make your way to the beach and explore Vikingsholm.
More info: bit.ly/Baldwin-Beach-Info