Lake Tahoe's alpine grandeur is easy on the eye, although public access to the lake shore is in short supply, hindering development of the kind of intimacy that hikers develop with other California scenic gems.
But the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center offers an information desk, interpretive displays, naturalist-led walks and six family-friendly Tahoe trails. The paths offer a great introduction to the history and ecology of what Native Americans called "the Lake of the Sky."
The visitor center is located three miles north of South Lake Tahoe, off California 89.
From the visitor center, trails radiate outward like spokes from a wheel.
Rainbow Trail (half a mile round trip) leads from pine forest to a wildflower-strewn meadow to the Stream Profile Chamber, an underground viewing chamber that offers a fish eye's view of Taylor Creek. Through the chamber's windows you can see trout feed and watch other aquatic life. During early autumn, you can see the kokanee salmon run.
Forest Tree Trail (a quarter-mile loop) explores a Jeffrey pine forest. Kids enjoy the vanilla scent of these dominant Tahoe pines.
Markers along the Trail of the Washoe (three-quarter-mile loop) tell the story of the Native Americans who called Da ow a ga (Lake Tahoe) home for thousands of years. (The trail is closed for repairs through the 1994 summer.)
Smokey's Trail (an eighth-mile loop) shows kids how to safely build a campfire. Children who walk the trail (and remember what they learned) receive a small award from visitor center staff.
Lake of the Sky Trail (half a mile one way) travels north across a wide meadow to the lake shore.
Tallac Historic Site Trail (one mile one way) leads a quarter mile to Kiva Picnic Area, where you'll find picnic tables under the pines, a long sandy beach and good swimming. The path continues to the historic site where the Baldwin Estate is, now a museum that houses Tahoe and Washoe exhibits. California mega-entrepreneur Lucky Baldwin built a turn-of-the-century luxury resort here, complete with grand hotel, casino and ballroom. Some foundations and a few smaller buildings of the old resort remain, along with the museum exhibits, to tell the story of this lake-shore opulence. During summer months, history walks and art exhibits take place at the historic site.
An ideal two-mile loop for families is to follow Lake of the Sky Trail to the lake, walk along the lake shore to Tallac Historic Site, then travel southwest through the pine forest back to the visitor center.
Tahoe Nature Trails
WHERE: South shore of Lake Tahoe.
DISTANCE: 1/8 to 2 miles each round trip.
TERRAIN: Lake shore, meadows, Ponderosa pine forest.
HIGHLIGHTS: Tahoe's history and ecology.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, U.S. Forest Service, 870 Emerald Bay Road, South Lake Tahoe, Calif. 96150; tel. (916) 573-2600.