In mid-October, my girlfriend and I drove from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe, a year-round tourist town on the California/Nevada border. We didn't have too many aspirations for this trip: the ongoing pandemic meant that anything involving other people was off the table, but we wanted to take a break from our apartment and our jobs for a moment and spend some quality time together. It was late September when we started planning and, because we're both from New England, we chose to visit South Lake Tahoe to look at their turning leaves, anxious to soak up an autumn feeling that is conspicuously missing from San Francisco.
South Lake Tahoe—at least, the part we stayed in—is primarily a landing spot for people visiting the Heavenly Ski Resort, but the lake, the hiking, and general cute ambiance means that there are tourist attractions year round. Aside from the big, closed-for-the-season gondola in the middle of the Heavenly Village (the shopping center just outside the ski resort), we didn't feel like we were missing anything by going just before the ski season.
Ultimately, the trip was a success! We enjoyed the travel, the accommodations, the town, and the hiking trails. The trip gave us a great opportunity to experience a new environment, and keep ourselves busy and active for an extended weekend. We spent four days in the town, and that was enough for us: any more time and we would have run out of things to do.
The maps said the drive would take about 3.5 hours, but it ended up being slightly over four both ways. The last part of the drive was on a winding single-lane road (much less harrowing as CA State Route 128 from SF to Mendocino). Maddie and I, both missing the New England fall rite-of-passage that is apple picking, had found a series of apple orchards—seemingly the only real apple orchards we've found in California—that we had hoped to stop at, though when we called ahead the morning of our drive, we learned that they had been all picked out for a few weeks. We ended up stopping at their farmstand shop to buy some apples anyway, but my recommendation is to go in September if apple picking is a high priority for you.
The "commercial center" of South Lake Tahoe is made up of two parallel roads that—as you enter the town from the west—ultimately combine into a single road that leads east into Nevada. As soon as you cross the state line, the town abruptly transitions from "cute skiing lodge" to "all casinos all the time." The Heavenly Village is on the south side of the road; about a dozen motels make up a few blocks north, and then there are houses leading up to the shore of the lake.
We stayed at Station House Inn, which had a fun retro camp feel and a comfortable bed. Through the trip, we ate meals in our room and realized early on that there wasn't enough chairs, table space, or light to have a proper meal. The breakfast they advertised ended up being less hearty than we expected: we got little bowls of cereal, some yogurt, and some cereal bars. Despite this, the place was cheap enough and felt cozy, and ended up working out well.
We went on two hikes in total, one for each full day we were there, each about eight miles long. We're both active, but had been busy working recently, so we didn't trust ourselves to hike any longer.
The first day, we stayed close to the town and the hotel, explicitly planning to do one hike near the lake and one hike a little farther away. We had found a list online of South Lake Tahoe hiking areas, and picked the High Meadows Trailhead: a well-marked trail that looked pretty and seemed to be just around our skill level.
This wasn't the most scenic hike, though there were some good mountain views at the tops of some hills. We treated it as a comfortable warm-up that let us stretch our hiking legs and get used to climbing a bit, shaking off the inactivity from the prior few months.
The second hike, the next day, was much more scenic—I'm glad we saved this one for last. The night before, confident in our ability to repeat the level of effort we had put in on day one, we found a route on Alltrails that was a similar distance to the one we had done. The trail would take us down the western coast of the lake to Emerald Bay, giving us a nice lake view throughout nearly the entire trek.
It took about a half hour to get from our hotel to the trailhead, and the drive was beautiful but slightly precarious, much like the drive into the town. We found a parking spot on the side of the road, passed by the Balancing Rock and the DL Bliss Campground, and made it to the Rubicon Trail. Unlike the other hike, which was a loop, this was an out-and-back: down to Emerald Bay, then right back up.
On the way out, we found a path down to the edge of the water and took a break to eat lunch and splash around in the water.
Hanging Out In Town
In the afternoons and evenings after our hike days, we tried to explore South Lake Tahoe and get a feel for the town. The first afternoon, we went down to a public beach two blocks from our hotel and had a lakeside picnic while watching the sunset. We walked around the Heavenly Village and explored the shops, but didn't find a lot worth visiting.
The second afternoon, we went to Black Cabin Coffee and got some lattes. We would go back to Black Cabin Coffee the next morning to get breakfast sandwiches and a pound of beans; those beans ended up making some of the best espresso I've been able to make in my machine.
We emphasized resting during this trip: we carved out time to read, to wander around town, and to have leisurely mornings preparing for the day. Even still, we felt like we had seen everything that South Lake Tahoe had to offer in the fall, and we had a very lovely, restful time.