The greatest way to experience the blue waters and picturesque shores of Lake Tahoe is in a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Here are our favorites.
Lake Tahoe is one of the premier
lakes in the world—boasting stats like “America’s cleanest motorized lake” and “largest natural lake in California”—but beyond marveling at it from dry land or with an outboard buzzing in your ear, there’s far less talk about how else to fully experience this huge, deep-blue wonderland.
Why is that? The lake’s temperature provides a clue, which ranges from 43 degrees in the winter to 64 degrees in the summer. That’s pretty cold even at its warmest, which means exploring the best spots on the lake without freezing in the process is best done on some kind of
watercraft. Our preference: Getting on top of the lake in a kayak or stand-up paddleboard (SUP).
As someone who’s grown up here and explored the lake’s 70-plus miles of stunning coastline via a variety of paddling crafts, I can confidently attest nothing beats the beauty and solitude of paddling Lake Tahoe.
Kayaks and SUPs allow for the best convenience, maneuverability, and accessibility in some often tough-to-reach spots on this lake. They also provide quick access to the water when you start heating up, and can cut through the chop more easily than, say, a canoe when the wind picks up—which it really can here. If you don’t have your own kayak or SUP, several places around Lake Tahoe can rent you one for the day or longer.
On a lake this big and beautiful, there are countless places to steer your craft, including small beaches and bays along its winding coastline (many of which can’t be accessed on a motorized boat). Best of all, you don’t have to be an expert paddler here.
Most of Lake Tahoe’s wild and wonderful corners are open to all levels. Ready to brave the brisk waters of Lake Tahoe with paddle in hand? Direct your craft to any of these five spectacular spots.
5 Best Paddling Spots on Lake Tahoe 1. Sand Harbor
Sand Harbor is the top destination for paddling in Lake Tahoe. Water access is easy, kayak and SUP rentals are available on the beach, there’s ample parking (but the lot fills up, so come early), and the views will take your breath away.
Entering Sand Harbor (a state park) requires a fee, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting its beautiful sandy shores. Once parked, you’ll need to make a tough decision about which beach to enjoy, as there are two. My favorite is the southern beach, but it gets windy. The more protected northern beach is less gusty, but shadier.
Launching your vessel is easy from either and you’ll immediately gain access to clean, clear water; large boulders; and mountain views that would make Bob Ross shed a tear. Paddling on the more sheltered northern beach is better for beginners, while the southern end provides great access to the open lake, though with some added chop.
If you’re looking for a
paddling adventure around Sand Harbor, veer south a few miles to Bonsai Rock for rock jumping. Heading north along the rugged coastline is the less-crowded option. Pros: Great place to learn how to paddle Kayak and SUP rentals on-site Large, sandy beaches are perfect for all-day adventure Cons: Fee to enter Fills up fast, so come early
2. Zephyr Cove
Tucked on Lake Tahoe’s southeast coast, Zephyr Cove is a local paradise with a small sandy beach and large granite boulders poking out of the water. Parking your car and reaching the beach takes about 10 minutes, as the cove can be hard to find on your first trip—but all paths lead to the stairs and beach.
When launching your craft, keep an eye out for some of those boulders, as a kayak or SUP fin can snag. If that happens—not a problem—just back up and go around.
Zephyr Cove is a splendid place for all levels of paddlers. If you stay within the cove, you’ll be protected from the wind, making the paddling easy. For the adventurous, there’s more to see around the rocky point. Heading north, you’ll encounter a rugged coastline and almost no people.
Don’t even think about missing sunset. Zephyr Cove is one of the best spots on the lake to watch the sun slip behind the Emerald Range that creates the skyline of Lake Tahoe’s western shore.
Pros: Secluded and quiet Sandy beach makes for easy boat launching Granite rocks you can paddle over Stellar sunset views Cons: No public restroom Parking can be difficult Dalton Johnson Media | @daltonjohnsonmedia 3. Bonsai Rock
Bonsai Rock is my favorite place to paddle, but word is out. Over the years, social media has latched on to this amazing spot’s raw beauty for good reason.
Parking in one of the two turnouts, you’ll carry your gear down a steep, sandy slope to the water. While there’s no official trail, stick to one of several small ones to preserve the area’s fragile cliffside.
On the shore, Bonsai Rock is easy to identify with its characteristic “bonsai tree” sprouting on top of it. The famous local evergreen used to be manicured by an unknown individual, a tradition that ended with the area’s huge popularity.
From the rocky beach, launch your vessel and head out among the granite boulders visible through the clearest water in all of Lake Tahoe. Many iconic boulders in the area look like whales, monkey faces, and other creatures that will stoke your imagination as you soak in these magnificent views.
While paddling, keep an eye out for the many boulders you can jump from. The biggest leap spot is Bonsai Rock itself. Depending on the water level, the jump can be anywhere between eight- to 15-feet high. Be sure to check that depth before you jump.
Pros: Rock jumping Secluded Paddling over granite boulders Clearest water in Lake Tahoe Cons: Limited parking No public restroom Water access can be difficult Dalton Johnson Media | @daltonjohnsonmedia 4. Emerald Bay
Aptly named Emerald Bay is often considered the crown jewel of Lake Tahoe. From the parking lot, you’ll gaze down a steep hill onto the bay’s blue-green waters and that tiny island centered in the middle of it. If you’re like me, your next question is obviously, “Can I go to there?”
Fannette Island is open to the public and can be accessed by boat. Head to the water via the Vikingsholm Trail, which starts at the Emerald Bay State Park parking lot and winds down the hillside roughly one mile and 400 vertical feet.
Kayaks and SUPs can be rented right at the beach, so you can save your shoulders that long haul from the parking lot. If it doesn’t seem difficult, remember the one-mile return back up the hill after a full day of paddling. I’ve done it and it burns.
Once on the water at Emerald Bay, you can paddle to the island in about 20 to 30 minutes. Here, you can explore the remains of an old tea house, take a cliff jump, and warm yourself up after a refreshing dip by sunbathing on Fannette’s sun-warmed granite.
Pros: Access to famous Fannette Island Some of the prettiest water and views on the entire lake Kayak and SUP rentals on-site Cons: Mostly paid parking, but there’s some limited free parking No shortage of motorboats Dalton Johnson Media | @daltonjohnsonmedia 5. Rubicon Bay
Often overlooked, Rubicon Bay is the perfect family picnic spot and a great place to become more
proficient at paddling. The protected bay lets you explore in a kayak or SUP without worrying about heavy winds or waves capsizing you. Rubicon’s calm waters near shore are usually ideal for swimmers, too.
Stretching over seven miles with several access points, Rubicon Bay is filled with hidden gems—some of which can only be accessed by boat. With a little elbow grease, it’s a surefire place to find some real solitude.
If you’re looking for an adventure, Rubicon Bay is an ideal starting point. From this extended shore, you can paddle to
D.L. Bliss State Park for cliff jumping, or take a challenging 10-mile paddle all the way to Emerald Bay. Hikers from here can reach the same destination along the Rubicon Hiking Trail. Pros: Stellar sunrise views Great place to learn how to paddle Family-friendly beach, perfect for a picnic and shoreline hike Lots of parking Cons: Some motorboat traffic No public restrooms