Lake Tahoe Kayak Circumnavigation by Jeanne Fox
September 11 – 15, 2016
I discovered the Tahoe Water Trail when I was researching multi-day kayak trips in northern California, and decided I wanted to take a crack at a full circumnavigation of the lake. Since there was an established Water Trail and a network of lodges around the lake that accommodate paddlers, I assumed that this was a route that was commonly taken. In the entire internet, however, I could only find one posted account of a couple who made the trip back in 2008, so I didn’t have a lot of reference points to work with. I also wanted to do a lodge-to-lodge trip as opposed to camping to avoid hauling the extra gear, which added some complexity to the trip planning. In the midst of my planning, I luckily managed to coax a friend from Michigan into joining me on the excursion.
The difficulty with a lodge-to-lodge trip is the lack of options on the east side of the lake. There are no accommodations between Zephyr Cove on the southeast side and Incline Village on the northeast side, and about 18 miles between them. Although doable, that would be a long haul in one day, so I was determined to figure out how to break up the east side. I ended up working with Tahoe City Kayak for the boat rentals because they have a popup rental location at Sand Harbor Nevada State Park which is 3 miles south of Incline Village, and they arranged to have nice sit-inside kayaks there waiting for us the day we departed. I continued to plan our 5-day circumnavigation starting and ending at Sand Harbor beach and paddling counter-clockwise, as the winds would tend to be in our favor as we complete the final stretch on our last day up the east coast.
The folks at Tahoe City Kayak gave us a good education on the winds of Lake Tahoe. They can be very unpredictable, and downright dangerous on a bad day. Odds are that the mornings are the calmest it will be all day, so we planned on getting an early start every day. The winds pick up in the afternoon, and you can count on pretty windy conditions between 2-5pm especially on the north end of the lake as winds come out of the southwest. Tahoe City Kayak also advised us that the winds would tend to push us away from shore on the west side, and into the shore on the east. They turned out to be spot on! Most importantly, they told us not to be heroes, and if we were faced with bad weather we would need to be prepared to alter our plans.
We followed the Weather Channel hour-by-hour forecast constantly for wind speed and direction and precipitation. I also doubled-up on GPS devices. I wore a Garmin GPS to track distance and time, and also purchased an app for my iPhone called GPS Tour which allows you to map all of your destinations through the lat/long coordinates, and then track them compared to your current position. It was invaluable when it came to finding our lodging destinations which don’t have any signage on the lake side of the property! The trick is remembering to check your location frequently (reference day 3;).
Please note that my paddling companion, Sandra, and I are both experienced kayakers. Sandra lake-kayaks almost weekly with a competitive group, and I’ve done a lot of lake, river, and ocean kayaking including some multi-day kayaking/camping trips. We have both also taken certified training in kayak rescue and recovery, which should be a requirement for the use of sit-inside kayaks on Lake Tahoe, not to mention for any multi-day trips.
September 10, 2016
We planned the trip to begin the week after Labor Day, 2016 in hopes that the lake traffic would be diminished after the holiday. We stayed at the Hyatt in Incline Village the eve of our adventure as that is the closest lodging to Sand Harbor beach. We assumed it would be easy to catch the hotel shuttle or a taxi to the beach in the morning so we could catch our kayaks. However, we quickly learned from the concierge that Sand Harbor park doesn’t allow for any drop offs or walk ins; even if we gladly pay the $10 park entrance fee. We called a couple of taxis and Ubers only to confirm this and get denied for any possibility of a ride. Our only option would be to find someone in a non-descript vehicle who could drive us in and drop us off. Unfortunately neither one of us knew a soul in the area.
Without solving the problem, we decided to just enjoy our evening, assuming that the plan would fall in place somehow in the next few hours. We walked over to the Lone Eagle Grill for a cocktail, and then discovered the party pier out on the lake which was flush with lake people who came off their boats to have a drink at the bar. We instantly started meeting people, and one of them was spending the weekend in his vacation home right in Incline Village with some friends. Problem solved: our new friend Michael gladly agreed to pick us up at 8am the next morning and take us to the beach! I wasn’t sure if he would come through, but I texted him the next morning at 7:30, he confirmed, and he pulled up in front of the lobby at 8am sharp! Thank you Michael!
Please note that Sand Harbor NV State Park is happy to make overnight parking arrangements during the off season and shoulder season (latter part of September through first part of May), as long as you contact the Park with plenty of advance notice at (775) 831-0494.
September 11, 2016, day 1 of kayaking
Tahoe City Kayak’s Sand Harbor location is located at the boat ramp, and they were ready for us. They had 2 bright green Tsunami 125s all set up. They even threw in spare paddles, skirts, and safety gear (pumps, paddle floats) at no extra cost. After packing in the dry bags with everything we needed for the next 5 days, we were on our way by 9am! The weather and the water were beautiful, and there wasn’t much boat traffic at all. It was an easy paddle around the northeast shoreline, and we moved much faster than I planned. I planned the itinerary at 2 miles per hour, and we comfortably tracked at 3 miles per hour. It made for a short first day.
Our lodging for the evening was the Red Wolf Lakeside Lodge in Tahoe Vista. There are several hotel and restaurant options in this area and everything is walkable. There’s even a Safeway about 5 minutes away if you need to buy a bottle of wine for your room!
Day 1 stats:
Departure: Sand Harbor park
Arrival: Red Wolf Lodge, Tahoe Vista
Paddle time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Mileage: 7 miles
September 12, 2016, day 2 of kayaking
With an estimated 13 mile paddle ahead of us, we planned on getting off the beach by 7am. When we walked down to the kayaks at 6:45, there were already whitecaps on the lake. I was worried about shoving off the beach, let alone paddling 13 miles directly into the wind to our next destination. We both agreed that the winds would only get stronger as the day goes on, so we decided to give it a try and see how far we could get. We would abort the mission if it got dangerous.
It was indeed a challenge just to shove off, but after a minor struggle we were on our way. We were paddling hard and moving significantly slower than the smooth day we had before this. I was amazed at how stable the boats were in the waves that were hitting us from all directions. I was thankful to have my kayak skirt as it did a good job of keeping water out of my boat. The wind gusts quickly started to pick up, and it was difficult to keep a safe distance to shore. Before I knew it, Sandra and I were separated by about a half a mile, and both of us had been swept out from shore by more than 2 miles. I hit the panic button and decided to bee-line for shore and I hoped that Sandra would see what I was doing and follow. We were now dealing with 4-foot waves and wind gusts and I wondered if I would ever make it to shore.
We beached our boats at someone’s private home so we could take some time to regroup and look at the map. We decided to push on a little further, but when we tried to crest Dollar Point, the winds were so strong, we moved backwards no matter how hard we paddled. We had no choice but to turn back and paddle with the wind back up the coast. We took our boats out at Watermans Landing, which had boat rental facilities, a cafe, and bathrooms. A hot coffee never tasted so good!
From here, we called Tahoe City Kayak, and Andrew was more than happy to come rescue us. He loaded our boats on his van and drove us to Homewood where we had a room booked for the night. He helped us carry the boats down to the beach and we decided to try again the next day! It was a disappointment to say the least to arrive by van instead of paddling into the beach, but I don’t regret our decision.
We checked into the West Shore Cafe & Inn, and proceeded to sit at the bar for the remainder of the afternoon trying their craft cocktails. This is a beautiful location with a fabulous restaurant and a picturesque pier and beach.
We later found out that there was a weather advisory all day due to high winds with gusts up to 30 mph, and no marinas on the lake were letting any watercraft on the water. We were the only idiots out there. In addition, there were already thunderstorm warnings issued for the lake for the following day which we feared would derail us once again. We went to bed that night thinking happy weather thoughts in prayer.
Day 2 stats:
Departure: Red Wolf Lodge, Tahoe Vista
Arrival: West Shore Cafe & Inn, Homewood
Paddle time: 3 hours
Miles paddled: 8 miles
Distance covered from put-in to take-out: 3 miles
September 13, 2016, day 3 of kayaking
We were down at the beach early again getting the boats loaded up. The skies looked a little ominous, but it wasn’t yet raining, and the lake was pretty calm. We headed out thinking positive thoughts that we would dodge the thunderstorms. Early on, it started to sprinkle on us a bit, but nothing that would drive us out of the water. We could see distant thunderstorms in the mountains, but somehow none of them reached us. I guess we more than paid our weather dues the day before. The day overall turned out to be a beautiful day to paddle. Our paddle plan for the day was a 13 mile trip from Homewood to Camp Richardson on the southern end. This did not include the full paddle around Emerald Bay. We bypassed the bay and cut across the mouth.
The water was such perfect paddling water, that we just leisurely kept heading south assuming we would see Camp Richardson Resort when we got close. When I decided to check our location on the GPS, I realized that we had paddled right past the resort – by 1.8 miles. We were starting to get a little fatigued by this point, so the fact that we added onto an already long day wasn’t a pleasant surprise. Nonetheless, we turned around and found our destination a little while later. We were welcomed by a long pier and a substantial marina with several moored boats. How we didn’t notice this the first time we paddled by, who knows. We were both so happy to beach the boats and be on solid land after a 5+ hour paddle, we promptly proceeded to the bar and ordered a drink and lunch while still in our neoprene.
Camp Richardson campground and resort has something for everyone – campgrounds, hotel rooms, and cabins. And most importantly, a restaurant & bar right on the beach with beautiful views.
Day 3 stats:
Departure: West Shore Cafe & Inn, Homewood
Arrival: Camp Richardson Resort
Paddle time: 5 hours, 17 minutes
Mileage: 16.5 miles (including the accidental 3.6)
September 14, 2016, day 4 of kayaking
We started a little later this day because we knew it would be a shorter, easier trip to Zephyr Cove; a good balance from the day before. We left Camp Richardson around 8am, and the water was absolutely perfect. We even watched a hot air balloon launch from across the lake and float right over us. All in all, it was an uneventful morning, and we arrived at our destination well before lunch time.
Zephyr Cove Resort was a really comfortable place. They have a large beach and pier with kayaks and paddle boards, a main lodge with a full service restaurant, and a separate beach bar. I stayed in a lakefront cabin that was quiet and comfortable with a great view from the deck.
Day 4 stats:
Departure: Camp Richardson Resort
Arrival: Zephyr Cove Resort
Paddle time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Mileage: 8 miles
September 15, 2016, day 5 of kayaking
We expected a long day ahead of us for our final stretch- I estimated 15-16 miles. We shoved off the beach at Zephyr Cove by 7am and headed straight up the east shore. This side of the lake is gorgeous. It’s mostly state park with just a few homes peppered in. The shoreline was incredibly rocky for the first couple hours of our paddle, so there wasn’t anywhere to easily pull over for a pit stop. I was glad I didn’t drink any more coffee than I did that morning. We eventually found some coves with empty beaches so we were able to take a short break mid-morning.
The light breeze was at our backs most of the day until we got close to Sand Harbor. The trip was a little shorter than I planned. We pulled back into the boat ramp after 14.2 miles and a hair over 4 hours. We felt so victorious pulling up onto the sandy beach in front of the kayak rental location and several kayakers who were headed out for a mere afternoon trip. We felt like Olympians and wanted to brag about what we just did to anyone who would listen.
Now we had to figure out how to get back to our vehicle at the Hyatt- our last bit of adversity to overcome. Unfortunately our new friend Michael who got us to the beach 5 days prior wasn’t in town anymore. He did however leave me with a number for an uber driver based in Incline Village, so I called Betsy to try our luck. She answered right away and said she would come over and pick us up. By the time we walked outside the gate to the park entrance, she was pulling up! When we arrived at the Hyatt, we were happy to see that our vehicle was still there waiting for us. We stayed one more night on the north shore at Mourelatos Resort so we could celebrate our accomplishment before driving back to the Bay Area the next day.
Day 5 stats:
Departure: Zephyr Cove Resort
Arrival: Sand Harbor park
Paddle time: 4 hours 7 minutes
Mileage: 14.2 miles
A few other important notes about the trip. All hotels easily accommodated our kayaks on the beach overnight, and we never worried about anything happening to them. I also think the trip is doable in 4 kayak days. We had a couple of short days and could have easily added on a couple more hours. The trick in a 4 day trip is spacing out the mileage so you land somewhere with accommodations. If you’re camping, you have more flexibility to do this. Definitely paddle counter clockwise, as having the wind at your back will help you when you’re on the east side of the lake.
We loved our trip, and I hope someone else can benefit from our itinerary!