As summer winds down and the mountain air turns crisp, there’s still plenty of fun to be had on long days. Lake Tahoe is calling—but its smaller neighbor, Fallen Leaf Lake, has just as much to offer the intrepid explorer.
Located about a mile from the southwestern shores of Tahoe, near Emerald Bay, Fallen Leaf Lake is ringed in trees and full of recreational opportunities on, in and around its clear, cool waters.
There are several roads leading to Fallen Leaf Lake, but the main one is a turn off of Highway 89 near Camp Richardson. A short drive down this U.S. Forest Service road will bring you to the campground managed by the USFS Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, with more than 200 campsites within easy walking distance of the lake. This large campground supports both tents and RVs, with electricity hook-ups, restrooms with flush toilets, coin-operated showers and potable water.
Trails wind through the area, offering picturesque views of the oblong alpine lake. A walk along the shore offers a glimpse into the geological history of the Tahoe Basin; the lake was formed by the gradual scraping of glaciers. The many small hills surrounding the lake are moraines—leftover piles of gravel, stones and other debris picked up by glaciers and deposited along their edges. If the glacier that formed the basin had continued another couple of miles, Fallen Leaf Lake would have been another outcropping of Lake Tahoe, just like Emerald Bay, which was formed the same way.
In previous colder eras, the basin containing Fallen Leaf Lake was dry and supported a forest environment, similar to the one surrounding the lake today. As the Earth warmed, and the Tahoe Basin filled with water, Fallen Leaf Lake also filled. There is evidence of this ancient forest being abruptly covered by water, as a forest of now-petrified trees is preserved well below the surface of the lake. This unique feature has protected status and can only be viewed by divers heading deep beneath the surface. While standing along the shores of the lake, it’s easy to imagine how different it may have appeared thousands of years ago.
Local companies can guide you on a dive into the waters of the lake, if you have the right diving certifications. If that’s not your jam, plenty of other recreation opportunities abound. Paddling on this lake can be very enjoyable, particularly in the still mornings before the wind picks up, along the more-sheltered western shore. Motorized boats are allowed, with plenty of room for waterskiing and other high-octane sports. Though there are no designated swimming areas in the lake, plenty of spots offer easy entry into the water. If you’re looking for an adventure, some hidden cliffs can be found along one area of the lake. While people sometimes jump off of these cliffs into the deep water below, it’s dangerous and not recommended—but the view from the top is still worth the visit.
Exploring the trails around the lake is a pleasant, and usually less-crowded, way to spend some time in Tahoe’s woods. Longer trails hikes can be found as well, including a hike up and along Angora Ridge to the south. The trailhead to the top of Mount Tallac is nearby—but be sure to do the appropriate research and preparation before tackling this grueling climb.
Fallen Leaf Lake is connected to Lake Tahoe via Taylor Creek. This connection allows some fish to travel between the two lakes—most notably, the kokanee salmon. This non-native species has become a local favorite to watch in the fall. Closer to the Tahoe end of Taylor Creek, a U.S. Forest Service visitor center and paved footpaths provide up-close looks at the annual upstream migration of this bright pink and red salmon. As they head toward Fallen Leaf Lake, these salmon present a colorful show to anyone watching, for several weeks around the end of September and beginning of October. They’re also a favorite food of the local black bear population, so be aware of your surroundings!
Just up the road is Camp Richardson, another campground, set of beaches and historical site. If you find yourself camping at Fallen Leaf Lake on a hot day, the seasonal ice cream shop at Camp Richardson may just have the afternoon treat you’re craving.
Though it’s hidden in the trees and sometimes forgotten about, Fallen Leaf Lake offers all the best activities of summer and fall. From camping and hiking to swimming and fishing, this nearby alpine lake is steeped in natural beauty and is a great place for a day trip or a weekend escape.