By Matt Villano, on July 28, 2014

Hiking Lake Tahoe with kids

Pretty much everyone in our family believes the best thing about visiting Lake Tahoe in summer is the hiking. Sure, the lake is a big draw, with waterskiing and beach-slothing among two of the more popular activities. And, yes, if you’re into mountain biking, it’s pretty fun to bike some of the ski-runs-turned-mountain-bike trails. But the hiking, with the wildflowers and the creeks and the views and the hawks—few other areas of Northern California even come close.

For us, of course, everything is relative. Our kids (both girls) are 5 and 2, and they REALLY like to hike. Naturally, then, we frequent places where the hiking options are plentiful. And we spend most of each trip tromping.

On our most recent visit to Lake Tahoe—in June 2014—we focused on the northern part of the region, using The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, as our base while we bagged day-hike after day-hike. Our schedule was simple: Room-service breakfast on the patio of our fabulous suite, hike all morning, back for lunch, then relax for the rest of the day. The girls loved the diversity of our walks; in three days we hiked valley floor, ridge top and mountainside. My wife and I loved the accessibility; none of these hikes was more than 15 minutes from the hotel. Here’s a rundown on each.

Sawmill Lake

Perhaps the easiest of the hikes to take was our 2.3-mile round-trip excursion to Sawmill Lake; the trailhead for the hike is at the top of the Big Springs Gondola, about 1,000 yards from the back lawn of the Ritz.

On the morning we went, we loaded up my child-carrying backpack with waters and apples from the hotel concierge. We also tossed in some s’mores kits that came with the Just for Kids Indoor Campout package we had reserved for the girls (in a nutshell, the kids slept in tents, in the room). The girls demanded these snacks before we even reached the Gondola (of course).


After our snack break, I put our younger daughter in the backpack and started ascending at a moderate rate of incline. The trail wrapped around the footpath at the bottom of the Vista Chair lift past the Cross Country Center, then meandered through the forest toward the lake. At one point, we crossed beneath another gondola; at another point, the trail wound through a series of boulders that my older daughter—who led the charge—loved climbing.

The lake itself was quiet; it surprised me that such a pristine alpine lake would sit so close to such a major ski resort. The girls insisted on dipping their feet. The water was cold and clear.

Martis Valley

The next morning, our legs aching from the moderate incline of the Sawmill trail, the girls and I decided to spend momma’s spa treatment on a much flatter tromp: an out-and-back in the nearby Martis Valley.

This valley-floor trail system, which fans out from the Martis Creek trailhead on Highway 267 as you approach Northstar from I-80 (a.k.a., the southwest), has about four miles of trails in all. The three of us stuck to the main trail that followed the highway east from the parking area; as we progressed, a cornucopia of wildflowers spread out along the trail in front of us. The girls were in their glory; they stopped literally every ten feet to add another flower to their mini-bouquets. When the collections got too big for their little hands, they ditched one bouquet and started another.

In all, we inched about 0.8 miles one-way to Frank’s Fish Bridge, where the girls downed still more snacks and tossed rocks into the West Martis Creek for a good, long while. We turned around from there and repeated the flower-gathering all the way back to the car. By the time we returned, we needed a gallon-sized Ziploc to store their collections.

Viewfinder Tip: Bring lots of water when hiking in the Sierra; especially in summer, dehydration strikes quickly, and when you least expect it.

Stateline Lookout

The last of our summer Lake Tahoe adventures took us to the Nevada side of the lake, on a steep climb to a place known as Stateline Lookout. As the name suggests, the views from the top were spectacular. But it sure took some effort to get there.

Finding the trailhead was easy; about 15 minutes east of the Ritz-Carlton, we turned north on Reservoir Drive just past the old Tahoe Biltmore Casino, then hung a right on Lakeshore Avenue. We parked across the street from an iron pipe gate that closed off U.S. Forest Service Road 1601 to street traffic. From there, we walked. Nearly straight uphill.

That part was—as I’m sure you can imagine—really, REALLY hard. Especially with two kids. Who insisted on moving without assistance.

All told, it took us more than an hour to hike up about 0.7 miles one-way. At the top, however, a stone lookout with public viewfinders (see what I did there?) provided the perfect spot for a picnic lunch and a session of oh-my-goodness-I-can’t-believe-how-pretty-this-lake-is ogling. At one point, our older daughter swore she saw a fairy flitting by overhead. I’m no believer in fantasy, but considering how magical Lake Tahoe is for us in summer, I wouldn’t rule it out.

What sorts of hikes do you seek when you travel with the kids?