Fallen Leaf Lake

TJ: In just a few hours, Dara and I will be on our way to one of our favorite three-day weekend destinations to escape LA for this Memorial Day weekend! We’re heading up to Fallen Leaf Lake, near South Lake Tahoe, where my grandfather built a family cabin back in the 50’s. My family has been taking short trips there ever since, and I’ve gotten to bring Dara too a few times. There are so many great things to do up there that it never gets boring.

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Some of the Barber Clan… can you tell they’re related???

Dara: Obviously you guys cannot steal TJ’s family cabin but we did want to make a post about the area as a whole since there are so many fantastic things to do there.

TJ: Fallen Leaf Lake (FLL) is a hidden gem of a place. It shows up in a few tour guides (apparently a popular Japanese one?) so there are always a few stray tourists around, but other than that, it’s a pretty under the radar, quiet place. Honestly, if you’ve heard of the FLL before now it’d probably be because of its amazing cameo in THE BODYGUARD, in which they blew up a boat on the lake!

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Kevin Costner saves a life on the lake

Dara: It’s a little far from Los Angeles – about a 7.5 hour drive – but I don’t mind because I’m never the one driving! 😉

Yes fun fact, Dara is one of the probably very people in Los Angeles who refuses to drive… I don’t mind the drive though because we drive from LA to the Bay Area (where I grew up) all the time, and I even drove across the country after graduating in 2015.

Alternatively, you can also fly to Reno, which is very cheap, very fast flight from LA. You’d need to rent a car from there – it’s about an hour from Reno to Fallen Leaf – but it’s only 3 hours from the Bay Area, so you’re in luck if you’re from there!

Some houses on the lake are up for renting/Airbnb’ing, and there are plenty of cheap motels in the South Lake Tahoe area. The north side of the lake is forest service land with a beautiful campground that has tons of space for tents and a few heated cabins, which you can reserve online. It’s pretty cheap but it books up quick so plan ahead!

And on the other end, if you’re looking for something more expensive, you can stay at the casinos on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe. It kind of defeats the purpose of the whole being in nature thing, but if you’re looking for that experience, it’s there.

But anyway, no matter where you stay in the greater Lake Tahoe area I’d recommend a quick day trip to Fallen Leaf Lake, if you have the time!

It’s basically the best little lake in California, and I daresay, the best lake that has ever existed.

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On the water

It is definitely one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever been to. At night, if you lay out under the stars, you can see more of space than you probably ever have before – regular stars, shooting stars, satellites, and even the Milky Way is visible if the moon’s not too full.

The lake is sandwiched in a deep, glacier-made gorge between Angora Ridge, Angora Peak, and Mount Tallac. It’s about 3 miles long, and 1 mile wide, roughly in the shape of (you guessed it!) a leaf. The east and west sides of the lake are interspersed with private cabins and docks, and the north side of the lake is forest service land, with the campground, a nice beach, and a dam that controls water flow into Lake Tahoe.

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A Handy Map

Random fun facts: there’s a 3,000 year old forest of trees beneath the surface of the lake that scientists say may be due to a mega-drought at the time, and divers exploring the forest found an unknown life form: something that looks like a jellyfish, but is not. Also the water quality is so good that visibility can be up to 40-50 feet on calm days, and most cabins draw water directly from the lake. 

On the more practical side – note that you have to take a one-lane road that has traffic going both ways to get to the lake so be careful driving. Some people complain about the road but it’s really not that hard! Just pull over in one of the roundabouts if traffic comes your way. And also watch out for bears! We saw some from the car the last time we were there, but they’re pretty good at not disturbing people who know basic bear safety. Just don’t leave out empty food products, and if you do see a bear make loud noises and try to seem as large as possible.

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Mt. Tallac

My first fun activity recommendation would be to visit the little cove up on the north end of the lake, near the campground. TJ’s family likes to call that area Pirate Cove, but its official name is Sawmill Cove. It’s really easy to find, as it’s the only cove on the lake and you can rent fun paddle boats to get to it. It’s the perfect place to picnic, since there are already picnic tables there and you can look out over the water.

There’s also a cool abandoned cabin in the woods behind it. If you follow the trails up a hill from the picnic tables, you’ll find a very large stone chimney, and stone basement walls, which are all that remain of a 1920’s cabin from the wealthy Baldwin family. A little further down, you’ll find an abandoned boathouse.

Then the south end of the lake has Stanford Camp, Stanford’s alumni family retreat center. In the summer, they host Stanford alum and their families and have regular sing a long campfires which everyone on the lake is invited to. Plus every July 4th, Stanford and the Volunteer Fire Department co-host a beachside BBQ with cardboard boat races and kayak beer races.

Cardboard boat races are a classic. I remember doing them at summer camp every year for our “camp olympics” and thinking they were the coolest thing ever, but now being over 21, I think kayak beer races may have taken that spot! The idea is pretty simple… you get a kayak, two beers, and no paddles. You can’t start moving until you finish one beer and you have to finish the second one at the halfway point. Oh, and there are also firefighters on a fireboat spraying you with the hose the whole time. The race is always a fun and embarrassing mess. They even do a kids version with soda in front of beer.

The backdrop to all of this (opposite the water of course) is one of FLL’s classic landmarks… “The Store”. That’s the where the general store, gift shop, restaurant, boat launch and docks, boat rentals, and gas station and more are for the lake.

If you’re visiting the lake for a day, The Store is where you’ll likely go. They have ice cream, food, gifts and more. They have great deals on boat rentals, including Pontoon Boats (so much fun to rent and “booze cruise” around the lake, even if technically not allowed), Ski Boats, Aluminum Fishing Boats, Kayaks, Paddle Boards, and Paddle Boats. If fishing is your thing, the Store also sells fishing equipment to go along with the boat rentals because there are several species of Trout on the lake.

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The water’s pretty cold but the water-tubing is worth it!

(Side note: The old owner of the Store used to call me sarcastically “captain” cause I flipped our family’s Boston Whaler boat upside down on my high school graduation trip to the Lake.)

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Cruising around in a rented Pontoon Boat

Even off the water, there’s so much to do. At the Store itself, they have ping pong and a volleyball court. There’s also a very nice back porch with great views over the lake. A short walk away you’ll find an adorably quaint wooden chapel, called St Francis of the Mountains, and just past it, there’s a big waterfall, Glen Alpine Falls. That’s a must see if you’re stopping by for only a short period of time.

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Glen Alpine Falls

That area is also right where the Volunteer Fire Department is based. They host regular movie nights on the summer weekends in the Firehouse. (Details are posted at the bulletin board at The Store every year.)

We should also give those a quick shoutout those amazing volunteers for their work. There has been a host of very bad forest fires they’ve had to fight recently, including the 2007 Angora Forest Fire which destroyed hundreds of homes near South Lake Tahoe. Miraculously, the volunteers were able to stop the fire right as it was about to pass over the ridge, into the path of the homes on Fallen Leaf Lake. 

You can see evidence of that from one Angora Ridge – another must-see attraction around the lake. Up at the top, a short drive from The Store, you’ll find a ranger station with fantastic views of both Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe. From there, you can also see the destruction that the Angora Fire wrought upon South Lake Tahoe – there’s a large section of forest which is just finally starting to grow again 10 years later.

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Angora Lookout and the burnt trees behind it, circa 2009

Further up Angora Ridge, you’ll find the parking lot for the tiny but gorgeous Upper and Lower Angora Lakes, which are a fun day trip. The Angora Lakes are a half mile walk or so from the parking lot. If you want to hike there, instead of drive, there is a very beautiful (though steep) 1 mile hike that leaves from the Fallen Leaf Lake Chapel and goes straight to Angora.

The upper Angora lake also has a nice store with ice cream, and paddle boats and kayaks for rental. There’s also a 20 foot cliff jump on the far edge of the lake that’s very exhilarating.

If you’re up to it there’s also a 60 foot cliff jump on the lake too. It’s no joke – you have to wear shoes when you jump off it, and I know that multiple people have died doing it. So I’ve stayed away, mostly because my parents would murder me if they ever saw me walk up there or found out that I did, but there’s always someone doing it. 

I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not a professional though. You can get an even better thrill at higher heights by climbing Mount Tallac.

Yes, Mt. Tallac is an incredible hike! It’s part of Desolation Wilderness (don’t be scared by the name!), a huge protected area to the Southwest of Fallen Leaf Lake. It’s the huge mountain on the West side of the lake that you’ve seen in a bunch of these photos, one of the biggest on the south side of Tahoe. It’s also one of my favorite hikes ever. Actually my favorite hike ever.

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There are three ways up the mountain – front, middle, and back, all of which have a roughly 3,000 foot elevation gain. The front trail is the shortest, but steepest. It leaves from Stanford Camp, the far end after the parking lot, and is about 2-3 miles to the top (one way). The middle trail is hidden and not kept up by the forest service, but is one of my favorites (about 3-4 miles one way). It leaves from a secret trailhead, surrounded by ducks (aka stacks of rocks), from the road past the parking lot at Grass Lake (which can be found by turning right after the Fallen Leaf Fire Department). It goes straight up the side of Cathedral Ridge, through shale (which looks like Mt Doom), up into Lake Gilmore, and up to the peak from there. I’d recommend a map and compass if you try it. The longest, and least steep trail, is the Glen Alpine Springs trail, which also leaves from Grass Lake, and goes past the Glen Alpine Springs. It winds its way up slowly, over 4-5 or so miles (one way), and meets up with the middle trail at Lake Gilmore, before going up to the peak. All three trails are great, personally I prefer going up the middle trail, and down the short but steep front trail. 

Short is a very relative term…

Yeah so this is definitely a day hike and not for the completely out of shape. The last time we did this hike was the time we went up last 4th of July, when we brought our friends Tomi, Jackson, and Sam to the lake.

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We went up the middle trail and came down the front, which took us about 4-5 hours with a few pitstops along the way. Any way you go, there are lots of great stops for snacks, resting, and in our case, dancing. There are small lakes, flower-filled meadows, and large forests.

But if you don’t take any breaks, you can do the whole thing very, very quickly. No one in my family believes me but my friend Gabe and I went up and down the front in 2 hours in middle school.

(I only barely believe him…)

It’s true!

Sure… 😉

But anyway, no matter how fast you get there, getting to the top of Tallac is an amazing experience. It was mine and Tomi’s first long, strenuous hike in a while so we were unbelievably exhausted and proud when we finally collapsed at the top.

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Dara and Tomi at the top

And after those house of blood, sweat, and even some tears, seeing that view made the entire trip up worth it. From the top of the peak you have a clear view of all of Fallen Leaf Lake, all of Lake Tahoe, and even the wilderness and far-off cities beyond.

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And if you’re even more adventurous, many of the small lakes in Desolation Wilderness behind Mt. Tallac have their own campgrounds, and there are many more areas to see. There’s the beautiful lakes Aloha & Gilmore, and for all the mountain climbers out there, a much more strenuous, multi-day, climbing skills necessary mountain called called Pyramid Peak

But Tallac is definitely the best choice for the average outdoorsy vacationer. Just make sure to grab some ice cream from the Store afterwards!

That’s one of our family traditions: we always get root bear floats and/or milkshakes at The Store after hiking Mt. Tallac. It’s the best way to cool down.

And the perfect way to end the day at Fallen Leaf Lake!

We hope to see you there sometime!

COST REPORT: $$-$$$*

*The cost of this trip is incredibly variable, depending on how many people you go with, where you’re staying, and what you plan on doing while you’re there. In our case, housing and food are $0, hiking costs $0, and we already have a boat. But for visitors, those will be your main/only costs while there. I’d recommend going with a bunch of friends and allocating at least:

  • $20-$50/night per person for housing
  • $15/day for food (bring groceries and cook!)
  • $20-$50/day for on-the-water activities

If you ever make the trip, let us know how much you spend so we can update our actuals!

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