Kayaking Lake Tahoe: ALL THE WAY AROUND!

Kayaking Lake Tahoe Featured Image

In what has turned into something of an annual tradition, I took a week off this summer to celebrate my best friend’s 29th birthday. We quickly became friends when I moved to Truckee in 1998 (third-grade homies) and our passion for being outdoors on our birthdays has led to some epic expeditions over the years. 

For the 2019 edition of the Jabronie Joe birthday trip, we decided to take five days and paddle the entire circumference of Lake Tahoe. Here’s the full trip report from our 2019 Kayaking Lake Tahoe circumnavigation trip, but first, who doesn’t love a video review!

Kayaking Lake Tahoe: ALL THE WAY AROUND!


Day 1: Lake Forest to Meeks Bay

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - day one lake forest to meeks bay
PC Tucker Ballister

Distance Covered: ~13 miles

We started paddling around 8:30 am on our first morning. It took some time to get the boats loaded down with all of our gear and supplies for five days on the water, minus the extra beer we planned to swoop up in South Lake. Even after we were on the water, the going was slow as we got used to the narrow Necky boats we were borrowing for the trip.  

(Necky is an older brand that has since been absorbed by Old Town Canoes and Kayaks).

Nevertheless, we enjoyed ideal cloud coverage as the sun rose higher over the Carson Range to the east. It was nice not to be baking in the sun immediately. We took our first pit stop at Commons Beach after about an hour of paddling. 

Stops every hour or so quickly became commonplace, if for no other reason than to relieve our bladders. But it also gave us a great opportunity to stretch out. 

Roughly an hour after pushing off from Commons Beach, the wind picked up. To this point, we had been paddling without our retractable rudders. As the winds made it more difficult to keep our boats pointed in the desired direction, it was time to go “Skeg down!” (this became a battle cry/calling card of the trip). 

It was an immediate game-changer, but my adventure buddy, Joe, still hadn’t given his a try. Despite his best efforts, he was being pushed further and further out towards the center of the lake. Over the wind I shouted, “Skeg down!”

He probably had no idea what I meant at this point, if he could even hear me. But shortly thereafter I saw him drop his skeg and look back to give me a thumbs up. Rain soon followed the increased winds and had to make landfall to adjust to the conditions. 

Out came the skirts, paddle gloves, and rain jackets. We pulled our kayaks under the protection of a large pine on the shoreline and waterproofed ourselves as we contemplated the options. Everything we could see told us that the storm wouldn’t persist for a long time, so we climbed back into our kayaks for another push. 

Fortunately, the squall blew through quickly and we needed to shed rain jackets and skirts almost as quickly as the need for them arose. It’s not so easy, however, to make wholesale wardrobe changes from the cockpit of a kayak. 

So we hit shore again near Obexer’s on the lake’s west shore. We unloaded a few early items of trash here and enjoyed a brief, although somewhat one-sided, conversation with a local flock of geese on the beach. 

Then it was back on the water in full sunlight with brilliant views into the crystal clear waters below our kayaks. The winds died and our progress once again became smooth and near-effortless. 

We hit our beach destination in Meeks Bay in the early afternoon, with plenty of time to spare. Although this was by design, I remember feeling a little anxious once the day’s paddling was behind us. I contemplated whether we should be taking advantage of the great weather to make more progress. 

I wondered if we had planned enough relaxation time into our itinerary. And then I remembered that our itinerary was, in many ways, built for relaxation. I took my booties off and sunk my toes into the warm sand. 

Our campsite for the night was reserved (check out Meeks Bay Campground!). We had packed plenty of food. Any gear that had gotten wet during the day was laid out to dry in the afternoon sun. It was time for a swim to cool off. 

And it was time to embrace that, in addition to a physical adventure, this trip was also our mid-summer vacation! 

Day 2: Meeks Bay to Emerald Bay

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - day two meeks bay to emerald bay
PC Tucker Ballister

Distance Covered: ~7 miles

It might as well have been a chill day! We awoke bright and early, enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and got on the water a little after 8 am. With only seven miles to cover today, we took our pace nice and easy. 

By mid-morning we were posted up on a prime piece of real estate at D.L. Bliss State Park and doing our best to persuade a local boat owner to take us for a tow on one of the many toys he had onboard. Alas, our efforts of seduction fell short and we were left to swim, journal, and read on the beach. 

We were able to stay in our spot for several hours before we finally felt the need to move on. With only a few more miles to cover, we enjoyed the scenery along one of the rockiest sections of Lake Tahoe’s western shore. Only a few folks were hiking along the nearby Rubicon Trail, and unfortunately we didn’t get to see any cliff jumpers that day. 

We made landfall in Emerald Bay by early afternoon, which meant no rush to set up camp. If you’re looking for an easy place to make a reservation for an overnight stay in Emerald Bay, check out the Boat-in Campground. If that spot is full, you can also check out Eagle Point Campground, although this one requires a bit longer walk from the shore to your campsite. 

Day 3: Emerald Bay to Zephyr Cove

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - day three emerald bay to zephyr cove
PC Tucker Ballister

Distance Covered: ~18 miles

We woke up early again on Day Three, as our circadian rhythms were quickly readjusting to the rise and fall of the sun. We decided to start the day by paddling the entire circumference of the bay before we headed back out into the main lake.

The water was absolute glass that morning, with amazing reflections of Fannette Island (Tahoe’s only island!) and the surrounding mountains. We scoped out the old dock that was once part of a resort property on the bay’s north shore before heading back into “open water.” 

We could not have asked for better weather throughout the morning, as our progress was smooth and winds were minimal, if present at all. After a few stops near Camp Richardson and just east of the inlet of the Upper Truckee River, we pulled in for lunch and a re-supply at Riva Grill in South Lake. 

I pulled my kayak partly onto the beach before walking back to the stern to bring up the skeg. About halfway up, I encountered a little resistance, pushed a little harder, and heard a crack. That’s all it took. Once I hauled my boat all the way up and out of the way of others, I realized the damage I had done.

Somehow, in a great stroke of luck, I was able to recover two out of the three small screws that had fallen out when the plastic piece on one side of the skeg itself had broken. They were all in the sand, so this was a classic needle in a haystack situation and, although the third screw was lost, two was definitely better than one, or none. 

With the aid of mu multi-tool and another screwdriver I borrowed from the local kayak rental vendor, I was able to repair the part to a point where I was confident it would hold for the remainder of the trip. I just needed to be extra careful! 

To relieve my stress over this broken part, we enjoyed a big lunch at Riva Grill and stocked up with a 12-pack of Pacifico cans. Admittedly, I cracked one open as soon as we were back on the water. 

The rest of the afternoon progressed smoothly, although the winds did kick up as we approached our final destination in Zephyr Cove. Before that, we were able to enjoy a long afternoon break at the south end of Nevada Beach, where swims and naps were in order. 

For this leg of the trip, consider making a reservation at Nevada Beach Campground, although that will cut your mileage a bit short for the day. Other options include Round Hill Pines Beach Resort and Zephyr Cove Resort and Campground

Day 4: Zephyr Cove to Whale Beach

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - day four zephyr cove to whale beach
PC Tucker Ballister

Distance Covered: ~12 miles

Mornings on Tahoe’s east shore are a bit colder and a bit of a tease. Even once you can see the sun hitting the mountains and the beaches on the west shore, you’ll still need to wait another hour or so for the sun’s rays to warm you, your kayak, and the water beneath you. 

Nevertheless, our late July timing made for exceedingly warm nights, and this one was no exception, although we did experience a brief rainfall in the early hours of the morning. Paddling north from Zephyr Cove, our first major landmark was Cave Rock. 

From my understanding, this rock held important significance for the native Washoe tribe. As we paddled past, I could imagine young Washoe boys and girls being tested to jump from the rock’s dizzying heights into the deep blue waters below. 

We greeted a few clear-bottom kayakers heading back from a sunrise tour from Cave Rock State Park as we continued our way north. Much of this next section of Tahoe’s shoreline is in private ownership, so we had to be mindful to pick beaches below houses that didn’t look occupied for our brief bathroom stops. 

Somewhere around mid-afternoon, we had made our way all the way past Glenbrook Bay, around Deadman Point, and onto the beach at Skunk Harbor. I could see why it came to be known as Deadman Point, as the lake’s waters were so dark blue so close to the shore at that point, that I could imagine it dropping off to depths over 1,000 feet incredibly quickly. 

By the time we hit Skunk Harbor, the day had warmed up considerably. We enjoyed long swims through the large granite boulders underwater (there’s some great GoPro footage out there somewhere!), and explored the history of the long-abandoned structures that had been built in the harbor in the 1920s. 

It was difficult to climb back into our kayaks after such a splendid and relaxing afternoon, but we knew that putting a few more hours behind us today would only help for the next day. Coincidentally, our final day was lining up to be the biggest one yet. Wait a minute, who planned this itinerary again?!

Day 5: Whale Beach to Lake Forest

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - day five whale beach to lake forest
PC Tucker Ballister

Distance Covered: ~20 miles

Whoa! A monster of a final day started extra early and we were able to hit the shores of Sand Harbor State Park before another soul has set up an EZ-Up or beach umbrella for the day. Sand Harbor is typically packed to capacity during this time of year, so it was a real treat to have the beach all to ourselves for a few moments of morning solitude. 

Off of Sand Point, we pointed the noses of our kayaks almost due west towards Stateline Point. Crystal Bay was the only bay on Lake Tahoe that we cut across without following the shoreline. Although there’s some excellent real estate viewing from the water off of Incline Village, we knew that saving a couple miles would help us make it through this big day. 

It can be a little trippy to be paddling in deep water for a couple hours in just a kayak. You’ll certainly need to get creative with your solutions for relieving your bladder during sections like this, especially if you’re traveling in a closed-deck, sit-inside kayak. 

We reached SOE beach mid-morning for second-breakfast and a nice chat with a group of older ladies on vacation who were astounded by the number of folks who were also visiting during that time. Then it was on to our next stop at North Tahoe Beach, where Jabronie Joe popped across the street for beers and chicken wings for lunch.

In the early afternoon, as we were passing through Carnelian Bay and scoping out the scene at Garwoods, we noticed a friend of ours at a house just down the beach from the restaurant. Jabronie Joe hailed him from the water using his impressive vocal bravado and we soon found ourselves enjoying more beers onshore as a birthday celebration was being prepared. 

For a brief moment, I know it passed through both of our heads to call the paddle off there, join the party for the evening, and either finish the paddle the next day or call for a ride in the morning. But our egos got the best of us. We wanted to finish strong. We wanted this 20-mile day! 

And, sure enough, we got it. Once we rounded Dollar Point, our kayaks essentially paddled themselves home from there. We were, once again, blessed with exceptional weather and very little wind on this day, which would have made a 20-mile day darn near impossible. 

Of Lake Tahoe’s 72 miles of shoreline, I’m confident we paddling right along about 97 percent, with no intended disrespect to our neighbors in Incline Village. And that’s it for our trip report, but let’s get into a few things we learned about essential gear, safety tips, recommended resources, and route choice for kayaking Lake Tahoe, all the way around!

Essential Gear For Kayaking Lake Tahoe

While you’ll need the obvious gear (i.e. kayak, paddle, etc.) to complete a kayak trip around Lake Tahoe, there are several items that provided exceptional value on my personal trip! 

Spray Skirt

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - spray skirt

I didn’t anticipate needing them, but damn was I glad we had ’em! They came in handy before noon on day one and again on several occasions throughout the trip.

We were working with something like these suspender-style spray skirts, but I love the work of the fine folks at Northwest River Supplies, so be sure to check out NRS Spray Skirts too!


Rain Jacket

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - rain jacket

As a long-time Truckee resident, I’m sometimes lulled into complacency by the predictability of this area’s summer weather patterns. I’ve certainly left a rain jacket at home on many backpacking trips.

But this trip reminded me that I should never take the weather for granted, even here. As you probably know by now, I wound up having to pull out my rain jacket on day one!


Multi-Tool

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - multi tool

While I mostly used my multi-tool on this trip in camp and as a cooking utensil, it really came in handy in an emergency situation. About halfway through our paddle, my kayak suffered minor rudder damage.

But because I had a multi-tool on hand (and was able to borrow another tool from a nearby kayak rental vendor), I was able to perform a temporary fix and keep the trip rolling!


Paddle Gloves

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - paddle gloves

Okay, I get it if you think they look silly. I actually surprised my buddy with a pair of these right before we started paddling and I know he was a bit skeptical at first. But, I swear to you, it took less than a day for him to bust them out and try them on.

You might not think about it, but paddling for the better part of a day can leave your hands feeling pretty sensitive. Even though we really didn’t need them for the cold, these paddle gloves were excellent for keeping our hands comfortable on the trip. 


Larq Water Bottle

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - larq water bottle

Obviously you need a water bottle on any sort of multi-day trip, right?! But the Larq isn’t just any water bottle! It features a UV-C LED light built right into the cap. Essentially, that means you can fill it up, hit the button on top, and after about a three-minute cycle, you’ll have UV-purified water inside. 

While I wouldn’t recommend this type of bottle for just any trip, Lake Tahoe’s water is so clean and clear already, that it was awesome to just scoop water up off the side of my kayak, push the button, and have clean water in three minutes. It allowed me to keep purifying water on-the-go so I didn’t have to stop and bother with pumping or gravity-feeding for clean drinking water. 


Safety Tips for Kayaking Lake Tahoe

File A Float Plan

Ever see that movie 127 Hours starring James Franco? Well, even if you haven’t, that guy’s main mistake (at least in my eyes) was failing to notify anyone of where he was going and when he was expecting to be back. Take the time to create and “file” a float plan for your Lake Tahoe paddle trip. 

Filing a float plan can be as simple as sending a text to a trusted loved one. That text should include daily itinerary, anticipated departure and return times, number of people in your party, the color of your kayaks, and any other pertinent information. 

Check Wind and Weather Often

Changing winds are the most likely force to derail your attempt to kayak all the way around Lake Tahoe. There are plenty of great resources for gathering weather information, and I mention a few later on in A Brief Extra Note on Route Choice. 

Even if you don’t have the best technology on hand to stay up-to-date on changing wind and weather patterns, you can do yourself a solid by remaining close to shore and planning most of your paddling for the first half of the day. Set yourself up for success to be able to get off the water quickly if a storm blows in!

Paddle With A Partner

Life’s better with company, right?! I always like to adventure outside with others, whether I’m paddling, hiking, backpacking, or anything else. If you’re using a closed-deck kayak for your trip around Lake Tahoe, you’ll certainly be glad to have a partner nearby if you happen to capsize in deep water!

Bring (And Wear!) PFDs

Ok, so we’re a little bit guilty of not always obeying this rule. I’m sure you noticed from the photos above that we weren’t always in PFDs throughout our kayak. I wore mine, but I didn’t always have it zipped up. But my training as a lifeguard and Wilderness First Responder tells me that I must advocate for a safe approach, above all else. 

Lake Tahoe is full of cold water! Cold water shock is nothing to joke about and it’s something that, as guides on the lake, we deal with more often than we’d care to admit.

Even the best swimmers can become physically and mentally incapacitated by unexpected submersion in cold water. If this happens to you, you’ll be damn glad you wore your PFD to keep you buoyant as you slow your breath and bring your body and mind back under your control. 

Make Yourself Visible!

As you noticed, our kayaks for this trip were pretty bright. Lake Tahoe is an extremely popular destination (normally!), especially during the summer months. That means a lot of motorized boat traffic in addition to the folks enjoying their time on paddleboards, kayaks, inner tubes, and all sorts of floating devices. 

A bright kayak is a great choice for increasing your visibility on the water. If you don’t have a bright kayak, get a bright PFD! It’s also helpful to keep an emergency whistle attached to your PFD so that you can alert boaters that might not see you. Although I don’t recommend paddling on Tahoe in the dark (whether at before twilight or after sunset), those that choose to do so should always carry a headlamp or install a kayak light on their boat. 

An Essential Resource for Kayaking Lake Tahoe!

While I could recommend a fancy GPS or VHF radio, the resource that I really used the most on this paddle trip was a good, old fashioned map. This map, however, was waterproof and provided us with exact point-to-point mileage for each day. If you’re going to plan this trip for yourself, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Lake Tahoe Water Trail Map and Access Guide

A Brief Extra Note About Route Choice

Kayaking Lake Tahoe - route choice

If you pull up Lake Tahoe on Google Maps in a separate tab while you still have this article open, you’ll notice that we traveled counter-clockwise around the lake.

Having done this trip once before in the opposite direction and knowing what I know now, I rationalized that the winds would be most favorable (at least during the summer months) for paddlers traveling in a counter-clockwise direction. 

My rationalization was confirmed throughout the trip. We experienced very little wind resistance as we made our way down the west shore, which can be more protected from winds in many locations.

On the east shore of the lake, the winds that we did experience generally came from a southwesterly direction, which meant they were hitting our backs or, at the very worst, our left shoulders as we paddle north. 

It’s worth noting, as well, that we typically put in the majority of our mileage between the hours of 7 am and 1 pm. Afternoon winds are common on Lake Tahoe, which gives you added motivation to get up and enjoy the calm, serene mornings. For your research purposes, here’s where you can find real-time wind and weather conditions on the lake!

For what it’s worth, I also highly recommend the Ventusky weather app. This is my go-to for real-time weather and wind updates as a professional guide on Lake Tahoe!


Wanna Experience It For Yourself?

During the summers, I work closely with a local guide company here in the Tahoe region. Most of the guests I work with through Tahoe Adventure Company are interested in day trips, but we have the kayaks and gear for multi-day excursions as well. 

If you’re interested in a multi-day kayaking trip on Lake Tahoe, send an email to tucker@thebackpackguide.com and we can start the planning process! 

About The Backpack Guide

hiking the ruby mountains - roads end trailhead
The Backpack Guide (Tuck) at left and Jabronie Joe on right @ Road’s End Trailhead

While I spend a lot of my time guiding others on outdoor adventures (mostly in the Tahoe region), this site is my side-hustle/passion project/hope for independent, self-employed income.

It is my dream to lead multi-day outdoor excursions that focus on detoxing from our digital worlds and integrating our minds, bodies, and spirits with nature. 

To that end, I started this website to share my past experiences in the outdoors and to offer knowledgeable insights on how to get out more and go farther while staying safe and well-prepared.

It also gives me a great excuse to continuously research the latest and greatest products in the outdoor industry and it is my pleasure to bring you my honest reviews of those products. 

Side Note

After you’ve read about this awesome trip, please check out the products on my Outdoor Gear page. Also, my Backpack Reviews include brands like Kelty, REI, Osprey, and more.

For more on my adventures (as well as general hiking know-how) check out my Tips and Trails. Finally, my YouTube Channel is full of informative video content if you’re not the most avid fan of reading!

I do receive a commission on purchases made through the affiliate links on this website and I use those earnings to purchase more products and free up more time so that I can keep producing useful content for you! 

Comments

  1. Philebur

    Wow it’s such a wonderful adventure. It’s very obvious you had a great time and experience on that trip. Trip like this calls for so much fun and adventure. Although I’m not a great fan of paddling but I think this one is really cool. It’s really nice of you to share your experience and I enjoyed reading it.

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Thanks Philebur! 

      Here’s hoping we can responsibly plan more trips like this for later this year!

  2. Meg

    Great adventure you had!  I couldn’t stop just at this trip ,Once discovered your website I wanted to see if you have other trips and now I’m just jealous.  it is amazing . I Like that you covered every aspect and even if a newby, like me , decides to go on a trip like this ,  will find great help in your article . Keep up with the good work!

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hi Meg! 

      I’m going to be focusing on adding more trip reports to my site over the next several months, so stay tuned! I’m also in conversations with several writers interested in sharing their stories, so hopefully we’ll be able to offer a wider breadth of personal trip experiences! 

  3. Nathaniel

    Wow! That was some adventure you guys were on! Twenty miles around Lake Tahoe.  This reminds me of a trip I took with a buddy of mine on bicycles but that was an all day trip.  It’s great to be adventurous and just have some fun.  If I’m in the area during the season, I’ll email you guys for some adventure!

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hey Nathaniel! 

      It was actually a total of 70 miles combined across the five days! I think we cut off just a couple of miles with our “shortcut” across Crystal Bay on the final day. Here’s hoping that we can responsibly plan and execute more trips like this later in 2020! 

  4. Riley

    I really love kayaking a lot. I have been a couple of kayaking adventures before. I believe that they bring me the kind of thrill that I love and so I get myself involved in it a couple of times. I feel like it is going to be a lot of fun going on this journey. I hope we can finish this lockdown soon so I can go. Tha k you for adding the gears that I really need to pick up. Will out that in mind as well. Thanks!

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hey Riley! 

      I’m glad you got something out of this article. I, too, am hopeful that we’ll be able to get back to outdoor adventures with friends soon, but I want to make sure we’re being as responsible as possible when we do! 

  5. Jeff

    I love outdoor adventure and I am so happy about this article because it gives me ideas on where to go, what to carry, what to expect and what to do next during my vacation. Thanks also for highlighting the safety tips as many people usually get excited and forget the most important part is to be safe. I will look into your youtube channel and I would also like to share this on my social media as many of my friends love outdoor activities and I am pretty sure they will love this.

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hi Jeff! 

      Certainly feel free to share this on your social media and don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re planning a trip like this and have any questions, once we can get back to recreating responsibly!

  6. Benson

    Hello Tucker, going on an adventure is one of the rituals I don’t miss during my free period and kayaking is something I love doing with my friends. Seeing these pictures of you makes me kind of jealous and also gives me the push to want to go out really soon. I actually notice two things that I have not been really going out with and that’s the multi tool and a water proof map. I would definitely add them to my gears before my next adventure. Cheers 

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hi Benson! 

      I’m glad you recognized a couple of items that you’ll be adding to your toolkit. If you have any questions about logistics for a trip like this in the future, please don’t hesitate to reach out! 

  7. David nelson

    Hello there,i must say you have done a great job on getting this very nice article as it very pack and after now i would get it bookmarked as i have to get all those experiences first hand.

    I am a big lover of kayaking and i have also tool to a professional level but only with my local state….i have been on many kayaking camp trips but one place that i an yet to visit is lake tahoe i have heard a lot about it but time hasnt been my friend…i am a bit rusty but i would definately plan a trip.

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hey there David! 

      I appreciate your compliments on this article. I look forward to hearing about your next trips when you have time and we can responsibly begin traveling and recreating more actively again! 

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