A Sailing, Kayaking, and Paddling Guide to Lake Tahoe

Posted by Rhea Cortado on

Hugged by snow-dusted mountains and giant pine trees, Lake Tahoe’s sapphire-hued waters have been luring city escapers from San Francisco since the gold rush era. Freshwater enthusiast and blogger Leslie Carvitto’s family is amongst the many generations that have made Lake Tahoe their summertime tradition. It was here that Leslie's dad and grandparents passed down a love for vast natural pools and the many ways to play in them.

How Leslie slides and glides across the water continues to evolve with the times—her mom introduced her to water skiing as a kid, now Leslie loves wakeboarding—but the reasons they return year after year never wavers. Leslie shares more about why her family made Lake Tahoe their annual haven and her advice for travelers on the multitude of watercrafts to enjoy Sierra Nevada's most pristine freshwater lake.

Words by Leslie Carvitto

In the summer of 1988, at just 9 months young, I made my inaugural trip to Lake Tahoe. The place had become my family’s seasonal sanctuary since 1970. Previous to discovering this gem of a location, their lake of choice was Clear Lake, a freshwater lake north of San Francisco. They didn’t have a boat at that time, but enjoyed catching rides with friends and learning various watersports.

Eventually, they decided it was time to invest in a boat of their own. My father, uncle, grandfather and great uncle all pitched in to purchase a 17-foot long motorboat for $900. Around the same time, they began searching for a more pristine vacation destination. Ironically, Clear Lake wasn’t actually clear and algae bloom was turning it greener every year. They set their eyes on Tahoe, the crystal clear lake nicknamed, “The Jewel of the Sierras.” Equipped with a new map and a new boat, the family piled into their 1968 station wagon and began the 6-hour road trip to the largest alpine lake in the country.

Upon arrival, the unobstructed lake views, soft sand beaches and unreal water clarity won both my grandparents and their kids over. They spent the week waterskiing, inner tubing, swimming, and sun worshipping at 6,000 feet. After the vacation ended, one thing was certain, they were absolutely returning next year.

It’s been 48 years since that first visit, and despite my grandparents passing, we continue to gather each year, our family expanding with marriages and children. Miraculously, it has worked out that every summer, we arrive from different cities and spend a week focusing on making memories.

I remember when I was really young, I would practice swimming until my lips were purple and my teeth were chattering audibly. Regardless of how cold the water was, I could spend hours diving into the clear depths and collecting anything from rocks to crawdads.

I look back and think about when my sisters and I would put out bear booby traps, hoping for a glimpse of the black bears we knew were hiding in the forests near our house. I recall the nights we would sit out on the deck after dark and watch thunder and lightning storms roll in.  And I still remember the confusion I felt the first time someone outside the family (my sister’s boyfriend who is now her husband) was invited to our cherished vacation home. I felt fiercely protective of our space and time together. Spoiler alert: I got over it.  

The presence of my tribe and the surreal beauty make me feel simultaneously grounded and inspired. This past summer, that inspiration propelled us to try new water activities. Instead of flying to California, my husband and I decided to road trip, so we brought along fold up kayaks. Then, my mom confided that she really wanted to try stand-up paddling this year.  All of a sudden, we had new ways to get out on the water, and maybe even a few new traditions to add to our annual family vacation. 

Kayaking: The lake offers more than 72 miles of shoreline with 20 public launch/landing sites for kayaking. The Lake Tahoe Water Trail breaks down the entire lake into 7 segments, each about 10 miles long. Decide on a route, and find the nearest adventure company to rent equipment from. If you’re a beginner kayaker, I suggest looking into a tour with a professional guide. The added benefit of a guide is having the ecology, geology, and natural and human history explained to you along the way. Tours range anywhere from $50-100 per person and cover popular destinations including D.L Bliss State Park, Carnelian Bay, and Cave Rock.

Stand Up Paddling: Stand up paddling is a great way to gain a unique perspective of the lake and its surrounding mountains. Pack a lunch, snorkeling gear and make a day out of cruising on crystal clear water. Sand Harbor on the East shore offers easy access to the water (good news since you’ll be carrying a huge heavy board), and a quick paddle brings you to rocky coves and soft sand to explore.  If you’re renting, I suggest paying the extra money to keep the board overnight. There is nothing like getting on the water for a sunrise paddle. Other well-known spots for SUP include Kings Beach, Camp Richardson and Emerald Bay.

Wakeboarding: No boat or board? No problem. There are a number of companies around the lake that rent boats, provide personal lessons, or will simply tow you around the lake. The best time for wakeboarding is early in the morning before the wind picks up and the lake gets busy with boaters. On a perfect morning, the water is like glass and you’ll be one of the only people out there. Most rental companies operate out of South or North shore. Pro Tip: Wake surfing has gotten increasingly popular on the lake. Most companies have the option for lessons or boards. If you have the chance, give it a try!

Sailing: When the wind picks up in the afternoon, the lake becomes rough for motorboats and the lake clears out. But what’s bad for motorboats is perfect for a sailboat!  I sailed for the first time this year with Tahoe Sailing Charters, based in Tahoe City. The company offers 3 sails a day and it’s the perfect way to relax and enjoy time on the water. The only choice you’ll have to make while on board is the beverage you'd like to sip, and whether or not you want to jump off the dock upon return.

Follow along with Leslie's travels on Instagram @lcarvitto and her blog Forever Stoked

KEEP EXPLORING OUTDOORS


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1 comment


  • Such a great post! Love Tahoe and all that it has to offer ☀️?

    Erin Cogswell on

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