An Insider's Guide to Lake Tahoe Trail Running

A runner traverses the ridge above Tahoe's Marlette Lake.
A runner traverses the ridge above Tahoe's Marlette Lake. Jon Roig
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On a calm, sunny day dominated by blue sky without a trace of clouds, the faint sound of footsteps can be heard running on top of pine needle duff through wooded forest of Jeffrey pine and white fir. The scent of butterscotch and vanilla from the pine bark fills the air, while vibrant wildflowers shoot toward the sky in brilliant shades of orange, purple, and golden yellow. A small stream skirts across the trail, flowing with crystal clear water. Rather than some fairytale scene, this picture of paradise is a typical daily trail run in Lake Tahoe.

Indeed, some of the most scenic trails in the country abound among the mountain slopes and forests of Lake Tahoe, beckoning trail runners to head for the hills. With so many options, the hardest part is choosing where to go. Here’s a handy guide to some of the best Lake Tahoe trail running, plus resources for groups, popular trail races, and organizations to get you started on the right foot.

Rubicon Trail to Emerald Point

Views of Emerald Bay make this route especially breathtaking.
Views of Emerald Bay make this route especially breathtaking. Michael Arrighi

This breathtaking 8-mile out-and-back trail run hugs the shoreline of Lake Tahoe’s iconic, glacially sculpted Emerald Bay, traversing through old growth forest with sparkling turquoise water almost always in view. Descending from the Vikingsholm parking lot, the trail drops steeply on a paved road for the first mile before turning into a single-track soft dirt trail occasionally studded by granite rocks. Ultimately this gem of a trail wraps around Emerald Point and turns northward along the shores of Lake Tahoe before culminating at D.L. Bliss State Park.

This run is best done earlier in the day, before crowds flock to Emerald Bay making parking more difficult to find. Most visitors stick close to the trailhead though, so finding solitude on the trail shouldn’t prove difficult.

Tahoe Rim Trail: Tahoe City to Brockway Summit

Wide panoramic views are a common theme when running the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Wide panoramic views are a common theme when running the Tahoe Rim Trail. Aaron Hussmann

This meandering 20.2-mile point to point run on the Tahoe Rim Trail offers ample opportunity for introductory hill climbing workouts by following the undulating volcanic ridgeline above Lake Tahoe’s northwest shore. Beginning near the Tahoe City fire station, the trail climbs north for approximately four miles, before gaining the ridgeline after 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Once on top of the ridge, runners are greeted by occasional panoramic vistas of Lake Tahoe between stretches weaving through the forest and dense manzanita. Watson Lake offers an oasis-like resting point 11 miles into the run before the trail slowly descends through lush alpine meadow landscapes to Brockway Summit.

Tahoe Rim Trail: Kingsbury Summit to Spooner Summit

This 12.2-mile point to point run along the Tahoe Rim Trail follows Tahoe’s southeast shore, winding through dense forest in and out of dozens of small canyons with seasonal spring streams before climbing to an open ridgeline with stunning views of big blue. Atop this ridge sits a beautifully constructed vista known simply as “The Bench” that offers a worthwhile opportunity to rest the legs and take in the view.

Then, it's onto a somewhat knee-grinding descent down to Spooner Summit. Begin this run from the Kingsbury North trailhead on North Benjamin Drive just outside of South Lake Tahoe and be sure to bring plenty of water as this can often be a hot, sun-exposed run.

Marlette Lake

Marlette Lake as seen from the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Marlette Lake as seen from the Tahoe Rim Trail. Aaron Hussmann

The 10-mile out and back run to Marlette Lake from Spooner Lake is easily one of the most colorful and scenic trail runs during fall in Tahoe. This moderately challenging run climbs 1,000 feet gradually and continuously to Marlette Lake before finally plunging to the rocky, aspen-lined shoreline of this hidden lake in Tahoe’s eastern mountains. Runners can opt for the wide service road frequented by mountain bikers for steeper climbs, or the more fluid trail designed for foot-traffic only that traverses the shaded hillside above the service road.

Put Your Feet to the Test

For those looking to bring their trail running to the next level, or even runners just looking for an excuse to train and have a good time with other runners, there are multiple opportunities to join races around the Tahoe area. From 5K fun runs to 50k endurance challenges, the Tahoe Trail Running Series is hosting eleven races between June and September for all ages and abilities at scenic locations around the basin.

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