There's nothing like a hike with a scenic "payoff," at the top, and there are few better payoff trails than those above Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe's southwestern shore.
We stopped at the U.S. Forest Service visitor center just a few miles north of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 89 and inquired about hikes with decent access and potential parking - a tall order during summer.
The ranger quickly pinpointed a half-dozen hikes right up Highway 89 and we had a hard time choosing among them. Two magic words - "parking area" - seemed to dilute his warning about the strenuous climb up the Bayview Trail, which starts at the rear of the Bayview Campground and ascends to Granite Lake (eventually connecting to the Eagle Falls Trail and several highland lakes). Easy to find, it's located right across the road from the Inspiration Point parking area and vista off the highway that overlooks Emerald Bay.
Inspiration Point is a classy view, but we were told the Bayview Trail vista was world class. We'd need permits, because we'd have to cross the boundary into the Desolation Wilderness. The portion of the Bayview Trail we carved out is about a one-mile hike, each way, but it's a tough mile with a 1,000-foot elevation change.
Nonetheless, we chose to do part of the Bayview. We found a parking spot in an area at the back of the Bayview Campground, right by the trailhead. Within a few hundred yards there was a fork: to the left was a three-quarter-mile basically flat hike to Cascade Lake and Cascade Falls; to the right was the Bayview. Up we went.
The first quarter-mile is heavily wooded and thick with pine forest perfume. But the stingy stands of ponderosa and lodgepole afforded no Emerald Bay panoramas until near the half-mile mark. The constant climb requires water and rest stops, but the granite outcroppings along the switchbacks are shady and accommodating.
At about the three-quarter-mile mark we felt it in our legs and heart-thumping chests. But by then the forest had opened like a curtain and exposed the glistening, horseshoe-shaped bay, Fannette Island and all manner of Lilliputian activities on boats and beaches below. Refreshed by the rugged beauty, we passed by signs announcing our entry into the Desolation Wilderness and continued up. Soon enough, short social trails, or unofficial shortcuts, led us from the main path to rock formations where that world-class view opened up in a soul-quieting way.
Almost like a natural amphitheater, these granite balcony seats seemed to have our names on them. We paused to take in Tahoe's mountain-ringed majesty, variously studying the mystical blue deep where it meets the emerald waters in the bay.
Inspiration Point is a windshield-touring wonder, for sure. But hike up just this one mile on the Bayview and there's a vantage point that pays dividends right into your dreams.
THE BAYVIEW TRAIL
Take Highway 50 east to Highway 89. Head north about three to four miles on 89 to the U.S. Forest Service visitor center, where you can pick up permits to enter the Desolation Wilderness.
Then, continue north on Highway 89 to Inspiration Point. On the west side of the road is the entrance to the Bayview Campground. At the rear of the campground you'll find a place to park, and the Bayview Trail trailhead.
* Difficulty: One mile each way, but rises from 6,800 feet to 7,800 feet in elevation.
* Considerations: Water. Snack. Good hiking shoes with grip. The steep trip down can be slippery.
* For more information: U.S. Forest Service visitors center (open through September), (530) 543-2674 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu/contact/