Lake Tahoe For All Seasons

California’s Lake Tahoe region offers year-round photo opportunities
Lake Tahoe

This is one of my favorite images from Lake Tahoe. It proves the point that braving bad weather can increase your photographic “luck.” On this occasion, I was leading a photo workshop and nearly everyone canceled due to the bad forecast. The few people who did decide to brave the weather ended up wet and cold, but with an amazing break in the clouds right at sunset.

With golden aspen in the fall, fresh snow blanketing the mountains in winter, wildflower-covered beaches in the spring and sparkling blue water in the summer, Lake Tahoe is a photographer’s paradise in every season. For photographers willing to hike or ski miles for a single shot, as well as those wanting to shoot from the side of the road, Tahoe offers a lifetime of subjects that change with the weather and the seasons.

Winter is by far my favorite season to photograph Lake Tahoe. While the ski resorts may be packed, some of the best locations along the shore can be completely deserted. The surrounding mountains are covered with snow, and the lake is nearly free of boats. Winter storms help to wash beaches clean of footprints, and cold temperatures add frost on top of patterns in the sand. Add in the chance of fresh, untouched snow covering the beaches and dramatic low-angled light, and you have a true landscape photographer’s paradise.

Lake Tahoe

When low lake levels and late spring rains combine, it’s possible to find huge fields of lupine on the exposed shores of the lake.

While spring rains provide a chance to photograph new growth around the entire basin, the most popular locations are the fields of lupine growing on the beaches during years of low water. Historically these fields of flowers existed on a small scale, but years of drought in California have led to lower lake levels and thus larger beaches. The last few years, these blooms have been particularly great and have become an internet phenomenon. While wildflowers can be found all around the lake, the largest concentration is on the beaches along its northwest corner. Come in June or July, pack your widest lens and pray for clouds at sunset.

Summer is the slowest season for landscape photography around Tahoe. Days of cloudless, hazy skies and crowds of people make shooting around the lake more challenging. But this is also the season for high mountain wildflowers—escape the crowds around the lake by following the Tahoe Rim Trail to many great meadows filled with wildflowers and dramatic views of the lake. Summer also is the best time to photograph thunderstorms over the lake in the afternoon. The general rule of thumb is if there are building clouds before 10 a.m., you have a good chance of an afternoon thunderstorm.

Lake Tahoe

This summer view from Emerald Bay includes the Tahoe Gal paddle wheeler as part of the scene. Including the classic tour boat gives a sense of scale and helps to provide balance with the dramatic blue water of the lake.

Many photographers consider fall to be the best season in the Tahoe basin because of the unique mix of colorful aspen, views of the lake, wildlife and potential early winter storms. Nearly every creek leading into the lake is lined with aspen, but the largest concentration is along the southwest shore. While there are many aspen in this area, the most popular is the Taylor Creek area because of its run of non-native kokanee salmon. Plan to explore this location right after shooting the sunrise elsewhere, and you will avoid the crowds and find the best light. With luck, you may even have a chance to photograph black bears feeding on the salmon before the crowds arrive and scare them away. In addition to the lakeside aspen groves, with some exploration you can even find a few higher elevation locations where it is possible to see the lake and fall colors in the same shot.

Lake Tahoe

After exploring the classic locations, photographers with more time would be well served to look through topographic maps of trails and back roads. You never know what gem you may find at the end of hike.

If all this photographic potential doesn’t get you excited about planning a trip to Lake Tahoe, then perhaps good restaurants, easy lodging, casinos and close access to the Reno airport may be enough to convince you. In addition to great photography, the Tahoe area also offers many activities for your non-photographer traveling companions that will keep them happy while you adventure around the lake with your camera. With so much to do in the Tahoe basin, the question becomes not which season is best but rather which season you’re willing to miss. For many photographers, their first trip is only an introduction that keeps them coming back to Lake Tahoe for years to come.

Key Photo Locations Near Lake Tahoe

By far the most-photographed location at Lake Tahoe is Emerald Bay at sunrise. This classic location can be good year-round, especially when a storm is clearing, but spring is the best because the waterfall on Eagle Creek will be roaring and makes a great foreground. Follow California State Route 89 along the west shore of the lake until you reach the bottom of the hill overlooking Emerald Bay. Park in the roadside lot (Eagle Lake Trailhead), walk across the street, and follow the path down to the viewpoint next to the waterfall. Be very careful on this path—it can be super icy from blowing spray, and I have seen several cameras meet their demise here.

Lake Tahoe

This view of Emerald Bay at sunrise is one of the most classic locations around the lake. Be here early and you may have a chance to catch a predawn glow in the clouds.

Another classic location is Sand Harbor at sunset. This is possibly the most popular beach at Lake Tahoe. It has wide expanses of sand as well as piles of boulders that make strong foregrounds against dramatic sunset skies. While Sand Harbor offers perhaps the most accessible sunset shooting on the lake, it is also very popular and parking can be a challenge in the summer. Visit during winter, and you may have the entire beach to yourself at sunset and, with luck, untracked snowy beaches.

Once you have explored these popular locations and are ready branch out, it is good to understand how the weather and light comes into the Tahoe basin to aid in your exploration. Storms typically come in from the west and often break up over the lake toward the end of the day. Shooting clearing storms at sunset from the eastern shore tends to be the best, because the sun is setting behind them to the west as they break up. Building storms are typically best shot at sunrise along the western shore because the light is coming from the east and will often light the clouds.

Lake Tahoe

Shooting a clearing storm from the east shore should be on every photographer’s dream list. Using a circular polarizer to remove reflections in the water, I was able to give a feeling of depth to the image by getting close to the foreground with my 16-35mm lens.

These are only general guidelines, because Lake Tahoe has a strange way of creating its own weather patterns. I can’t count the number of times I have been set up for sunrise or sunset only to wish I had been on the other side of the lake because the clouds broke in a strange way. The best advice is to be out with your camera no matter how bad the weather, and be ready to move quickly, because conditions can change rapidly.

Josh Miller is a photographer and writer based in Northern California. In his professional life, Josh has worn many hats, including naturalist, outdoor guide and environmental educator. His abilities as a naturalist and photographer are often called upon by nonprofit environmental organizations to promote public awareness for their causes. Josh teaches photographic workshops throughout the west, Alaska and Costa Rica. His award-winning photographs are in many private collections and regularly appear in publications throughout the world including National Geographic, Audubon, Microsoft, Sierra Club, Backpacker and Outdoor Photographer. His work is represented by Aurora Photos.