The leisurely days of summer are slipping away fast. We’re back up against back-to-school dates. The classic cars that convened to heat the already sweltering streets during Hot August Nights are gone, and I think I felt a leaf crunch under my foot this week.
But there are still a few hot August days left, and that means there’s time for one last splash.
Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake are understandably popular, but the Sierra Nevada that contains them is a treasure trove of secret swimming holes just a short trek from those two favorites, all within a two-hour drive of downtown Reno.
A gem of a spot:Emerald Pools
Don’t confuse Emerald Pools near Emigrant Gap with Emerald Pool in Yosemite, where illegal swimming occasionally leads to an unplanned ride down nearby Vernal Falls, which occasionally leads to death. This Emerald Pools boasts 8-to-10-foot vertical ledges for those who seek thrills but are aware of their mortality, plus 1-to-2-footers for beginners. The electric, antifreeze-green waters—colored by algae, not automotive fluids—are tens of feet deep and clear enough to see what you’re diving into. Enough of the pool is surrounded by bare, dark red rock faces that it can look almost otherworldly, yet there’s enough shade for dozens of visitors to lounge under comfortably near a babbling creek. Rippled, striped expanses of rock, sculpted by erosion, are excellent for trouncing.
Distance from Reno: 1.5-hour drive plus a 5-minute walk
How to get there: Take I-80 west to Exit 161. Go slightly right onto Highway 20 west. After 3.5 miles, go right on Bowman Lake Road. About 1.5 miles in, where the road crosses the South Fork of the Yuba River, pull into a small parking area on the right. The trail is not marked, but it’s easy to see.
Alpine Dream: Island Lake
A few miles past Emerald Pools begins the Grouse Lakes Basin Area, closed to vehicles, open to backpackers, and dotted with cool, pristine, boulder-skirted lakes. All but a couple of shallow, marshy ones are good for swimming, including Carr Lake, a stone’s throw from the parking lot. Put in an extra two miles on foot and the payoff is Island Lake, where three small islands protrude from cerulean waters like miniature mountains. Each one is a quick swim from shore but remote enough to make you feel like Robinson Crusoe for a few minutes, only instead of contending with cannibals, just wave to the occasional canoe paddler. If you find this spot is so beautiful you don’t want to go home at night, you’re in luck. There are backpacking sites within a few feet of the lake.
Distance from Reno: About 2 hours, plus a moderately strenuous 2-or-more-mile hike each way.
How to get there: From Emerald Pools (see above), continue up Bowman Lake Road for a few miles. Go right on Forest Road 17, which becomes rutted and slow-going toward the end but is, at present, doable in a low-clearance sedan. There are a few potentially confusing turn-offs, so be sure to follow the signs to Carr Lake/Feely Lake. Park where the road ends, at the trailhead. Hike 1/4 mile up the fire road past Carr Lake and turn left just before the restrooms onto Crooked Lakes Trail. Island Lake is visible and accessible from Crooked Lakes Trail, but to get closer to the islands turn left on the more subtle Hidden Lakes Trail.
Be warned: The miles of trails that crisscross this forested wonderland are not all marked and do not appear on all maps. Island Lake isn’t among the hardest to find, but do your cartographic homework and brush up on your orienting skills in advance for this one.
Keep Tahoe topless: Secret Cove
What? “Lake Tahoe” and “secret” in the same mouthful? That’s right, even the landmark lake has a lesser-traveled spot. The cozy inlet, accessible by a 3/4-mile hike, has the same picturesque boulders and azure waters as nearby Sand Harbor State Park. Secret Cove lacks the wide, sandy beaches of nearby swimming spots and has almost no shade, but its clothing-optional policy attracts self-sufficient adventurers who carry in beach umbrellas or opt for sunbathing. On one Sunday afternoon this summer, the 30 or so visitors almost all opted for swimsuit-free tanning.
Secret though it may be, Secret Cove has a remarkably well organized and informative web site at secretcovenevada.com. Read up on clothing-optional-beach etiquette (no staring; no sexual activity; no photography without consent; pack out your trash; no glass bottles) and follow it religiously. The occasional scofflaw is swiftly scolded and reported to authorities.
Distance from Reno: 1-hour drive plus a 10 to 15-minute hike
How to get there: Head up Mt. Rose Highway (Hwy. 431) to Incline Village. Turn left on Hwy. 28, and drive about 9 miles south. About 3/4 mi. south of Chimney Beach, look for an inconspicuous parking area on the right. The trail is on the south side of the lot.
Around the bend: Illinois Crossing
In the deep-forested foothills of the Sierras’ western slope lies the car-camp site of your dreams, South Yuba Campground, spacious and shady, nestled in a Yuba-River-carved canyon, out of cell-phone range, but not hard to get to. These BLM-run sites are a bargain $5 per night. But the real draw here is a little spot on the river called Illinois Crossing, a mile hike form the main parking area down the South Yuba Trail. Tiny beaches line the shores. Take your pick of sun or shade, willows or pines. In July, the water was cool enough to give relief from the afternoon heat but warm enough to splash in for hours. Rapids were fast enough for short-distance tubing, shallow enough for kids. Deep, still pools and a view of view of foliage-lined canyon walls make for exquisite floating and lounging.
Distance from Reno: 1.75-hour drive plus a 1-mile hike.
How to get there: From Nevada City, follow State Highway 49 to North Bloomfield Road. Head north about 10 miles to South Yuba Trailhead. Don’t be confused when the pavement ends and you begin a quick, winding descent. You’re still in the right place. After the one-lane bridge at Edwards Crossing, look for the parking lot. From there, hike one mile downhill to Illinois Crossing. (Toward the end of the trail, an inattentive hiker could pass the sharp turnoff to easy river access. It’s very close to the pit toilets.)
Beware: Be prepared for copious, bushy poison oak along the trail. You’ll almost certainly brush against it in spots where the trail narrows. Know how to identify it, avoid it and treat exposure before you go. Bring mosquito repellent.
Trail mix: Loch Leven Lakes
The 3.6-mile trail to this idyllic pair of lakes can be easy to lose at first. Snow covered it well into springtime this year, at which point a GPS app (EveryTrail, for example) was helpful, as were the three or four bars of cell service. After the snow melts, the view over much of the boulder-piled slope is wide open during the initial ascent, and the area is popular enough that hikers can usually follow the cairns and the other hikers to a well-worn, easier-to-follow forest trail. Pass the train tracks, keep ascending, and behold a pristine alpine lake, where the swimming is primo. Lakeside boulders offer picnic seating with a view and a sun-warmed surface to lounge on.
Distance from Reno: 1-hour drive and an hour or two to hike.
How to get there: From I-80 west, take Exit 168 toward Big Band/Rainbow Road. Turn left on Donner Pass Road, go under the freeway, and turn right on Hampshire Rocks Road. The trailhead and parking area are a couple miles up on the right.
Beware: With its 1,250 feet of elevation gain and neat-o geology, this hike is steep enough and picturesque enough to take extra time. Novice hikers and sturdy children hike this trail frequently, but allow extra time. Brush up on your trail-finding skills.