With great hiking, few fellow campers, and amazing campsites next to the lakes, Loch Leven should be on your Tahoe bucket list.
Tahoe's Backpacking and Photography Secret: Loch Leven
During a Tahoe summer, nothing is better than a campsite by a lake, with sunset campfires and plenty of rocks for epic swan-diving.
However, Tahoe gets pretty crowded in the summer. Many campsites, like the popular Desolation Wilderness sites, fill up well in advance and even backpacking passes disappear a month out. So if you’re planning a last-minute trip and need a spot in Tahoe that’s accessible, beautiful, and doesn’t require any planning, I’ve got one for you: Loch Leven.
This hike starts off Highway 80, at the Rainbow Road exit. Park at the pullover parking spot, or on the side of the road. If you’re backpacking, like we were, try to be in the parking lot if at all possible so you aren't leaving your car on the street overnight.
This trail is a total of 3.5 miles up to the top lake, but you can get to the middle lake in just under 3 miles, which actually has better campsites.
The trail is a mix of exposed rock face, lush green forest, and gravel and dirt paths. It’s also about 1,800 feet elevation gain, so while it's not a stroll in the park, it shouldn't be too challenging for even the novice backpacker. With 35 lb packs, it took us about 2.5 hours to get up.
There are three lakes. Creatively, they’re named lower, middle, and upper Loch Leven. In my opinion, and in terms of the prettiest sites, the middle Loch Leven is the place to be. When you hit the lake, head to the left for sites literally right on the shore, or head all the way to the other side of the lake for a spot on the rocks with plenty of cliff-jumping opportunities. Keep in mind that if you set up on the rock, you’ll want a tent that doesn’t stake in.
There are plenty of little day hikes up here, too, like the pretty (and easy) Salmon Lake hike, which is about a three mile round trip from the middle lake.
Campfires are allowed here (you just need to register for a permit online) and there’s no “reserving” spots, so just show up and find one you like. We camped at the top lake on the first night, and got up early the next morning to stake out a sweet spot for the second night before the other backpackers arrived.
The middle lake has plenty of small islands and area to swim out to and is, in my opinion, one of the most photogenic spots to camp in the Tahoe area, desolation wilderness included. Plus, since you can build campfires, you can skip on bringing a jacket and stay warm from the fire.
It’s also super dog friendly – we saw so many dogs and if your four-legged pal likes swimming, you’ll never be able to get them out! Our four-legged friend loves hiking, but he also loves snoozers on the sleeping bags.
Loch Leven Photography Tips:
- Bring a wide angle lens, if you have one. All of these photos were shot on a 10-35 mm lens
- Figure out what photos you want and site yourself accordingly: if you want sunset photos, you want to be across from the lake from the sunset. Use a compass app on your phone to figure out where you'll get the best views.
- Get there early. In order to get exactly the campsite we wanted, we actually camped higher up the night before and came down early in the morning to snag the site in the photos above before more backpackers arrived. You could also just ask nicely if you can leave your stuff at the campsite of someone who is leaving later in the day.
- Use warm filters/camera settings: especially when sun is just starting to set, you'll pick up more light and color if you warm things up a bit.
- Shoot water in the morning: the lakes up here are still in the morning, as the wind doesn't usually pick up until afternoon. It's a great time to get reflection shots.
Suzie is a freelance writer and content creator living in Lake Tahoe, CA. You can read more about amazing outdoor destinations and adventure travel at HikeUpYourSkirt.com