Autumn is actually the perfect time to meander through the Sierra, which is of course famous for its fall colors. (For example, both Nevada City and Mammoth Lakes, Calif., have month-long celebrations, complete with downloadable activity guides and interactive maps to find and admire the leaves turning amber and crimson and gold.) By traveling now, you are also freed of the crowds and road construction delays of summer, but are not yet dealing with chains or road closures due to weather, all that serious mountain snow and ice.
In fact, your biggest challenge in fall is deciding where to go. So this issue, we turned to our trusty bench of writers, all locals, and basically said: Write about your perfect day trip in the Sierra. We encouraged them to think outside-the-box, include some food recommendations, even a place to spend the night if you want to extend your stay. But mostly we wanted their personal recommendations—what they like to do, see, eat. We— naturally—got some excellent responses.
It’s easy to beeline directly to Lake Tahoe for a little change of scenery, but I often overlook the many side roads and little stops along the way. Taking Highway 20 from Grass Valley, you can stop at Harmony Ridge Market and pick up goodies to go. The market is a launching spot for mountain bikers and offers up a full line of coffee drinks, breakfast burritos and gourmet sandwiches, either made-to-order or to grab-and-go. The short jaunt up Interstate 80 follows the South Yuba River, which flows calmly in the autumn months. Rainbow Lodge (exit 166) is now open only to groups, but continue up Hampshire Rocks Road and there are many spots to get out and stretch your legs and explore the river.
Exiting on Old Highway 40 takes you through Serene Lakes and Soda Springs with their quaint lodges and ski clubs. They are rustic and virtually untouched, giving a glimpse into what mountain life used to be before the evolution of expansive resorts and villages. Follow the road down (watching for bicyclists and long-boarders) and if you can take your eyes away from the expansive views of Donner Lake below, you’ll spy dozens of rock climbers scaling the granite walls all around you. The little enclave is packed with some of California’s best crags, like School Rock, Snowshed and the Peanut Gallery. It’s well worth pulling into one of the turnouts for a light picnic on one of the stone outcroppings. Admiring the fearless is inevitable and soaking up the inspiration comes naturally.
Continuing down Donner Lake Road into Truckee, most day-trippers may not realize there are 37 public piers along the northern shoreline—free and open all year long. They’re ideal for basking in the autumn sun, photo ops and possibly a quick dip. Look for the numbered markers, identifiable by the rec department’s logo of blue, green and orange circles.
Coming into downtown Truckee is a little like coming home. If you’re on a day trip, you’ve probably been there before. But having spent ample time there a decade or two ago myself, it’s refreshing to see that many businesses are still open and thriving. The Squeeze In, Casa Baeza, Moody’s and the Wagon Train Coffee Shop sit side-by-side with new breweries and eateries, like Truckee Philosophy. (Philosophy opened in the spring and offers up locally sourced cuisine and regional brews and wine.) Shopping is equally satisfying, with the tried-and-true Cooking Gallery and Truckee Variety bustling along with newer boutiques like Tahoe University.
Just a couple miles from downtown off Highway 267, the Martis Creek Trail is a nice low-key excursion to work up an appetite. The four-mile trail is classified as “easy,” offering flat terrain with some boardwalk and footbridges crossing the creek and marsh areas. It’s dog-friendly and ideal for families and trail runs, and reminds us that this little renowned ski town offers so much more than slopes.—K.P.
STAY THE NIGHT
Cedar House Sport Hotel
10918 Brockway Road
Truckee, CA – 866-582-5655
Taking a lovely drive is a great way to enjoy fall colors, but I prefer leaving the car behind and hiking or mountain biking my way to the aspens at Marlette Lake above Tahoe’s east shore. It’s not an easy stroll, but if you are up for a workout, the waves of yellow and red foliage fluttering in the breeze and the views of Snow Valley Peak and Marlette Lake make this trip worth the effort.
Begin your day at the Tunnel Creek Cafe in Incline Village, where you can fuel up on a meat or veggie breakfast burrito, bowl or sandwich, as well as fruit smoothies or stacks of Swedish oatmeal pancakes. You can also rent a bike there, and, if you prefer, jump on the Flume Trail Bike shuttle, which allows you to ditch your car, get a ride to Spooner Lake, then ride or hike your way back 14 miles to the cafe. This is a strenuous trip, but in addition to all the good stuff on the way to Marlette Lake, you get jaw-dropping views of Lake Tahoe from the Flume Trail. For those less ambitious, drive yourself and take the 10 mile out-and-back hike/ride to Marlette.
Either way, you or your shuttle will drive 10 miles from Incline on Highway 28 to Spooner Lake. The route winds along Tahoe’s bouldery east shore, passing Sand Harbor and the Thunderbird Lodge.
From the Spooner parking lot, you are inundated with an aspen extravaganza almost immediately as you journey up North Canyon Road. In about a mile, you meet a junction with the Marlette Lake Trail. Here, bikers continue on the dirt road, while hikers take the trail. Both routes climb their way north through aspen groves, passing bubbling streams and eventually reaching Snow Valley, a lush, meadowed slope with Snow Valley Peak looming high above. At this point, especially for the riders, the moderately steep climb becomes pretty danged steep. But both the road and trail finally reach a saddle, followed by a downhill to the edge of Marlette Lake, where the bright orange of aspens contrast spectacularly with the deep blue of the water.
For most, this is the turn-around spot. The more adventurous who took the shuttle can follow the shore of the lake to the Flume Trail. This infamous mountain biking trail is a 4.5-mile single track traverse along the former path of a log flume, used over a century ago by silver mining operations. It provides absolutely stunning vistas of Lake Tahoe. (While the narrow section is mostly level, it crosses a very steep slope and is not advised for those with a fear of heights.) Eventually the single track trail meets Tunnel Creek Road, where a steep 3-mile descent leads back to the Tunnel Creek Café—which, happily, is open until 5 p.m. and has several beers on tap.—T.H.
STAY THE NIGHT
Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino
111 Country Club Drive
Incline Village, NV – 755-832-1234
On an October day in Hope Valley, Calif., the aspens shimmer like 24-karat gold or blaze red-orange against a backdrop of snow-frosted mountains. A little over an hour from Reno, Hope Valley is reached on a scenic drive through a narrow river canyon. Before you embark on your trip, buy a California Lands Pass, now required for hiking or strolling among the aspens or meadows, at wildlifelicense.com.
Head south on U.S. 580/395 from Reno until it intersects with State Route 88 (S.R. 88) in Minden, Nevada. Turn right (west) on S.R. 88. As the road climbs into the mountains, it enters Woodfords Canyon, with its steep walls and pockets of colorful aspens. The Carson River tumbles its way downhill on the side of the road.
Near the top of the canyon, watch for the Horsethief Canyon Trail sign on the right. Park on the left of the dirt parking area near the Snowshoe Thompson Trail. It’s a half-mile round trip hike to the cave (164 feet elevation gain) where Snowshoe Thompson, a Norwegian man who delivered mail across the Sierra in the 1800s on cross-country skis, was said to take shelter in bad weather. The trail (sometimes buried under pine needles) departs from the opposite side of the parking area from the Horsethief Canyon Trail. It parallels the highway, then shoots uphill through an aspen grove. Not long after you emerge from the aspens, to the left, you’ll see the cave—a space under a massive boulder balanced on two giant rocks. A sign describes Snowshoe Thompson’s life.
Trek back down to the car, turn right on S.R. 88, and in a few minutes, you’ll reach Sorensen’s Resort on the left. Here you can devour a lunch of quiche, sandwiches, salads or their famous beef burgundy stew. At this point, you face a dessert dilemma: Finish off the meal with a berry cobbler at Sorensen’s or save room for a piece of homemade pie at Hope Valley Resort, just down the street.
After lunch, drive west on S.R. 88, following the fall color and stopping for photo ops along the way. At the western end of Hope Valley, admire a picturesque cabin and tiers of orange, red and yellow aspen cascading down Red Lake Peak’s slopes. This is the ideal place to turn around for the journey home.
If you didn’t stop for Hope Valley Resort’s homemade pie before, now is a good time to grab a slice on your way back to Woodford’s Canyon (the resort closes at 5 p.m.). Return home with both your sweet tooth and your craving for outdoor adventures satisfied. Depending on the weather, you’re likely to see fall color in Woodford’s Canyon and Hope Valley through October 25, but there’s still plenty to do there even after the leaves fall.—K.W.
STAY THE NIGHT
14255 California State Route 88
Hope Valley, CA – 530-694-2203
An unscheduled weekend means a scenic road trip that ends in something fun, or historic, or laid-back. Familiar places are favorites for a reason, but new roads and new sights beckon. Angels Camp, the California town immortalized in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” is right now calling your name. Before Mark Twain cast it in 1860s ink, Angels Camp hosted a rush to find gold in them thar hills.
The treasures of today’s Angels Camp are found in its small-town ambience and hospitality, seasonal events, and nearby opportunities for boating, fishing or a stroll around a pet-friendly park. An amble through its “old town” turns up gift shops, a bakery, wine tasting, restaurants, Western wear and more, in buildings that once housed 19th century saloons, hotels, a post office, City Hall, a sweet shop and various merchants. On any given day, you’ll find lunch and dinner options from casual to fine dining, and local wines for the tasting.
For example, Crusco’s serves house-made Italian lunches and dinners: antipasti, pastas and meals of seafood, chicken, lamb or beef. It’s open Thursday through Monday.
Find casual fare at Angels Creek Café, located in what was once the local telephone company. Each burger, Cobb salad, sandwich or omelet is made to order, the better for taking time to ponder a visit to the Angels Camp Museum for its Gold Country history and wagon and carriage exhibits…or exploring one of the area’s tourist-friendly caves. In a nod to the holidays, the café will offer smoked turkey legs and other seasonal choices. (The café is closed Thursdays.)
The Calaveras Visitors Bureau (at the north end of old town) provides guides with detailed maps, plus VIP connections to activities for all ages. For example, Oct. 20, catch the family-friendly Mark Twain Wild West Festival, a day of arts and crafts, music on three stages and gun slingers. Period costumes are welcome. Or find holiday cheer on Nov. 24, with an evening parade and wine stroll among the shops and boutiques of historic old town.
Many roads lead to Angels Camp. From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 to Placerville, then California State Route 49 south through a countryside filled with fields of wine grapes, corn or cattle, and rolling hills dotted with canyon live oaks. Reno-ites can zoom west on I-80 to just east of Auburn, where S.R. 49 cuts south through California’s Gold Country, which is also wine country, with hundreds of interesting tasting rooms. However you get there, plan to unplug, soak up the scenery, and make a golden day of it.—P.R.
STAY THE NIGHT
Greenhorn Creek Resort
711 McCauley Ranch Road
Angels Camp, CA – 209-736-8181
With the famed Lake Tahoe a mere 40-minute drive from the city proper, and world-class ski and snowboarding resorts not much further, Reno’s locals have always been blessed by our proximity to the beauty of the natural surroundings—and it seems our secret is out.
With an exploding population, and marketing campaigns like the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority’s “Don’t Fence Me In” positioning Reno as an adventure tourism mecca, our favorite lakes and mountains see quite a few more guests these days. That’s why I still enjoy taking the short mountain drive to a hidden gem not far across the California line: Boca Reservoir and campground.
The man-made lake lies approximately 30 minutes to the west of Reno if one were to take I-80 directly—a straightforward but slightly drab drive. Once there however, the meandering paved and dirt roads weave for miles through the pine and fir forests at the lake’s edge, taking guests even further north around the neighboring Stampede Reservoir. While not known for the same piercing clarity of Tahoe, Boca is a favorite amongst boaters and hikers also looking to avoid Tahoe’s infamous crowds. The spacious campgrounds come with fire pits and on-site trash collection, and all but ensure most visitors will have any solitude they prefer.
During my last visit to Boca, some friends and I took advantage of the waning season to do a little trout fishing on the lake’s sandy shores. A one-day fishing license in California ran us about $15 each, but the money we saved on gas, this close to home, made it a more-than-reasonable expense. As we parked our car at one of the designated spots along the rim-road, we were welcomed by the familiar smells of pine sap and dust in the mountain air. We unloaded the cooler and travel speaker at a small camp in a shady clearing before making our way to the water’s gently lapping edge.
Beer and bad luck meant our catches were few and far between, but our focus was more on enjoying the sun and chatting with the occasional fellow beach-goers as they hiked or walked past with dogs and family in tow. We waved to boats and jet skis embarking from the ramp across the way while we snacked on sandwiches and cooled off with the occasional dip. Only when the sun set a deep purple and the first stars appeared on the lake’s mirror surface did we decide to depart back home to Reno—although we could have easily carried on to the historic mountain town of Truckee for a bite at one of its many restaurants and taverns.
Boca’s peak visitor season goes from May until the beginning of October, and requires a $20 per-night reservation fee for its campgrounds. Visiting in the shoulder season might mean a chilly swim, but I have as many good memories of cool autumn nights by the fire at Boca as I do of hot days in the sun. That’s the great thing about day trips: They don’t take much planning when peace and seclusion are only a half-hour away.—M.B.
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Whether enjoying hiking and biking through the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountain range, catching a football game at UNR’s Mackay Stadium or dressing up in a ghoulish getup for the Reno Zombie Crawl downtown, there are a plethora of options for a fall trip to Reno and its surrounding areas. But as a lifelong Reno-ite, I have some off-the-beaten-path ideas as well.
First, start the day by taking a refreshing dip in natural mineral water at the Carson Hot Springs Resort (about a 20-minute drive from downtown, 1500 Old Hot Springs Road), a “cure” Nevadans have been enjoying since 1849. After that, take another step back in time by riding the turn-of-the-century steam locomotive on the old Virginia & Truckee Railroad along the Comstock to historic Virginia City.
After visiting the same stomping grounds made famous by historic figures like Mark Twain, head down Geiger Grade Road to enjoy the scenic route that showcases the landscape of the valley floor and the skyline of Reno.
Once in Reno, there are plenty of dining options that will satisfy the inner foodie in all of us. But in order to do Reno right on a day trip, I think the all-you-can-eat lunch at Tha Joint Sushi is a must on the to-do list. (Lunch is served 11 a.m.–4 p.m. for $18.95; thajointsushi.com.)
After scarfing down copious amounts of crab, mussels, shrimp, long and hand rolls, head through Reno’s Midtown district and explore the pubs, shopping, marijuana dispensaries and public art the area offers. Personally, I like to frequent Pinon Bottle Co. for its wide variety of beers and relaxed atmosphere (777 S. Center St.). If beer isn’t your beverage of choice, then partake in the popular Wine Walk that takes place every third Saturday of the month along the Truckee River and neighboring streets in downtown Reno (renoriver.org).
In the late afternoon, I recommend a tour of the National Automobile Museum, also located downtown (10 Lake St.), which showcases pristine vehicles from the 19th and 20th centuries, all part of the collection of the late casino tycoon William F. Harrah.
End the day by enjoying a beautiful Northern Nevada sunset at Hidden Valley Regional Park (on Parkway Drive), where you can get a glimpse of some wild horses and witness the blue sky and white clouds dissolve into masses of tangerine, pink and purple.—W.V.
STAY THE NIGHT
Courtyard by Marriott Downtown/Riverfront
1 Ballpark Lane
Reno, NV – 755-324-0400