Fallen Leaf Lake—A Hidden Gem in Central California

If you’ve ever been camping at Lake Tahoe, you know that it’s crowded all year round. There is no “off” season for Tahoe and sometimes, a highly populated campsite is not relaxing or fun. Luckily there are several alternate campgrounds that are near Tahoe that are just as beautiful if not more breathtaking than the big lake. In this instance, I’m referring to the forgotten and unknown Fallen Leaf Lake.

This gem is located one mile south of South Lake Tahoe and less than ten miles away from Emerald Bay that travelers coming from the west must pass when entering South Lake. Fallen Leaf Lake is like its own private lake that many out-of-towners don’t even realize exists.

Though the campgrounds are still a popular spot to reside the traffic is much less compared to the popular Lake Tahoe.

Landscape

If you’re looking for real-life forest camping, Fallen Leaf has what you’re craving. Towering above the campgrounds are colossal cedar, pine, aspen, and fir trees. With a mild hike through flower endowed meadows, you’ll reach the foliage-filled shoreline that reflects the impressive mountain peaks. The water is crystal-clear with visibility up to 50 feet and depths up to 418 feet.

To put 418 feet into perspective; a one-story building is approximately 10 feet tall. This means a 40 story building could comfortably reside and still be hidden beneath the surface of the lake.

In 1997 a diver discovered a petrified forest beneath the hidden depths of the lake. It was determined that these forests have been preserved for over 800 years by the cold water.

The shore is blanketed in beautiful multi-colored rocks of all shapes and sizes – a  rock collectors dream! There is plenty of shoreline between the woods and the small waves where families can spread out, picnic, nap, and enjoy the sun.

Campsites

With 206 campsites Fallen Leaf offers a wide variety of pull-through and back in driveways; the longest being 186 feet.  These sites, unfortunately, do not provide sewer, water, or electrical hookups. However, the campgrounds are sprinkled with clean bathrooms, coin-operated warm showers, and water spigots for all your plumbing needs. Showers are $1 for 3 minutes.

Driving through the campsite with a large Class A or fifth wheel may be a little difficult, but the roads are fairly wide inside the campgrounds. The difficult part is navigating through the plethora of children at play and bike riders. Though the campsite itself may be able to harbor your vessel, backing it into some of these spaces definitely will take some teamwork, backup cameras, or a little skill.

If you’re driving a larger rig it’s recommended to book one of their 21 available pull-through driveway spaces for easy maneuverability entering and exiting the space.  The entire road and parking spaces in the campground are paved making driving and parking a little easier.

However, if you’re driving a Class A or C and aren’t towing a vehicle, you’re pretty much stuck at the campsite. The roads around town our not the easiest to navigate and tend to be narrow. The locals speed down the highway and other drivers are not very courteous on the one lane roads. Once you’re RV is parked – keep it parked.

With the variety of spaces available, the website makes it easy and breaks down each individual space with specific details including:

  • Driveway entry: pull-through or back in
  • The max length of the vehicle
  • Amount of shade
  • Site width
  • Driveway grade (moderate, slight)
  • Site number

All spaces allow a maximum of six individuals who can utilize the built-in fire-pit, picnic table, and grill. All of these amenities are available at every campsite.

The camp store sells firewood and basic camping necessities that may have been forgotten in the rush to reach this incredible destination. They also offer souvenirs to take home or share with friends.

Rates

Reservations can be made day-of assuming there are open spaces available. You are able to book up to 6 months in advance at $35 per night.

If for some terrible reason you have to cancel your reservation at this amazing location, cancellation fees are only $10. However, if you cancel with less than 48 hours prior to your visit, you will be charged a cancellation fee and the first night’s stay rate. However, this is not to exceed the rate at which the campsite was originally rented.

Fallen Leaf also has the option of renting yurts with electric lighting and a space heater, but do not offer any additional electric plugins. These yurts can be rented for $86 per night with the same cancellation policy as a standard campsite.

If you’re meeting up with some friends and staying at the same campsite, be prepared to spend an extra $7 on the additional vehicle. You’re allowed one camper and one car, but every extra vehicle tacks on an extra seven bucks per day.

Be aware, if you’re not the one who made the reservations and they haven’t arrived, you won’t be allowed access to the campgrounds.

Pets

What fun is camping if we can’t bring the entire family?

The entire campground is pet-friendly limiting two pets per campsite, so feel free to bring your well behaved, dogs, cats, or pigs! Though the website states that pets are not allowed on the beaches, this doesn’t deter campers from bringing them along.

It is truly a labrador’s heaven out on the lake. There is lots of driftwood for stick throwing (or the crafty individual) and lots of tennis balls left on shore from previous pups.

Be a courteous pet owner and pick up after them to ensure everyone enjoys a clean poop-free experience!

Wildlife

Remember, you’re in their home, not the other way around. Chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, deer and an abundance of birds reside in these forests. Though it may be tempting to feed them it’s not allowed or safe. To be accidentally bitten by a resident raccoon would definitely be a trip ruiner.

Black bears are also a common sight on the campgrounds. Bears are opportunistic eaters meaning they will eat almost anything edible. The campsites are equipped with a bear-proof storage locker for people and pet food, toothpaste, sunscreen, lotions and other bear attractants. Lock up your goods in these lockers if you don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night to a bear trying to get inside your camper for a midnight snack.

The trash cans around the campgrounds are also bear-proof but are only bear-proof if properly resecured after use. They are very intelligent animals and will easily figure out how to get into an unlatched garbage can.

Did I mention there are bears? The bears in this area can be very active during certain seasons which can be equally incredible and terrifying to witness. Many people disregard the notices of bear warnings only to have a rude awakening when a bear joins them for s’mores around the campfire.

I was disappointed to read reviews on the campgrounds that were negative simply because of the presence of bears. Again, you’re in their home. When you’re in the wilderness, expect uncomfortable and adrenaline racing encounters!

Read more on bear safety here. Be cautious, keep your campsite clean, carry bear spray, keep your pets close, and food put away!

BEARS!!

Activities

There is a multitude of things to do while camping at Fallen Leaf, including, boating, swimming, hiking, and biking. The lake’s temperature is cool and refreshing during the summer with mild temperatures during the day.

The fishing is not that great compared to the other surrounding lakes, but what the lake lacks in fish makes up for in hiking.

Hiking

When it comes to hiking in the Tahoe Basin there is no shortage of trails. Fallen Leaf has several trails nearby that are dog-friendly, have incredible views, and have plenty of fresh air. Most of these trails have cascading waterfalls.

  • Moraine Trail

    • For an easy, mild hike with beautiful views and a minimal elevation climb, check out Moraine Trail. This is a 2.5-mile hike that’s suitable for the entire family. Taking approximately an hour and a half you’ll cross the dam at Fallen Leaf and continue up the west shore where you’ll see a cluster of rock chimneys that still remain, tributing the homes that were once there.
  • Glen Alpine Trail

    • This trail is seldom explored to its utmost potential because of the beginning rocky terrain. Continue to venture on you will be rewarded with breathtaking views, waterfalls, and fun stream crossings. Be careful if the water level is high. On this hike, you’ll jump boulders and cross creeks. Wear sturdy hiking shoes to avoid a rolled ankle on a loose rock. This 5-mile hike will surely leave you in awe.
  • Fallen Leaf Trail

    • This is a gorgeous trek that stays along the shoreline of the lake. At the trailhead, there’s a waterfall to inspire you to continue on the 8-mile excursion. Part of the trail seems to disappear within the fallen trees and boulders. This is not a stroll in the park kind of hike. Anticipate some serious clambering, scaling, and climbing. Also, be sure to take a map so you don’t get lost!
  • Fallen Leaf Lake, Lake Aloha, Mount Tallac Loop

    • If you’re an experienced backpacker, this is the trek for you. This loop is just under 15 miles with a 4,176-foot elevation gain. This is a difficult hike. With bird-eye views of the lakes and low traffic, you’ll experience what it’s truly like to be off the grid. Bring lots of food and water to stay energized and a map to stay on track!

On the Lake

Like Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake offers a variety of lake activities including paddle boarding and kayaking.

Feel free to bring your own lake toys as well. However, ensure your boat is clean and dry upon arrival to avoid bringing in invasive species.

Although the lake is smaller than Tahoe, there is still plenty of room for waterskiing, windsurfing, and tubing.

Campers can swim in the lake, though there are no designated swim spots.

There was a recent drowning on July 1, 2018, of a 70-year-old man. Though the waters are generally calm, always be cautious, watch your children and don’t swim out too far. The further you venture from the shore the stronger the current gets.

Biking

If you’re willing to drive 2 miles down the road, be sure to rent a couple bikes at Anderson’s Bicycle Rentals. There are many paved bike paths that take you on an easy, safe ride or mountain bike up to Tahoe Mountain for a more physically exerting experience. Call ahead to make sure bikes are still available as they do not make reservations.

My Personal Fallen Leaf Experience

It was August 2017 and the weather was just starting to get a little cooler. My husband, dog (only one at the time) and I met his parents there as they had already been up for several days. His parents had their 23-foot Airstream parked comfortably in a back-in space however, it was a tight squeeze to also fit their F350 truck.

We paid the additional $7 per night for our additional car and tent camped. The site was spacious and flat making it easy to set up our tent comfortably. We had a pop up with bug-screens and placed it over the picnic bench which was perfect because there were several unannounced thunderstorms which were spectacular and short lived.

Unfortunately, we did not encounter any bears on our trip. We love coming across wild animals and were excited when we were warned by camp-hosts that they were out and about. We kept all food and smelly items in our bear-locker and did not keep any trash at our site.

Though we didn’t see bears, we saw lots of brave squirrels and birds begging for food. As cute as they were, we refrained from encouraging this behavior.

We did not use the grill, but the fire pit got used in the mornings and evenings. His parents brought firewood from home, but we ended up running out. Luckily after scouring empty sites, we found some leftover firewood from previous campers. At the time, we were unaware that the camp store sold firewood.

We went for a bike ride along the paved bike path which was a little more crowded than I would have liked but we also went the week before school started so we encountered a lot of families getting in their last bits of vacation time. We stopped by one of the crowded beaches on Lake Tahoe for a quick break.

There was a dock that went into the lake about 100 feet. Kids were jumping off the dock and people were fishing, and I wanted to join the fun. Much to my family’s surprise, I jumped off the dock in all my clothes! Having grown up by the beach my whole life, the fresh water always takes me off guard, but it was refreshing as ever after our bike ride.

On our way back to town on our bikes, came one of Tahoe’s random rain showers. As if I wasn’t already drenched from jumping in the lake, the rain made sure I stayed wet.

Most of our time was spent sitting on the shore’s edge scavenging for the perfect rocks to take home as momentous from our trip. Though I was brave jumping off the dock, the water was a little cool for swimming but that didn’t stop my father-in-law from diving in!

In addition, I would recommend purchasing water shoes with a rubber sole. The beaches are very rocky and uncomfortable underneath bare toes. My husband and I picked up some cheap ones from Rite Aid and they’ve been lifesavers.

All in all, even though our visit was short lived we had an incredible time. I highly recommend this campground for anyone considering exploring the Tahoe Basin as this campground has it all.

Conclusion

For more details on Fallen Leaf Campgrounds, check out the website here. This truly is a gem and worth the extra mile drive from South Lake Tahoe. Come to Fallen Leaf Campgrounds located in beautiful California where you can avoid the crowds of Tahoe and still enjoy the serenity of the lake.

About the Author

Tiondra Clevenger

Tiondra's family, which includes one incredible husband and two senior chihuahuas, are super adventure seekers. Hiking and kayaking are amongst their favorite activities and are quite skilled in the art of napping after said ventures.

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