October 23 – November 17
I grew up in northern Vermont where most of November was considered the shoulder season. This was the time of year when locals took deep calming breathes after the hoards of leaf-peepers fled for warmer climates while simultaneously preparing for an onslaught of neon wearing snow bunnies from New Jersey. It was admittedly not the prettiest time of year to visit (we also called it “stick season” because of the lack of both leaves and snow leaving behind nothing but brown) and the weather was typically cold and miserable, but for the traveler looking for a deal or fewer crowds, shoulder season is where it’s at.
We unintentionally ended up spending the shoulder season in South Lake Tahoe this year. I say unintentionally because at first, we were only going to stay long enough to hike a few trails and see The Devil Makes Three in concert. But a few days in and we were so enticed by the lack of crowds and abundance of hiking trails that we extended our stay for an entire month.
Ever since our last round of “what does the future hold?” talks we’ve been making a concerted effort to stay true to the things we really want to be doing and the places we want to be. That effort has resulted in quite a few last minute changes of destination as well as leaving early or staying longer on a whim. Fortunately, this is the time of year when fewer campers means whims like this can be indulged. Which brings me back to shoulder season.
This was our first time visiting Lake Tahoe so I have no personal anecdotes to go on, but judging by the empty beaches with giant parking lots, I can assume that it is very rarely this quiet around here. There’s a definite thrill that comes with spending time in a busy tourist area without all the tourists. It feels like hitting the jackpot. Like we somehow lucked out by getting all this beauty to ourselves.
In addition to fewer people, shoulder season also means lower prices at campgrounds. Which is how we ended up at Zephyr Cove RV Park. Zephyr Cove is located on the Nevada side of the lake only a few minutes from the town on Stateline and a few more minutes from South Lake Tahoe.
We chose this park because we liked the location for hiking and proximity to towns (including Carson City which was only 25 minutes away). It also was reported to have good cell service which seems to be lacking in some areas on the west side of the lake. We found that AT&T was rocking in Zephyr Cove, while the Verizon was mostly useless. Also, on a side note, even though we were about as close to the office as you could get, neither of us could ever get the wifi to connect. So if you want good internet here, AT&T is the way to go. Finally, this late in the year, most of the public parks and some of the private ones as well are closed for the season while Zephyr Cove remains open year-round and allows monthly stays after mid-October. Oh, and the best part? The normal in-season rate of $75/night is reduced to $35 at this time of year!
The campground filled almost to capacity during most of the weekends we were there, but by mid-week, it was only us and a handful of other RVs. I would rate Zephyr Cove as solidly average in the range of private campgrounds. On the plus side, it was tucked into a grove of tall pine trees, the sites offer decent separation, all the utilities worked, and the grounds were kept clean. On the negative side, most of the sites are fairly unlevel (which could be annoying when paying $75/night), and our particular site had a very narrow “yard” on the side of hill barely wide enough for our outside mat, and our picnic table was on top of the hill practically in the neighbor’s yard. Those last few complaints really didn’t matter much though as it was simply too cold for most of our stay to sit outside.
We’re always on the lookout for campgrounds with easy access to places where we can get out for some exercise after work without having to spend time driving. This is particularly important at this time of year when it gets dark so shortly after Tim finishes work. We had a few options here, including a gorgeous long stretch of beach across the street where we walked on several afternoons and evenings. There was talk of kayaking, but we couldn’t ever time it right with sunny skies and no wind, so we had to settle with just looking at the water this time around.
There were a few trails out back behind the campground that we tried walking on one day. I say tried because they were very well-used horse trails and as a result too dusty and full of poop for us to walk on :(
We did discover some other nearby short trails that were good for afternoon walks. There was the Castle Rock loop that climbed up to a rocky outcropping overlooking the lake. The Skunk Harbor Trail that took us down to a secluded lake-side cove. The Lam Watch Nature Trail the wove through the woods to North Beach. And the Round Hill Bike Path that also ended at North Beach.
Per our usual, we didn’t spend a lot of time in town or eat out much, but we did discover a few gems worth mentioning. The first was the South Lake Brewing Company. We visited early one evening after a particularly hard hike up Mount Tallac and enjoyed both the beer and the fresh, hot pizza from the food truck out back.
Another night we ate at the My Thai restaurant in Kingsburg between Zephyr Cove and Stateline. It was delicious and filling! We also enjoyed a night out at the Heavenly Village Cinemas. Neither of us can remember exactly when the last time it was that we saw a movie in a theater, but our best guess is around five years ago. I generally think movies at home are far more enjoyable, but we needed to get out of the house and both wanted to see Free Solo. This National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s quest to climb El Capitan in Yosemite with no ropes was really fascinating and even I will admit that seeing the gorgeous scenery of the Yosemite Valley was pretty cool on the big screen.
The whole reason why we came here was to see the Devil Makes Three. I was a little unsure because they were playing at the Montblue Casino and I really don’t like the atmosphere inside casinos. Turns out that the music venue there was pretty cool with a tiered and sectioned layout that meant we got a good view of the stage without feeling crowded. The music was great as always and they remain one of my favorite bands to see live.
Our weekends were filled with as much hiking as we could fit in. Things got pretty cold during the last few weeks of our stay so we had to bundle up for a few of the hikes but in general, we don’t mind hiking in the cold, especially when it’s sunny nearly every day. Here is a quick run-down of the longer trails we hiked on the weekends:
This was the first, and the hardest trail that we hiked in the area. It was also by far the busiest. We hiked this one on the last Sunday of October and by the time we reached the trailhead parking lot, the only place left to park was at least half a mile down the road. I can’t imagine how busy this trail must be in the summer.
The first half of this trail climbs steadily, yet gently, uphill through a forest and along an open ridge with views of the lake below.
After a quick rest and lunch break at the small Kelly Lake, we began to climb in earnest to the top. The trees disappeared and soon we were ascending up a winding trail carved into a barren rocky hillside.
The last two miles were the hardest. For the first time ever, I started to feel sick from the altitude and had to stop every few minutes to let the nausea subside. Eventually, I told Tim to go ahead while I spent some time resting on the side of the trail. While feeling sorry for myself (I don’t do sickness very well) I glanced at my phone and realized I was only half a mile from the summit. With 500 more feet to climb I slowly made my way up to the top. Tim was still there and we enjoyed some snacks while taking in the view. It was tough but worth it!
Fontanallis Lake Loop
The next weekend, we tackled an 11-mile loop that started near Emerald Bay, climbed up through the forest, and passed so many lakes that I lost track. We actually hiked this trail on a Monday because Tim had to work on Saturday that weekend. As a result, we only saw five other people the whole time.
This was a fantastic trail that I would love to hike again when there is more daylight so we could have time to enjoy the lakes. The first two miles started strong with some steep uphill, but the rest of the way was pretty easy. The lakes were beautifully clear and inviting looking. If it had been warmer we would have jumped in for sure.
Marlette Lake Trail
This one wins for the coldest hike. These longer hikes so late in the year require striking a balance between waiting until it warms up in the morning, but not waiting so long that you end up hiking the last bit in the dark. The previous weekend we had started the Fontanallis Lake Loop a little on the late side and had to hike the last two miles after the sun went down. Not a huge deal as it wasn’t yet dark, but it was cold! So this time we got to the trailhead at 10 am. Good plan except it was only 30-degrees out and the wind was whipping.
Fortunately, we had planned for this and bundled up with hats, gloves, and multiple layers topped off by puffy coats. I even dug out the long underwear I have been carrying around with me for the past 6+ years. We’ve done a fair amount of cold weather hiking this year so the layers, coats, and hats are not that unusual. What is unusual is that over the course of 8 miles we never took any of it off. That wind was cold!
Mt. Rose Summit
The last trail we hiked was located up near Incline Village at the top of the lake. Mount Rose is the third-highest peak around Lake Tahoe and from the top the views in all directions are spectacular. At 10 miles round trip with a 2,000-foot elevation gain, it didn’t sound like a super hard hike on paper, but most of the climbing is condensed into the last few miles which made for a steep hour or so of uphill. I didn’t get many good photos because the angle of the sun was not ideal so if you want to see the beauty for yourself you will just have to make the climb!
The plan had been to stay until the day after Thanksgiving and then spend the long holiday weekend driving south in search of warmth. We even made a dinner reservation for Thanksgiving and were very much looking forward to stuffing ourselves with turkey and all the trimmings. It was not to be though, as a storm was predicted to blanket the area with snow and ice starting on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We kind of wanted to see the snow, but we weren’t interested in getting stuck there so packed up and left on Sunday before the storm arrived.
Overall, our time at Zephyr Cove was a successful experiment with some (almost) winter RVing combined with a much needed longer stay in one place. We’ve always known that the Airstream is not very winter-friendly. The single pane leaky windows, crazy cold floor, and front door that doesn’t quite seal right, means that we would probably never try to live in it in a cold climate. On the flip side, our small interior living space helps it heat up very fast and with our little electric heater it was always toasty warm. We only ran the furnace a bit a night and in the early morning to ensure that our pipes didn’t freeze. The key to cold weather RVing for us is limiting ourselves to the kind of cold that goes away during the day. Even though it dipped down below 20-degrees nearly every night, it always got above freezing during the day which helped moderate the temperature. Also, after a few months of rain and fog, the abundant sunshine in this area was much appreciated.
The whole summer we had been planning to stay north as long as possible before making a mad dash south. I am not sure we ever thought that we would still be this far north at the end of November, but the warmer and drier than average temperatures worked in our favor and we feel lucky to have enjoyed shoulder season at Lake Tahoe.