Lake Tahoe is home to a tight-knit community of people who love to push the limits of the outdoor sports they love. Over the past several years, stand-up paddle boarding has burst on the scene as a refreshing way to get some exercise on the majestic lake and explore backwaters, nearby alpine lakes and even local rivers.
The Sierra Nevada forms a 640-kilometer spine from north to south, mostly in California with a slight dip into Nevada. The mountains are home to Yosemite Valley’s famous granite monuments, such as Half Dome and El Capitan, and the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (Mt. Whitney, 4,421m). These mountains provided incredible wealth during the California Gold Rush and gave us craft beer perfections in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Yet the real jewel of the Sierras is the deep, ever-clear waters of Lake Tahoe. Like the mountain range, the lake straddles California and Nevada. The surface is nearly 2,000 meters above sea level, making it the largest alpine lake in North America.
Tahoe is home to a number of ski resorts, such as Squaw Valley and Heavenly, and has a reputation for producing some of the world’s best big mountain skiers and snowboarders. It’s a year-round natural playground with each season offering a stunning backdrop for outdoor fun, and indoor diversions can be had at the big casinos on the Nevada side of the lake.
Over the past six years, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) has been embraced by Lake Tahoe’s active community like a bear hug from a best friend. Enthusiasm for the relatively new water sport has caught on for good reason. It’s a fun, active sport that provides exercise and adventure as well as serene moments exploring the region’s stunning lakes and waterways.
Now firmly rooted as a favorite Tahoe pastime, SUP is following a similar path to skiing; gung-ho enthusiasts are pushing the boundaries of the sport and seeking excitement beyond the quiet coves of Lake Tahoe’s Sand Harbor or Emerald Bay. They are taking their skills into competition and the backcountry.
The Truckee-Tahoe area hosts major SUP races in the summer months from May to September, drawing participants from all over the world. Race days are fun and competitive for all ages.
The competitive vibe isn’t for everyone though; some just prefer a quiet paddle on Lake Tahoe’s incredibly clear waters, yet an increasingly popular local SUP pursuit is the exploration of backcountry lakes and rivers using inflatable paddleboards.
Inflatables are constructed with ultra-tough rubber similar to whitewater river rafts and are significantly more durable and easier to transport than a fiberglass SUP. After hiking in to explore your favorite lake in the Tahoe Region, it’s easy to blow up the boards with a portable hand pump. When deflated, the inflatable SUP can be rolled into a backpack that weighs less than 30 pounds.
The durability of these inflatable SUPs also opens the potential to run rivers. You’ll need solid river skills to navigate whitewater safely on an SUP, but you’ll only have to worry about damaging your body, not your board, when you fall off.
“Inflatable SUP boards bring a whole new challenge to running rivers. Even mellow whitewater is a thrill on an SUP,” said Jared Licht, a local former pro kayaker. “But it’s important to understand the dangers of a river before getting in. There are many more ways to get in trouble on a river than on a lake.”
For some, being a “waterman” doesn’t mean you put your board away when the weather gets chilly. Professional stand-up paddler Jay Wild has competed in warm exotic waters the world over, but his favorite place to paddle demands wearing more than just board shorts.
“I get asked daily where is my favorite place to paddle,“ says Wild. “Every time my answer is the same; mid-winter on Lake Tahoe.”
SUP may seem like a strictly warm weather pursuit in the high elevation waters of Lake Tahoe but, as Wild notes, mild winter days can often offer fantastic paddling conditions.
“Winter paddling on Lake Tahoe is magical,” he adds. “More times than not, I am all alone on the water without any other boats for as far as the eye can see. The serenity you can enjoy on the lake mid-winter is a complete contrast to the summer months. It’s just you and the snow-capped peaks.”
Wild’s love affair with paddling on Lake Tahoe inspired him and a couple partners to open Waterman’s Landing, a lakefront café and paddleboard shop. The shop is open year-round and offers food, equipment, rentals and sage advice about when and where to paddle. Unlike summer months, when paddling on Lake Tahoe is fairly benign, the cold water (hovering around 3 ºC) and tumultuous winter weather require careful consideration before you head out.
Ten years ago, flatwater stand-up paddling was an enigma to the surf-riding crowd. Today SUP has found a home in the Sierra Nevada amid the majestic beauty of Lake Tahoe. With close to 124 kilometers of shoreline and 35 kilometers from end to end, the possibilities for exploration are endless.
The clarity of the water makes for a unique experience on a stand-up board; you never know what you will see under your feet while gliding around the lake. Whether you are after peaceful cruising with friends, exploring high alpine lakes, competing against other enthusiasts or even running rivers, Tahoe has something for every paddler.
By the Numbers
Largest alpine lake in North America
Second deepest lake in the U.S. (Oregon’s Crater Lake is the deepest at 593 meters)
Sixth largest lake by volume (behind the five Great Lakes)
Surface elevation: 1,897 meters
Area: 496.2 km²
Volume: 150.7 km³
Length: 35 kms.
Width: 19 kms.
Depth: 501 meters
Tahoe Stand-up Tours
Cloudline Tours made a name for themselves specializing in tours to Japan’s best powder playgrounds, often featuring winter sports pioneers on their trips. In addition to their winter tours to Japan, they have recently added stand-up paddleboard adventures on Lake Tahoe to their schedule. Based in the Truckee area, but with roots in Japan, Co-Founders J.P. and Ako Martin have a keen insight in both places. They organize trips that allow guests to enjoy the culture and the surroundings in style.
As with the powder tours, the stand-up trips in Lake Tahoe feature local professional guides familiar with the area and off-the-beaten-path destinations. Their tours feature SUP coaching, private yoga sessions and plenty of time to explore the area and relax.