Road Tripping Along South Lake Tahoe

The waves breaking on a quiet beach in South Lake Tahoe at sunset.

Even if all we had experienced was the barbecued albacore it would have been one stellar night. But the sun and stars were all aligned for one much-needed photography road trip to South Lake Tahoe. And we were the ones to take it.

I’d wanted to get up to the Sierra Nevada mountains for a few months now. Well, maybe I needed it more than I wanted it.

A wetter-than-usual winter had dumped more snow on those hills than any of us drought-laden Californians had seen in years. Sounds picturesque, right? I thought so too. So my growing craving for some landscape photography desperately needed a fix. And I knew that South Lake Tahoe was the spot.

In spite of my introversion, I find that I love getting outdoors with others and sharing in the discoveries. Gasping at the same beauty, or getting lost should be a communal thing. It makes it all that much more memorable.

And so in April, I invited two other passengers along on this whirlwind photography road trip. Though shifting schedules delayed our trip multiple times before we finally loaded into our car and set off—in June.

Passenger #1: Michele. My sister-in-law. Getting into landscape photography. Puts up with me.

Passenger #2: Erica. My wife. Fits and Stops Photography second shooter. Married to me…and puts up with me.

Driver: Me. You’ve heard enough about me already.

The winding drive up Highway 50 went as fast as I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it was the company, all charged up with the sort of vigor you feel at the start of a trip. Maybe it was the pressure to race the sun to find a great location to sink our tripods before sunset. Nah. It was because we set off on a Monday afternoon when the roads are free of tourists. Other than us, of course.

We crossed from California into Nevada, signaled by the sudden skyward climb of the casinos just steps over the border into gambling country. Lake Tahoe shone with light, shrinking the bordering beaches with its surplus water. We drove past the beaches we knew to a little spot I’d spied on an online map. It didn’t even have a name as far as we could tell. But we parked there all the same and hopped out.

Here’s what we found:

After three hours on the beach the sun finally sank and temperatures plunged. We suddenly appreciated having brought the extra layers that seemed so needless a few minutes earlier. And our bellies rumbled…photos don’t fill the belly, after all. So we made tracks for a favorite sushi spot back in town to grab a bite and catch our breath. That albacore I mentioned earlier was worth the price of admission. Though we also downed some sushi rolls quickly enough to head out again for our next round of photos beneath the stars.

The streetlights disappeared as the highway that winds along South Lake Tahoe gave way to a dark and twisting road. We headed up, up, up toward Emerald Bay. How amazing that just a few minutes’ drive from the city can deposit you in what feels like a such a remote and quiet place! Well, it looked quiet, but we found it was anything but when we opened the car doors. Eagle Falls rumbled and crashed in the night. The wet winter had transformed it from a trickle to a gushing river careening down the mountains. This would be our spot.

It was 11:00pm, and I struggled to guide the ladies through their first experience in night photography. Uneven ground, dim moonlight, a cold breeze, and one seriously cheap tripod (remind me to replace that one, babe!) meant that the odds were against us. There was no shortage of trial and error out there under the stars. But strange and wonderful things can begin to appear when you open your camera shutter for 15 seconds at a time. And sure enough, we the beauty of the world around began to reveal itself…

Somewhere around the midnight hour, all three of us could feel that it was time to go. Or maybe that it was that we couldn’t feel our hands in the cold any longer. Whatever the case, we looked up from our cameras at each other and signaled we were done. All three of us had work the next morning, you know, not in South Lake Tahoe.

We hopped in the car and headed back down into the valley, swapping stories of photographic failures (“That moon was too bright for Milky Way shots!”) and successes (“Did you see those skies?”). We traded questions about how we could have tackled things differently. We chatted about our hopes for the rest of the summer. And then the ladies fell asleep to the sounds of Imagine Dragons.

I was tired too after a crazy all-in-a-day road trip, and I’d pay for it the next morning (my kids don’t believe in sleeping in). But for the moment, I had a big dumb grin plastered all over my face.

“A life lived to the full”, right Michele?

This post includes images by both P.J. and Erica Oswald.

Did any of these photos strike your fancy? You’ll find prints of a few of these available at my Wanderlust Landscape Gallery.