Every trip to Lake Tahoe starts with the same question: north shore or south shore? While in summer, Tahoe’s north shore offers a quiet nature experience and the south shore beckons the crowds bouncing from jet skis to casinos, the winter season choice is based on ski resorts like the north’s Squaw Alpine and the south’s Heavenly.
If you ask me, though, having toured the area many times as a Northern California native, that age-old quandary is a trick question. That’s because the region’s real treat lies just south of South Lake Tahoe in lesser-known Hope Valley, which I visited most recently last fall. Here is why Hope Valley is the place to go in greater South Lake Tahoe.
Twenty miles and a world away from Tahoe
Pulling off the Carson Pass Highway at Pickett’s Junction, I might have thought I’d overshot my destination were it not for a sign for the Hope Valley Wildlife Area. Fall had begun to work its Midas magic on the valley’s aspens, turning the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada gold like the groves a few states over in Colorado’s Rockies.
A trio of informational placards, and what I later learned was Pickett’s Peak in the distance, confirmed that I’d arrived in Hope Valley. A hunting and fishing ground of the indigenous Washoe people for millennia, they explained, Pewetzali Yewe was given its English name by Mormon settlers around the start of the Gold Rush. A few paces down the highway, a commemorative rock elaborated on the valley’s heritage, noting its place on the Pony Express.
Today, it’s mainly outdoor recreationists who pass through this pocket of Alpine County, the least populated county in all of California. Trout species and small game draw anglers and hunters to the wildlife area. Hikers and mountain bikers favor the region’s granite peaks.
At the first sign of snowfall, skiers descend on the nearby Kirkwood Resort, although the valley’s cross-country trails are well-worn in their own right. Then, as winter melts into spring, Carson Pass trades enviable foliage for carpets of wildflowers, becoming a showroom for Western dog violets and blue-eyed Marys, sunny buttercups and bright red fireworks of Indian paintbrush.
Hope Valley stays dressed in its seasonal best year-round. And no matter the month, it facilitates every bit of adventure Tahoe travelers covet, including access to Big Blue itself. The only thing missing here, thankfully, is the crowds — even compared to North Lake Tahoe.
A land of lakes but not the one you think
Visitors to the Tahoe area rarely need reminding to spend time lakeside. During summer, there’s little that can pry kayakers, paddleboarders, and water skiers from Lake Tahoe’s glassy surface — except perhaps the temptation to cool off with a plunge. Winter hardly deters boaters. Others break from the surrounding pistes to skirt the lake on snowshoes.
In Hope Valley, however, travelers can expect a surprising suggestion: skip Lake Tahoe altogether. Although the valley sits just 20 miles from the region’s most famous body of water, it’s ringed by lakes that feel private by comparison.
Caples Lake tops the list. Gaining roughly 1,000 feet in elevation over Lake Tahoe, this high-alpine swimming hole off the Carson Pass Highway opens to the best of Eldorado National Forest, with trails feeding into the Mokelumne Wilderness for hikers. It’s also stocked with rainbow and brown trout, which swim alongside natives species like lake trout, for both summertime anglers and ice fishers to enjoy.
Fly fishers may prefer the West Fork Carson River, which begins at Lost Lake roughly 20 miles northeast of Hope Valley and runs right through. Day hikers have options for exploring any of the region’s myriad lakes on foot, though the three-mile Scotts Lake trail and 2.5-mile Crater Lake trail that ascends toward Stevens Peak are pleasant and accessible. Both start from the Blue Lakes Road turnoff a few minutes south of Hope Valley.
Naturally, the Blue Lakes are a draw in their own right. Home to multiple campgrounds, this pristine cluster of lakes is a boon for boaters and floaters alike on hot summer days.
A slice of history and a scoop of cobbler
In the middle of it all is the Wylder Hotel Hope Valley, formerly Sorensen’s Resort. Soon approaching its centennial, the property was founded by Danish immigrant and onetime Carson Valley ranchhand Martin Sorensen, who built a handful of cabins near Pickett’s Junction in 1926 that has been frequented ever since.
Since becoming a Wylder hotel in 2019, the resort has undergone renovations to its 30 rustic yet well-appointed cabins — think little to no internet access but a fully equipped kitchen and even fuller spice rack — which share the 165-acre property with seven deluxe yurts, 14 tent and RV sites, and a lone Spartan trailer for the hip, modern glamper. These accommodations are joined by a newly redone general store and the on-site cafe, Sorensen’s.
No cafe on the edge of wilderness, in this case Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, has any business sporting a menu as extensive or artful as Sorensen’s, which pays tribute to the resort’s legacy not only in name but also in two of its offerings: the berry cobbler, a nearly 100-year-old recipe that joins sweets like the classic apple pie (also sold at the general store) on the dessert menu, and the beef Burgundy stew, which is tellingly served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Local mountain bikers and road bikers alike cycle through Sorensen’s to fuel up for their rides, joining overnight guests on the wide-open patio. For hotel guests, though, after a hearty meal or long day outdoors — be it on Popo’s Trail right out your cabin door, a more strenuous hike up Pickett’s Peak, or a tour of the property’s fishing holes and fire pits — there’s yet another luxury awaiting mere feet from the cafe: a private, wood-fired sauna to reflect on the day’s adventures.
Continue south for a night on the town — albeit a quiet one
After a few days in Hope Valley, most travelers will have forgotten all about the nightclubs and casinos that keep South Lake Tahoe awake well into the morning. While the proximity is comforting, Tahoe’s noisier shore might even be jarring after acclimating to the wilderness sounds 30 minutes south. On the other hand, you may find yourself wanting a little more activity or a change of social scenery during a longer stay. Enter Markleeville.
The seat of Alpine County, Markleeville is located some 15 minutes southwest of Hope Valley. It’s a small community, but there is a community feel, with a modest art gallery and museum in town. If you’re looking for a tame night out, look no further than Cutthroat Brewing Company, whose drink list covers not only the requisite brews but also local wines, ciders, seltzers, boozy coffee and cocoa, and even sake-tails made with Sabe Sake. Take your choice out to the patio to wash down the better-than-expected brewery fare, including blistered shishito peppers, sizzling chicharrones, and at least six different types of burgers.
Of course, there’s nature worth discovering in Markleeville, too. Time permitting, spend an afternoon at Grover Hot Springs State Park before heading back to Hope Valley. After all, there’s nothing like a spa day in the middle of a high-alpine meadow — surrounded by even more peaks to pique your interest in a return trip.