This is an idyllic drive for those who crave tight switchbacks, tiny hamlets, and multiple alpine vistas.
The cozy mountain town of Arnold lies right at the snow line—which means there’s plenty of white stuff in winter but not so much that it’s hard to get around. Visitors can snowshoe or cross-country ski (or mountain bike or hike in summer) on the Arnold Rim Trail, a 17-mile path that offers birds-eye views from craggy Cougar Rock and a peek at San Antonio Falls. (The trailhead is located at the Sierra Nevada Logging Museum, an interesting visit for history fans.) Nearby is Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where ancient trees have awed visitors since 1852. Wander among giant sequoias on the 1.5-mile North Grove Loop and admire the gnarled Old Bachelor tree and the Siamese Twins—two sequoias that are joined together. In the more remote South Grove, a longer trail follows Big Trees Creek to gargantuan trees like the 2,000-year-old Louis Agassiz Tree, the park’s largest specimen at 250 feet high and 25 feet across.
Flanked by granite outcrops and thick forests, Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway (State Highway 4) climbs a ridge 1,000 feet above the Stanislaus River Canyon, offering sweeping views at every turnout. Nineteen miles west of Arnold, stop at Hell’s Kitchen Vista and walk a winding path through glacial erratics to Balancing Rock, where climbers strut their stuff. This distinctive chunk of granite served as an important landmark for 19th-century travelers on the Emigrant Trail. Enjoy the views of glacially carved rock, craggy volcanic peaks,and river-cut meadows, and watch for a vibrant flower tapestry in July—mule’s ears, scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, and blue flax show their colors.
Extend your playtime by renting a cabin at Lake Alpine Resort. The rustic lodge boasts a massive stone fireplace, log-lined bar, and lakeview deck— the perfect spot for a trout-and-eggs breakfast.
Turn back time with a walk through tiny Markleeville, the county seat of Alpine County, an hour’s drive from Lake Tahoe. Founded in 1861 during the Nevada silver rush, the town once boasted a population of nearly 3,000 people but today there’s only a few hundred. Many original 19th-century buildings still stand, like the Markleeville General Store, where locals and visitors hang out on the front porch. For epicurean dining, head to Stonefly, an Italian café that serves wood-fired pizzas, or get your caffeine fix at Alps Haus Café. Visit the Alpine County Museum to see the Old Webster School, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1882. Tour the mid-1800s jail, constructed with seemingly impenetrable iron doors and vertical log walls. Farming, mining, and lumbering tools are on display, plus Washoe Indian baskets and artifacts.
Enjoy epicurean dining at Stonefly.
About an hour’s drive southeast of Lake Tahoe, just west of the quiet mountain town of Markleeville, mineral springs bubble up from the earth at Grover Hot Springs State Park. Since the 1850s, people have flocked to “take the cure” in these restorative waters, which are fed from six different springs containing low amounts of sulfur. That means you won’t notice the strong “rotten-egg” smell of many hot spring pools. The water emerges from underground at a scalding 148°F, but it’s cooled down before it’s piped into the park’s two concrete pools—one for soaking at a safe 103°F, the other a pleasant temperature for swimming and splashing.
The pools are open most of the year (hours may vary during the off-season/winter period, September through May, so call ahead; 530-694-2249). The state park also has a 76-site campground and hiking trails, some easy scrambles for the kids (don’t miss the walk to the waterfall along Hot Springs Creek), as well as longer treks into surrounding alpine regions.