Rock On: Go hiking and discover the most unique rock formations around Tahoe

About 85 to 120 million years ago, magma from an arc of erupting volcanoes solidified deep in the Earth’s crust and began forming the Sierra Nevada. Tectonic plates began to shift, causing the mountain range to rise, reaching its current height about 5 million years ago. Millions of years after the mountains began to grow, glaciers formed and retreated in a series of ice ages, helping to shape the landscape’s peaks and valleys. Erosion from wind, rain, snow and waterways continues to leave its mark on the mountain range today.

Around the Tahoe Basin, you’ll find unique rock formations that bear witness to this multi-million-year process. From a primate-shaped boulder in Incline Village to a castle-like rock formation towering over Stateline, explore the diverse geology of the Sierra Nevada on your hiking trails.

Castle Rock

Overlooking Stateline and offering stunning views of Lake Tahoe, Castle Rock sits at 7,900 feet in elevation. As you drive through the community below, you can see the jagged peaks of the rock structure poking out from among the trees. You might think they resemble the battlements of a castle, but the best place to experience Castle Rock is from the very top.

The hike to Castle Rock is worth it with breathtaking views of Tahoe and the South Shore community

The hike to Castle Rock begins with a drive up the Kingsbury Grade to the Kingsbury North Trailhead (to get there off the main road, you’ll wind through residential areas, so it’s best to use the GPS feature on the AllTrails app, which will take you right to the trailhead).

Rated moderately difficult, the approximately 3-mile loop trail offers beautiful views of the lake and wildflowers as you hike through the towering pines. About halfway through the hike, a turnoff takes you to Castle Rock, where you can take the loop trail back to the parking lot.

Note that Peregrine Falcons are once again nesting on the summit of Castle Rock, so avoid climbing Castle Rock during the nesting season, which is typically April to July, to avoid disturbing these once-endangered birds.

Balancing rock

At DL Bliss State Park on Tahoe’s west shore, follow the Balancing Rock Nature Trail to discover the namesake boulder on the 0.7-mile round-trip route. This moderately short hike with just under 200 feet of elevation gain winds through pine trees and other large boulders before ending at Balancing Rock, a seemingly giant boulder precariously perched on top of a smaller one. In fact, erosion has formed the sculptural structure, which provides a great photo opportunity on this family-friendly hike.

Monkey Rock

In Incline Village, a granite boulder bears a striking resemblance to a monkey enjoying the view of Big Blue. Although some carving is believed to have been done to enhance the rock’s already primate-like appearance, Monkey Rock is a great hiking destination that offers a stunning panorama of the lake from above. To see the famous boulder, take a 2.6-mile round-trip hike that starts at the same trailhead as the East Shore Trail near Tunnel Creek Cafe (again, AllTrails’ GPS directions are a tried-and-true tool for navigating trailheads). Although the trail gets steep at times—there’s nearly 500 feet of elevation gain on this short hike—Monkey Rock is a great outing for all ages.

Monkey Rock is an iconic destination in Incline Village
NDOT highway camera

Cave Rock

The best value hike in Tahoe may be the 0.8-mile round-trip hike to the top of Cave Rock in Zephyr Cove. Although many have driven through the 300-foot monolith that towers over the east shore, the trail to the top of the rock is less well-known but still quite popular. (There is very limited parking at the trailhead, so plan accordingly.)

The easy trail requires just over 100 feet of elevation gain, but rewards you with stunning 360-degree views of the lake and surrounding mountains. However, proceed with caution and treat the area with respect. For the Washoe tribe of Nevada and California, the original inhabitants of Lake Tahoe, De’ek wadapush (Standing Gray Rock) is a powerful, sacred site that should only be visited by shamans. In fact, in 2003, after a decades-long battle, the U.S. Forest Service made the controversial decision to ban climbing on Cave Rock due to its cultural significance, but continue to allow hiking.

Cave Rock on Tahoe’s east shore offers incredible views of the lake below.
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Bonsai Rocks

Located on the east shore of Tahoe, Bonsai Rock is a popular spot for photographers. On a large boulder in the lake, four small trees sprout from a crack, perfectly shaped as if they were crafted in the Japanese art of bonsai. The trees likely took root after bird droppings or a storm planted the seeds in a small amount of soil trapped in the crevice.

There is no official signage for Bonsai Rock, so you’ll have to do a bit of exploring to get to the shore from NV-28. If you’re coming from the south end of the lake, you’ll have to hike down about 6.5 miles after turning off US-50 onto NV-28. From the north, it’s about 1 mile south of Sand Harbor.

To truly experience the magic of Bonsai Rock, bring a kayak or paddleboard to view the rock from the water.

Eagle Rock

Enjoy the sunset at Eagle Rock on the west coast of Tahoe.

Eagle Rock protrudes from the tree line on the Homewood shore, offering stunning lake views for the price of a short and pleasant 0.7-mile round-trip hike. Eagle Rock is a popular day-hike destination, but there’s arguably no better time to make the short climb than at sunset. Find the trailhead on West Lake Boulevard and follow the rocky path to the summit of the volcanic outcrop, which sits at 6,200 feet. According to Sierra Nevada Geotourism, a website developed by the Sierra Business Council, Sierra Nevada Conservancy and National Geographic Society, early photos in the Tahoe Tattler newspaper show that Eagle Rock was used for recreational purposes as early as 1881.

A version of this story appears in the latest Tahoe Magazine. For more magazine articles, visit