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North Lake Tahoe Hiking Trails: Tunnel Creek and Marlette Lake

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Marlette Lake via Tunnel Creek and the Flume Trail

This is one of my favorite Lake Tahoe hikes, mostly because the trailhead is within walking distance of my home, and also because the views are amazing.  In late fall, around October, the crowds die down and photographers are treated to a palette of bright yellow and oranges, dark greens, and deep blues.  But it is significantly longer (almost double) the route to Marlette Lake via North Canyon.

  • top trails tahoeTrailhead: Tunnel Creek Rd, near Highway 28 and Lakeshore Blvd in Incline Village.
    Open in Google Maps.
  • Length: 15 miles round trip; plan for 6-7 hours.
  • Difficulty: Moderate due to steady, respectable climb in the beginning.  Elevation gain is about 1,400′, all in the first couple of miles.  It’s flat after that.
  • Usage:  Hikers, horses, and pets allowed.  Heavy mountain biking use.  $1 for walk-ins at the self-service station.
  • Best Time for Photography: You can start up in mid-morning and photograph west across the lake with the sun at your back, then arrive at Marlette Lake and photograph to the east.  On the way back, some great sunsets can be photographed on the Flume Trail portion, but be prepared to hoof it back to your car in the dark.
  • Are Drones Allowed: No, lies within Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park.
  • Trail Info Current: June 24, 2017
  • Further Reading: Top Trails: Lake Tahoe: Must-Do Hikes for Everyone
  • Go back to Lake Tahoe Hikes map

Plots created using digital topographic map data, not actual GPS logs. Distance and elevation profiles are approximate.

Tunnel Creek to Marlette Lake Narrative

The Tunnel Creek trailhead starts at Tunnel Creek Road, behind the Tunnel Creek Cafe (a great spot for a beer and a sandwich before or after your hike!).  If you’re not going to patronize this business, please park in the dirt shoulder along Highway 28 as this parking lot gets crowded during summer months with people who are giving them business.  The pavement road going uphill behind the cafe quickly turns to a dirt road with a self-serve fee station entering Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park.

The biggest climbs are at the beginning, and the areas around the switchbacks are exposed to the sun – and it can get hot in summer months.  The switchbacks are a good place to rest and take in some of the early views provided on the trail.

lake tahoe sunset

After the first climbs and switchbacks, the path, still a dirt road, goes through areas shaded with groves of aspens and pines, losing the lake view.  At approximately three miles you’ll get to a three-way intersection.  Don’t worry, it’s signed.  A left turn will take you to the Tahoe Rim Trail and Twin Lakes.  Continuing straight will take you to Marlette Lake via the Flume Trail.  Or, if you look to your right you’ll see a group of boulders that is a nice rest stop with views of the lake peeking through the pines.

flume trail view

You’ll mostly be on dirt singletrack after starting the Flume Trail.  This is one of the most popular mountain bike rides on the west coast, so keep an eye out for bikers navigating the tricky, winding path and yield to them (my favorite bikers ring bells as they’re cruising around the blind corners).

This section of the trail only climbs a few hundred feet over the next four miles.  It starts out covered by pines but you’ll quickly find yourself on the cliffside looking almost straight down upon Sand Harbor and Lake Tahoe!

The trail will then go back into a forested area.  You’ll cross a small wooden bridge and make a very short climb up to the left to Marlette Lake, where it’s dammed on the west shore.  From there you can continue to the right around the shoreline, but you can’t circumnavigate the lake back to the Flume Trail.

marlette lake

Fall aspens and the old homesite reflecting in the still, morning waters of Marlette Lake.

Follow the trail back down to Tunnel Creek.  I’ll cover the “direct” route to Chimney Beach in another post.

Marlette Lake History

Marlette Lake is man-made, as evidenced by the earth fill dam you cross getting to the lake.  It was dammed back in the mining days when the Lake Tahoe basin provided lumber and water for the mining operations in and around Virginia City.  It was known as the Marlette Lake Water System.

You’ll come to Tunnel Creek Station about 2.5 miles up from the start of the trail, marked by an interpretive sign and some large rusted pipes.  One end of a tunnel was excavated here in 1877, which brought water east through the ridge to another network of flumes and pipes on the back side, eventually ending up in Washoe Valley.

As you enter the Flume Trail portion of the hike, keep an eye out for old timber and rusted square nails.  These were once a part of a covered wooden aqueduct, built in 1877 coincident with the tunnel.  This aqueduct carried water down that narrow dirt cliffside path, from Marlette Lake to Tunnel Creek Station and then through the tunnel.

flume trail

Pieces of lumber and nails from the 19th century water flume are still scattered along the Flume Trail.

The water was delivered down the mountain to Washoe Valley, and in one of the most impressive engineering feats of the American Mining West, the water then climbed almost 2,000′ to the mines through an inverted siphon.  The system siphoned almost 4 million gallons of water per day up the mountain to the mines.

The entire system is now on the National Registrar of Historic Places.

Tips for the Tunnel Creek – Flume Trail – Marlette Lake Hike

  • For photographers – I never have any need to carry the weight of a telephoto lens on this hike.
  • I mentioned it before, this trail is busy.  You’ll have to go through spotty patches of snow in early spring, and possibly into late spring, to avoid the summer crowds.  Or you can go in the late fall, as I prefer, when the aspens are changing color.  Even during the off-season the trail is crowded on the weekends – I try to go during the week.
tahoe views

Sand Harbor and Crystal Bay from the Flume Trail in late afternoon.

tahoe sunset

Corrections, suggestions, or questions?  Please leave a comment below!

Karen Kehoe

Wednesday 1st of December 2021

I just came upon this article on Pinterest! Good info! Thank you. Hoping to go to Incline Village area next May 2022. Middle of the month: hopefully not too crowded (?) Would love to do this hike. Do you know if the Heavenly gondola will be open in mid-May? I heard there are good hikes to do at the top.

John Peltier

Thursday 2nd of December 2021

Hi Karen, I imagine it will probably be fairly crowded. Our main tourist season is between Memorial Day and Labor Day, though in recent years it seems to have gotten more and more crowded. I can't speak to the gondola; their schedule is largely based on how much snow there is and we won't know that until we're there :)

Alicia Baker

Tuesday 17th of May 2016

If I ever go back to Lake Tahoe, I'm definitely adding this to my hiking to-do list there! I was in LT about 10 years ago...I'm due for another trip! Saving this to Pinteres! - Alicia @

John Peltier

Tuesday 17th of May 2016

Thanks, this is one of my absolute favorite fall hikes and the photos don't come close to doing it justice! And there's a really cool cafe at the bottom of the hill to top it off!