Follow the River: A Sustainable Travel Guide to Reno and Lake Tahoe

Text: John Garry | Photo: Reno Tahoe

Traveling along the Truckee River is like following an outdoor adventure park. From the pine-studded peaks along Nevada’s western border to the wide-open desert north and east of Reno, the 121-mile waterway and the landscape through which it courses offer opportunities for hiking, biking, floating, and fishing.

But this rambling river is more than a recreation destination — it’s a life force for the entire Reno Tahoe region. The Truckee contributes 80% of the municipal water supply for Reno and surrounding towns. It’s home to the Lahonton cutthroat trout, a threatened species, and feeds into Pyramid Lake where you can find cui-ui fish, a species endemic to the lake. It’s the raison d’etre for many small businesses, bolstering the region’s economy. The health of the Truckee directly impacts the health of its communities — and for us travelers, helping care for the river is imperative to protecting everything along its path.

Luckily, acting as an environmental steward in Reno Tahoe is also the best way to experience its treasures. Paddle down whitewater rapids. Pedal through a Sierra Nevada canyon. Shop at creative mom-and-pop stores. Follow the Truckee, and sustainable travel becomes a pleasure cruise. At the same time, make sure to follow the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace to minimize your impact.

Armed with this knowledge and these travel goals, you can embrace the way of the river. Let’s get started.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Reno Tahoe and Leave No Trace.

The Truckee River begins its journey as an outflow of Lake Tahoe, a topaz jewel glistening in the Sierra Nevada along the California-Nevada border. With 72 miles of scenic shoreline, this is North America’s largest alpine lake, sitting 6,245 feet above sea level and surrounded by peaks that climb more than 4,000 feet higher.

Throughout the year, Lake Tahoe’s four seasons inspire roughly 15 million annual visitors to strap on skis, trek through flower-filled meadows, and hop in watercraft to float across the water. To combat the threat of over-tourism, plan outings that promise to leave the region even more beautiful than you found it.

Paddle Lake Tahoe’s ultra-clear shoreline

One of the most enjoyable ways to keep Lake Tahoe’s waters pristine is by swapping a gas-powered boat for a kayak or paddleboard. The Lake Tahoe Water Trail follows the lake’s entire 72-mile shoreline, with 20 marked trailheads making it an easy way to enjoy the tranquility of the lake, whether you want to tackle single or multiple sections.

For a solo exploration of the northern granite-boulder beaches, try a portion of the 15.9-mile Sand Harbor Route as it floats above underwater rock gardens near Incline Village. Clearly Tahoe Rentals, a kayak-and-paddleboard company, leads guided expeditions where experts teach travelers how to protect the local ecosystem all while soaking up the endless, natural beauty.

Leave No Trace tips

Dispose of waste properly. While paddling Lake Tahoe, the only thing left behind should be your boat’s wake. Be prepared to carry trash until you find a proper receptacle. Also be sure to leave those plants, rocks, and archaeological artifacts as you find them so the next person can enjoy them, too.

Seek out whitewater

From May to September, the Truckee lets its hair down with Class 2 and 3+ rapids that can be experienced on guided whitewater expeditions. Everyone from first-time rafters to paddle pros can appreciate the river’s power while racing through the volcanic canyons of the High Sierra as the river descends from Lake Tahoe to the Great Basin.

One of the most exhilarating sections is a 7-mile stretch starting in Boca, where calm swimming holes give way to Floriston Gorge’s raging waters. Tributary Whitewater Tours and Tahoe Whitewater Tours lead half-day trips along this section of the Truckee.

Leave No Trace tips

After working up an appetite, refuel at one of the area’s farm-to-table restaurants. Old Granite Street Eatery offers delicious burgers and sandwiches made from locally sourced beef patties. They also have a market for takeout and grocery items like cage-free eggs and oat milk. Mari Chuy’s Mexican Kitchen is all about using ingredients from local farmers. Try out some of their amazing chile relleno, tacos, and margaritas.

But if you’re cooking onsite, minimize the effects of your campfire by using an existing ring, making sure there is abundant wood in the area, and putting the fire out with water, not dirt. Better yet, use a camp stove.

Hike through meadows ringed by mountains

Craggy mountains circle Lake Tahoe like a crown, crisscrossed with trails for all types of hikers. In North Lake Tahoe, the easy 1.7-mile Stateline Lookout trail leads to splendid lake views. For something more strenuous, try the 5-mile hike through boulder fields and summer wildflowers to Shirley Lake – a half-day adventure.

If you’re searching for an epic quest, consider the 170-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, which covers six counties and two states while skirting through four national forests, three wilderness areas, and hopping over the Truckee River. Short segments can be hiked or biked in a day, while backpacking the entirety takes roughly two weeks.

Leave No Trace tips

The Lake Tahoe region has some of the nation’s tastiest tap water. Fill a reusable bottle to enjoy the award-winning H2O while protecting the planet from plastic waste.

Stay on designated trails as much as possible. Using multiple routes can scar the beautiful landscape. If you do need to go off-trail (perhaps for a bathroom break), consider the durability of the natural surface. Rock, sand, and gravel are highly durable, most vegetation is not.

Photo credits: topseller/Shutterstock, topseller/Shutterstock, Tommy Larey/Shutterstock, Jessica Ruscello/Shutterstock, and Reno Tahoe.

As the Truckee River snakes northeast from Lake Tahoe, it leaves the mountains for Nevada’s sun-drenched desert valleys and flows through downtown Reno.

You might think you’d lose sight of the river as it passes through the urban environment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Reno has made a point of embracing this regional lifeblood, and visitors can stroll, bike, or kayak along the Truckee River through the heart of downtown. It’s a truly unique way to discover all the art installations, quirky shops, and inventive restaurants packed into the “Biggest Little City in the World.”

Shop, dine, and play in downtown Reno

To see some of the city’s top sights, stick to the paved trail paralleling the Truckee as it meanders from Idlewild Park to Wingfield Park. Known as the Reno Riverwalk, this pedestrian path passes a healthy helping of restaurants, boutiques, and bars. For an escape into nature just minutes from downtown, take a stroll through Oxbow Nature Study Area. The accessible .8-mile loop trail takes you through native flora along the banks of the river.

Start or end your journey by grabbing grub at the West Street Market, a collection of eateries dedicated to the city’s local and organic food movement. Supporting small businesses like Thali (sustainably sourced North Indian cuisine) and the Pizza Collective (pies topped with farm-fresh ingredients) is a tasty way to boost the local economy while reducing carbon emissions from chain restaurants that import food from far away.

If you’re raring to get on the water, consider putting in at the Truckee River Whitewater Park, a half-mile course along the riverwalk where people kayak, canoe, and tube through Class 2 and 3 rapids. Another popular option is to jump in upstream at Mayberry Park or Crissy Caughlin Park, then float into downtown to enjoy the amenities along the river.

Leave No Trace tips

However you traverse the Truckee, be considerate of others. Don’t let your unleashed pet or excessive noise diminish the appeal of the great outdoors.

In the market for eco-friendly threads? Check out downtown Reno’s Patagonia Outlet to support a company dedicated to protecting the earth, or buy gently used designer duds from Labels Consignment Boutique.

See the Truckee River from a scientist’s point of view

Dive deep into Truckee environmentalism by visiting the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum – a science-centered exploration center with 67,000 square feet of interactive galleries.

Truckee Connects, a hands-on display that mimics the river’s path, offers opportunities to learn about recreation, hydroelectric power, and wildlife habitats along the waterway. For an immersive introduction to Nevada’s water cycle, kids can ascend the Cloud Climber – a 45-foot-tall jungle gym that looks like a modern art sculpture.

Leave No Trace tips

Continue teaching children about environmental stewardship with at-home lessons from Take Care Tahoe, which covers everything from identifying local flora to understanding the impacts of climate change.

Practice quiet observation of wildlife with your children, too. Protect yourself, your children, and your pets by keeping your distance from animals so they’re not scared or forced to run.

Photo credits: Reno Tahoe, Elizabeth A. Cummings/Shutterstock, and Hank Erdmann/Shutterstock.

Pyramid Lake, a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan, is the Truckee River’s terminus, located 35 miles north of Reno on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation. Its rippling waters cover roughly 125,000 acres, making it Nevada’s biggest natural lake and one of the largest desert lakes in the world. Wrapped by beaches and sprinkled with mesmerizing tufa rock formations, this magnificent body of water is a prime destination for cyclists (who can ride the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail), campers, boaters, and especially anglers, who come to catch cui-ui fish, found nowhere else on the planet.

The lake’s natural resources have been vital to regional Indigenous communities for centuries, and today, the Paiute people act as its safekeepers. Follow their lead to respect this fragile ecosystem.

Visit a museum that honors Indigenous heritage

Long before white colonizers moved west across North America, the Paiute practiced fishing along Pyramid Lake’s shores. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum recounts the culture’s sacred origins while chronicling the unsettling history of how the United States stole and degraded local land.

Indigenous artifacts and crafts give visitors space to appreciate Paiute culture and consider how colonization and industrialization negatively impacted the region.

Leave No Trace tips

Protect the land by following the Pyramid Lake Tribal Code and Regulations, which include purchasing permits for activities like swimming, camping, boating, and fishing. More generally, planning ahead and preparing for your trip helps ensure your safety and helps to minimize resource damage.

Fish for trophy-worthy trout and cui-ui

Casting a line at Pyramid Lake can lead to some of America’s most exciting freshwater catches. In addition to the endangered cui-ui fish, anglers arrive with hopes of netting Lahontan cutthroat trout — a native species from the Pleistocene Era that can grow well over 20 pounds.

Fishing trips led by Pyramid Fly Co. help make the most of big-catch ambitions by providing top-notch gear, fly fishing lessons, and assistance once visitors finally hook a colossal specimen. Another excellent option is Kooyooe Pa’a Guides, which is run by Autumn Harry, the first Pauite woman to become a guide at Pyramid Lake.

Leave No Trace tips

Overfishing by white settlers decimated cutthroat trout populations by the 1930s. Today, after decades of successful recovery efforts, anglers must follow local laws to prevent it from happening again, which includes releasing catches that don’t match Paiute size regulations. You should also be sure to clean up used fishing line and dispose of it properly.

Follow the Truckee River on a cycling tour

Slow down to see the entire Truckee River along the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail, a network of hike-and-cycle paths that will eventually cover 114 miles while descending 2,500 feet in elevation. The trail system is over 80% complete, linking a combination of dirt and paved paths, historic roads, and bridges that whiz from Tahoe City to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation.

Cyclists traveling without a set of wheels can find bike rentals in Reno and around Lake Tahoe. Portions of the trail, split into five sections that range from 10 to 24 miles, occasionally close for poor weather or maintenance. Check the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail website for the most up-to-date information. For a guided biking tour along the river, hit up Tahoe Adventure Company.

Leave No Trace tips

Burning fossil fuels in vehicles with internal combustion engines contributes to our warming climate and threatens the river’s future. Whether you bike, hike, or paddle, see how much of the region you can explore without pressing down on a gas pedal.

And remember: Being considerate of other visitors includes staying in control while mountain biking and yielding to hikers and equestrians. Announce your presence when passing and always proceed with caution.

Photo credits: Neil Lockhart/Shutterstock, CSNafzger/Shutterstock, Reno Tahoe, Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock, Reno Tahoe, and aaronj9/Shutterstock.

With so much to do around Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Pyramid Lake, it’s possible to stay in one destination and never get bored. But part of the Truckee River’s appeal is watching how quickly its surroundings change. Travel between all three destinations to see pine forests peppered with glacial boulders give way to cottonwood thickets that spring from desert playas.

North of the Truckee lies the 315,000-acre Black Rock Desert, the sand-swept remnant of Lake Lahontan — an ancient body of water that once included Pyramid Lake. Although best known as the annual site of Burning Man, the gateway to this semi-arid region is a year-round playground for outdoor escapades…featuring some curious water features.

Ooo and ahh over gushing desert geysers

Drive an hour north of Pyramid Lake, and you’ll eventually end up at the sustainably minded Fly Ranch – a 3,800-acre parcel of land on the Black Rock Desert’s southern border. The dry landscape contains a surprising amount of aquatic features, including 800 acres of marshland, 150 pools, and rainbow-hued geysers that spurt geothermal water.

Join a 2.5-hour guided walking tour provided by the Burning Man Project and Friends of Black Rock-High Rock to learn about the area. The 3-mile trek travels from wildlife-filled wetlands to Fly Geyser, a 6-foot mound of calcium carbonate that shoots boiling water into the air and forms natural hot springs from its runoff.

Leave No Trace tips

Fly Ranch is an essential habitat for everything from nesting birds to jackrabbits and coyotes. Respect local fauna by keeping a safe distance and practicing quiet observation. This land is their sanctuary – don’t displace them by making it seem unsafe.

Photo credits: Neil Lockhart/Shutterstock, Rylandwest/Shutterstock, Danita Delimont/Shutterstock, and Gary Gilardi/Shutterstock.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Reno Tahoe and Leave No Trace.