While thousands flock to the Tahoe region ski resorts when a storm promises fresh powder, a smaller group of thrill-seekers head to a place where no one’s queued up at the lift: the shoreline of Lake Tahoe. In certain conditions—mainly frigid, blustery, snowy ones—this freshwater basin is transformed with powerful wind-driven swells irresistible to surfers. Call ‘em crazy, but here’s why these guys are hooked on surfing these rare conditions.
Meet Mike Rogge, the co-founder of a NorCal and Denver-based media production company; photographer Tyler Lapkin, and journalist Ryan Hughes. They’re all part of a small, passionate, and growing collective of gutsy athletes who surf (that’s right, surf) Lake Tahoe each year.
It’s a sport not for the faint of heart. Lake Tahoe’s water temperatures hover around a chilly 50 degrees in summer and get even colder in the winter when most of the surfing opportunities arise. The temperature never goes below freezing though. So if you’re daring enough—and these guys definitely are—winter surfing is most definitely a go.
Rogge hails from upstate New York, picked up surfing in Maine, and learned to properly surf in Southern California. While living in San Clemente, he was out on his board daily before work. That surf habit took a backseat to skiing when Rogge moved to the Tahoe area (he describes himself as 99.9% skier, 0.01% surfer), but several years ago, a friend asked him along to surf Lake Tahoe. He was instantly hooked. Now he’s the dedicated surf-caster among his lake surfing buddies. Frequently he surveys the conditions in person (aided by the coast guard advisories and a live feed from the website Tahoetopia) reporting via group-texts. If the waves look promising—and he estimates there’s about 10 to 12 surfing opportunities each year—he and his friends meet up, suit up, and plunge in.
This pier took a beating this morning. The surf was wicked, six to nine feet. Someone said @scottgaffski snagged a 10-11 foot wave, the biggest he’s ever surfed on Lake Tahoe. I caught three waves, blasted home to a hot shower and warm coffee. Jesus Christ, California. You’re awesome. #thisistahoe #hellastorm #pineappleexpress
Surfing Lake Tahoe is like nothing else, explains Hughes, who’s been catching waves there since 2015 and was a former regular at NorCal surf spot Botega Bay. “The water’s just gem-clear everywhere, and no matter how cold it is, you’ll be sitting on your board with snow coming down and the wind ripping through you and you’ll look up at the snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada—which is something you never get to see when you’re skiing,” he says.
Catching waves in a lake, as opposed to an ocean, is a challenge even for an experienced surfer. The waves are smaller, yet the weather conditions that produce them can make the atmosphere chaotic. “It’s kind of like you’re in a giant washing machine,” laughs Hughes. “It’s good surfing, it’s fun. But it’s windy and choppy, and the waves are being formed by these massive gusts of wind so they’re tough to anticipate and tough to catch. They’ll be coming at you from all directions. It’s not terrifying or anything because they just break on you and they’re not very powerful. But you’ll just be bobbing up and down out there, freezing, and paddling back and forth.”
Not only is riding Lake Tahoe’s waves tricky, but determining the right waves takes a good sense of timing, says Lapkin, a Tahoe City lifer and second-generation Lake Tahoe surfer. His father taught him to surf in Santa Cruz at a 12, and raised him on stories about surfing Lake Tahoe in the 1970s. “If you miss the window when it’s windy enough for waves to break, you’re out of luck,” he says. “The strong winds might not return for weeks or months. I’ve also had many days where I drive around thinking the waves are big enough, but end up getting skunked.” Lapkin divvies his time between surfing the lake and photographing others out on the water, surfing about 10 times over the last few years with another four or five photo sessions mixed in.
Dropping in on a Lake Tahoe Right. Cold winter surf sessions in the mountains. 🏄🗻 Surf Tahoe November 2016 #surf #tahoe #laketahoe #tahoelife #tahoenorth #landscape #landscapephotography #laketahoe #surfphotography #wanderlust #neverstopexploring #surfing #mountainlife #followyourbliss #travel #aloha #epic #northshore
So when should you give lake surfing a try yourself, or simply cheer on this group of athletic adventurers? The best times to surf Lake Tahoe are fall and spring, anywhere between Carnelian Bay in California to Incline Village in Nevada. Thanks to the area’s lengthy shoulder season, this means that with luck, the timing may work to complete a “California double,” aka, skiing and surfing in the same day.
“Last year you could ski, surf, and even mountain bike in the same day,” Rogge recalls. “You throw your skis on top of your car, throw your board in your car, and leave your bike at home. I’d ski in the morning, check some emails, go back out and surf for 40-45 minutes, then go home and take a hot shower. If I still had any energy left, I’d grab my bike and go for a ride.”
He adds, “And if you want to be a real California asshole you grab your skateboard and board around just to say you can do that too.”
That said, though, Rogge loves surfing Tahoe because of the lack of pretension among the community. Sure, the core group of Lake Tahoe surfers are locals, but anyone can show up with a board and a wetsuit and immediately be accepted, he says. After all, the lake’s unpredictable waves don’t attract the pros. This is a spot and a sport almost exclusively practiced by people who are passionate about the great outdoors, and want to experience absolutely everything.
Surfing the lake is a total novelty, Rogge says. “We don’t take it too seriously, which is actually quite refreshing because people take a lot of things too seriously up here. It’s just a bunch of weird mountain people doing something they found out they could do.”
Traveling to Lake Tahoe?
If you’re going to Lake Tahoe and looking for a unique accommodation, look no further than a private villa. One of our favorite Lake Tahoe-area rental homes is Evergreen Retreat, a mountainous four-bedroom luxury property on the Northstar California Resort. As a resort home, a stay at Evergreen affords you access to Tahoe Mountain Club and Treehouse Club House, where you can meet and chat with fellow outdoor sport enthusiasts or swim in the heated pool. The villa has an outdoor hot tub and firepit, and an indoor fireplace so you can warm up after a day out on the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe.
With space for 10 and a cozy living room-dining room-kitchen open concept, your surf gang, extended family, or group of friends will feel right at home at Evergreen Retreat. A winter trip is made ideal by ski-in-ski-out access. Trailside to an intermediate level trail on Northstar Resort, hitting the slopes running couldn’t be any easier. Strap on your boots and skis in the comfort of your own villa and ride the rest of the way effortlessly! The villa’s ski lodge design makes it a welcoming ski-in after you’re finished, so you can host the best apres-ski in town.
In the summer, you can easily find a scenic family hike or cycle with Lake Tahoe just 12 minutes away by car. Your very own outdoor balcony with barbeque sets you up perfectly for a private dinner, and the kitchen is fully equipped with everything you need. Ask your concierge about villa pre-stocking so all your ingredients are ready for you when you arrive, or go one step further and arrange for a private chef so you can have restaurant-quality meals in the privacy of your own home. Just remember, if the season brings cold, windy weather, grab a surfboard and join the Lake Tahoe surfers for one wild ride!