The Zen of Bonsai Rock at Lake Tahoe

If you’re looking for a serene spot to enjoy or photograph the sunset at Lake Tahoe, there are few better locations than Bonsai Rock. It’s one of the hidden gems of Lake Tahoe, and a really unique photo location. This is because the distinctive feature of this location is a large rock with some plant life and a few miniature trees (spoiler alert: they aren’t actually bonsai trees, they just look like them) growing out of it.

It’s like renowned scientist Dr. Ian Malcolm famously quipped: “life finds a way.” That’s an impressive feat here, as that life managed to grow out of a rock in a lake. If Guardians of the Galaxy taught me anything, it’s that raccoons can be deadly if properly equipped–but that’s not pertinent to this. It also taught me that trees have personality. I can only imagine what kind of determined, stubborn temperament required for a tree to grow out of a rock. It must be like the Grumpy Cat of trees.

I’m not the most scientifically-inclined person–if my reliance on movies about a dinosaur theme park and super hero creatures didn’t clue you in–so I cannot even fathom how this tree exists, and what type of natural anomaly it is. In all seriousness, when I see something like this tree, or a lone tree standing amidst a waterfall, I pause to contemplate how unlikely its very existence.

No doubt there is a valid scientific explanation for this, but I’d have to imagine the odds are very much against it occurring. Hence it being such a photogenic scene. Bonsai Rock wouldn’t be nearly as iconic if rocks everywhere had trees growing out of them. The pause it gives you when standing in front of the rock coupled with the beautiful, tranquil waters of Lake Tahoe make this a must-see, and well worth doing, in my opinion.

This is especially true if you’re staying in Incline Village, which is fairly close to Bonsai Rock, but true even if you’re in South Lake Tahoe and have to drive a bit to see it. Bonsai Rock is located in the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe and it’s ridiculously easy to find, despite zero signage and no dedicated overlook.

This is what makes it such a great photography spot: if you know where to look, it’s simple to locate, but it’s not overrun with tourists because if you don’t know where to look, there’s no way of knowing it’s there.

I would provide specific directions for getting to Bonsai Rock, but since it’s (accurately) listed on Google Maps, but won’t be necessary for the vast majority of you reading this who have smart phones. However, here are some basics.  Let’s assume that you’re getting to Bonsai Rock from the Northeast corner of Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada side of the lake (since this is what makes most sense).

Leaving the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe and Incline Village, and driving south, you’ll pass Sand Harbor State Park. Approximately 2 miles after that, there are pullouts on the right side of the road. When you hit the second of these, you’re at approximately the right spot.

However, it gets even easier…as you can literally see Bonsai Rock from the top of the pullout (but not from the road itself). If you don’t see Bonsai Rock, you’re in the wrong spot. In terms of trails, there is no official trailhead or marked trail, but there are half-formed paths in the dirt that you can take down.

Really, though, as far as trails go, it’s more a scramble than anything else. I’ve been down to Bonsai Rock a few times, and each time, I’ve taken a different route. The trek down being a scramble might dissuade you, but don’t let it. When I was first researching this location, several other photographers made it sound like the hike was treacherous and perilous, but I think that was more to make themselves sound adventurous in getting a “tough” shot. Although steep and having loose rock, it’s not too bad of a hike. The total time from the pullout to the shore is maybe 5 to 10 minutes. It’s not bad at all (just don’t go barefoot or in open-toe footwear).

As for when to go to Bonsai Rock, there’s really no bad time. I have yet to do sunrise, but that’s probably the most serene time to be down on the water (this is true elsewhere at Lake Tahoe) and the morning light is going to slowly illuminate the tree, and then the rock. The downside to this is that it might take the morning sun a bit of time after sunrise time to broach the mountains.

The middle of the day is actually fine, too, especially if you have clouds in the sky, as this is best for picking up the beautiful emerald color of the water. The downside here is that, if you visit in the summer, this is going to be the busiest time on Lake Tahoe, so it won’t exactly be serene.

My favorite time thus far–and when most of the photos in this post were taken–is sunset. This is the most popular time for photographers, but Bonsai Rock isn’t really a photography hotspot, so it’s not like you’re going to be fighting 20 other people for the best spot (there are tons of options for different perspectives, anyway). At sunset, the sun will be backlighting the rock, so you can shoot into the sun and get sunbursts or flare, too. That’s always my personal preference when shooting the sunset or sunrise.

Like I said earlier in the post, it’s definitely a spot to check out if you’re already in Lake Tahoe. I wouldn’t make a 900 mile pilgrimage to lay eyes upon it, but if you only have to go an hour or so, it’s a no-brainer. It has the perfect combination of distinctive, photogenic-ness coupled with off-the-beaten path-ness to make for an excellent location to photograph, or simply watch and enjoy, the sunset. There is most definitely a zen-like quality to this location, and that’s not just because it’s called Bonsai Rock.

For these photos, I used my Nikon D810 and Nikon D750Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 LensNikon 24-70mm f/2.8 Lens, and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR Lens. I also used my MeFoto travel tripod.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. To get some more photo ideas, check out my Lake Tahoe Photo Gallery, which includes additional shots. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

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Your Thoughts…

Have you visited Lake Tahoe? When down to Bonsai Rock? Do you think this rock with defiant little trees growing out of it looks cool? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have, in the comments!

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3 replies
  1. Tonya Holcomb
    Tonya Holcomb says:


    I have at Lake Tahoe in September 2013 for Ironman Lake Tahoe. While everyone was focused on the Ironman event, I was able to photograph Bonsai Rock and Sand Harbor alone. I think tripods make excellent hiking sticks getting down to Bonsai rocks!

    All my best, Tonya Herring Holcomb

  2. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    Man….you really made up for lost time this week! I definitely need to go back and reprocess my shots after seeing these. All of them are gorgeous but that last one is just over the top. Nicely done!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yeah, I have significantly cut down the size of my photo backlog, and have actually written out a tentative posting schedule for TravelCaffeine, so it doesn’t keep getting slighted. My goal is to have most of my backlog eliminated by the start of 2016.

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