Bonsai Rock Lake Tahoe: Parking, Trail + Sunset Photos



Sunset starburst at Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe with clear sky and smooth water

Bonsai Rock is most commonly reached by a moderately difficult 0.3-mile roundtrip hike with 120 feet elevation change from a roadside parking lot on the northeastern shores of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. There’s no dedicated path to follow, so you have to forge your own route down a steep bank from NV-28 to a rocky beach close to Bonsai Rock. We knew it was one of Lake Tahoe’s most famous sunset spots, so we hiked down to the viewpoint around one hour before dusk and it didn’t disappoint.

In this guide we walk you step-by-step through getting to Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe, based on our own experiences.

Our Experience

Photographer crouched on smooth boulders with tripod and camera at dusk
Mark setting up a frame of Bonsai Rock at sunset

As travel photographers we couldn’t miss the opportunity to watch a sunset at Bonsai Rock during our 6 day trip to Lake Tahoe in November 2021. We climbed down the steep and unmaintained bank to the rocky beach area opposite Bonsai Rock and set up our tripod about an hour before the sun set.

It turned out to be a good sunset, but not a great one. The clouds were heavy and hazy on the horizon, and there was a strong enough breeze to cause ripples in the lake. But it’s a really cool photo spot and we stayed until it got dark so we could have fun with light painting and long exposures. Read more about us.

What Is Lake Tahoe’s Bonsai Rock?

Close up of a the Bonsai Rock boulder in Lake Tahoe with trees growing on top
The four small trees growing on top of the boulder

Before we get into the hike, we wanted to quickly explain what you’ll be hiking to! Bonsai Rock is a large irregularly-shaped boulder with four small bonsai trees growing out of thick cracks on its upper surface. It kind of slopes and twists, like a hairpin bend or a corner on a ski run.

Bonsai means planted in a container, and in a sense these trees have been naturally planted in soil within its wide cracks, which are serving as their container. The sun, wind and rain then combine and allow the trees to flourish.

Trail Information

  • Distance: 0.3 miles roundtrip
  • Elevation gain: 120 feet
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Bonsai Rock is located 50 feet into Lake Tahoe near a secluded rocky beach. And to reach the rocky shoreline you’ll need to navigate a steep bank with no designated trail. So you’ll park on the highway, scramble down to the rocks and walk along small boulders until you get close to Bonsai Rock.

It’s important to know that the bank isn’t easy to climb down or back up because it’s steep, sandy and slippery. We strongly recommend wearing shoes with good tread so you can grip the surface, especially after rainfall.

Bonsai Rock Parking

Screenshot of Google Maps showing a birds eye view of the roadside parking area for hiking Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe
Screenshot from our Google Maps showing where to park for Bonsai Rock

Bonsai Rock doesn’t have a designated off-road parking lot, but it does have a very narrow pullover on the side of NV-28 with room for 10-12 vehicles. Make sure your car is well off the main road because parking is tight and the roads can be busy.

Open this Google Maps location into your smartphone and click directions to reach the roadside parking area. If it’s full in the pullover, your alternative is Sand Harbor but it has paid entry and you’ll need to hire a kayak to reach Bonsai Rock.

Getting To Bonsai Rock

Boulders on a rocky shoreline next to a lake at dusk
You’ll be walking on large boulders like these to reach Bonsai Rock

We’re going to walk you through the hike exactly as it was for us so you know what to expect:

1. We parked in the wafer-thin roadside lot and began walking to the north. There was no path next to the highway and we didn’t want to stay on it long, so we quickly found what looked like a rough dusty path leading down to the rocks and took it.

2. We slowly and carefully descended the steep bank, arrived at the large shoreline boulders and continued walking to the north. After a few minutes we saw a cluster of rocks offshore and then we saw Bonsai Rock. Finally, we got as close as we could to Bonsai Rock and guessed where the sun would set behind the mountains to the west.

3. After watching sunset and staying for some photos in the dark, we put on our headlamps and phone flashlights, walked back across the boulders a little further and took a rough path back up the highway. And we arrived closer to the parking area on the way back up.

Route Map

Map showing where to park, hike and photograph Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe, Nevada
Basic topographic map of the area around Bonsai Rock

Use the map above to orientate yourself with the layout of the land around Bonsai Rock. Remember, there’s no designated path to follow, so you can climb down to the rocky shoreline anywhere along the highway after parking.

Map key:

  • Car – Where to park
  • Hiker – Where we climbed down/up
  • Camera – Closest viewpoint
  • Star – Bonsai Rock

Bonsai Rock Sunset Photography

Sunset photography at Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe with water foreground rocky middle ground and cloudy sky background
We played around with narrow apertures to create starbursts with the sun

Sunset is the most popular time of day to visit Bonsai Rock because the viewpoint is west facing and the sun sets behind distant snow capped mountains. It’s a classic Lake Tahoe postcard scene, so naturally the area is popular among professional and serious hobbyist photographers.

Our advice is to arrive to the limited parking area at least one hour before sunset so you have time to get down, find the perfect frame and get set up. And during peak season, you should arrive two hours before sunset. There’s lots of great photo spots around the boulders, so you have room to maneuver if it’s busy.

We were lucky to have the area to ourselves but not lucky enough to get one of those seriously stunning Lake Tahoe sunsets, which (in typical fashion) we had the night before and the night after!

Leave No Trace

Large boulders in a smooth lake with trees on a hill to the left and a sunset with colorful clouds to the right
Relaxing on the rocky shoreline of Lake Tahoe at sunset

Please take great care not to disturb formations, vegetation or wildlife when you hike to Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe. It’s a beautiful place to visit and we all have to keep it that way for future generations to enjoy.

Remember and follow these 7 principles of leave no trace:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of others

READ: The best hiking apps

Best Time To Visit

Silhouette of a huge boulder with trees growing out of the top at sunset in Nevada
Trees and boulder silhouetted after the sun disappeared over the distant mountains

We think the best time to see Bonsai Rock Trail is for sunset on a weekday in spring or fall. That way you’d benefit from the best light conditions and fewer crowds. Just remember to take a headlamp for your hike back up the steep bank after sunset.

Because we visited Lake Tahoe in November, we didn’t see a single other person on the trail or at the viewpoint during sunset, which is rare! But if you’re not bothered about Bonsai Rock sunset photography, we recommend you hike it first thing in the morning before the mid-morning rush arrives.

What To Pack

Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe at night in twilight with rocks lit up by flashlights
Light painting Bonsai Rock and nearby smooth boulders in twilight

To reach Bonsai Rock you’ll have to climb down and back up a rough steep bank. In good conditions it isn’t essential to wear serious hiking gear but we recommend wearing a sturdy pair of shoes or boots with good tread.

In terms of camera gear, you’ll need a tripod and you might want to attach either a polarizing filter or a ND filter depending on your style of photography. Don’t forget to carry a headlamp and keep your smartphone charged so you can use the flashlight on the way back up to your car.

READ: Day hike packing essentials

More Hikes In The Area

Are you planning to hike as many trails as possible during your visit to Lake Tahoe? Here are some of our favorite hikes for you to try in the area:

The Morgan Conclusion

Hiker in light coat standing on a smooth large boulder in a lake with the sun setting on distant mountains
Kristen enjoying the last moments of the sunset

We think Bonsai Rock is an unmissable Lake Tahoe sunset spot for serious photographers. Reaching the viewpoint isn’t easy, but it’s well worth the effort if you want to take photos of Bonsai Rock like we did.

With that said, we don’t think Bonsai Rock is an essential stop for every visitor to Lake Tahoe. There’s not much else to do outside of photography, so there are better places to visit for hiking, relaxing and sightseeing.

More From Lake Tahoe

More From California + Nevada

Want more California content? Head over to our California Travel Guides to explore national parks, popular road trips and things to do in major cities of the sunshine state.

We hope this guide to hiking Bonsai Rock Trail helps with planning your trip to Lake Tahoe!

Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

Happy Hiking,

Mark and Kristen

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