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How officials are grappling with overcrowding at Tahoe’s Sand Harbor

Designed for a maximum of 1,200 visitors per day, Nevada’s most popular state park often attracts more than 3,000.
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo

On warm weekend days, the line of vehicles waiting to enter Sand Harbor State Park on Lake Tahoe’s east shore can back up several hundred cars deep, a conga line hoping to secure a parking spot. Within an hour of the park’s opening, the parking spaces are usually filled.

Featuring sandy beaches and rocky coves for swimming and kayaking and home of the annual Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, Sand Harbor draws more than 1 million visitors per year — the most of any Nevada state park.

The park was not designed for that many visitors.

With infrastructure designed in the 1970s, the park’s layout was planned for a maximum of 1,200 visitors per day. But the park now welcomes more than 3,000 visitors on summer days — leading state officials to grapple with how to manage the steady increase in visitation.

When the park was built, a large chunk of land near the beaches was paved over to create parking. Now, the park boasts a relatively small beach area and underutilized picnic areas that are separated from Big Blue by a sea of asphalt.

“One of the realities of the park is with the 1970s design, the parking spots are in the most logical place for recreation,” said Kevin Fromherz, program manager for the Nevada Tahoe Resource Team and previous supervisor and lead ranger at Sand Harbor. “I can’t tell you how many times as a ranger I got asked where the lake was. The design of the park really confuses people.” 

Now, the Nevada Tahoe Resource Team — an interagency group composed of State Lands, the Division of Forestry, Department of Wildlife and State Parks — is looking at ways to update the park to improve traffic flow and sustainability.

No options are off the table, Fromherz said, including moving the park’s more than 500 parking spaces to the underutilized picnic area or implementing day use reservations.

“We want to improve the visitor experience,” Fromherz said. “We know getting turned away at your favorite park is not a great visitor experience.”

Sand Harbor Lake Tahoe on May 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Skyrocketing visitation

Nevada’s 27 state parks draw close to 4 million visitors per year. Nearly half of those visitors travel to just two parks — Sand Harbor and Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas.

Sand Harbor has seen some improvements over the years — new restrooms were installed in 2016 and the park’s visitor center and stage were constructed in the early 2000s, but its entrance and parking lots have remained essentially the same since the park opened in 1971, Fromherz said. 

In 2011, Nevada State Parks started locking Sand Harbor’s gates when the parking lot was full, a practice still in place today. But it’s done little to deter visitation. People parked on the side of the highway. Others waited in idling cars, blocking traffic on narrow Highway 28 while hoping a parking spot would open. Between 2010 and 2022, the number of visitors driving into Sand Harbor grew by 15 percent.

Visitation numbers are based strictly on vehicles that drive into the park. Nevada State Parks doesn’t track those who ride shuttles or bike into the park, which is connected by the popular 3-mile, paved Tahoe East Shore Trail that starts at the Tunnel Creek Café in Incline Village. 

Plans are underway to extend the trail several more miles from Sand Harbor south to Spooner Summit. State and federal officials are finalizing construction plans for the next segment of the trail.

In 2023, nearly 1.3 million people visited the park, and visitation is getting busier outside the peak season of Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“The facilities are not designed for that,” Fromherz said.

Sand Harbor, like many of Nevada’s state parks, is also plagued by a labor shortage. Last summer, the park closed its boat ramp two days per week because of a lack of employees.

Read more: Low wages, remote locations keeps Nevada State Parks hiring low despite popularity boom

Parking lots separate picnic areas from the beach at Sand Harbor State Park. (Courtesy Googlemaps)

The future of Sand Harbor

Last year, Nevada State Parks unveiled a reservation system for state-operated campgrounds and to reduce overcrowding at a popular Southern Nevada park.

The first park to take reservations for overnight visitors was Valley of Fire, followed by Big Bend of the Colorado State Recreation Area near Laughlin and Washoe Lake State Park near Reno. Others followed suit. 

Nevada State Parks also rolled out a pilot program testing day use reservations at Big Bend of the Colorado. The park required reservations for day use prior to 11:30 a.m. to relieve traffic at the park entrance. After that time, the park was open to first-come, first-served visitors.

At the time, a spokesperson for Nevada State Parks said the agency was also considering implementing day use reservations for Sand Harbor. Those have not been implemented yet, but an announcement will be made about them next month, a parks spokesperson told The Nevada Independent.  

In a presentation to state lawmakers earlier this month, Nevada State Parks Administrator Bob Mergell said timed entry reservations were coming for the park. 

As officials consider what to do with Sand Harbor, they are also drafting a new master plan — the last park master plan dates back to 1990. A final draft is expected out in January of next year, Fromherz said, with construction starting around the end of the decade.

“The public will be able to see what an ideal Sand Harbor will look like on paper,” Fromherz told The Nevada Independent. “A lot of that’s going to focus on improving the traffic flow in the park.” 


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