About a third of Nevada’s 28 state parks are within an hour’s drive of Reno, but the closest is Washoe Lake State Park. Most Renoites only know it as the setting for high wind warnings along the Interstate 580 corridor—yet the park offers an astonishing array of things to do and see within its boundaries, from hiking trails and sand dunes to wetlands and fishing.
While hordes of summer vacationers and day-trippers head up to Lake Tahoe, Washoe Lake provides recreation opportunities with far smaller crowds. Washoe Lake is actually two separate lakes—Washoe Lake and Little Washoe Lake—connected seasonally by an unexpected network of wetlands. While there are a few access points along the western shore of the water, most notably from the Bellevue Road exit off of I-580, arguably the best parts of the lake are reached along its eastern shore. Off of Eastlake Boulevard are several gravel roads that lead to parking areas with access to Little Washoe Lake in the valley’s north end. New Washoe City provides easy access to the lake at Sandy Beaches recreation area. On the south end of the valley sits the park’s official campground with several additional lakeshore access points.
For boaters, both powered and paddled, Washoe Lake offers plenty of space to explore and sights to see. Not only are there many access points to the lake itself, but parking isn’t far away, making it that much easier to carry in your kayak, canoe or paddleboard. Boat ramps and trailer parking can also be found in multiple locations along the eastern shore. Mornings in Washoe Valley are usually pleasant all summer, with light breezes that keep things cool. In the afternoons, as the winds pick up, the lake is a prime location for windsurfing, kite-surfing and even small sailboats. In some years, the lake’s shallowness can make navigating boats with deep hulls a challenge, so call ahead to learn about current lake conditions. In general, small, personal watercraft have no problems touring Washoe Lake—as the zephyr winds allow.
If angling is your thing, pick up your Nevada fishing license, and head to Washoe Lake! Channel catfish, bullhead, perch and white bass all call Washoe Lake and Little Washoe Lake home. With the right watercraft, you can fish from anywhere on the lake. No boat? No problem! The South Beach and North Ramp both offer excellent access for fishing from the comfort of your camping chair. Hunting is also allowed in certain areas and during specific seasons within park boundaries, though you’ll need to check in with the ranger station before planning any hunting trip.
This state park is also home to a diversity of wildlife, most notably an exceptional array of waterfowl and raptors. During the spring and warmer months, shorebirds, herons, ibises and rails find nesting grounds in and around the maze of wetlands connecting Washoe Lake and Little Washoe Lake. The skies are filled with red-tailed hawks, and one can even spot bald eagles and golden eagles. Evenings reveal numerous species of owls calling and hunting. As the weather cools, Washoe Valley becomes a popular wintering ground for a whole new crowd of bird species. Rough-legged hawks, white pelicans and even tundra swans can commonly be spotted enjoying the oasis that this lake provides.
Beyond being a designated Nevada Important Bird Area, Washoe Lake hosts a plethora of other animals that rely on the water and unique habitat of this wetland area. Many species of frogs, toads and salamanders call the park home. Additionally, turtles, snakes and lizards can be found in the region. Wild horses spend all year roaming throughout the park and surrounding area, while coyotes, mule deer and even white-tailed deer frequent the space. Black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbits come out to forage as the sun starts to set. Muskrats swim about, and more than a dozen species of bat feast on insects after dark.
Getting out to see this wildlife—or to just appreciate time in nature—is easy in Washoe Lake State Park. Miles of maintained hiking trails can be found crisscrossing the southeast side. With plenty of equestrian amenities in the park and easy trailer parking, it’s also a great place to get out and ride. The Nevada portion of the American Discovery Trail also accesses Washoe Lake and connects it to five other Nevada State Parks.
If you’re looking to get out for a night and spend some time under the stars, Washoe Lake State Park’s campground is an excellent spot. Its 49 sites are open 365 days a year on a first-come, first-served basis. (Nevada State Parks is currently in the process of implementing a reservation system for all campgrounds, set to roll out sometime in 2023.) Nearly half of the sites have full hookups for RVs, while tent-only sites preserve a more remote atmosphere. The large group campsite can be reserved ahead of time, holds up to 200 people, and has a suite of amenities, including a covered pavilion, modern restrooms, grills, lighting and even volleyball and horseshoe courts. Park staff also offer an ever-changing list of public programming and can even arrange special group presentations on request.
Washoe Lake is part of the fee-based Nevada State Parks system. For the comparatively affordable cost of $5 per vehicle ($10 for out-of-state; camping and boat launch fees are extra), the whole family gains access to the year-round beauty and diversity of activities available in this often-overlooked park, right outside of Reno. Annual permits to all Nevada State Parks can also be purchased online, ranging from day-use-only to all-inclusive permits that let you explore all of Nevada’s State Parks. If you’ve been searching for a low-cost activity you can enjoy time and time again with something new to see every time, Washoe Lake State Park is highly recommended.