South Lake Tahoe is a city with two faces. Technically, it’s a California leisure destination with stunning natural scenery and year-round outdoor recreation, but it also shares a border with Stateline, Nevada, home to casinos and nightclubs, qualifying as distinctly indoor recreation. The good news is that a long weekend here brings the best of both worlds, making a mini-holiday feel ample. Even better, Tahoe is now an easy-access playground for East Coast travelers, thanks to JetBlue’s new nonstop flights between New York’s JFK and Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
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Travelers coming from Reno will arrive in South Lake Tahoe in about an hour, with the easy option of hopping aboard a South Tahoe Express shuttle ($53 round trip) from the airport. Plan to arrive Thursday and arise Friday morning to the dappled sunlight beaming through the pines.
As a busy tourist town, there are plenty of lodging choices. Size won’t matter as much as a decent rate, location, and experience, so for a pleasant stay on a personalized scale, try the Black Bear Inn Bed and Breakfast. There you’ll wake to a gourmet, homemade breakfast to get your day going.
In warmer seasons, South Lake Tahoe is a dreamy biking spot, and a long ride makes a great first-day adventure. Stop by centrally located Sierra Ski and Cycle Works on the main drag, Lake Tahoe Boulevard, to rent a cruiser. (As you may guess, you can pick up rental ski gear here and at a number of other shops around town, like the friendly Powder House Ski & Snowboard.) The knowledgeable staff will help plot your course on a bike-trail map and point you where you want to go.
Camp Richardson is about six miles west, and you can ride along the city’s paved bike trails and quiet neighborhood side streets to get there. The “camp” is more like a year-round wonderland of recreation, with a full-service marina and beachside dining, as well as cross-country skiing trails in the winter. Bring your swimsuit to take full advantage of the paddleboards, kayaks, pedal boats, waverunners, motorboats, and more for rent from Memorial Day through mid-October.
Cap off an active day with a bite at the camp’s Beacon Bar & Grill or make time for a detour on the ride home at the Burger Lounge—a cute roadside joint serving juicy burgers and fried delights (even zucchini and mushrooms).
Kick off Saturday with a classic breakfast at Red Hut Café, a favorite local chain of diners. With breakfast served all day since 1959, the central Lake Tahoe–Ski Run Boulevard outpost, with its bona fide soda fountain, has been the daytime pit stop for lunch and treats.
From there, stroll to Heavenly Village, South Lake Tahoe’s central shopping and entertainment hub. Pick up anything from souvenir bear figurines to hoodies to assorted sporting goods. Catch a movie or get in a round of mini golf at the outdoor pavilion (or ice skate in the winter). Scenic gondola rides 2.4 miles up Heavenly Mountain are available on weekends, with awesome views from the 9,123-foot-high observation deck. In the winter, Heavenly Ski Resort becomes one of the most popular parks in the area, and next year a new zip line will be the newest addition to the adventure-ride roster.
With Stateline, Nevada, just blocks away, cross the border and settle into some relaxation with a spa treatment at MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa. At the luxurious Onsen Salon & Spa you can indulge in an array of massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, or even a new ‘do.
In the spirit of an easy Saturday, go directly from the spa to Harvey’s Lake Tahoe across the boulevard and head to 19 Kitchen & Bar. From your nineteenth-floor perch, you’ll find the ultimate Tahoe lounge for well-made martinis with a view. Fine dining here leans toward the refined and indulgent, including excellent surf-and-turf choices like lobster tail, rib eye, and rack of lamb.
Wrapping up a short, sweet getaway means hitting all the elements that make you feel you really did a place. In Tahoe, it’s all about the lake. One lovely option is to drive around the southern shore for sightseeing and hiking at Emerald Bay State Park, home to one of the most picturesque vistas in all of California. In fact, back in 1862 Mark Twain was so awestruck by Lake Tahoe’s crystal-blue waters that he declared, “It must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords.”
Another option is to climb aboard a Zephyr Cove sightseeing or sunset dinner cruise. The Tahoe Queen and M.S. Dixie II paddle wheelers set off for 2.5-hour tours to Emerald Bay several times daily throughout the summer, conveniently making shuttle pickups from downtown.
But perhaps the best and most historic attraction in these parts is Thunderbird Lodge. Built by millionaire playboy “Captain” George Whittell Jr. in 1936, this lakeside mansion is among the last fully preserved residential estates in the region. Along with its fascinating history are tales of Whittell’s wild eccentricities, including his pet lion and elephant, a dungeon with a secret tunnel, and his gorgeous mahogany and stainless-steel yacht outfitted with twin V-12 Allison airplane engines—for that little extra oomph. The lodge is a short drive north from South Lake Tahoe and is open for tours daily, as well as Friday-afternoon wine tastings through September.
As night falls over Lake Tahoe, head to the Blue Angel Café for an equally delicious and low-key farewell dinner. The restaurant has mastered a menu of comfort and flavor that works in any season, from beef-and-ale stew to steamed mussels to one of the best kale salads. (How do they get those cauliflower croutons so perfectly roasted?) They’ll even prepare fresh-caught fish for those who spent the day angling.
Where to Stay
Cruise right past Lake Tahoe Boulevard’s big resorts to something far more authentic at the Black Bear Inn Bed and Breakfast. Owners Kevin Chandler and Jerry Birdwell share their master hospitality on this lush, landscaped property. With five rooms in the main lodge and three spacious cabins out back, it’s a home away from home, complete with shady patios, homemade breakfasts, and early evening wine hours. It’s a quintessentially Californian retreat that rounds out a leisurely long weekend at the lake.