Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Also note that many of our recommendations for Lake Tahoe remain closed and this article should currently only be used for planning purposes for when it’s safe to travel again.
Straddling two states with more than 70 miles of shoreline, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and one of the world’s deepest and clearest bodies of water. Summertime brings watery fun like scuba trails and SUPing, while winter sees powder hounds flock to the area’s 20+ ski resorts.
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The region is so big that Tahoe North and Tahoe South are considered two separate destinations, each comprised of a handful of communities and towns. Tahoe South is larger and has more of the traditional touristic infrastructure and entertainment options, while Tahoe North is more of a sleepy lake getaway. Whichever portion you choose to visit, rest assured knowing there’s never a wrong place to go or a bad time to visit this magical mountain oasis.
A 4-hour drive from San Francisco, the route is an easy and straightforward jaunt on I-80 east. If you have time and want to avoid the freeway, there are several more scenic routes out of town. US-50 is the prettiest drive that takes you through a handful of mountain passes but essentially doubles your car time.
If you’d rather bypass traffic completely, in winter, Tahoe Ski Trips runs the Bay Area Ski Bus, which is an easy way to get to the slopes. Amtrak’s Zephyr line can also get you close with a stop in Truckee. From there, you can connect to the local bus system or Uber to town.
If you leave early in the morning, you should arrive by lunchtime, just in time to fuel up and make the most of your day. Settle in at the Oyster Bar in The Hard Rock Hotel, Lake Tahoe’s only raw bar. Hearty chowders, succulent oysters, and steamed mussels promise some of the best slurpable seafood in town. If you’re feeling lucky, try your hand at the slots or leave a few bucks on the table before heading out to take in the views of Emerald Bay State Park.
Both a National Natural Landmark and one of California’s only protected underwater parks, Emerald Bay is Tahoe’s crown jewel with the overlook at Inspiration Point one of the area’s most coveted photo ops. For a better view, the 4.5-mile Rubicon Trail provides a stunning vantage point of the rocky outcrops and sandy coves. You can hike all or part of the trail before heading to your hotel to freshen up.
When you’re ready to hit the town, Riva Grill has one of the best happy hours around. Their famous woody’s (super strong frozen cocktails) overlooking the lake will transport you to island time in no time.
Once you’re feeling good and have watched the boats roll in, get a closer look on a sunset dinner cruise at Zephyr Cove. You’ll enjoy dinner and dancing under the stars as you cruise the lake on an old paddle wheeler.
Carb up at Driftwood Cafe before the morning’s festivities. A town favorite for their fluffy pancake towers and omelet creations, the cozy café has been around for over 50 years.
Clear kayaks make for unbelievable views under the water and amazing photo ops from above. You can rent them by the hour or take a guided tour of the shore to scout wildlife and marine life. They also have LED glow tours at night for a unique after-dark adventure. If you’d prefer to embark on your own paddling excursion, kayak to the ruins of the tea house on Fannette Island near Vikingsholm Castle. A Scandinavian palace hidden in Emerald Bay State Park, it was one of the first summer homes built in Lake Tahoe that you can tour. You can reach the castle by hiking, but the island is only accessible by boat.
Head back to town to grab lunch at Sprouts Café. With healthy, mostly organic sandwiches, salads, juices, and smoothies, it’s the perfect place to re-energize and refuel.
Once you’ve dried off, it’s time to explore the area on two feet—or four hooves. Horseback riding is a leisurely way to get another view of the lake from the back of a saddle on a guided trail ride. In winter, you can ski/snowboard, snowshoe, go snowmobiling, or see the area on a scenic sleigh ride.
After an afternoon of adventure, Azul Latin Kitchen boasts some of the tastiest Mexican food in town. Splurge on nachos, loaded potato wedges, and Thai Curry and sweet potato tacos you can wash down with a flight of tequila or frozen margarita.
Tahoe is as known for its nightlife as it is its daytime pursuits, so before you retire for the evening, unwind with some music under the stars. The Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harvey’s boasts major headliners all summer long, while The Shops at Heavenly Village hosts free concerts and performances every Friday and Saturday evening Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day.
Ease into the morning with brunch at Heidi’s Pancake House. The iconic Swiss chalet has been serving up hearty breakfast fare like French Toast Melts and crepes since the ’60s. It’ll be hard, but pace yourself because you’re about to put your bathing suit back on to enjoy your last day on the water.
You can rent a SUP board, jet ski, charter a sailboat, or simply spend a lazy day at the beach. Sometimes, the best thing to do on vacation is nothing at all. Post up with a good book, don a wide-brimmed sun hat, and watch the waves.
Once your skin is sufficiently bronzed or burnt, it’s time to make one lasting memory. Since you’ve seen Tahoe from land and water, it’s time to see it from the sky. To get a bird’s eye view of the beaches and bays, try parasailing, flightseeing, or go on a helicopter tour. If that’s too extreme, you can also just head up the Heavenly Mountain Gondola for one last parting view before returning to the hustle and bustle of city life.
WHERE TO STAY
Tahoe has a wide variety of accommodations from casino-driven concepts that feel like a mini Vegas to slopeside condos, rustic A-frames, and vacation rentals. For serenity in the Sierras, the lakefront Edgewood Tahoe Resort is the only five-star property in the area, winning the prestigious “hotel of the year” award. For a more approachable escape, check out Hotel Azure, which is also right on the shore and just minutes from Heavenly Resort.
WHEN TO GO
Tahoe doesn’t have an off-season, but depending on your interests, it may appeal to you at different times. The ski season runs from November through April, while June through August sees major summer crowds. If you’re looking to save some money and avoid the throngs of tourists, consider spring or fall, which is equally lovely by the lake.