Tahoe, the Ultimate Year Round Vacation Destination
Updated: Feb 27
Whether you are a summer, winter, or in between season type of person, there is something for you here. There is something MAGIC about Tahoe. Living at 6,220' amongst the Sierra Nevada peaks and foothills, next to the crystal clear waters of the lake was a pinch me moment everyday. I love this place. Here, the living is easy.
In 2015 I was living in San Francisco. My [new] boyfriend moved to Tahoe for the winter (for what he thought would be a 6 month stint). I was conveniently finishing up an internship and wondering what my next move was. He asked me to join him and after a couple of trips up from the Bay it was an easy yes. We spent the next two+ years getting to know one of the most special places in the States (in my humble opinion).
Whether you're looking to make a move to Tahoe or just visit for the weekend, you'll find the information here grounding. I'll delve into the basics like the lay of the land and how to get around, as well as the best beaches, hikes, and places to imbibe. For more in depth information on the best beaches and hikes, see related posts.
In this blog
BUT FIRST, Keep Tahoe Blue
If you don't want to irk the locals right away (or mother nature), do your part in keeping Tahoe pristine. Follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and be conscious of your actions. Every winter and summer millions of people swarm the area, leaving trash, feeding wild animals, and driving recklessly on skinny one lane roads. If you don't know how to drive in the snow, or don't have a car that can handle the snow, get someone else to drive and rent a car!
Just be conscious of the fact that people live here year round and a lot of work goes into keeping this area protected. Do NOT feed the animals or leave trash outside your rental or in your care (or you might get a friendly visit from the neighborhood bears). Learn more about the threats the lake faces and the work being done to combat them at keeptahoeblue.org.
At 1,645 feet deep, 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine lake in North America.
Tahoe is generally thought about in terms of North Lake and South Lake. This is because there are pretty big differences between the two. It depends what you're looking for when deciding where to stay in Tahoe. North Shore is more of a quieter local vibe - you won't find high rises in North Lake. It is convenient if you're coming from the Reno airport, want to explore Truckee, ski at Northstar, hike, and cook at your cabin. There are fewer places to stay and it can be a little (or a lot) more expensive. If you live on the North Shore, you either have a multi-million dollar vacation home on Lakeshore Dr, you are an established local, you go to Sierra Nevada College, you work in the service industry, or you work at one of the ski resorts in North Lake. I lived in North Lake (Incline Village) so I have a special love for this part of the Lake. One thing to note is that the beaches in Incline Village are private, meaning if you don't have a local ID you can't access them! That being said, beaches are never more than a short drive away.
South Shore is more built out for tourists - you'll find large hotels (and casinos), public beaches, tons of restaurants, and Heavenly Ski Resort which is the focal point of the area. It's always hustling and bustling with people in summer and winter. South Lake is the place to stay if you want to party, explore Desolation Wilderness, or are looking for more lodging options.
You can drive around the entire lake in an hour and a half (and I definitely recommend doing that to see what all the different areas parts have to offer). It takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour to get from one side to the other depending on which way you drive. The eastern half is in Nevada, the western half is in California.
What about the in between? Great question. The east side is where many of the best beaches are but very few places to stay (it's mostly forest). The west side has some great small towns and is more family oriented, with rented and owned cabins and neighborhoods scattered about, parks, and campgrounds, shops, restaurants, activities, and rental shops.
When To Go
Literally ANYTIME - that is part of what makes Lake Tahoe so unique, it’s a year round destination. Tahoe sees over 300 days of sun each year, and if it's not sunny it's snowing.
Winter is extremely busy with winter loving people who are there to take advantage of the world class skiing and snowboarding, and all of the other endless and amazing snow activities. The resorts are crazy, every place is busy, and you may have to tolerate traffic, lines, and waits at restaurants.
Summer is equally busy and the Lake is a giant party everyday. Again, there is just SO MUCH to do and so much to explore. Be prepared for long waits, busy streets, and packed beaches. The Holiday weekends are next level busy - you'll need to book lodging and make any necessary reservations several months in advance.
If you are not a fan of crowds, want to enjoy less extreme temps, and are there for the hiking or mountain biking, Spring or Fall are your time. The crowds are gone, and the in between weather can be such a treat - you can hit the slopes in the morning and paddle board in the afternoon - best of both worlds.
Getting There and Getting Around
The main entry points are I-80 (to North Lake) or US 50 (to South Lake) from the Bay Area, or Mount Rose Highway (431) from Reno. This is the way you will come if you're flying in. The closest (large) airport is Reno. Unless you're taking an Uber straight to a resort, you'll probably want to rent a car. You can easily do that at the Reno airport - try and get one that is 4 wheel drive and has a high clearance. If you are spending some time adventuring in tahoe you might have some crappy parking situations where you’re up on a curb, or it might be dead of winter! You do not want to be the person in a two wheel drive car in Tahoe in winter.
The lake is a 35 minute to 1 hour drive from Reno (depending where on the lake you’re going). If you’re going to North Lake you can drive up and over Mt Rose (be careful in the winter) and arrive in Incline Village in 35 minutes. If the weather is bad there are alternative routes that will just take a little longer.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive around the whole lake, and 35-45 minutes to drive from one side to the other, depending on which way you go. The East side is faster (more like a highway) and the west side in one lane and curvy. If you’re trying to get from point A to point B east would make the most sense, but if you’re trying to stop and discover shops, food, and activities, west side makes sense.
Tahoe does have a bus system but it can experience delays. It’s not uncommon to see people hitchhiking either. People who work at the resorts often hitchhike back and forth, and we had to do it once when we got super lost hiking and popped out of the forest on the highway.
Biking is very popular in Tahoe - most of the lake has a bike/walking path but there are parts that don’t yet so bikers and cars share the road. There is a relatively new bike/walk path along the east shore - you can park in the lot in North Lake by the Tunnel Creek Cafe.
Where to Stay
Think about where you want to spend most of your time, if you plan on renting a car, and if you'll mind driving around a bit. Refer to the opening paragraph for differences between the north, east, south, and west shores. A lot of the hotels in Tahoe are older, even some of the rentals at the resorts, so just make sure you look at the pictures before booking. Depending on if you want to be in the action, secluded, in a super nice place, or in a charming cabin, you'll likely have to compromise somewhere - i.e. if you want to stay at one of the ski resorts but don't want to spend a trillion dollars you'll have to settle for an older rental.
So just decide what's more important - location or luxury. Or if you can afford both then do that - plenty of options there if you have the funds! Or maybe you like the rustic cabin feel - I am very picky about where I lay my head so old doesn't do it for me.
Anyway, if you are going with a group I would definitely recommend booking an Airbnb or VRBO. This will save you money and give you a lot more options. If you stay in an airbnb, don’t mention it to the locals (especially in North Lake). They think Airbnb is what is causing the tahoe housing crisis. These are my recommendations for hotels and a couple of my favorite Airbnbs:
The Hyatt (Incline Village)
Basecamp (more affordable option, Tahoe City)
The Cedar House Sport Hotel (in Truckee)
Bally's Lake Tahoe Casino and Resort (very affordable option, downtown south lake)
Chalet de Celeste (one of my favorite Airbnbs)
What to See and Do
Tahoe Basin Hiking. There are enough hikes around lake tahoe you could live there for a decade and still not be able to do them all. I’m going to break down some options below. If you want to hike at higher elevations, July - September are your best bet to hike without snow. Lower elevation hikes can be hiked starting in May. For some of my favorite Tahoe hikes, broken out into length and difficulty read "The Best Hikes in Lake Tahoe" post.
Mountain Biking. Mountain biking is very popular here. I'm not a mountain biker but I know one of the most popular trails for mountain biking is the Flume trail.
Water activities. You can easily find rental places all around the lake. All of the big, easily accessible beaches offer paddle board and kayak rentals, and many offer boat rentals, jet skis, and other activities like parasailing, water skiing, tubing, etc. If you stay at the Hyatt in North Lake you can rent pretty much anything from there - including catamarans. Otherwise, I've rented from Sunnyside Watersports in Tahoe City and Action Watersports in South Lake - both were great.
D.L. Bliss State Park: *Closed for the 2022 season. Usually open May-Sep. One of the best parks in Tahoe. Well groomed camp grounds and pristine beaches. Calawee Cove and Lester Beach are two of the most beautiful beaches on the west side. Both are easily accessible from the campground and the day use parking. Parking fills up EARLY in the summer and if it's full you'll have to walk over 2 miles from street parking.
Emerald Bay State Park: Tucked into the southwest corner of the lake, the long bay opens up inside the narrow mouth at Emerald and Eagle Points, and its shimmering emerald green to azure blue waters beckon boaters, swimmers and hikers to explore its shoreline. Emerald Bay State Park is well known as the home of Vikingsholm, an impressive historic Scandinavian mansion turned museum, and the bay contains the only real island found in Lake Tahoe's waters.
Camping & Backpacking. There is no dispersed camping (camping outside of a campground) in the Tahoe Basin, but there are some beautiful full service campgrounds as well as nearby areas that offer backcountry camping and backpacking.
D.L. Bliss State Park Campground: One of the best. 165-sites.
Tahoe State Recreation Area Campground: Good for families. Beaches are easily accessible, close to amenities including shops and restaurants.
Meeks Bay Campground: Nestled between Sugar Pine Point and D.L. Bliss State Parks, campers staying here have nearby access to all the west shore's recreation splendors.
Granite Chief Wilderness. West shore, Tahoe National Forest.
Mt Rose Wilderness. North Shore.
Desolation Wilderness. South Shore, permits required.
Beaches. Plentiful in Tahoe! There are so many, and some harder to get to than others. For more about the best beaches in Lake Tahoe read "My top 6 beaches in Lake tahoe" post. At a glance, I recommend:
Sand Harbor. North Shore, great for families and groups. There are rentals and concessions, a large parking lot (that does fill up early), and the water and sand are insanely amazing. Can't go wrong spending a day here.
Zephyr Cove. South Shore, more of a party vibe but it that is what you're looking for it is fun.
Lester Beach. One of the prettiest beaches. No dogs allowed, and limited parking,
Hidden Beach. My personal favorite because I spent a lot of time here. It's on the east shore, you have to park along the highway and walk about a half a mile down a path.
Ski/Snowboard. There are 15 ski resorts in the Tahoe Basin. The most popular are probably North Star, Palisades (previously known as Squaw), Alpine, and Heavenly. I spent most of my time at North Star so that is where I feel comfortable. My favorite is Kirkwood - a bit of a drive passed South Lake, and Diamond Peak is a locals favorite in North Lake. You can read about what each resort has to offer here.
Snowshoeing/cross country ski. Tahoe has endless XC and snowshoe terrain. For XC parks check out this blog. For some of the best snowshoe trails check out this Tahoe Mountain Sports blog. The first one is Castle Peak and I can say from first hand experience it's an awesome trail. It's challenging and you won't see a lot of people. Make sure to check the weather!
Ice Skating. There are outdoor ice skating rinks at Northstar and Heavenly resorts, and in Truckee.
The Best FREE sledding in Tahoe is off Mount Rose Highway. Just get on 431 towards Reno, about ten minutes outside of Incline Village you'll see cars parked along side the road - it's a busy place but has tons of space.
Gambling. On the Nevada side of Tahoe the bars don't close and you can gamble! There are big casinos in South Lake, a couple in North Lake (Crystal Bay Casino and the Hyatt Casino) and games in all of the dive bars. If you're staying on the west side you have to dabble!
Where to Rent Gear
There are rental places all over, including at all of the resorts. That being said I have to shout out a couple of my favorite spots.
Any Mountain in Tahoe City
Village Ski Loft in Incline Village
Where to Eat and Apres Ski
There are lots of food options around the lake and most of them are not worth writing home about. There are a handful of high end restaurants but if you're looking for something more middle of the road then mediocracy is the name of the game (sorry Tahoe). You'll find typical bar and grill food everywhere and you'll probably be told to go to Gar Woods or Basecamp Pizza and yes you will find food there, it will be overpriced and taste just okay but things could be worse. I think after a long day of skiing or hiking people will eat anything. A few restaurants and bars to call out:
Lupitas in Incline Village is the best Mexican food in Tahoe. It's a bit of a hole in the wall but it's worth it.
Tahoe House in Tahoe City was our favorite place to stop on the way to South Lake. Good coffee, deli, and delicious baked goods. There is also a little market with locally made products to bring home.
Mountain High Sandwich Shop in Incline Village (GF/V options). This is the best sandwich shop in Tahoe.
Jax at the Tracks is a great breakfast spot in Truckee (about a 25 minute drive from the Lake). If you plan on spending any time over there definitely save time for Jax!
Lanza's is a local favorite- Italian restaurant
Cooking at the cabin? Raley’s in Incline Village is the best grocery store in North Lake and there is a Whole Foods in South Lake.
If you just want to enjoy some drinks I have a couple of favorite spots. If you want to fit in with the locals ask for a shot (or several) of rumplemintz.
Alibi Ale Works in Incline Village. Lots of beer taps, cool interior space and great outdoor patio. Dogs are welcome and there is live music several nights a week.
Grab a drink and sit outside at Lone Eagle Grill (the Hyatt restaurant) in Incline village for amazing lake views.
Auld Dubliner is a super fun Irish Pub out near Palisades
KT Base Bar is the restaurant/bar at the base of the famous KT-22 run in the Palisades Village. Amazing place to enjoy a drink and watch people ride.
Where To Go Out
It completely depends on what you are looking for. If you are in Tahoe for a friends trip or bachelor/bachelorette you'll definitely want to hit the casinos and clubs in South Lake. PEEK (inside Harrahs) and Opal (in the Montbleu) are the two options. Both have hit or miss nights, and are nothing like being in Vegas so don't set your expectations too high.
If you want to party like a local you'll want to check out the dive bars. The Paddlewheel and Village Pub in Incline Village are about as dive bar as it gets. Pete n' Peters in Tahoe City is a a fun time, and Turn 3 in South Lake is popular.
The best place to party in my opinion is to day party on the beach, on a boat, or on the mountain. After all, you're most likely in Tahoe for the activities and the scenery!
Tahoe is for lovers of the outdoors. Get into nature, shut your phone off, rent a jet ski, paddle board across the lake, get lost in Desolation Wilderness. It may seem busy in the heart of winter and summer, but trust me you can escape and find peace - there is so much space. Don't feed the animals and pick up your trash!!