The towns around Lake Tahoe are extremely popular year-round destinations for outdoor recreation of all types. But because of it’s high elevation—the lake is at 6,200 feet—the weather in summer and winter is extremely different. Summer is warm enough for river floating and lazy days at the beach, but winter usually brings more than 400 inches of snow to the region’s massive ski resorts. Unless you’re coming to ski, the best time to visit Lake Tahoe is September, when the surrounding towns are less crowded and hotel prices drop. Daytime temperatures in September can still be well into the 80s Fahrenheit (around 26 degrees Celsius), making it a perfect time to sightsee and explore the area trails without being crowded by families on vacation from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Lake Tahoe has a long winter and short summer, but the winter temperatures are generally pleasant, even when it's snowing. The coldest months tend to be December through February, when temperatures are usually in the 30s F (-1 degree C); much warmer than the average winter day on the East Coast. Unless it’s snowing, you can expect what locals call “bluebird days:” sunny, warm days without a cloud in the sky.
For most parts of the U.S., spring is from March to May, but in Tahoe, it’s still winter. Temperatures get a bit warmer, edging upwards of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) in April, but large snowstorms are still very common. In fact, March is usually the snowiest month around Lake Tahoe. Most ski resorts are open through May, though some operate through June and occasionally into July.
Depending on the snowfall from the previous winter, the snow should be melted from most of the area’s low-elevation trails by June. This is normally when summer starts in the area; expect daytime temperatures to be in the 70s and 80s F (21 to 26 C). By August, daytime highs could be 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) or warmer, though evening temperatures will often drop back into the 60s degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).
September and October are still warm enough for all summer activities, though it can drop below freezing at night. Snow usually starts falling on Tahoe’s higher peaks in early October, and most ski resorts will aim to open by mid-November. October can be an unpredictable month in terms of weather. It may be warm and sunny one day and chilly and windy the next, so it's advisable to dress in layers.
Crowds and Tourist Attractions
The busiest time for crowds is during the summer. If you’re planning on visiting some of Tahoe’s most popular sites like Emerald Bay on a weekend between June and August, you’ll need to arrive very early in the morning to get a parking spot. Expect all hotels, restaurants, and beaches to be packed. Summer tourist attractions like VIkingsholm, the Thunderbird Lodge, and kayak and paddleboard rentals are generally open from mid-May to early October.
If you’re planning a winter trip, try to avoid all holiday weekends like President’s Day weekend, as crowds and traffic can make a 15-minute drive to a ski resort take hours. It’s highly recommended that you avoid driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe on Friday evenings as the normally three-hour drive can take eight hours or more with heavy traffic and inclement weather.
Tahoe is least crowded in September and October, which is why it’s the perfect time to visit.
Expect prices on hotels to triple (or more) in the summer, when demand is highest. For example, the luxury Edgewood Hotel in South Lake Tahoe starts at $399 on Saturdays in October; it’s more than $1,000 a night for a Saturday night in July.
Ski season begins in November and depending on snowfall in December, January is usually pretty busy as the area has more than a dozen ski resorts. Try to come during the week to avoid unbearably large crowds. Heavy snowfall is common, so make sure you have a vehicle with four-wheel drive and snow tires or chains. It’s common for highway officials to close roads to cars that aren’t well prepared for driving on snow.
Events to check out:
- Opening Day parties: Most area ski resorts will have some kind of celebration on opening day in November or December; check the website of your favorite resort for details.
- Heavenly Holidays: The month-long festival in December at Heavenly Resorts includes everything from fire dancing shows to winter parades to, of course, photos with Santa (though he’s been rumored to have been spotted at several other Tahoe-area ski resorts, too).
- Snowglobe Music Festival: This huge festival is held every New Year’s Eve in South Lake Tahoe. A-list bands attract thousands of attendees, so buy your tickets and book your hotel room as early as possible. Expect chilly temperatures, though the crowds (and beers) should help you warm up.
- Winter Alpenglow Mountain Festival: This extremely popular nine-day event offers more than 75 mountain-themed activities, from ski movie premieres to expert talks to backcountry skiing and snowboarding lessons. Events take place across north Lake Tahoe and are almost entirely free, but you’ll need to sign up in advance.
- Winter Wondergrass Festival: If you love all things bluegrass, buy your tickets early for the three-day music and beer festival at Squaw Valley in March. More than 25 bands will play at the outdoor festival. Expect anything from sunny days to massive snowstorms.
It’s still solidly ski season in the spring, though temperatures could occasionally climb into the 60s degrees Fahrenheit. It’s best to ski in the morning as the snow will melt a bit in the afternoons (but freeze again at night.)
Events to check out:
- Pond Skimming: You’re in for a treat if you’ve never watched a pond skim competition. Costumed skiers and snowboarders ride down a snowy slope before attempting to surf across a pond. Most don’t make it across, but points are given for the best crashes. The pond skims at Heavenly Mountain Resort (South Lake Tahoe) and Squaw Valley (Truckee) regularly attracts thousands of spectators.
There’s so much happening around the lake in the summer that it’s impossible to list it all. Expect nearly every resort and town to have a festival every weekend, ranging from yoga festivals to ultra-marathons to celebrations of local art and music.
Events to check out:
- Truckee Thursdays: Just north of the lake is the town of Truckee and every Thursday night, the historic downtown area shuts down as the streets fill with music, artisan vendors, beer tastings, and more. Come early to find parking.
- Wanderlust Festival: Strike a pose at the three-day Wanderlust yoga and sports festival, which offers everything from photography classes to mountain-top camping. It’s the largest Wanderlust festival in the U.S.
- Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival: Shakespeare comes alive every August at this festival, held on the Nevada side of the Lake at Sand Harbor State Park. The open-air stage is on the shore of Lake Tahoe. Don’t forget to bring a blanket (plus wine and cheese, of course).
Often referred to as “locals summer,” this is the time of year when the weather is warm enough for all outdoor activities but the crowds have gone home and prices have dropped. It’s the best time to visit. Expect a culinary festival and running or biking race nearly every weekend until the snow falls.
Events to check out:
- Oktoberfests: As you might imagine, ski town locals love Oktoberfest celebrations. The biggest ones are held at Squaw Valley and Camp Richardson in South Lake Tahoe, both of which feature Oompah bands and very enthusiastic beer-themed competitions (bratwurst throwing, anyone?).
- Halloweekend at Homewood: if you’ve never been on a haunted chairlift ride, now’s your chance. Kids will love trick-or-treating at the base of the easygoing Homewood Resort, which has possibly the best reviews of any resort in Tahoe.
- Autumn Food & Wine Festival: Possibly the most luxurious of Tahoe’s many food festivals, this event brings out the area’s best chefs to serve their creations as local California wineries pour their favorites. Don’t miss the beer-pairing hikes.