Planning a trip to Lake Tahoe? Get prepared to be awed by the region’s natural beauty no matter what time of year you’re visiting. Though it’s an extremely popular tourist destination, Tahoe is still somewhat rural, so you’ll need to do a bit of planning to make sure you’ve got your transportation needs covered. Depending on where you’re staying, you will likely need a car, and winter road conditions can affect your ability to move around the area.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of driving in snow or commuting between Tahoe’s towns, don’t worry. Most hotels know that transportation in the area is complicated and are usually happy to help you arrange anything you need, including airport rides and assistance with ski shuttles.
Here’s a quick guide to getting around Lake Tahoe during your trip to the outdoor paradise.
Getting to Lake Tahoe
By Plane: Whether you’re going to the town of South Lake Tahoe or any of the towns on the north shore of the lake, you’ve got two options for airports: Reno-Tahoe International Airport (which is 30 minutes east of North Lake Tahoe), and Sacramento International Airport (which is about 90 minutes west of both the North and South Shores). Although the Reno airport is closer to Lake Tahoe, it is important to keep in mind that it has fewer direct flights. If you’re flying from western cities like Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Denver, or Seattle, there's a good chance you'll be able to find a direct flight to Reno. Otherwise, you’ll likely have to make a transfer. Reno does not have any shuttle services to North Lake Tahoe, but there is one that runs to South Lake. If you fly into Reno on a ski trip, save your boarding pass because a few ski resorts will give you a free lift ticket that same day.
If you’re flying from further away, you may be better served by flying directly into Sacramento. Winter travelers should be aware that driving from Sacramento to South or North Lake Tahoe may be restricted in the winter.
By car: If you’re staying in South Lake Tahoe (or Stateline, which is what the town is called on the Nevada side,) you can probably get around without a car. There are plenty of taxis and ride shares, and many bars and restaurants are within walking distance of hotels. If you're on the North Shore, you’ll almost certainly need your own vehicle. Public transportation exists—but it’s not a thorough or quick system, and it doesn’t run late into the night.
To drive to the North Shore from San Francisco, take Highway 80 the entire way. It takes about three and a half hours to get to Truckee, and from there, you can get to most of the other towns in the North Shore in about 25 minutes. If you’re leaving from Sacramento, Highway 80 is also the quickest route.
To get to South Lake Tahoe from Sacramento, take Highway 50 east. It takes roughly two hours without traffic. If you’re coming from San Francisco, take Highway 80 to Sacramento before heading east on Highway 50.
Rental cars can be easily arranged at both the Sacramento and Reno airports. The rental car terminal at the Reno airport is directly across from baggage claim, making rental pickup a very quick process.
Getting Around Lake Tahoe
Public Transit: Public transportation is available in South Lake Tahoe/Stateline and the North Shore, although it's more extensive in the former. In South Lake Tahoe, the Tahoe Transportation System operates a bus route that runs from Julie Lane in California to Herbig Park in Nevada. The bus starts picking up passengers at 5:50 a.m. and makes its last stop at 8:28 p.m.
On the North Shore, visitors will want to take the Tahoe Area Regional Transit, more commonly known as TART. The bus route goes from Soda Springs (west of Tahoe) to Incline Village in Nevada and Homewood on the west shore of the lake. The system can be very convenient for some locations, especially during periods of heavy traffic, but it can also take quite a long time to commute if you need to switch buses. Check the route and map in advance.
Shuttles: Nearly every major ski resort provides a free shuttle to and from the slopes. Considering traffic can be quite bad in the winter, it’s a great idea to take them whenever possible. Shuttles are offered from Northstar California Resort, Heavenly Mountain Resort, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, Diamond Peak, and Homewood Ski Resort.
Traffic: Most of Tahoe’s roads are windy, two-lane roads, and traffic can be bad on weekends or whenever it’s snowing (the drive from San Francisco can take eight hours or more if it's a holiday weekend). Midweek travel is always advised, though most roads have significant traffic every day in July and August. Give yourself extra time to get anywhere.
Winter Driving Consideration: Tahoe gets incredible amounts of snow every year and many roads are subject to chain control, which occurs whenever conditions are extremely icy and snowy. Chain control is completely dependent on weather; It could last for days, or for just an hour or two. To pass the chain control inspection point, you’ll need chains on your tires or a four-wheel drive vehicle with snow-rated tires. Make sure to rent a car with those features if you’re arriving in winter. Driving in the snow is exceptionally slow and can be dangerous, so if you’re uncomfortable with the idea, keep an eye on the weather forecast and head out of town earlier or later if need be. Note that the roads around Emerald Bay on Tahoe’s southwest side are often closed for weeks at a time due to avalanche danger. Use the Caltrans website to check on road restrictions.