How far is it? The distance—and the route you take to get there—depends on what part of Lake Tahoe you're visiting. Tahoe is a large lake that straddles two states and has more than 70 miles of shoreline.
It's about 200 miles from downtown SF to Incline Village, Nevada on the north shore and approximately 190 miles to South Lake Tahoe, California, at the lake's southernmost point. Your favorite GPS or mapping app can give you the quickest route, but these are the roads you will take in general:
To get to Crystal Bay or Incline Village at North Lake Tahoe: I-80 east from San Francisco, then CA Hwy 267 South.
To get to Tahoe City or Squaw Valley: I-80 East from San Francisco and CA Hwy 89 South.
To get to South Lake Tahoe: If you are driving to Lake Tahoe from west of the lake, take US Hwy 50 northeast from I-80. If you are driving from Reno or the east, take US Hwy 395 South to Carson City, then turn onto US Hwy 50 West to drive toward South Lake Tahoe.
Some roads in the Lake Tahoe area close all winter long because of heavy snow.
The All-Weather Route to South Lake Tahoe: Because it's a major highway, I-80 over Donner Pass is kept snow-plowed and open as much as possible, except in the middle of a blizzard. US Hwy 395 is also kept clear.
Other roads that may be open in winter include:
- US Hwy 50 East over Echo Summit
- CA Hwy 88 North from Stockton
- CA Hwy 207 Over Kingsbury Grade
- US Hwy 395 to US Hwy 50 West at Carson City
- NV Hwy 431 Over Mount Rose from Reno
To find out what the current highway conditions are, enter the highway number at the CalTrans website. You can also call them at 800-427-7623, or you install and use their app. You can find Nevada highway conditions at nvroads.com.
Be Prepared for Snow: Winter storms can dump massive amounts of snow on the roads leading to Lake Tahoe. Snow can sometimes start in early November and happen as late as May. If you're going to Lake Tahoe in the winter, you need to be prepared to drive in the snow, even if the sky is as bright as a midsummer day when you start out.
Get all the rules and regulations for snow chains in California - and what to do if you have a rental car. You may also want to buy some sub-freezing windshield washer fluid and fill your reservoir, so you don't wind up with an icy windshield when you need a clear one.
Most drivers use I-80 or US Hwy 50 to get to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco, and either of them will provide lots of excellent views. If you want to get off the big, busy highways and explore the backroads instead, try these routes. You can see them all on Google maps to get a better idea of where they go.
Highway 88 and Highway 4 are mountain roads with lots of curves. If you or any of your passengers are prone to motion sickness, take your usual precautions or choose one of the major highway routes instead.
Start Off the Scenic Way: No matter what route you take after you get out of San Francisco, start off the scenic way.
When you leave San Francisco, ignore your GPS or navigation for a while. It might know the shortest route or even the one that saves a few seconds, but what it doesn't know is where to find the best scenery along the way.
Don't head straight for I-80 and speed across the Bay Bridge toward Berkeley. That road can be more congested than a French bulldog with a head cold. And even worse, you'll have to pay a toll at the Carquinez Bridge on your way east. Instead, use the no-tolls route northbound US Hwy 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge, then follow CA Hwy 37 across southern Sonoma and Napa wine country to get to I-80 near Vallejo.
Scenic Detour From I-80: If you are traveling toward Tahoe on I-80, you can take a short detour through California Gold Country. Exit I-80 at Auburn and take CA Hwy 49 through Grass Valley and Nevada City, then use CA Hwy 20 to return to I-80 at Emigrant Gap.
Highway 88 Over the Carson Pass: The scenic route that many Bay Area residents recommend most often will take an hour or two longer than driving on the main highways.
To start this route, follow the directions above for getting out of San Francisco the scenic way. At Fairfield, exit I-80 onto CA Hwy 12, traveling through Rio Vista. Stay on Hwy 12 to CA Hwy 89 and follow it over the mountains and Carson Pass, then on to Lake Tahoe.
Highway 4: Most Scenic and Slowest: Possibly the most scenic of all the routes to Lake Tahoe, this is also the slowest, and the roads can be narrow and steep. To reach it, drive east from San Francisco to Walnut Creek.
From Walnut Creek, follow CA Hwy 4 all the way to the lake, going through Concord, Antioch, and the Sacramento River Delta. Continue through Stockton, Angels Camp, and Murphys, then transfer to CA Hwy 89 North through Markleeville.
From there, consult your GPS or map to choose your route depending on what part of the lake you are going to.
The nearest commercial airports to Lake Tahoe are Sacramento (about 2 hours away) and Reno, Nevada (30 minutes away). Some ski resorts offer transportation to and from the Reno airport. Check with them when you reserve.
Private pilots can fly into South Lake Tahoe Airport (KTVL), Carson City (KCXP) or the Truckee-Tahoe Airport (KTRK).
During the busy ski season, the drive to Lake Tahoe can turn into a never-ending, mind-numbing crawl. Taking a bus is one way you can relax and let someone else deal with the driving while you do something else.
The Bay Area Ski Bus picks up at locations between the San Francisco Bay area and Lake Tahoe, leaving early (around 4:00 a.m.) and returning the same evening. It runs to Northstar, Sierra at Tahoe, Kirkwood, Alpine and Squaw Valley, with different destinations scheduled each week.
You can't quite get to the shores of Lake Tahoe by taking the train from San Francisco, but you can come close.
Amtrak's California Zephyr Route starts in Emeryville, California, just across the Bay from San Francisco. It stops in Truckee, Nevada, which is north of the lake but close to several ski slopes.
From the east, the Zephyr comes from Chicago. The trip over the high mountains in winter is especially beautiful.
Once in Truckee, make your way around the Tahoe basin by bus.