Steps to Planning a Lake Tahoe Vacation

Lake Tahoe
Neta Degany / Getty Images

Lake Tahoe is one of the prettiest places in California and Nevada. The deep, clear-water alpine lake is almost a mile high, sitting in a bowl of granite mountain peaks. It's is a great place to get away, whether you want to escape summer heat or a get some peace and quiet away from the city. Once you get there, you can wear yourself out playing outdoors or just take a peaceful wander around the lake's perimeter.

After that, you'll be even more anxious to get started. These steps to plan a Lake Tahoe vacation will make your planning easier.

What Is It Like

The lake's surface occupies most of the "bowl" it sits in, leaving just enough room around its edges for lodging and recreation. Summer weather is moderate, making it a favorite of California's Central Valley residents seeking to escape the heat. Winters are snowy, or so the local ski resorts hope.

No matter where they're located, local visitor's bureaus will claim their locale has it all, but even a place as popular as Lake Tahoe isn't for everyone. Visitors who prefer a sophisticated, city environment where they can enjoy the arts, fine dining and vibrant nightlife may want to look elsewhere. And don't be fooled: even though they both have gambling casinos, Lake Tahoe is not Las Vegas.

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How Long to Stay

Clear, Cool Water on a Hot Summer Day

Lynn Fagerlie/Getty Images

For most visitors, a few days is enough. You can drive around the lake in a day, taking in a few of the nearest side trips. Add a day for a longer excursion or just to hang out doing nothing.

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What's Where

Lake Tahoe Map - Attractions and Ski Areas
Adapted from Google Maps

The Lake Tahoe map above shows where things are. If you want to see a bigger version, go here.

It takes about an hour to drive from North Lake Tahoe to South Lake Tahoe. The lake is about 12 miles wide and 22 miles long (19 by 35 km) and if you drive all the way around, you'll go about 70 miles (about 120 km).

Tahoe is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Yosemite National Park and east of San Francisco and Sacramento, a little south of Reno, Nevada. The line through the middle of it on the map isn't a bridge; it's a state line. That's important to people who run governments but less so for visitors. What you need to know is how south and North Lake Tahoe are different and what's located in each area.


Ski resorts are on or near the north, west and south sides of the lake. The road on the southwest side of the lake may be closed during winter because of snow and avalanche danger.

  • North Lake Tahoe: North Lake Tahoe has a few casinos and has a more old-fashioned feel. It's convenient to many ski resorts, Virginia City and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.
  • South Lake Tahoe: You'll find the most casinos, restaurants, and entertainment on the south shore.
  • Outside the "Bowl": Locals use this term to describe places located outside the ring of mountains around the lake. It includes two of the big resorts, Squaw Valley and Northstar.

How to Get There

Most Lake Tahoe visitors just get in their automobiles and drive there, but you can find all of your options by using the guide to getting to Lake Tahoe.

Getting Around

If you brought a vehicle, you're mobile. You can use the getting around guide to find other options, including an explanation of the confusing patchwork of public transportation options.

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The Famous Spots

The Sternwheeler Tahoe Queen

Galen Rowell/Getty Images

Lake Tahoe's top attractions vary by season. Use the guide to Lake Tahoe's top things to do to learn more about them. You can see most of them in a day if you follow the self-guided driving tour.

Other Activities

Besides seeing the sights, lots of Lake Tahoe visitors like to do a little gambling or take in a show. If you're interested in visiting a Lake Tahoe casino, use the Lake Tahoe casino guide to find out about your options.

Lake Tahoe is also a popular place for weddings. Find out how to get married at Lake Tahoe.

Side Trips

Most visitors stick close to the lake, but if you're in the mood for a wander, consider a side trip to:

  • Reno, the self-proclaimed "Biggest Little City in the World"
  • Virginia City, a 19-century mining town
  • Bodie, California's best ghost town
  • Pyramid Lake, Nevada, another big lake that's set in the desert instead of the mountains
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Plan Your Vacation Like a Pro

Lake Tahoe pier under the stars

Andrey Popov/Getty Images

Use these tips to plan a no-fuss, no-hassle trip to Lake Tahoe and your traveling companions will think you're a wizard of the highest order.

Where to Stay: The Lake Tahoe area is compact enough that you'll never be more than an hour's drive from anything you want to see, but choosing the right place to stay can make your visit more pleasant. To find the spot that's just right for you, use our Lake Tahoe hotel guide. If you'd rather pitch a tent or park your RV than stay in a hotel, we've got the scoop on Lake Tahoe campgrounds, too.

7 Ways to be a Smart Lake Tahoe Visitor: Less-savvy folks suffer the effects of the high altitude, shiver when the nights grow cool, and they've left their jackets at home and get stuck in South Lake Tahoe traffic gridlock, but you know better. Discover how to be a smarter Lake Tahoe visitor, enjoy your trip more and spend less of your hard-earned money doing it.

What to Take on Vacation

Clothing: No matter what time of year it is, the weather at Lake Tahoe is likely to be different than where you live. Check the forecast before you pack or you might regret not doing it later.

For the Car: In winter, you may need snow chains. Find out about the requirements - and be prepared in case of traffic jams by filling up your tank, emptying your bladder and taking along some water and snacks.

Be Prepared for Elevation: Find out how to stay comfortable at Lake Tahoe.

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