6 Steps to Planning a Lake Tahoe Vacation

  • 01 of 06

    What Lake Tahoe Is Like - Why Go - Will You Like It?

    Lake Tahoe
    ••• Lake Tahoe. Neta Degany / Getty Images

    A deep, clear-water alpine lake almost a mile high, sitting in a bowl of granite mountain peaks, Lake Tahoe is one of the prettiest places in California and Nevada.

    We know how hard it can be to start planning a Lake Tahoe vacation if you don't know much about it. Try our easy, 6 steps (or less) to plan a Lake Tahoe vacation. We've arranged the steps in the order which fits our vacation planning style, but you can go through this guide in any order that suits you.

    If you're going to Lake Tahoe because you want to enjoy an annual event, start by finding out when it happens. Or go step by step through the vacation planner:

    What Lake Tahoe Is 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.

    Take a look at the Lake...MORE Tahoe Picture Galleries, where you'll find a photo tour that takes you around the lake in minutes, a quick trip up the mountain at Squaw Valley and a nostalgic visit to the now-closed Ponderosa Ranch.

    Why Go to Lake Tahoe

    Lake Tahoe is a great place to get away, whether you want to escape summer heat or a city's busy hubbub. Once you get there, you can wear yourself out playing outdoors or just take a peaceful wander around the lake's perimeter.

    Will You Like Lake Tahoe?

    If you like outdoor recreation (the summer or winter kind) or enjoy natural beauty, you'll have fun at Lake Tahoe.

    Northern California snow skiers and snowboarders flock to Lake Tahoe, but if you decide to join their ranks on weekends, be prepared to endure traffic jams getting there and going back home.

    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.

    Continue to 2 of 6 below.
  • 02 of 06

    Best Time for a Lake Tahoe Vacation - How Long to Stay

    Clear, Cool Water on a Hot Summer Day
    ••• Lake Tahoe in the Summer. Lynn Fagerlie / Getty Images

    Lake Tahoe can be fun in any season and the best time to visit depends on your personal preferences.

    Weather in General

    Lake Tahoe's weather is moderate in summer and cold in winter,, when hundreds of inches of snow pile up, although the roads are kept clear except during storms. Check the Lake Tahoe climate for the time you plan to visit to see what it will be like.

    Lake Tahoe by Season: Pros and Cons

    Summer: Lake Tahoe is busiest in summer, even more than during winter ski season, but it's the only time many of the area attractions are open, especially if you want to visit some of the historic, lakeside lodges. It's also the only time to see the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. Fourth of July is especially busy at South Lake Tahoe, where they're said to have the best fireworks display in the western U.S.

    Fall: The shoulder season after the kids go back to school lasts until mid-November, when the ski resorts begin to open. This is also a good time to enjoy some fall...MORE foliage.

    Winter: The second-busiest season, winter brings storms with snow and ice. Use this guide to find out about the best places for snow skiing and snowboarding - or just throw a couple of snowballs around. Check with CalTrans online or call 800-427-7623 for current conditions before you set out.

    Spring: Starting when the ski resorts close and lasting until the end of May, spring comes slowly, with the white stuff lingering on the peaks until mid-summer.

    Annual Events: Whether you're looking for a special event to attend or just trying to avoid the crowds that gather for the annual marathon, this Annual Event Guide will give you a month-by-month summary of what's going on.

    How Long to Stay

    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.

    Continue to 3 of 6 below.
  • 03 of 06

    Lake Tahoe Map: Find Out What's Where

    Lake Tahoe Map - Attractions and Ski Areas
    ••• 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. If you want to get driving directions, distances or explore a wider area, use the interactive Lake Tahoe map at Google instead.

    To give you an idea of distances, 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.

    Areas of Lake Tahoe

    Ski resorts are on or near the north, west and south sides of the lake. The road on the...MORE 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 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 to Lake Tahoe

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

    Getting Around Lake Tahoe

    If you brought your own vehicle, you're mobile, but our getting around guide has other options, including an explanation of the confusing patchwork of public transportation options.

    Continue to 4 of 6 below.
  • 04 of 06

    Lake Tahoe's Top Sights: The Famous Spots

    The Sternwheeler Tahoe Queen
    ••• The Sternwheeler Tahoe Queen. Galen Rowell / Getty Images

    Top Lake Tahoe Attractions

    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 our self-guided driving tour.

    If you're a repeat visitor or a contrarian traveler who's looking for something different, browse through more Lake Tahoe activities.

    To plan your visit around the most popular annual events (or to avoid the crowds they draw), use the Lake Tahoe events guide.

    Other Popular Lake Tahoe 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.

    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...MORE "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
    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Where to Stay on Your Lake Tahoe Vacation

    Outdoor Fire Pit at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe
    ••• Outdoor Fire Pit at Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe. Travel Nevada/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    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. Use our Lake Tahoe hotel guide to find the spot that's just right for you. 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.

    Continue to 6 of 6 below.
  • 06 of 06

    Plan Your Lake Tahoe Vacation Like a Pro

    Lake Tahoe pier under the stars
    ••• Lake Tahoe Pier Under the Stars. Andrey Popov / Getty Images

    Imagine having a California travel writer with over a decade of experience living next door. Let's have a chat and we'll share our best Lake Tahoe tips with you. Use them 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.

    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 Bring on a Lake Tahoe Vacation

    • Clothing: No matter what time of year it is, the weather at Lake Tahoe is likely to be different than where you live. Find out in the Lake Tahoe Climate Guide as a general guideline and check the forecast in the same place, just before you go.
    • For the Car: In winter, you may need...MORE snow chains. Find out about the requirements at the CalTrans website - 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 what to pack and how to stay comfortable at Lake Tahoe

    Get it, Bookmark It, Print It

    • Hotel Confirmation
    • Rental Car Confirmation (if you need it)
    • Airline Boarding Passes (print at home to save time)
    • Print the self-guided Lake Tahoe driving tour if you plan to do it
    • Yelp is good for finding restaurants people like anywhere you are. If you have a smartphone, you can download their app before you go.