6 Steps to Planning a Lake Tahoe Vacation

  • 01 of 05

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

    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.

    If you browse through these Lake Tahoe pictures, they will take you around the lake in minutes, including a quick trip up the mountain at Squaw Valley and a nostalgic visit to the now-closed Ponderosa Ranch.

    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 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.

    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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  • 02 of 05

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

    Clear, Cool Water on a Hot Summer Day
    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. To see what the weather will be like when you plan your visit, check the average lows and highs at Lake Tahoe.

    Lake Tahoe by Season: Pros and Cons

    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 steps.

    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 foliage.

    Winter: 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. The second-busiest season at Tahoe 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.

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  • 03 of 05

    Lake Tahoe Map: Find Out 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. If you need to get driving directions, distances, or explore a wider area, use the interactive Lake Tahoe map at Google instead.

    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 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 to Lake Tahoe

    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 Lake Tahoe

    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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  • 04 of 05

    Lake Tahoe's Top Sights: The Famous Spots

    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 the self-guided driving tour.

    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 "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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  • 05 of 05

    Plan Your Lake Tahoe 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 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.  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.