Your Trip to Lake Tahoe: The Complete Guide

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Outdoor athletes and adventure-seekers love Lake Tahoe. Skiing and snowboarding steal the show in the winter when a snowstorm can be followed by blue skies perfect for skiing knee-high fresh powder. Nearly every day in the summer is warm and sunny as tourists and locals alike hit the trails and beaches to float, bike, camp, and enjoy the area’s extensive trail systems. Aside from outdoor adventure, the region has stunning vistas, historical towns, and lively social and restaurant scenes that shouldn’t be missed. 

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit completely depends on what you want to do, but September is generally recommended for most non-skiers as it has summery weather and smaller crowds. February and March are best for skiing and July and the first two weeks of August will provide the warmest weather for the beach and outdoor activities. 
  • Language: English
  • Currency: US dollar 
  • Getting Around: Nearly everyone drives around the north shore as the public transportation system can be slow and has limited evening hours. Taxis and rideshares are an option but you may have to wait a few minutes for your ride. On the south shore, you can walk to most businesses and restaurants in Stateline and South Lake Tahoe (around Heavenly Mountain Resort’s base area) and taxis and rideshares are readily available at any time. 
  • Travel Tip: The towns around Tahoe get extremely crowded on summer weekends in July and August and during three-day weekends in the winter. Try to avoid those periods unless you want to spend hours sitting in traffic. Make sure you have chains and know how to use them if you’re driving a 2WD vehicle in a storm. 

Things to Do in Lake Tahoe

Cold-Weather Activities: Because Tahoe gets an amazing amount of snow (Truckee averages 204 inches of snow each year) the resorts in the area have incredible skiing and riding conditions. Combine that with tall mountain peaks that look onto the lake, and you’ll see why it’s a popular ski destination. The major resorts are Northstar California, Mount Rose Ski Tahoe, Diamond Peak, Heavenly Mountain Resort, Kirkwood Resort, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Homewood Resort, Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, Sugarbowl, and Boreal. Most ski shops in the area rent snowshoes and cross-country skis, too. 

Warm-weather activities: There’s not much limit to what you can do in the summer. In fact, sometimes you can even ski in July! There are dozens of beaches along Tahoe’s 72 miles of shoreline and incredibly extensive trail systems, like the Tahoe Rim Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Desolation Wilderness protected area trails, just to name a few. For non-athletes, there’s live music, weekend yoga and beer festivals, historical cities like Virginia City, and enough restaurants and waterfront bars to please every palate. 

What to Eat and Drink 

Between North and South Lake Tahoe, you can find just about any international cuisine you’d like. There are many more restaurants on the south shore than the north, but both have plenty of options to ensure you’ll never have to eat at the same place twice. American food is the most common, and locally sourced and organic dishes are quite easy to find. Vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free eaters should have no problem at most restaurants. 

California is known for its beer culture and Tahoe does its part to keep that reputation alive. On the north shore, popular breweries include Alibi Ale Works and Fifty-Fifty Brewing. On the south shore, try some California brews at South Lake Brewing Company, Stateline Brewery, or the Brewery at Lake Tahoe. Expect most restaurants to have fairly extensive California-forward beer and wine menus, too. 

Where to Stay

When visiting Tahoe, you’ll either stay on the north or south shore. The north shore is generally more expensive and luxurious, less crowded, and more focused on outdoor adventure and nature. On the south shore, expect more affordable lodging and dining plus better options for nightlife, clubs, and casino entertainment. The lake is split between Nevada on the east and California on the west. If you want to gamble, stay on the Nevada side. Most hotels in Stateline are within walking distance of plenty of bars and restaurants, but you’ll probably need a car on the north shore. Skiers staying in the villages at Northstar, Squaw Valley, or Heavenly Resorts can walk to a variety of restaurants and shops without leaving the resorts. 

Getting There

Lake Tahoe is about 3.5 hours east of San Francisco, so it’s an easy drive from the city. Otherwise, most people fly into Reno-Tahoe International Airport. The airport is a 35-minute drive to North Lake Tahoe or about 90 minutes to South Lake Tahoe. With heavy snow, the drives can take much longer. 

You can also fly into Sacramento International Airport and drive about 90 minutes to either north or South Lake Tahoe, but both Highway 50 (the route to South Lake) and Highway 80 (the route to the north shore) are subject to closures in heavy snow. 

If you want to drive around the lake or do any sightseeing, you’ll need a car. Almost all visitors to Tahoe rent cars, though much of Stateline (on the south shore) is walkable. If you’re flying in, both Reno and Sacramento International Airports have very convenient car rental desks. It usually only takes a few minutes to pick up your car and be on your way. 

Money-Saving Tips 

  • If you’re planning to ski in Tahoe, you’ll usually save 10-15 percent off the cost of the lift ticket if you buy it in advance online. If you’re going to ski more than five or six days, it may be cheaper to buy a season pass rather than day tickets. 
  • Choose a flight that arrives very early into the Reno airport. Some resorts will give you a free same-day lift ticket when you show your boarding pass.
  • Expect significant price swings at hotels based on seasonality; it’s not unusual for a $159 per night resort to cost $600 or more on a summer weekend. Come mid-week if you can to save on lodging.
  • Many festivals at ski resorts are free to attend, so check Tahoe.com in advance to see what’s happening during your stay.
  • January is “Learn to Ski and Ride Month,” so most ski resorts offer fantastic packages for first-time skiers. You can get a lesson, rentals, and lift ticket at major resorts for around $70 to $90—an excellent deal when a lift ticket alone costs $130 or more.
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