Everything You Should Know about visiting Lake Tahoe (+Photos)

Have you ever been to a place that instantly feels like home? This is how I feel about Lake Tahoe. I first visited the region as a seasonal ski resort employee and have since returned yearly as a self-proclaimed ‘localized tourist’.

It’s hard to describe just how beautiful this place is. Sitting on the border of California and Nevada, Tahoe is a favorite holiday spot that draws millions of tourists each year with its crystal-clear fresh water and astounding winter snowfall. With no less than 14 different ski resorts, countless hiking trails and peaks to summit, and one of the most beautiful alpine summer lakes to boat on, it’s safe to say Tahoe is an outdoor lover’s paradise.

After ten years of visiting this inland haven, here are some things that are worthwhile knowing:

The Main Areas and Towns in the Lake Tahoe Region

Tahoe City piers

To paint a clear picture of Tahoe, it’s important to understand the area’s geography. Lake Tahoe is, first and foremost, a lake nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range between California and Nevada. The lake is one of North America’s largest alpine bodies of water and reaches unimaginable depths of up to 1645 feet.

But visiting the lake is just scratching the surface. The area, known as Tahoe, is separated into various areas: North Lake Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake, West Shore, and East Shore.

Within these general areas are smaller towns, including the historic Truckee, Incline Village, and Tahoe City. Tahoe’s ski resorts are typically located in Olympic Valley, around North Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake, with a few scattered around South Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe Winter

On top of this, highlight areas like Emerald Bay, Crystal Bal, and Dollar Point are worth visiting. If this sounds overwhelming, take a good look at Google Maps to familiarize yourself with the area.

You could technically drive around the lake in 3.5 to 4 hours, depending on how many stops you take and the weather conditions at the time. The distance between North and South Lake Tahoe is around 33 miles to 39 miles, and takes between 50 minutes to an hour depending on which shoreline you drive along.

Getting to Lake Tahoe

The California Zephyr stopped at Truckee

Simply put, the best way to get to Tahoe is by driving. Driving from San Francisco to North Lake Tahoe along the i80 can take three and a half hours on a good day and seven hours on a bad one. I’ve experienced both, and it all has to do with traffic coming into and out of the Bay Area as well as when driving through Sacramento. The drive is easy and safe, with just one curvy and mountainous pass area as you near the lake.

The route to South Lake from San Francisco will take you through the Eldorado National Forest along the highway US 50.

The closest commercial airport to Lake Tahoe is in Reno, Nevada. The drive between Reno and Tahoe can take 45 minutes to an hour across the state line.

If driving isn’t an option, Amtrak offers a train service from Emeryville or Sacramento through to Truckee (the historic town between Lake Tahoe and Donner Lake). The train costs around $35 to $50 for a coach seat in each direction and takes around five hours from Emeryville (just outside of San Francisco) to Truckee. Buses are also available, but since it’s priced similarly and takes the same amount of time, I’m a big advocate for the train. It’s comfortable, convenient, and offers some of the best views passing through Donner Pass.

Getting Around Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe from Tahoe City

As you might expect, the easiest way to get around Lake Tahoe is also by car. Roads are well maintained and plowed during the winter, although shoveling snow off your windscreen can get tedious!

For example, driving between Truckee and Palisades Tahoe at Olympic Valley (the area’s premier ski resort) takes around 15 minutes with no traffic, but can take up to an hour in peak winter season. Driving from Truckee to Tahoe City should take 20 minutes without traffic, but the same winter rule applies here.

Lake Tahoe

One thing to note when visiting ski resorts is that parking is limited. Be sure to get where you’re going early or park in a designated lot that offers shuttle busses to and from the resort you’re visiting.

The TART (Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transit) offers busses that connect the Lake with Truckee and some of the main ski resorts. The plus side? These buses are usually on time and are totally FREE to use! The downside? Busses aren’t regular, and wait times can be long.

Spend at Least Two Days in Tahoe

Donner Pass

My biggest tip is to not rush your trip. There is so much to see and do in Lake Tahoe, so I recommend spending at least two days experiencing the lake’s magic. Other than visiting the different towns, learning a bit about Truckee’s gold rush history, and dining out at the plentiful options on offer, most of the activities one visits Tahoe to do are time-consuming enough to eat up a full day of your trip.

Palisades Tahoe Ski Resort
Palisades Tahoe Ski Resort

Especially if you’re visiting the ski resorts, skiing is a full-day affair, and you’ll want to leave some time to fit in some other activities in the area. I’ve made this mistake before, visiting for the snow and barely even laying eyes on the lake!

Get Familiar with the History

A map of Truckee

Before Tahoe became the popular tourist attraction it is today, it was inhabited by indigenous American tribes and was a hotspot for miners during the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century.

Today, remnants of its rich history still flicker in the buildings and streets of Truckee, with plenty of historical sites and museums worth checking out around the lake. The Truckee Railroad Museum and the Museum of Truckee History will open you up to another era of alpine life, when the Southern Pacific Railroad would pass through the town and lost explorers turned cannibalistic in an attempt to reach the coastline. There are some dramatic and intriguing stories to be told here.

The Watson Cabin Museum is another great place to learn about local history. Built in 1908, it’s the only historical log cabin in Tahoe City.

Dining in Tahoe

Crab Sandwich at The Rocker in Palisades

Tahoe is spread across a big area. I’m most familiar with Tahoe City, Olympic Valley, and Truckee in North Lake Tahoe, so my recommendations might be location-biased. That said, I highly recommend visiting Cottonwood Restaurant and Bar for modern American cuisine overlooking the historical town center.

My favorite spots along the main stretch of road include Old Town Tap, Truckee Tavern and Grill, and the Bar of America. Bar of America is set in a historical building and makes the best fish and chips in town. For a more extravagant meal, Trokay, named after the original indigenous American name for the town, is a fine dining experience worth all the hype.

Moody’s Bistro Bar and Beats, set in the historic town hotel, is just as it sounds—a dark and moody bar and dinner spot famous for its formal twist on American food and music.

Tahoe City’s Jakes on the Lake is a local favorite, with huge and affordable portions that could feed you for days. Finally, Bridgetender Tavern and Grill is one of the coziest spots to grab a hot meal after a day on the slopes.

Pro Tip: Make restaurant reservations in advance. During the peak winter season, restaurants fill up fast. Make sure to book a spot to avoid disappointment (and hunger).

It’s Not Cheap

Donner Lake

This might be obvious, but you can expect to drop some hard dollar in Tahoe. After all, the lake is the winter and summer stomping ground for some of Northern California’s most wealthy residents.

Ski passes are more expensive here than anywhere else I’ve been. This makes it worthwhile to purchase a season-long Icon or Epic Pass (depending on the resorts you ski at), even if you plan to ski for just four days. My hot tip is to buy a pass as far in advance as possible. With the Icon Pass, for example, four-day buy-in-advance tickets cost less than two days if you purchase them at the booth on the day.

Food is another cash drainer, especially in ski resorts. A rule of thumb is that you can expect to pay $40 for a simple burger and soda on the mountain. If you only have to do this for a couple of days, it’s well worth the convenience. Otherwise, I recommend taking some snacks and filling up before you hit the slopes!

Where to Stay

If you’re visiting for skiing, stay as close to the ski lifts as possible. You’ll want to get in line when the lights open, and dealing with traffic and parking is time-consuming. In Palisades Tahoe, I recommend staying at the Village at Palisades Slopseide accommodation or splurge on a stay at Plumpjack Inn.

Summer visitors might prefer to stay in Tahoe City (Granlibakken is a good option), around Carnelian Bay, or Emerald Bay towards South Lake Tahoe. Truckee is one of my favorite towns in Tahoe, purely for its selection of shops, restaurants, and accommodations. Not to mention, it’s the most historical spot in the area.

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