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First Timer’s Guide to Lake Tahoe

Located on the California-Nevada border in the Sierra Mountains, Lake Tahoe is a popular vacation getaway. Day trippers and weekend warriors from Northern California visit often, but Tahoe is a bucket list destination for travelers from all over the country and even the world as well. With skiing and winter sports in colder months and boating and beach activities in summer, the area offers a wide variety of pretty epic vacation experiences year round.

I’ve lived in the Bay Area for over 15 years and have traveled the 3-4 hours to Lake Tahoe on dozens of trips. My family has visited at a variety of times of year. I’ve also been to quite a few different cities and communities that encircle the lake. To say this Tahoe guide is a bit overdue is probably an understatement!

No matter what time of year you plan to visit, it’s important to do your homework for a Tahoe vacation. It’s a huge area with some potential travel pitfalls if you fail to plan. Here’s everything that a first time visitor needs to know about visiting Lake Tahoe.

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Traveling to Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada? Whether you are visiting to ski in winter or hit the beach in summer, this first timers guide to the Lake Tahoe area has all the top tips. Where to stay, closest airports, and top things to do.

Where is Lake Tahoe Located?

Lake Tahoe is located in the Sierra Mountains on the border between California and Nevada. It’s about 85 miles northeast of the city of Sacramento, as the crow flies, but farther given the available driving routes.

Lake Tahoe is the country’s largest alpine lake and is the second deepest lake in the United States. It’s best known for its gorgeous crystal blue color, spawning the famous conservation message turned bumper sticker “Keep Tahoe Blue.”

Coming from most Northern California destinations like Sacramento or San Francisco, there are two major routes into Lake Tahoe over the Sierra mountains. 

  • Interstate 80: Interstate 80 passes over Donner Summit into the northern region of the lake. To get to the shore, travelers exit I-80 in the town of Truckee onto either Highway 89 or Highway 267.
  • Highway 50: Near Sacramento, US Highway 50 splits off from I-80 taking guests to the southern end of Lake Tahoe. Highway 50 is a narrower route, but is sometimes an easier drive because it won’t have the same number of big rigs loaded up driving on it.

There are other smaller roads that lead to Tahoe for guests coming from Southern California or from eastern directions. Some of those routes may be inaccessible in winter, so check road conditions regularly. I have put together all my best tips for driving to Lake Tahoe in winter already to help, including what social media accounts to follow for the most accurate and up-to-date road conditions. Lake Tahoe can have very severe winter driving conditions. Guests who visit any time from late fall well into spring need to do some real homework in preparation and carry the right gear (like chains!).

Winter Driving to Tahoe - Interstate 80

Winter driving in Tahoe is serious business.

Sub-Regions, Major Cities, & Layout of Lake Tahoe

What many first time visitors to Lake Tahoe don’t understand is just how enormous the lake and the surrounding communities are. To drive the roads that encircle the lake takes about 2 full hours. And because there are lots of mountains (plus an enormous lake) in the way, there are not always direct routes between different places in the Tahoe area. Don’t expect to seamlessly hop from one area to another without some effort.

If you plan to explore the entire region, you definitely need at least a week. This is especially true when visiting during winter months when weather will slow you down. If you only have 2-3 days, I’d recommend picking a single home base and exploring a sub-region or single town or resort near the lake. Locals roughly divide the area between “North Lake” and “South Lake” but there are even further divisions than just that.

Major cities and neighborhoods of note in and around Lake Tahoe are:

Truckee, CA: Located right on I-80 just northwest of the lake is the city of Truckee, CA. Truckee has a laid back mining town vibe that is always welcoming. The area is home to several quality moderately priced hotels in the north lake area, including ones in national chains where guests can cash in or earn hotel loyalty points.

Kings Beach, CA/Incline Village, NV: Located due north of the lake on the water are several towns that blend together as they span North Lake Tahoe’s California/Nevada border. On the California side, the largest city is Kings Beach where a lot of moderately-priced vacation rentals can be found. As you cross the border on State Route 28, the casinos of Crystal Bay, NV line the road. Incline Village, NV is the largest town a few miles farther down the road. Incline Village is a popular second home location for Californians seeking a lower tax state. For travelers, the beautiful lakeside Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe is a popular spot to stay.

Tahoe City, CA: On the northwest side of the lake where Highway 89 hits the beach road is Tahoe City, CA. The area has a cute downtown with some beautiful beaches. The resort communities of Dollar Point and Chinquapin nearby are popular places to find rentals.

South Lake Tahoe, CA: South Lake Tahoe, CA is the largest city in the Lake Tahoe area. Located directly south of the lake right on the Nevada line, the city is home to Heavenly Resort, one of the largest ski resorts in the area. The high rise casinos of Stateline, NV just across the border are visible and easy walking distance from Heavenly’s gondola in the city center.

Heavenly Skiing Tahoe View

Views of South Lake Tahoe from the slopes at Heavenly.

Reno, NV: Reno is the closest big city near the Tahoe area, located a little over an hour’s driving distance northeast of the lake. Reno of course is known for its casinos and nightlife but plenty of family-friendly and outdoor adventures are available there too.

What are the Best Airports for Flying to Lake Tahoe?

Many visitors to Tahoe are Californians and others from drive markets. But plenty of visitors choose to fly in as well. Given its location high in the mountains, access to Lake Tahoe by air isn’t super easy or obvious. There is a small Truckee Tahoe airport for the well-heeled with private planes. But for the rest of us, the best airports with commercial service to get you to Tahoe include:

Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO): The closest airport to the Tahoe area is located in Reno, Nevada. RNO is served by a number of major carriers, including Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, JSX, Southwest, United, and Volaris. Collectively these airlines serve 22 destinations non-stop, so availability is pretty solid. The drive from RNO to Incline Village is about 45 minutes, but drive times to other destinations in the area are a bit longer (about 1:15 to South Lake Tahoe in regular weather conditions).

Sacramento International (SMF): The even bigger airport in Sacramento serves over 40 non-stop destinations and has commercial service from Alaska, Allegiant, American, Air Canada, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United, and Volaris. Specialty carriers Boutique Air, Contour Air, and Sun Country also serve the airport. The drive from Sacramento to most destinations in Tahoe is right at about two hours.

Oakland International Airport (OAK) or San Francisco International Airport (SFO): Many travelers to Tahoe spend time all over the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California, so one of the major airports in the Bay Area may be a choice as well. These airports are both served by too many airlines to count and often offer some super-cheap travel deals, depending on where you are coming from. Just be aware the drive from OAK or SFO to Tahoe is long and can be very traffic-filled. While many destinations can be reached in 3.5 hours if you have smooth sailing, as someone who has spent 11 hours driving that very same route in a winter storm, be advised. 

Related: Guide to Oakland Airport

Related: Guide to San Francisco International Airport

What is the Best Season to Visit Lake Tahoe?

Tahoe is truly a year round destination, so you can’t go wrong with a visit any time of the year. Of course, the offerings are substantially different depending on what season you visit. Here’s what you can expect each time of year:

Tahoe in Winter: The Lake Tahoe area gets over 200 inches in annual snowfall (300-500 inches at higher elevations), so winter sports dominate the tourism scene in winter months. The best conditions and peak season are in January and February, but many ski resorts try to open by Thanksgiving and certainly before Christmas.

Diamond Peak Views

Majestic views of Lake Tahoe in winter from the slopes at Diamond Peak.

Tahoe in Spring: The snow in Tahoe continues well into spring, with most ski resorts keeping the slopes open through spring break into early or mid-April. Snows sometimes don’t melt until much later though. In fact, the major Tahoe ski resort Squaw Valley was able to offer skiing on July 4th a few years ago! If you want more spring-like weather on a Tahoe trip without winter driving conditions, you won’t reliably see that until May.

Related: Best Spring Break Destinations in California for Families

Tahoe in Summer: Tahoe in summer is glorious. Because the snows linger well into spring and sometimes into early summer, June and even early July can be chillier than you might expect, especially at night. Late July and all through August are the best times to visit for the warmest temperatures and all the adventures on the lake. Summer daytime temperatures are often well into the 80s, making it a perfect place for summer activities.

Tahoe Vacation Rental

Boating and swimming in summer at Lake Tahoe.

Tahoe in Fall: After Labor Day Weekend ends, a lot of tourists pack up and leave Tahoe. This makes the early fall shoulder season one of the better times to visit for lower crowds. The cooler temps in September and early October before the snow starts falling regularly make it a great time of year to hike. The area has some beautiful fall colors as well.

What to Do in and Around Lake Tahoe

What you can do in and around Lake Tahoe is heavily dependent on what season you are visiting in. Here are a few of the major activities to add to your travel agenda, season-permitting:

(Editor’s Note: Many of these activities may not yet be open or may be open with modifications in 2020 and into 2021. Always check company websites or make a call before you go!)

Skiing & Snowboarding

Family Friendly Ski Resorts - Kid Skiing with Parents and Baby

In the winter, the biggest reason to visit Tahoe is to ski and snowboard at one of the area’s more than dozen resorts. Tahoe has mega resorts, mid-size ski mountains, and the tiniest of community ski hills. And while the 2020-2021 ski season will look different this year, all the major resorts will be open for some distanced outdoor adventure.

The two ski resorts our family visits the most are Northstar California Resort and Diamond Peak. Northstar is a full service resort operated by Vail known for its luxury vibe and family-friendly offerings (see my complete guide to skiing Northstar with kids for a deep dive). Diamond Peak is a mid-sized resort great for teaching kids to ski frequented more by locals that remains a bit of a hidden gem (check out my Diamond Peak guide here).

Of course, every family has their favorite Tahoe ski resorts and ones that have become traditions for them. It’s fun to mix it up and visit as many as you can. I’ve skied almost all of them, but still have a couple on my list to complete the Tahoe ski circuit. To decide what resort is best for you, see my comparison of the family-friendly amenities at every Tahoe ski resort, which I update annually with prices and details. 

Here’s a map to the ski resorts as well.

Sledding, Tubing, & Snow Play

For families not interested in skiing or snowboarding, but wanting time in the snow, Tahoe has that too. The area has a number of areas for sledding, tubing, and other snow play activities. Places to visit in winter include:

  • Adventure Mountain Lake Tahoe: Located near Echo Summit on Highway 50 on the way to South Lake Tahoe, this snow play area has groomed tubing lanes and lots of place for sledding and snow play.
  • Soda Springs: Soda Springs offers some skiing (especially for beginners), but it’s mainly a giant snow play winter wonderland. There’s a tubing area, Planet Kids for little ones under age 7, mini-snowmobiles, and more. Located just over Donner Summit on the way to North Lake Tahoe, this area is just minutes from Sugar Bowl and Boreal.
  • Many of the major ski resorts (Northstar, Squaw Valley, etc.) offer tubing and other snow play activities as well.

Hiking, Mountain Biking & Outdoor Adventure Activities

The opportunities to get outdoors in the warmer months are pretty much endless in Tahoe. Depending on where you are staying, find a few nearby hikes (and check out the 8 Best Hikes for Families Near Lake Tahoe from fellow NorCal blogger Jenna at This is My Happiness as a great place to start).

Hiking with a Baby Near Lake Tahoe

Baby’s First Hike in Tahoe – Near Truckee, CA.

Mountain biking is also extremely popular, with several of the ski resort slopes becoming biking trails when the snow melts. A few adventure activity operators to consider: 

Beaches

A wide variety of beaches encircle the lake, and spending a day in the sand and sun is a must-do in summer months.

Parking can be a challenge at some of the most popular state park beaches, so it’s smart to arrive early if you don’t want to get shut out. If you can find a vacation rental in a community with private beach access or a secret smaller beach that tourists don’t know about, that makes things even easier.

And of course there are beaches you can pull up to from the water. One of the most popular where we anchored on our last trip is Chimney Beach on the Nevada side of the lake.

Lake Tahoe Chimney Beach

Chimney Beach on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.

One important word of warning if you plan time in the water: anyone coming from a warm weather climate should know that Lake Tahoe is COLD – even on the warmest days of summer. Being from Alabama originally, it’s always a shock to my system, but I have found I am able to tolerate it in early August which is the warmest time of year. If you plan to spend substantial time in the water or have young kids, buying or renting a wetsuit isn’t a bad idea. 

Boating & Water Activities

Speaking of water, I highly recommend not just staying on shore in the warmer months while in Tahoe. Here are a few ideas for getting out onto the lake.

  • Boat or jet ski rentals: Most of the cities along the lake have companies that rent boats. We used Boatsetter on our last trip to find a rental in Tahoe City near where we were staying.
  • Paddleboarding: SUP is crazy popular on the smooth water coves along Lake Tahoe. The most popular spot – and the site of thousands of Instagram photos – is Emerald Bay on the southern side of the lake. 
  • Kayaking: The shorelines are dotted with kayaks in summer months. Tons of local companies will rent kayaks if you don’t have or can’t transport your own.
  • Parasailing: Several operators will take guests out on the lake parasailing. This is a great way to get on the water a bit too if you don’t want the responsibility of driving a boat yourself.

A few local operators offering several of these rentals and services:

Casinos

Open year round regardless of weather are the many casinos on the Nevada side of the lake. To the southern side of the lake, the high rises at Harvey’s, Hard Rock, and Harrah’s are the big players. On the northern side, there are a few smaller casinos in Crystal Bay as well as one at the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village.

Several of the casinos offer the usual Vegas-style shows and performers that come through on occasion for some additional entertainment offerings. Even if you don’t play, the casino hotels offer some great lodging options as well, often on the cheap.

Floating the Truckee River

Rafting Truckee River Tahoe City California

Rafting the Truckee River in Summer.

One of the most popular activities in summer is grabbing an inflatable raft, filling up a cooler, and relaxingly floating down the Truckee River. Local operator Truckee River Rafting Company has parking available at their large facility and buses you up the river so you can float back to where you started. 

Historical Sites & Museums

Although the great outdoors is the big draw of Tahoe, there are a number of museums and historical sites that have something to offer too. A few of the best to explore include: 

  • Emigrant Trail Museum: Tahoe is famous (well, more accurately, infamous) for the trip of the Donner Party and you can learn all about that history here. Located in Donner Memorial State Park, there are also outdoor trails to hike here.
  • Truckee Railroad Museum: A top stop for train-loving kiddos, this museum has an original caboose from the Southern Pacific Railroad and explores the rail history of the Sierras.
  • Vikingsholm: Tour a historic and magnificent Scandinavian castle near Emerald Bay. 

Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe

The topic of lodging in Lake Tahoe is worthy of a post all its own which will be coming very soon.

Vacation Rentals

While the area certainly has many hotels and motels, many visitors to Tahoe opt for vacation rentals. Tahoe is a popular destination for families and bigger friend groups to travel together, and a house or condo means more space, room to cook, laundry and more, especially on longer vacations. Check out Tahoe vacation rentals on VRBO.

Lake Tahoe Hotels

If a hotel is more your speed, here are a couple of our family’s favorite places to stay in and around Lake Tahoe:

North Lake Tahoe Hotels

Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe

Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe in winter.

South Lake Tahoe Hotels

Tips & Tricks for First Time Visitors to Lake Tahoe

1. Book early – really early: Tahoe is a super popular destination year round, and peak weekends in both winter and summer book up fast. If you want to have your choice of lodging at a reasonable price, you really need to consider booking very early. For holidays during the ski season, I recommend up to a year in advance. But at the very least, consider booking before summer is up. Once the kids return to school in the fall, everyone really begins planning their ski vacations in earnest. The flip side is true for the summer season – definitely plan to book summer vacations in the dead of winter before everyone else’s minds turn to the changing season.

2. Respect the local community: While Lake Tahoe is a popular vacation getaway, so many travelers forget that there are real locals who live there year round. Respect the local community, their resources, and the lake. There is some real local resentment that has been building lately because of the behavior of travelers, perceived – rightfully or wrongfully – as entitled Silicon Valley tech bros… or worse. This resentment has grown especially in 2020 as the lake was overrun by tourists while so few travel destinations were open. Be part of the solution and not the problem. I promise you’ll have a much more authentic, relaxing, and rejuvenating Tahoe trip if you do. And that’s a win-win.

3. Plan for cell dead spots: Lake Tahoe’s cell and data coverage has improved a lot with each passing year. That said, there are still some pretty significant dead spots, including even on the drive along I-80! Input directions into your cell phone before you leave WiFi coverage. Pack an old fashioned map or guidebook. If your party plans to split up for hiking or skiing, have a set meeting place and time just in case someone can’t get calls or texts to go through.

What other questions do you have about Lake Tahoe? I’ll keep adding to this guide because we keep going back to Tahoe and discovering even more.

First time visitor to Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada? Get all the top tips, best things to do in winter and summer, hotel recommendations and more in this ultimate guide from a traveler who has been to the Lake Tahoe area dozens of times.

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