lake tahoe things to do

Lake Tahoe: An Incredible Emerald Lake on the Border between California and Nevada

November 3, 2021 /

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

California and Nevada share the spectacular Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful and most visited lakes in the United States, as well as the second deepest in the USA after the Crater Lake in Oregon. It could be the incredible emerald color of the water, which appears to be photoshopped; it could be the enchanting setting of the snowy Sierra Nevada or the crown of evergreen woods that wraps around the sandy beaches of the lake; it could be the bays of emerald water that will take your breath away as they come into view along the scenic drive that runs along the lake; it could be the quiet towns and luxurious summer residences on the shore… The reasons why Lake Tahoe attracts so many people are many and all of them are correct.

How To Get To Lake Tahoe

  • Distance between Lake Tahoe and San Francisco: about 3 hours and 15 minutes via I-80 E and US-50 E
  • Distance between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento: 2 hours via US-50 E
  • Distance between Lake Tahoe and Reno: 45 minutes via NV-431 and I-580

The lake is slightly off-course from the traditional West Coast itineraries, but one popular choice is to reach Lake Tahoe from San Francisco. You can do this by selecting the classic option to drive (or rent a car in San Francisco) or you may opt for a guided tour that takes you also to Yosemite and Bodie.

lake tahoe itinerary
This map shows the geographical distance between Lake Tahoe and some classic West Coast stops

If you have selected the first option, you will also have noticed that the distance is considerable and requires you to take a long detour from the classic park road trip itineraries. Therefore, it can be interesting to combine a visit to the lake with a visit to a ghost town like Virginia City and then head back south to start a tour of southern Nevada on the way to Las Vegas. But this is just an idea. Alternatively, Lake Tahoe can be a short stop between Mono Lake and Fly Geyser on this unusual West Coast itinerary.

Lake Tahoe Attractions: Road Trip on the Scenic Byway

In this article, we want to give you some suggestions on what to do in Lake Tahoe on a loop from South Lake Tahoe to North Lake Tahoe along both the West Shore and the East Shore. Lake Tahoe National Scenic Byway is a beautiful scenic road about 70 miles long that can be driven in 2 hours and 30 minutes without stopping, while still enjoying many spectacular views. However, it is worth including at least 5-6 stops to discover the beauty of this deep, incredibly colorful lake.

The visit can also be done in one day, but to enjoy the vacation, in my opinion, you need to give yourself 2-3 days, with overnight stays in Kings Beach or Incline Village (North Lake Tahoe) and South Lake Tahoe. If you love “lakes and mountains”, you have enough things to do to stay there even for a week, and in winter, it can easily turn into a ski week, given the large number of ski slopes in the area. Be sure to check the road conditions before you go, because some roads may be closed in winter due to weather conditions.

South Lake Tahoe: Things to Do

On the southern side of Lake Tahoe, the main landmark is South Lake Tahoe, the most touristy town in the area. Here you’ll find the scenic Pope Beach, golf courses, exclusive lake-view resorts, mountain-style motels, and casinos (as soon as you cross the California-Nevada border).

Can you swim in Lake Tahoe? The average water temperature in the summer is 64-68°F, with slightly warmer temperatures in August. If that is too cold for you, stay out of the water. However, if you can’t resist dipping your toes in the cold water, bring your swimsuit.

lake tahoe attractionsNot only that, South Lake Tahoe gets overrun by skiers and winter sports enthusiasts in winter. From the Heavenly Mountain Resort (Lake Tahoe Boulevard 4080) you can take “The Gondola” to the resort’s ski slopes. If you come here in summer, don’t worry, because in the summertime, when the sky blends in with the water of the lake, even those (like me) who don’t even know how to put skis on their feet can take the gondola and enjoy the remarkable view of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding granite peaks. There is another chairlift, the Tamarack Express, which takes you to an even higher observation point.

things to see in lake tahoeThe main road junction of South Lake Tahoe is a Y-shaped junction where US-50 crosses CA-89. This junction is very busy during the high season, but you’ll have to face it to reach the Tallac Historic Site where, in addition to an interesting museum, there are some wonderful mansions with gardens and historic buildings of the 20th century.

During the summertime, there are guided tours of the properties and inside some rooms, to see furniture, period costumes, and live historical re-enactments. Parking in the area is free and the parking lot is adjacent to Kiwa Beach, where you will find picnic tables and restrooms.

Accommodations in South Lake Tahoe

West Shore: Recommended Stops

Emerald Bay State Park: A Special Place You Must Visit

lake tahoe road tripThis small bay on the West Shore of the lake is so beautiful it is unreal. The crystal clear waters are emerald green, somewhere between green and blue. It’s an enchanting sight. You can get a good view of Emerald Bay from the top of Inspiration Point, which is practically on the road, or you can leave your car in the crowded parking lots of Emerald Bay State Park and reach the beach via the trails descending into the woods.

From the park’s main trailhead, you can also reach the trail that leads to Lower Eagle Falls. You can also get there from the Eagle Lake Trail Parking Lot by walking straight down on the rocks from the side of the road, but it’s dangerous.

The beautiful rustic rocky Rubicon Trail runs along the coast of the bay all the way to Emerald Point and continues further to Rubicon Point, offering some exceptionally beautiful viewpoints over the coves of the DL Bliss State Park. You will catch glimpses of the lake through the pine trees and see unforgettable scenery..

Scandinavian castles and legends of captains…

best things to do in lake tahoeOn the way back to Emerald Bay, just a few yards from the beach in the heart of the bay, there is a peculiar building known as Vikingsholm, which was built in 1929. For a long time, this castle was a summer vacation residence. As you can guess from the name, the Vikingsholm has Scandinavian influences and can be visited during the summer on guided tours.

As you stand on the beach you will see Fannette Island, the only island on the lake, which can be reached by kayak (You can also rent a kayak in Tahoe City). On the island, you must also visit what remains of the “Tea House“, which is said to be home to the ghost of Richard Barter, also known as “Captain Dick”.

lake tahoe must seeSince 1862, for at least 7 years, Captain Barter – who loved the roar of Eagle Falls as much as he loved to drink whisky – lived on this small island as the guardian of the residence of pioneer Ben Holladay, who entrusted him this responsibility. Since he lived in total isolation, he was also known as “The Hermit of Emerald Bay”. He did not want to leave this corner of paradise even after his death. The captain died when his boat crashed into the rocks of Rubicon Point on his way back from yet another night of drunken revelry in Tahoe City’s Tahoe House.

Tahoe City and Its Surroundings

lake tahoe itineraryDriving along the West Shore, before arriving in Tahoe City, you will come across Sugar Pine Point State Park. The beach enclosed by the evergreen forest is perfect for those looking for some peace and quiet after experiencing the chaos in South Lake Tahoe. There are campsites and cottages nestled in the forest. Some people have their vacation homes near the pier where private boats are docked. Here I recommend that you visit Ehrman Mansion, a beautiful summer residence with red wood interiors that was built on the shores of the lake in 1902. There are guided tours of Ehrman Mansion for those who wish to visit it.

8 Homewood Mountain ResortWinter sports enthusiasts should go to the Homewood Mountain Resort (5145 W Lake Blvd). The chairlift is very close to the lake, at the Homewood Mountain Resort on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Lake Tahoe on the western side. Not far from here is also the Fleur du Lac Estates, an exclusive lake house that was used as the setting for the scene of Fredo Corleone’s death in The Godfather 2. However, the huge residence cannot be visited.

Tahoe City, the town where Captain Dick used to spend his evenings, is an ideal stop for those who love shopping. At the Cobblestone Center, you can buy or rent equipment to go do winter sports on Mount Homewood and in the nearby Squaw Valley.

Accommodations in Tahoe City

North Lake Tahoe: Beaches

lake tahoe beachesThe main attraction in North Lake Tahoe is the beautiful Kings Beach, a large developed sandy beach. During the summer, you can sunbathe here after a daring swim and enjoy views of the woods and mountains. You can have a meal at any of the seafood restaurants, steakhouses, and various American and Mexican cuisine restaurants. Kings Beach also has a good number of resorts and hotels.

If you don’t like the crowded beaches, I can recommend Speedboat Beach, a tiny cove that is hidden in a bay in front of Brockway, a small town east of Kings Beach. Speedboat Beach is usually frequented by those staying in the homes nearby. The few parking spaces available are located along the surrounding streets (Speedboat Ave). What distinguishes this beach on the border between California and Nevada are the large, smooth, light-colored rock formations on the shore of the emerald lake.

Accommodations in Kings Beach

East Shore: Recommended Stops

The entire eastern side of Lake Tahoe is in Nevada. The coastline is characterized by the same wilderness present in the central area of the state. Here you’ll find few tourist towns or beach resorts, but in return, you’ll get miles and miles of driving along a scenic road. Incline Village is the last frontier where you can enjoy a comfortable and classy vacation:

  • Memorial Point Scenic Overlook perfectly represents what I was talking about. It is well marked and has its own parking lot. Located 4 miles from Incline Village, here you can see the lake in all its glory. Descend down to the smooth boulders on the shore and take a moment to enjoy the beauty.
  • Sand Harbor State Park is home to the East Shore’s most developed sandy beach, and in summer many people come here to dive into the water and are attracted by the lake’s crystal clear water. You can lay your towel over the sand or go to the white stones that border this enchanting little cove. Just a mile south of the beach, you will find Bonsai Rock, one of the most famous scenic “spots” in the area. It is a unique rock guarded by a bonsai. There is no parking lot, so you’ll have to park your car on the side of the road.
  • Logan Shoals Vista Point: After over 10 miles of forest and mountains, you’ll return to the lakefront once you reach Glenbrook, but you’ll be at a much higher altitude. Logan Shoals Vista Point is not clearly marked, but make sure you don’t miss it. From here, you can overlook Lake Tahoe from a charming spot, surrounded by trees and rocks. The sunsets here are incredible, with Homewood’s peaks towering in the distance over the West Shore. If you really don’t want to miss this wonderful vista point, drive about 1.3 miles past the Glenbrook Fire Station on the opposite side of the lake.
  • Cave Rock: The great news that it’s impossible to avoid this spectacular tunnel carved into the rock.
  • Zephyr Cove is just as beautiful as the other beaches mentioned above, but its pier in the middle of the bay is definitely worth mentioning. This is where the lake cruises depart from on board of the M.S. Dixie II, the unmistakable red and white boat that made the Lake Tahoe Cruises (760 US-50, Zephyr Cove) famous. You can also have dinner at the boat’s restaurant.
  • A trip like this will easily make you hungry. To end the Lake Tahoe tour in style, put the address 900 Ski Run Blvd (Ski Run Marina) in your GPS. Your destination will be the Riva Grill, a bar-restaurant famous for its cocktails (one of them, is called Wet Woody). Order something to eat and enjoy the view of the lake crowned by the Sierra Nevada one last time before leaving Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe Tour

If you don’t want to visit Lake Tahoe on your own and would prefer to go on a tour, I suggest the following packages:

  • Guided Photo Tour of Lake Tahoe: You can choose between two itineraries, which include the complete loop of the lake. This tour is perfect for anyone who wants to take great pictures of the most scenic spots. Not only will you have an expert who will tell you about the best spots in Lake Tahoe, but as part of the tour package, you will receive a CD containing the high-resolution pictures taken by a professional photographer who will accompany you during the entire tour.
  • Helicopter Flight over Emerald Bay: I’ve already told you the best spots to see the Emerald Bay from, but perhaps the best perspective is from the helicopter. Take a helicopter from South Lake Tahoe airport for a 10-minute in-flight tour. In addition to Emerald Bay, you can also see other beautiful views of the lake from above, as well as the nearby Fallen Leaf Lake, Vikingsholm, and Fannett Island.

Activities at Lake Tahoe


Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

Warning: Operating hours can change and closures for extraordinary events can occur, so we strongly suggest to check the venues official websites.

Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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