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A Local’s Guide to Lake Tahoe

Megan Lierley

I’m always surprised when, during the summer months, I mentioned to a friend that I’m heading to Lake Tahoe and they respond with, “You’re going to Tahoe during the summer?” 

While perhaps Lake Tahoe is best known for  world-class skiing and winter sports, I not only go there during the summer — I prefer it. But before I share all my favorite ways to enjoy this gorgeous mountain destination, let’s talk logistics.

How to Get to Lake Tahoe

If you’re heading to Lake Tahoe from the Bay Area, it’s a fairly straight shot by car via I-80E. The trouble here is that it can take you anywhere from 3-5 hours, on average, depending on traffic (my records on either end are 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 9 hours, yikes). I always wait to leave the city until around 7 pm, and on Sunday will either leave around 7 am or wait until after 5 pm. 

Not a Bay Area local? If you’re flying to Tahoe, I’d recommend flying into Reno, which is about a 50 minute drive to the lake. There are over 130 direct flights per day on nine airlines, which include nonstop travel to and from Chicago, LA, Phoenix, NYC, Portland, Denver, Dallas, and more. Southwest flies there too, if you want to use those two free checked bags for extra swimsuits.

Lake Tahoe is in both California and Nevada (the state line crosses the middle of the lake). Be sure to keep this in mind while doing your research — the South Shore or South Lake refers to the Nevada side, while the North Shore and West Shore are in California. This article will be most useful if you’re planning a trip to North Lake Tahoe.

Image Courtesy of Unsplash // Tim Peterson

What to Pack  

One of my favorite things about Lake Tahoe is how casual it is. You can show up just about anywhere in spandex and a t-shirt or easy sundress, especially during the day. And even for dinner at nicer restaurants, you’ll be fine in nicer jeans and a sweater. During the summer, it’s hot in the daytime and gets chilly in the evening, so in addition to the swimsuits and hiking gear you’ll live, pack layers so you have something warm to throw on once the temperature drops.

Where to Stay

If you’re going to Lake Tahoe with a group, I recommend booking a house through Airbnb or VRBO. Pricing is super reasonable (like this house right on the lake that fits six for about $250/night!) and there is a lot of available lakefront inventory. Plus, a rental is definitely the best way to avoid throngs of other vacationers! 

If you’d prefer the boutique hotel route, Sunnyside Lodge is right on the lake, and the Lodge at Northstar and the Resort at Squaw Creek are family-friendly options. If you’re heading to Tahoe for a special occasion, The Ritz-Carlton won’t be a steal, but its dreamy, cabin-like interior, luxurious spa, and picturesque surroundings just might be worth the splurge.  

What to Do 

While Lake Tahoe’s popularity during the summer may surprise some people in my social circle, it’s hardly a hidden gem. Tahoe and the surrounding area can get crowded between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so I rounded up some of my favorite ways to explore Tahoe in the summer — while avoiding the crowds. 

1. Picnic on Lake Tahoe 

Image Courtesy of Unsplash // Patrick Ogilvie

If you want your meals with a view, Christy Hill is my favorite fine dining option on Lake Tahoe, while Sunnyside (mentioned above, as it’s also a lodge) is the best spot for larger groups or a post-hike lunch. While Christy Hill accepts reservations, you can end up waiting up to two hours for lunch at the super-popular Sunnyside. 

That’s where a DIY picnic comes in handy. With 72 miles of shoreline, there’s always somewhere along the lake to plop down to avoid the crowds and eat in peace. Tahoe House and Obexer’s General Store (and Full Belly Deli or New Moon if you’re coming from Truckee) are two great options for grabbing sandwiches and treats before moseying down to an idyllic picnic spot…no wait time required. 

2. BYO Float to the Truckee River

Whether you want to bring a separate raft for your cooler of beer and snacks, or float peacefully with the whole family, you can enjoy the (cold!) water of the Truckee River via a leisurely three hour float through scenic forests. While you can rent a raft in Tahoe City, you can also save time and hassle by buying a cheap one at the grocery store and blowing it up at any gas station. 

Getting there: Launch your float behind The Bridgetender (great local bar, by the way) and you’ll end up at River Ranch Lodge.

3. Grab a Pier on Donner Lake 

There are few things in life finer than a lazy summer day on a lake. The smell of sunscreen, a page-turner in your lap, maybe a glass of Whispering Angel at your side…dozens of children scuttling over your sandy feet…OK, while the last part may fit into my perfect scenario five years from now, it isn’t necessarily part of my ideal summer day today. I don’t have the answer for avoiding throngs of people at every beach, but I’ve found my idea of perfection — and isolation — at Donner Lake, Lake Tahoe’s smaller, warmer sister about 20 minutes from the main attraction. 

There are 37 public piers around Donner Lake and they’re up for grabs each morning. While you need to get up early (most docks will be claimed by 9:30/10AM on weekends), it’s the perfect place to bring floats, towels, beer, a day’s worth of snacks, and a group of friends.

Getting there: Get directions to the North Shore of Donner Lake on Donner Pass Road. 

4. Hike in to Beaches and Swimming Coves

Image Courtesy of Unsplash // Lukas Souza

You know what will deter a whole lot of people from crowding the same beach you’d like to enjoy in peace and quiet? Exercise. Bearing in mind the vastness of Lake Tahoe’s circumference, I’d recommend a Google search for a “hike-in beach” close to where you’re staying — you’re bound to find suggestions for tiny beaches and hidden coves you can get to with a 1-5 mile hike. One of my favorites is the Rubicon Trail on the West Shore (don’t fret where it says the trail is heavily trafficked; parking can be tricky but as soon as you clear the first mile or so, it really opens up!). This trail is stunning, as it follows the lake’s shoreline so you have water views every step of the way. From larger areas, like D.L. Bliss State Park and Emerald Bay, to plenty of tiny swimming coves, have your swimsuit on under your hiking clothes for plenty of opportunities to settle into a private lakefront paradise. 

 

Getting there: You can find the trailhead either at the Emerald Bay Boat-in campground on the south end, or from Lester Beach at D.L. Bliss on the north end. 

Whether you want a quiet, restful break in the crisp mountain air, hikes and bike rides that push your physical limits, or an unforgettably fun weekend with friends, you can find what you’re looking for during the summer in Lake Tahoe. 

 

Image Courtesy of Patrick Ogilvie