Look down on the astounding bay at Emerald Bay State Park and you can see why Mark Twain, in his 1871 travel book Roughing It, dubbed Lake Tahoe "the fairest picture the whole earth affords." The park does indeed offer some of the best Lake Tahoe views, but fast forward nearly a century and a half and you’ll find the area offers a lot more than just a picture. What better place to hike, tour a stone castle, Instagram from the deck of a boat cruise, or simply dive in? You can do it all at Emerald Bay State Park.
While Lake Tahoe’s main lake is as blue as a topaz, a color created by the waters’ remarkable clarity and depth, this somewhat shallower bay on the lake’s west shore takes on a startling and beautiful blue-green. It’s made all the more striking by the perfect dot of tiny Fannette Island—the only islet in Lake Tahoe—right in the middle of the bay.
From large pullout areas off Highway 89, see if you can spot the ruins of a tiny stone teahouse perched on the top of the island. The teahouse, and the 38-room stone castle known as Vikingsholm that’s built on the nearby shore, were constructed by Lora Knight, an extraordinary woman who married into extreme wealth, then used her money to educate young people who could otherwise not afford it. Learn about her and walk through her richly detailed, hand-built home, the design of which was inspired by buildings in Scandinavia dating as far back as the 11th century, on tours offered several times daily, late-May through Labor Day. It’s about a one-mile (and fairly steep) walk down from the parking lot to get there, but it’s definitely worth it.
"Look down on this astounding bay and you can see why Mark Twain dubbed Lake Tahoe 'the fairest picture the whole earth affords.'"
You can also access Emerald Bay on the popular and easy Rubicon Trail, which follows the edge of the lake from D.L. Bliss State Park four miles south to the bay. Another short hike with a big reward is the one-mile trail that starts across the highway from Emerald Bay and leads up to the icy cascades of Eagle Falls and a panoramic view of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe.
Cruises on paddle wheelers such as the M.S. Dixie II visit Emerald Bay; you can also simply use the bay as a great destination if you rent a boat at South Shore. For a big splurge, book a private yacht cruise with Lake Tahoe Boat Rides; along the way, the captain sheds light on the region’s history.
If you’d like to have a truly unique experience—and one that’s the first of its kind in California—the underwater Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail will scratch that itch. Using scuba or snorkeling gear (there are several dive shops nearby where you can rent gear), visitors can follow an underwater “trail” of watery graves of fishing boats, recreational skiffs, and barges from the early part of the 20th century. Waterproof cards are issued with information about the scuttled boats and the history behind them, which make up the largest and most diverse group of small sunken watercraft in their original location in the country.
Blue as a topaz and encircled by majestic peaks, the massive Lake Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list essential. The 22-mile/35-kilometer-long lake can fill a record book with its statistics—it’s the 10th deepest lake in the world, second deepest in the U.S. after Crater Lake, and boasts 72 miles/116 kilometers of shoreline. It’s also one of the purest lakes in the world, with 99.99% purity, roughly the same as distilled water.
But it’s not Tahoe’s numbers but its images that linger—an osprey diving into a ripple-less cove, a black bear drinking water at the lake’s edge, the setting sun lingering behind Mount Tallac, a rosy pink alpenglow lighting up snow-covered slopes. One look around—especially from drop-dead-gorgeous overlooks like Inspiration Point above Emerald Bay State Park—and it’s easy to see why travelers have been flocking to Lake Tahoe since the California Gold Rush.
Summer is Tahoe’s busiest season, when mountain-lovers hike the Tahoe Rim Trail, pedal along the lake’s paved bike trails, and strap on backpacks to explore the granite wonderland of Desolation Wilderness. In June, when the lakeside wildflowers come out, so do the water toys—sailboats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and almost anything that floats. Outfitters around the lake offer paddleboarding and kayaking tours for all levels, plus rentals for do-it-yourselfers. Truckee’s Tahoe Adventure Company leads guided full-moon paddles, and Tahoe City Kayak offers sunset kayak tours. If you’re an experienced paddler, it’s not hard to find a launching site—choose from 30 around the lake, then just hop in and go.
For leisurely water fun—almost no paddling required—grab an inner tube or raft and float the Truckee River. Start the day by renting gear in Tahoe City from outfitters like Truckee River Rafting or Truckee River Raft Company. Then bob your way downstream over a blissful 5 miles/8 kilometers to River Ranch Lodge, an 1888 stone-and-timber inn and tavern that serves nachos and salads with a riverfront view. This rafting trip doesn’t deliver whitewater thrills—just quiet pools, chilly swimming holes, and plenty of opportunities for trailing your fingers in the water.
Small towns dot Tahoe’s shoreline, offering year-round charm. On the North Shore, Kings Beach wears a kick-back-and-relax vibe, especially on summer days when families and friends populate the sun-drenched sand at Kings Beach State Recreation Area. Watch your kids build sand castles, or just throw down a beach towel and rip through that novel you’ve been meaning to read. Dozens of family-run motels and casual eateries make it possible to spend your entire vacation in this beach town and never wipe the sand off your feet.
If winter is your season, Tahoe has you covered with more than a dozen alpine resorts. Carve it up at the heavy-hitters—Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Northstar—or skip over to smaller, more intimate ski hills like Homewood or Donner Ski Ranch. The fluffy white stuff usually starts falling in late November, and in some years, the spring melt holds off until June.
Even if you don’t ski or board, Tahoe’s non-skiing activities make snow days fun: zip lines, inner tube runs, scenic gondola rides, groomed ice skating rinks, snowshoe and snowmobiling trails, and a party-like atmosphere on and off the slopes. In winter, remember to pay attention to road conditions: Chains, all-wheel drive, or snow tires are often required, and some storms may close roads. Check the Caltrans website for current updates.
No matter the season, Lake Tahoe is a haven for outdoor adventure. The ski resorts are world-class, the water sports are epic, and the hiking and mountain-biking options are some of the best in the country. Discover the unique towns that surround the lake’s crystal-blue water and explore as much as you can outside.
Get out on the water
Earn your water-sports diploma as you skim across Lake Tahoe’s glassy surface on a kayak, a wakeboard, or water skis. For 30-plus years, the High Sierra Waterski School has been teaching people to safely drive powerboats and Jet Skis and navigate with human-powered kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. Two locations, at Sunnyside and Homewood marinas, offer classes and rentals. Kayak rentals and tours are also available at Tahoe Adventure Company, Kayak Tahoe, and more.
Eat at Fifty Fifty Brewing Company
Fifty Fifty Brewing Company serves up inventive craft brews—pale ales, IPAs, porters, and an imperial stout aged in oak bourbon barrels—plus a hearty array of pub-style burgers, sandwiches, salads, and pizzas. Make your après-ski meet-up a progressive party by hitting a few more Truckee hot spots: Truckee Public House, Old Town Tap, and Moody’s Bistro.
Stay at The Village at Squaw Valley
You can stay in the center of The Village at Squaw Valley’s dining and shopping, in a comfy room with easy access to the slopes. Room sizes can accommodate big families and groups if needed, with suites and full kitchens available. In nearby Tahoe City, families love Granlibakken: It started as a sledding hill and ski jump in the 1920s, adding a lodge in the 1940s; today the 74-acre resort has a spa, a wide range of rooms and condo-style lodgings, and its historic warming hut. A little farther north in Truckee, The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe offers sweeping mountain views, ski-in/ski-out access to Northstar California’s slopes, and a sumptuous 17,000-square-foot spa. Diners can watch the culinary magic happen in the open kitchen of Manzanita or sip a cocktail from the frozen ice rail in its earthy, dark-wood bar. In summer, take advantage of Northstar’s mountain-bike park and nearby championship golf courses.
Bike the Truckee River Bike Trail
When the snow melts, Squaw Valley’s to-do list heats up. An aerial tram soars 2,000 feet above the valley to an altitude of 8,200, where a lagoon-style pool lures swimmers and sunbathers with a summer-party atmosphere. Lace up roller skates and cruise around the outdoor rink, or hike on trails leading from the upper tram station to surrounding peaks. Down below in the valley, rent mountain bikes at Factory Bike and ride the Truckee River Bike Trail or miles of dirt trails in the surrounding forest.
Hike near Emerald Bay
From the drive-up overlook at Inspiration Point, it’s easy to shoot dramatic photographs of Emerald Bay punctuated by rugged Fannette Island. But get a fresh perspective on this glorious stretch of blue by hiking the Rubicon Trail from Emerald Bay State Park, watching for bald eagles along the way. Or walk the wide Vikingsholm Trail downhill to the lakeshore and dip your toes into the cobalt water. At the bay’s edge, tour Vikingsholm Castle, one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the United States; or rent a stand-up paddleboard and work your core as you explore the bay.
Jamie Anderson has already won gold in South Korea and the 2018 Winter Games haven't even begun yet. At the official Olympic snowboarding slopestyle test event in PyeongChang last February, the 27-year-old from South Lake Tahoe reminded everyone that this is her sport by producing a complicated collection of twists, jumps, and tricks to earn top honors. Being the first and only athlete to win Olympic gold in this discipline, which debuted nearly four years ago in Sochi, Russia, means she sort of owns it.
It's no secret that her hometown has been instrumental in making her a champion, which is why she launched the Jamie Anderson Foundation in 2013 to help youth pursue their athletic dreams. In four years the foundation has already helped more than 30 winter sports athletes, providing them gear, season passes, and even financial aid to travel for competitions.
The 13-time Winter X Games medalist returns to her old shredding grounds as often as possible—there's nothing like being home to inspire her to dream big. Anderson is looking to dominate in the snowboard big air event, newly added to the Olympics for 2018. She shared her favorite things about the Golden State below.
Where do you live? South Lake Tahoe
Why there? I am one of eight siblings. We all grew up in South Lake Tahoe, skiing and snowboarding at Sierra-at-Tahoe Mountain. My mom home-schooled me so that I could spend most days snowboarding at Sierra with my siblings. It is where I started my Olympic dreams.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we don't work hard. We just know how to find balance.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That everyone is following a dream. So many Californians find something they’re passionate about and really pursue it.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Getting a cabin in the mountains. It is always such a great way to get a good night's sleep, meditate, and do some great snowboarding.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? Probably down the coast to visit my sisters who live in SoCal.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Healthy food! It is really easy to find pure, organic, whole foods in California. You are never far from a fresh juice or organic smoothie.
Best California songs? I can’t think of my favorite California songs [off the top of my head], but when I'm on the mountain, I love listening to hip hop.
How would your California dream day unfold? Dinner with friends and family, relaxing in my sauna or a nice hot spring. Near Mammoth Lakes, there are some amazing hot water springs that are relaxing and good for the soul and sore muscles.
How do you define California style? By the outdoors. You can do yoga, hike, surf, or anything outdoors—almost year-round—and dress accordingly. It's amazing.
Lake Tahoe lays claim to some of the country’s top alpine resorts, where pint-size skiers and boarders grow up to be gold-medal winners. But it’s not all steeps and bumps here. On the north shore, Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Games, has legendary expert runs, but it also has wide groomers and an outstanding ski and board school, plus a mid-mountain ice-skating rink and supersize hot tubs (how cool is that?). Further north around the lake is Northstar California, a family favorite known for outstanding terrain parks for all abilities, including a massive halfpipe designed as a training site for superstar boarder Shaun White. Après-ski doesn’t get much classier than at Northstar’s Ritz-Carlton at Lake Tahoe, where you can sip craft cocktails in front of soaring windows with views of the snowy runs. Alpine, the sister mountain to Squaw (you can buy lift passes that access both mountains) is a local favorite, especially on powder days.
"Zip lines, tube runs, scenic gondola rides, and a party-like atmosphere"
On Tahoe’s south shore, Heavenly—one of the world’s biggest ski resorts—offers jaw-dropper lake views from runs as wide and bump free as freeways. Heavenly has also bumped up the fun even if you don’t ski or board, with on-mountain zip lines, tube runs, scenic gondola rides, and a party-like atmosphere on and off the mountain. Kirkwood, south of the lake, is another local secret, with serious steeps and backcountry clinics.
Lower key resorts—Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood, Sierra at Tahoe, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl, Tahoe Donner—offer even more choices for snow play. If you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer in the snow, head for groomed cross-country and snowshoe trails at Royal Gorge or Kirkwood, or take a guided trek with Tahoe Adventure Company. For a real treat, get your mush on with a sled dog ride near Squaw Valley, Kirkwood, or in Hope Valley, just south of Lake Tahoe.
Note: for latest road conditions and closure, call Caltrans (800/427-7623; English only), or check the website. Chains, all-wheel drive, or snow tires may be required, and some storms close roads altogether.
Everyone—from sun worshippers on sandy beaches to adrenaline junkies on mountain trails—loves Tahoe in summer. Family time at the lake is a summertime staple for many Californians, and cabins, condos, and traditional lodgings—as well as a handful of campgrounds—offer an array of places to stay. Finding something to do is about as complicated as walking outside. Trails lace the region, with the 165-mile/265-km Tahoe Rim Trail circling the lake in one breathtaking (sometimes literally, when it crests peaks over 9,000 feet/2,743 meters) loop—but don’t worry, most people just do pieces of it, either on foot or by mountain bike. Alpine resorts offer on-mountain activities in summer—try mountain biking trails at Northstar California; zip-lining and ropes courses at Heavenly; or lounge in a sparkling High Camp pool at 8,200 feet/2,499 meters at Squaw Valley.
And then there’s that beautiful lake, skim the surface in a kayak—Tahoe City Kayak & Paddleboard on the North Shore provides guided tours and rentals. Or try your hand at standup paddle boarding (SUP); South Tahoe Standup Paddle’s Rise & Shine Morning Tour takes all levels of paddlers out on the calm, flat morning waters (keep your eyes peeled for resident bald eagles). Guided cruises by sail or motorboat are another wonderful way to experience the lake, especially at sunset. Or relax on the Tahoe Queen or M.S. Dixie II, paddlewheel boats that offer brunch, dinner, and day cruises year-round. Feel like just hanging out? Spread out the beach towels at lively Kings Beach on the North Shore or at D.L. Bliss State Park on the West Shore. Just remember the sunscreen: high-altitude sunshine can cause serious burns.
Lake Tahoe has a split personality: half California, half Nevada. The two meet along the lake’s southern shore, where high-casino hotels (in Nevada) bump up against the base village for Heavenly (in California). Millions of dollars have been spent on upping the experience along this part of the lake. Relax at fire pits year-round at The Shops at Heavenly Village, with boutiques, eateries, and a multi-screen movie theater in a handsome stone and timber complex. Craft beer enthusiasts can sample local brews at Stateline Brewery & Restaurant. Outdoor concerts draw serious big names—think Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars—during summer. After all that party atmosphere, consider retreating to the zen-like calm of local day spas, such as Serenity Spa in the Heavenly Village.
In the adjacent South Lake Tahoe community, daytime diversions are easy to find as well. During the warmer months, Ski Run and Tahoe Keys Marinas offer watercraft rentals, as well as standup paddleboards for rent—with instruction or on your own—at expansive Lakeview Commons at El Dorado Beach. Afterward, dine with locals at favorites like The Naked Fish (excellent sushi), Himmel Haus, an expansive temple to all things delicious and German (plus some choice Belgian brews), and Base Camp Pizza Co. You don’t have to look far on this side of the lake to find some nighttime fun either—Whiskey Dick’s Saloon is a classic hipster dive bar with live music, Rojo’s Tavern offers a lively dance scene with DJs, and South Lake Brewing Company and Tahoe AleWorx, where you can draw your own pints, are two great spots to sample some of the area’s tastiest craft brews.
With a heritage dating back to the Gold Rush, when fortune hunters passed through on their way to mine for silver in the Comstock Lode, North Lake Tahoe’s Tahoe City has a rich history. The town is home to museums and historical landmarks managed by the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, and a visit to any one of them adds insights into how this town has evolved from frontier outpost to an appealing enclave of shops, boutiques, lakefront restaurants, and private estates. Lakefront Commons Beach provides acres of room to spread out and relax, hear a concert in summer, and let the kids clamber on a mini-climbing wall. At the north end, the park blends into Tahoe State Recreation Area, with right-on-the-lake campsites. The adjacent public pier makes a great place to cannonball into Lake Tahoe.
At Fanny Bridge, spanning the point where lake waters outflow into the Truckee River, go ahead and support the name by peering over the edge to see the lake’s resident trout swirling in the clear water below. Take a short stroll downriver to rent inflatable rafts to float along an ultra-mellow stretch of the Truckee River (perfect for kids and first-time rafters). Just east of Fanny Bridge, Gatekeeper’s Museum (a reconstruction of the original historic cabin that was destroyed by fire) houses an outstanding collection of Native American basketry, as well as early photographs and relics from the region. In winter, the town hosts Snowfest, North Lake Tahoe’s version of Mardi Gras, with parades, live music, and snow play.
The perfect place to stay during your Tahoe City exploration? Basecamp Tahoe City, a boutique hotel located right in the center of town, has loads of rustic charm and is five minutes from the lake. When it comes time to refuel, stop by Fire Sign Café, a family-run breakfast and lunch spot that has been a Tahoe City favorite for over 40 years, or West Shore Market & Deli for gourmet grocery items for a picnic, as well as delicious baked goods, sandwiches, and flatbread pizzas.
With nearly as many golf courses as ski resorts, Lake Tahoe is a duffer’s paradise—not to mention that the views are alpine knockouts. Courses snake through glacially carved valleys, trim the edge of the lake, and meander links-style through tall conifers.
The North Shore boasts six championship golf courses designed by legends of the sport (Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones). Serious golfers can test their game at the challenging par-71 The Links at Squaw Valley, on Tahoe’s northwest side. Tall peaks give way to the wide-open Martis Valley at Northstar California’s 18-hole, par-72 course. Post game, relax with a signature Bloody Mary at the Martis Valley Grille. On the South Shore, swing your clubs at the all-levels-welcome Lake Tahoe Golf Course. Families and beginners will enjoy Bijou Municipal Golf Course—no hidden obstacles or holes longer than 350 yards here.
Hikers will find it easy to indulge their inner naturalist in Lake Tahoe. Glacier-carved granite slopes, snowmelt waterfalls, and wildflower-painted meadows are just a taste of what’s in store. Whether you choose to bag a 10,000-foot/3,000-meter peak or take a leisurely stroll along the shores of Emerald Bay, you’ll find stellar alpine vistas that will have you Instragramming nonstop.
If you’re serious about your hiking, or want to backpack into spectacular high country, explore routes into Desolation Wilderness, with miniature lakes dotting a huge expanse of glacially scoured granite. The 165-mile (266-kilometer) Tahoe Rim Trail connects the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe; some stretches still follow original routes used by Washoe Indians, early pioneers, and Basque shepherds. The trail, which overlaps with the Pacific Crest Trail for about 50 miles/80 kilometers, encompasses the ridge tops of the Lake Tahoe Basin and crosses six counties and two states. In the summertime, it’s open for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.
And here’s a tip if you love to hike but might not have the time or oomph to get way up high: gondolas and chair lifts at Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Northstar California, and Kirkwood provide summertime access to high country trails.
Legend has it that this town was named after card shark Joe King, who won the rights to the area in a poker game nearly a century ago. Despite its royal name, Kings Beach is anything but pretentious, with dozens of family-run motels, eateries, and places to pick up your “I heart Tahoe” t-shirts. Sunny Kings Beach State Recreation Area is known as the “banana belt” of the North Shore because of almost nonstop sunshine making it a prime spot for anyone with a beach towel, especially large groups and families who like the easy parking and walking distance to grab-and-go eateries. If you want to take a break from the action, slip away on a standup paddleboard, available for rent here (along with instruction). After dark, eat with locals at Lanza’s, a family-friendly Italian joint complete with red-and-white checked tablecloths.
Positioned at the junction of Highways 267 and 28, Kings Beach is also a good jumping off point for skiers and snowboarders looking to hit the slopes at one of the North Shore’s alpine resorts. Shops, restaurants, and colorful street vendors round out the fun here.
Up and over the hill from Lake Tahoe’s north shore, Truckee offers an easy base for an adventure-filled trip. Historically a logging town, Truckee was also the site for major railroad construction in the 1860s. Today, its Old West-style downtown has morphed into an artistic hub, with historical sites and appealing boutiques and galleries. This creative culture earned Truckee the designation of a California Cultural District in 2017.
Drop by Gallery 5830’, Mountain Arts Collective, and Riverside Studios, just three among many galleries, where you’ll find the handiwork of dozens of local artists, including works of sculpture, hand-blown glassware, woodwork, and more.
Learn more about local history and nature at the independent bookstore, Word After Word, owned by two local moms. Or take home cool souvenirs and home decor with a mountain edge from Bespoke, a curated gift store owned by husband and wife Brian Hess and Heather River. A few doors down, the couple’s combo gallery, retail store, and arts classroom Atelier welcomes creative wannabees to come learn how to do everything from knit to screenprint to arrange flowers.
The town has also become something of a foodie hot spot, with sophisticated but comfortable options including Stella, Pianeta, and Drunken Monkey, a favorite for sushi lovers. Chef-owners John and Nyna Weatherson dream up inventive prix fixe menus at Trokay, where you can also take classes to learn about cheese pairings or how to make your own pasta. Moody’s Bistro Bar & Beats is Truckee’s nightlife landmark, serving up mountain roadhouse-style food and live jazz inside the 1873 Truckee Hotel. Nab a seat at the bar to watch acts like Mose Allison and Shotgun Wedding Quintet. For quality wines and wine tasting, visit The Pour House, with more than 350 wines on hand from small vineyards around the world.
Craft beer also has a strong presence here—be sure to visit Alibi Ale Works’ Truckee location, which does triple duty as a pilot brewery, a public house that also serves food (get the gourmet nachos), and live music venue. Another Truckee beer destination is FiftyFifty Brewing Co., which recently won best brewing group of the year.
Year-round adventure (and outdoor recreation) is easy to find in Truckee. In the warmer months, choose from rafting, swimming, rock climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Or maybe a lazy float? Drive into Tahoe City on a warm summer day and you can’t miss the big tents set up alongside the sparkling Truckee River, where operators rent out inflatable rafts and inner tubes for a leisurely do-it-yourself day on the water. Sparkling Donner Lake, also located in Nevada County, is a fun alternative to Tahoe. For an easygoing bike ride, follow the 2.75-mile Truckee River Legacy Trail; much of the paved path parallels the pretty Truckee River.
In the winter, Truckee’s ideal location is just 10–15 minutes away from some of Tahoe’s best ski resorts, including Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Boreal Mountain Resort, and Homewood Mountain Resort. And if downhill isn’t your style, there’s plenty of backcountry tours, snowmobile terrain, and sledding adventures nearby.