Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list essential. Where else can you get a chance to inhale air that is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” as celebrated author Mark Twain put it. One look around, especially from drop-dead-gorgeous overlooks like the one above Emerald Bay State Park, and it’s easy to see why Twain was so smitten. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with their own appeal. Winter and springtime snow lets you carve it up at world-class alpine resorts. Summer brings out the water toys—sailboats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and almost anything that floats. Fall paints the hills with golden aspen leaves. But no matter what the season, this is the kind of place that makes you plan the next trip back before you even leave.
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 favourite 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 favourite, 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, restaurants and a multi-screen cinema 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 stand-up paddleboards for rent—with instruction or on your own—at expansive Lakeview Commons at El Dorado Beach. Afterwards, dine with locals at favourites 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 night-time fun either—Whiskey Dick’s Saloon is a classic hipster 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 pull 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 insight into how this town has evolved from a frontier outpost to an appealing enclave of shops, boutiques, lake-front restaurants and private estates. Lakefront Commons Beach provides acres of room to spread out and relax in, to listen to a concert in summer or to let the children clamber on a mini climbing wall. At the north end, the park merges with Tahoe State Recreation Area, with on-the-lake camping pitches. The adjacent public pier makes a great place to jump 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 down-river to hire inflatable rafts to float along an ultra-mellow stretch of the Truckee River (perfect for children and first-time rafters). Just east of Fanny Bridge, the 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 in the centre of the town, has loads of rustic charm and is just five minutes from the lake. When it comes to time to refuel, pop in at Fire Sign Café, a family-run breakfast and lunch eatery that has been a Tahoe City favourite for over 40 years, or visit West Shore Market & Deli for gourmet grocery items for a picnic, as well as delicious cakes, sandwiches and flatbread pizzas.
Look down on this astounding bay and you can see why Mark Twain dubbed Lake Tahoe "the fairest picture the whole earth affords." While the main lake is as blue as a topaz, a colour created by Tahoe’s remarkable clarity and depth, this somewhat shallower bay on the lake’s west shore takes on a startling and beautiful blue-green, 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 Scandinavian-style 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 tour her richly detailed, hand-built home, a replica of a 9th-century Scandinavian castle, on tours offered several times daily, late-May to Labor Day—it’s definitely worth the walk down from the parking lot.
"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 4 miles/6 kilometres south to the bay. Another short hike with a big reward is the 1-mile/2-km 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, such as the Tahoe Queen paddle wheeler, also visit Emerald Bay; you can also use it 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.
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 that’s away from the hubbub. Historically a logging town, Truckee was also the site for major railroad construction in the 1860s (10,000 of the 12,000 workers were Chinese). Today, it’s Western-style downtown has morphed into a great place to shop in appealing boutiques and galleries. It has also become something of a foodie hot spot, with sophisticated but comfortable options including Stella, Trokay, Pianeta, and Drunken Monkey. Moody’s Bistro and Lounge is Truckee’s nightlife landmark, serving up mountain roadhouse-style food and live jazz. 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 500 wines on hand from small vineyards around the world.
Sparkling Donner Lake is a fun alternative to Tahoe. For a pleasant bike ride, follow the 2.75-mile/4.4-km Truckee River Legacy Trail; much of the paved path parallels the pretty Truckee River.