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.