Best Things To Do in Lake Tahoe
Skiing? Check. Swimming? Check. Golfing? Check. Shopping, dining and nightlife? Yup, those too. Lake Tahoe offers the best of all worlds rolled into one vacation destination. Spend your days hiking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, shredding powder along the slopes of Squaw Valley Ski Resort, getting the bird's-eye view of the lake from the Heavenly Gondola or kayaking in Emerald Bay. Then, as night falls, follow the bright lights to the southern shore's big-name casinos like Harrah's.
Updated July 23, 2018
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Carved millions of years ago by passing glaciers, this state park is a must-see for anyone looking to experience Lake Tahoe's beauty. Sheltered by towering trees, this inlet along the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe is known for its colorful granite cliffs and stunning panoramas. Follow Highway 89 south from Tahoe City (about 20 miles) or north from South Lake Tahoe (about 10 miles) and you'll come across the Emerald Bay Lookout, the park's crown jewel. And you should make sure you have a camera on hand – the scenery is breathtaking and travelers say there are photo opportunities everywhere you turn.
But staring off into the sunset isn't the only thing to do here. Emerald Bay State Park is also home to several attractions. Budding geologists can hop a boat out to Fannette Island (the only island on Lake Tahoe) where evidence of glacial activity abounds. If you're into history, a stop at Vikingsholm is a must: Built in the 1920s, this former summer home is one of the best examples of Scandinavian architecture in the country. Plus, many of the materials used to construct Vikingsholm came from the Lake Tahoe area, making this mansion an authentic part of the landscape. Adults can tour the home for $10 (children ages 7 to 17 and college student pay $8). Getting to the house takes a bit of doing. After parking in the Vikingshom parking lot by Highway 89 at Emerald Bay, visitors must hike via a steep 1-mile trail that drops 500 feet in elevation. Those with medical conditions or mobility issues are advised not to attempt this hike.
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Sprawling across six peaks on Lake Tahoe's western shore (about 10 miles northwest of Tahoe City), Squaw Valley has been dubbed one of the world's finest ski resorts thanks to its nearly 4,000 acres of ski-worthy terrain and its advanced lift system. It's no wonder this resort was chosen to host the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Recent visitors were impressed by the sheer size of the resort and said it offers a wide range of exciting runs – when the weather cooperates. Squaw is a smart choice for first-time skiers too; about 70 percent of its slopes are geared toward those at the beginner and intermediate level.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Lake TahoeMonuments and Memorials, Museums, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMonuments and Memorials, Museums, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
The Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum honor one of the darkest moments in American pioneering. Here, you'll find a great stone pedestal commemorating the Donner Party, the legendary pioneers who fell victim to the harsh Sierra Nevada winter of 1846 to 1847. The party (originally consisting of nearly 90 emigrants) was en route to California when their wagon train encountered a severe snow storm. Only half of the pioneers survived (many by resorting to cannibalism). The stone marker near the Emigrant Trail Museum stands 22 feet tall, marking the immense amount of snowfall from that winter.
For more information about the tragic Donner Party, head to the Emigrant Trail Museum. There you'll also find intricate dioramas detailing the history of railroad development in the Sierra Nevada region. It's a great spot for history buffs, according to recent visitors, though some expressed disappointment in the lack of interactive exhibits.
- #4View all Photos#4 in Lake TahoeBeaches, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Stretching along Lake Tahoe's northern shore, this beach is one of the largest in the area. The nearly 13-acre park – which encompasses a fair amount of shoreline on the northern edge of Lake Tahoe – is ideal for swimming, sunbathing and boating; plus, there is also a picnic area and a playground, as well as restroom facilities.
Recent visitors said the area is a great place for families, but add that it pays to get there early to find both a parking spot and a place to set up on the beach.
- #5View all Photos#5 in Lake TahoeSkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDSkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
According to skiers, this small resort on Lake Tahoe's west shore (about 7 miles south of Tahoe City) is far more manageable than nearby titans like Squaw Valley and Heavenly Resort. Sitting on 1,260 acres, Homewood features just 67 runs and eight lifts. But its laid-back atmosphere and spectacular scenery impress visitors time and again, who call it one of the most gorgeous resorts with amazing lake views and a great place to tree ski.
Homewood is also the perfect spot for those of you trying to experience Lake Tahoe on a budget, as lift tickets are much cheaper than those at nearby resorts (starting as low as $49 if purchased online in advance). Reviewers were also quick to praise its family-friendly atmosphere and on-site children's lessons. However, visitors were less impressed with the limited and outdated food options, and urge future visitors to pack their own snacks.
- #6View all Photos#6 in Lake TahoeRecreation, SkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRecreation, SkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Although it's significantly smaller than Squaw Valley or Heavenly Resort – boasting a mere 3,170 acres and almost 100 runs – Northstar California Resort is often rated among the top ski resorts in the West. In fact, Northstar had to construct an "express gondola" to accommodate the number of people who couldn't wait to hit the slopes.
Aside from skiing and snowboarding, other Northstar activities include swimming, ice skating (roller skating in summer) and snowshoeing. Also, youngsters can have the time of their lives on the kid-friendly slopes and the rides found at the Kids Adventure Zones. After a long day on the slopes (or the trails or the rink or the pool), catch up on your rest and relaxation with some time at the spa. There is also a movie theater on the property, as well as several shops and eateries. Recent visitors extolled the resort's awesome trails and family-friendly activities, but admit it is quite expensive.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Lake TahoeHiking, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Named for 19th-century lumber titan Duane Leroy Bliss, this stunning 744-acre park is home to the deepest section of Lake Tahoe and some of the area's most breathtaking sites, including several pristine beaches, hiking trails and the Balancing Rock, a 250,000-pound boulder balancing on a mere fist of granite.
Recent visitors raved about the park's beaches, trails and campsites, saying that they're definitely worth a visit. However, one common complaint is the lack of parking and the limited access to the park in the winter offseason.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Lake TahoeRecreation, SkiingTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDRecreation, SkiingTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
With its summit soaring 10,067 feet above sea level (the highest peak in Lake Tahoe), this wildly popular resort truly is heavenly. And it's the only ski area located on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe. It offers more than 4,600 skiable acres – with runs appropriate for all levels – as well as two snowboard parks, nearly 30 lifts and a 50-passenger aerial tram. The Heavenly Resort also offers daycare programs and children's ski lessons, so feel free to bring the kids along.
Despite Heavenly's incredible runs, its main draw is not its fresh powder but rather its soaring Heavenly Gondola. These suspended cable cars carry passengers more than 2 miles through the mountains to a 9,200-foot-high observation deck. Rides will cost you a small fortune ($58 for adults, $35 for kids), but travelers agree that the experience is a must for first-time visitors. In addition, in the summer at the resort's Epic Discovery adventure area, visitors can enjoy ropes courses, zip lines, a mountain coaster, climbing walls, tubing and guided hiking tours. Book the Ultimate Adventure Pass to try them all for $99 (or $74 for those shorter than 54 inches), which also includes the gondola ride.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Lake TahoeCasinosTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDCasinosTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Sitting just over the border from South Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nevada, Harrah's Casino offers a lively counterpoint to Lake Tahoe's natural peacefulness. There are plenty of gambling options, including table games and slot machines, as well as in-house concert venues and nightclubs. Harrah's is also home to a spa and several upscale and casual dining options.
Recent visitors praised the cleanliness of this casino and its friendly staff, though some griped about the age of some of the machines. Despite reviewers' comments about the need for a casino face-lift, they still said it was a fun escape after a few days enjoying Lake Tahoe's outdoor pursuits.
- #10View all Photos#10 in Lake TahoeSkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDSkiingTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
If you want to avoid the crowds that flock to nearby Squaw Valley, consider visiting the lesser known Alpine Meadows. Often referred to as Lake Tahoe's hidden gem, this 2,400-acre ski facility features more than 100 runs, not to mention several snowboarding parks. Its diverse activities suit a variety of interests; recent visitors recommend a stop here, whether you're a novice skier looking to take your first stab at shredding powder or you're a double black diamond daredevil wanting to take a walk on the wild side. What's more, there are ski schools, play areas and special programs for kids. Note that 75 percent of the trails are designed for intermediate or advanced skiers.
For the most part, recent visitors gave glowing reviews of the diversity of the ski runs and the on-site kids programs, while others said the customer service is a little lacking and the expensive lift tickets don't match the limited facilities and restaurants. But all reviewers agreed, the views are unparalleled.
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