It was 1960 and somehow an upstart resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains had won a bid to host the winter Olympics. Broadcast in color for the first time ever, that year’s Olympics introduced the world not only to some of California’s best skiing, but to one of the planet’s largest, bluest, and clearest freshwater lakes. Lake Tahoe fever erupted and within a decade, the lake’s shores were filled with hotels, vacation homes, and restaurants.
It’s hard to imagine today, but plans were put in place back then to build a highway above the lake and develop the Lake Tahoe basin into a residential community for some half million people. Then a small but committed group of environmentalists, lawyers, and scientists came together to point out the flaws in that plan. Everything that made Tahoe desirable, they said, would be ruined by the level of development proposed. Decades of legal disputes followed, culminating in the creation of a complex system of development credits and permits aimed at protecting the sensitive ecosystem of the lake and keeping Lake Tahoe blue. It’s the reason that most of the towns and residences ringing the lake look like they haven’t been touched since the 1970s, and that Lake Tahoe still boasts some of the world’s clearest, bluest water, despite welcoming millions of tourists each year.
There’s really no bad time of the year to visit Lake Tahoe, but the timing of your visit will depend on what sort of experience you want to have. If you’re looking to hit the slopes, obviously you’ll want to plan your trip for winter. Similarly, if you’re hoping to bike around the lake or hit some of the area’s great hikes, you’ll want to plan a trip in late spring, summer or early fall. Following is a breakdown of Tahoe’s seasons to help you plan:
Winter: November through April. In a typical year, it will start snowing in Tahoe around mid-November and continue through to mid-April or even later. In recent years, major droughts have impacted that pattern but the 2015-2016 season saw a return to almost-normal snow levels. To score the best deals at the area’s ski resorts, book a spring trip in late March or early April.
Spring: April and May (shoulder season). April and May are slow months in Tahoe, between the hectic winter and summer tourist seasons, which makes them a terrific time to visit. There are fewer crowds everywhere, most of the resorts stay open for spring skiing, and down at lake level the snow has typically thawed enough to allow for plenty of hiking and biking. And because it’s a slow season, many resorts and vacation rentals offer discounts.
Summer: June through August. Summer is actually the busiest time of the year in Tahoe, with roads and beaches heaving with tourists every weekend. The week of July 4th is particularly crazy, but families from around the country continue to brave the crowds because watching the fireworks over Lake Tahoe really is that spectacular.
Fall: September and October (shoulder season). The Lake’s “other” shoulder season, fall is an excellent time to visit. Tahoe typically gets “Indian summer” weather well into September, and by this time of the year the Lake has benefitted from a few months of sun, making it the warmest swimming season (although that doesn’t mean the lake is “warm” by any stretch of the imagination, just that it’s slightly less shocking to the system than usual). This is also a good time to snag deals at local resorts and vacation rentals.
Depending on where they live, people come to Lake Tahoe for anywhere from a day to two weeks and the area is suitable for both types of trips. Day trippers will hit the slopes for a day of skiing in winter, or head out on the lake for the day in summer, while longer-term visitors can take advantage of mid-week lulls to beat the crowds at either the lifts or the beaches.
If you’re going to stay longer than a few days, you might want to look into booking one of the area’s many vacation rentals. More than half the homes around Lake Tahoe are second homes. Many are rented out to visitors and most are quite large and well-appointed, making them a good deal for families or groups of friends. Look on sites like VRBO.com and Airbnb.com for a large selection of listings.
Summer and Winter are the high seasons in Lake Tahoe, and it’s not uncommon for prices to be anywhere from 25% to 40% higher during these periods than they are in fall and spring.
Deals for Skiers
If your passion is skiing but you’re worried about pricey lift tickets and rooms, consider booking a spring ski trip in April. The vast majority of the area’s ski resorts stay open until May, and most run deals throughout the month of April, often bundling room and lift tickets together. The snow is still great this time of year, and you’ll get to take advantage of Tahoe’s famed “bluebird” days: a perfect combination of powder, cloudless skies, and just enough sun to make everything sparkle.
Deals for Swimmers
If a dip in the lake is what you’re after, shoot for September or October, when Tahoe’s Indian summer weather keeps the beaches warm, but all the summer tourists have long since left the shores.
Lake Tahoe has pretty typical four-season weather, but with a few important twists.
Winter: It snows from about November through April. One of the great things about Tahoe winters, though, is that they tend to include quite a bit of sun. The average Tahoe winter week will include a couple days of snow, followed by a few days of cold, sunny weather, and repeat.
Spring: The area starts to thaw around late April or early May, but spring skiing can (and has) continue well into May. That makes spring a great time of year for skiers looking to score great runs at a discount, but not so great for those hoping to get a jump on summer.
Summer: It typically gets into the 70s during the summer in Tahoe, with the occasional run of days in the 80s. No matter how hot it gets during the day, it always cools down at night and in the mornings. And the lake really never feels less than icy.
Fall: Summer weather tends to hold through the end of September. October days still tend to be fairly warm, but the nights and mornings start to get cooler and cooler as the month goes on.
All the U.S. national holidays are busy times in the Lake Tahoe area, particularly Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, and Fourth of July. Prices skyrocket during these times, and visitors should book well in advance if they hope to snag a decent room or house rental.
During the winter holidays, most of the ski resorts black out days on season passes, as well.
Weekend holidays are popular as well, particularly around President’s Day and MLK Day — both of which are popular with skiers and snowboarders — and Memorial Day and Labor Day, which are popular with summer visitors eager to barbecue on the beach.
Tahoe is also home to several outdoor sporting events and summer festivals, including the following:
North Lake Tahoe Snow Fest (March 4 through March 13) – The largest winter carnival west of the Mississippi, featuring various events throughout the week.
Amgen bike tour – 3rd week in May (in 2016, the tour will hit the Tahoe area May 19th). Roads are often closed to allow the cyclists to ride through the area with ease.
Reno-Tahoe Odyssey Relay Run (June 3rd and 4th)- Reno-Tahoe Oyssey Relay Run Adventure has three race options, the original 178-mile course, Capital Odyssey, a 63 mile relay run on Saturday, June 4 and the Comstock Odyssey, a 29 mile relay also on June 4.
Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (July 8 through August 21st) – Enjoy some of the Bard’s most popular plays at the amphitheater at Sand Harbor, one of the most scenic theaters in the country.
Wanderlust (Squaw) – July 14th through July 17th. This popular three-day yoga and music festival attracts thousands of visitors from throughout the country each year.
Although the Lake Tahoe area crosses into two states — California and Nevada — it sits firmly in one time zone: Pacific Standard Time.
Daylight Saving Time — when clocks are set forward an hour — happens each year from mid-March to early November. In 2016 it will start March 13th and end November 6th.
No matter the season, it’s always a good idea to plan on layers in Tahoe. In the winter, temperatures can change dramatically from lake level to slope level, and it’s not uncommon in a single week to go from below-freezing temps to the mid-40s or low-50s. During the summer it’s typical for daytime highs to hit up to 80 with nighttime lows dipping down into the high-40s, so you’ll need tank tops, a bathing suit, AND a fleece if you’re visiting in summer. Spring and fall are less predictable. It can feel like winter some days in the spring, and like summer on others, and the same holds true for the fall season. During these times of the year, it’s best to plan for every possibility and bring both a bathing suit and a ski jacket.
Lake Tahoe can be an expensive place. In fact, in a recent economic study, the Tahoe basin rated even worse than San Francisco in terms of its sky-high cost of living versus the area’s average income. But that doesn’t mean that visitors can’t find deals if they know where to look. Following are a few basic tips:
South shore is cheaper than north shore — As a general rule, South Lake Tahoe has lower prices than any of the other areas around the lake.
Rentals are more affordable than hotels — Vacation rental sites like VRBO and Airbnb offer the best deals on rental homes and condos, many of which are located at or very near some of the area’s ski resorts.
Look for small inns, B&Bs and motels — The shores of Lake Tahoe are dotted with small inns, motels and B&Bs, most of which are far more reasonable than the area’s larger resorts and hotels.
Check Hotwire — Hotwire boasts great deals on Tahoe area hotels, especially if you know the area reasonably well. For example, I know that Incline Village only really has one 4-star hotel (the Hyatt), so when I see a 4-star hotel in Incline on Hotwire for $80/a night, I know I’m getting a room at the Hyatt for a deep discount.
Bundle hotel and rental car — If you do opt for a hotel of some kind, look into bundling it with a rental car. You’re going to need a car here, and the rates can be exorbitant during popular times of the year. Bundles are almost always cheaper.
On average, you should expect to pay from $100 – $200 a night for a room. Vacation rentals, which are typically 3 or more bedrooms, run anywhere from $200 a night for a basic, 3-bedroom, 2-bath house to thousands for some of the palatial estates on the lakeshore.
Restaurants in the area also tend to be pricey and, frankly, not often worth it. This is another way in which visitors can save by going for a rental versus a hotel — making even a few meals at home should shave a good couple hundred dollars off your weekly vacation budget.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
The closest airport to Tahoe is Reno International Airport. Fares fluctuate, but on average they break down about like this:
$100 – $150 roundtrip from Vegas (on Southwest)
$150 – $200 roundtrip from LA or San Francisco (on Southwest)
$350 – $500 roundtrip from New York (on Jet Blue)
There are no direct flights from Europe; air fare from the EU to Tahoe is likely to run around $1,000. Most international flights will have at least one stop along the way to Reno. Tahoe is about a 40-minute drive from the Reno airport.
It’s possible to get around without a car in Tahoe, but not super practical. The public transit system is unreliable, and the handful of free shuttles provided by the resorts cover limited ground within a 5-mile radius. Taxis are hard to come by and expensive, although Uber did just recently launch in the region.
Most visitors are going to want to rent a car, which will run from $50 – $100 per day depending on the time of year, type of car, duration of your stay, and insurance options. The rental companies are fairly interchangeable, so shop around and go with the best price.
Expect to tip from 15% to 20% at restaurants. Other places where tips come into play include:
Valet – A flat $3 – $5 tip is customary
Bellhop – $3 to $5 tip is customary
Bartender – $1/drink is customary
Spas and Salons – 20% tip is customary
Taxi driver – 15% tip is customary
Transportation to, from and around Lake Tahoe is not necessarily straightforward (or cheap). About a 4-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and a 45-minute drive from Reno, the area attracts a fair amount of car traffic, especially on weekends and holidays.
Flights to Tahoe land at the Reno airport, which is an easy and generally affordable airport to fly in and out of, but given its distance from Tahoe you’ll still need to figure out how you’re getting up the mountain.
Once there, several Tahoe resorts offer shuttle service, and there is a public transportation system (the Tahoe Area Rapid Transit, or TART bus) but if you’re at all impatient or like to run on a schedule, you’re probably going to want to rent a car. Taxis and Uber are both an option as well, but can be pricey and hard to find.
The closest airport to Tahoe is Reno International Airport. Primary airlines operating out of Reno include Southwest, Jet Blue, United, Delta, American, and Alaska Airlines.
There are no direct flights from Europe, and most international flights will have at least one stop along the way to Reno. Tahoe is about a 40-minute drive from the Reno airport.
Some visitors also opt to fly into Sacramento International Airport, about an hour and a half away.
Amtrak train service is also an option, but the train stops in Sacramento, transferring passengers to a bus that takes them the rest of the way — making it not quite the romantic or scenic train ride many visitors are anticipating.
Although there is a public bus that serves the Tahoe area (Tahoe Area Rapid Transit, or “the TART”), it’s not always super reliable. Most of the ski resorts run limited free shuttle service during the ski season, as well, but if it’s important to you to have a certain amount of control over your schedule, you’ll probably want to rent a car, especially in winter, when biking between transit hubs is not an option.
Taxis are available in the area, but not plentiful, and tend to be expensive. Available services include:
Blackjack Taxi – (530) 543-0330, blackjacktaxi.com
Elite Taxi – (530) 580-8294, tahoetaxi.net
Lakeshore Taxi – (530) 544-3600, lakeshoretaxi.com
North and West Shore:
Tahoe Taxi Express – (530) 386-5559, tahoetaxiexpress.com
Truckee River Taxi – (530) 386-3935, truckeerivertaxi.com
As of December 2015, Uber is also an option in both Reno and Tahoe, and Uber drivers are allowed to pick up passengers at the Reno Airport as well, making it a viable option for getting from the airport to Tahoe.
A truly year-round destination, Tahoe attracts skiers and snowboarders from all over the world in winter, and even more summer visitors, eager to swim, paddle and explore one of the country’s deepest lakes. Ringed by mountains and just a half-hour from Reno and a little over an hour from Sacramento, Tahoe is just as popular for quick weekend trips as it is for week-long holidays. It’s also one of the most interesting experiments in the country in balancing tourism and business with natural beauty and environmental concerns. As one of the few national parks that incorporates towns and a fair amount of development, Tahoe is a study in trade-offs and paradoxes: it’s one of the most touristed places in the west but also one of the least developed, it’s home to some of both the wealthiest and poorest people in the country, its natural resources attract the very same people who threaten them. Locals here guard their favorite beaches, trails and back-country ski spots like so much gold, and tend to complain about tourists as much as they rely on them. On the other hand, visitors who are respectful of both the place and its residents will be treated to a friendly Tahoe welcome and may even be invited to a barbecue or two. The golden rule around here is to enjoy the wilderness, but leave no trace.
The Tahoe basin was once the heart of Washoe territory, and in fact the name Lake Tahoe is derived from the Washoe word for “lake.” But the lake had another English name when it was first “discovered” by white men.
In 1844, explorer John C. Fremont became the first non-Native person to see Lake Tahoe. A few years later, John C. Calhoun got a glimpse of the lake as well, en route delivering mail by snowshoe from Placerville to Nevada City, and named it “Lake Bigler” after California’s third governor, John Bigler. It remained Lake Bigler on government maps for decades, only officially receiving the name Lake Tahoe in 1945.
From 1848 to 1890 silver and gold mining and logging dominated the area, pushing the Washoe further north to less desirable — and less resource-rich — parts of northern Nevada. By the turn of the century, logging had all but wiped out the native forest. But even back in those days, Tahoe’s tourism allure was clear. Tahoe City, founded in 1864, was initially a resort destination for the miners and loggers in Virginia City (about an hour away, in Nevada).
By the 1950s, casinos began to spring up on the Nevada side of the lake, and then the 1960 Olympics hit and introduced Tahoe to a wide world of tourists. By 1980, the number of permanent residents had increased from about 10,000 to more than 50,000, while the summer population grew from about 10,000 to about 90,000. Land-use controls put into place in the 1970s and 1980s, after a series of development-related lawsuits, have kept growth to a minimum in the decades since.
Permanent Tahoe residents tend to be active sorts with a love of the great outdoors. Thrill seekers flock here, as do athletes of all stripes, many of whom train in Tahoe because of its weather and altitude. It’s not uncommon for the guy serving beers at a tourist bar in summer to be a pro skier in winter, or the barrista at your favorite coffee shop to spend weekends competing in ultra marathons. Almost everyone is a back-country skier or boarder in winter and an off-the-beaten path cyclist in summer.
Given the high cost of living, residents tend to break out into two categories: wealthy people who have retired here, and working class people who typically hold down three jobs in order to afford living (and playing) in a place they love. There is a large European expat community here, comprised primarily of folks who came for vacation and stayed, and a large Latino population as well, concentrated primarily in King’s Beach, South Lake, and Truckee.
About half the homes in Tahoe are second homes, which means not only that the population tends to swell dramatically on weekends and during holidays, but also that the culture tends to shift a bit depending on how many second-home owners are in town. Although popular with tourists from all over the country (and the world), the area tends to draw second-home owners primarily from the Bay Area.
The number of tourists and second homes in Tahoe lends itself to a bit of a “locals versus visitors” vibe, with second-home owners caught in the middle and often trying to pass as permanent residents, especially to take advantage of various “locals only” deals offered at area resorts and restaurants. As is the case with many popular tourist destinations, residents have a love-hate relationship with tourism: they need it to survive, economically, but tourists often get the blame for everything from traffic to trash in the forest.
Tahoe residents take few things as seriously as the “leave no trace” approach to experiencing the wilderness. Visitors to the area are expected to follow suit or risk being followed and lectured by an angry local. This is nowhere more evident than with the ubiquitous bright plastic sleds sold at stores throughout the region in winter. Visitors who leave behind broken or no longer needed sleds — an all too common occurrence — can expect everything from a scolding to shaming on social media to a rather expensive littering ticket.
Honestly, no one really comes to Tahoe for the food. There are a handful of restaurants around the lake that are quite good, but you’re unlikely to find anything here that you can’t find as good or better elsewhere. That said, there is a bit of a renaissance happening in the Tahoe food scene recently, helped in no small part by the Tahoe Food Hub, which connects area restaurants with local farmers and is committed to teaching as many people in the area as possible how to grow food in an alpine environment.
Nearby Reno is also experiencing something of a “foodie” moment, with a crop of new, modern eateries opening in the last few years to cater to the city’s increasingly hip residents.
Following are some of the better options around the Lake and nearby:
CharPit – 8732 N Lake Blvd, King’s Beach — Burgers and fries
Tacos Jalisco – 8717 N Lake Blvd, King’s Beach — Hole in the wall taqueria with great, cheap eats
The Log Cabin Cafe – 8692 N Lake Blvd, King’s Beach — Great breakfast spot; it fills up fast, but you can call ahead to add your name to the waiting list
Mellow Fellow – 9980 N Lake Blvd, King’s Beach. Fantastic beer options and great pub grub to go with it, including an outstanding house-made pretzel.
Fat Cat – 599 N Lake Blvd, Tahoe City – Homemade soups and hearty sandwiches, plus an extensive beer selection
Tahoe House – 625 W Lake Blvd, Tahoe City — Homemade breads, bagels, and pastries; excellent sandwiches
Bridgetender Tavern & Grill – 65 W. Lake Blvd, Tahoe City — Great burgers, sandwiches and beers
Fire Sign Cafe – 1785 W Lake Blvd – Hands-down the best breakfast in Tahoe, complete with fresh-squeezed OJ and their famed veggie potatoes. Be prepared for a wait, especially on weekends.
Bite – 907 Tahoe Blvd, Incline Village – Billed as “American Tapas” these small plates make it easy to try lots of tasty options, including delicious sliders, ahi tuna tartare, mini fish tacos, and any number of rotating daily specials.
T’s Mesquite Rotisserie – 901 Tahoe Blvd, Incline Village – Rotisserie-grilled meats make these burritos some of the best in Tahoe.
Mountain High Sandwich Company – 120 Country Club Dr, Incline Village – Super-fresh, tasty sandwiches and grab-and-go breakfast options.
Jalisco Grill – 2660 Lake Tahoe Blvd, South Lake Tahoe — Flavorful meats make this a popular spot for apres-ski tacos and burritos
Macduffs Pub – 1041 Fremont Ave – Terrific pub grub; save room for the legendary bread pudding
Sprouts Cafe – 3123 Harrison Ave, South Lake Tahoe – Super-healthy sandwiches, soups, and salads with tons of vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options
Red Hut Cafe – 2723 Lake Tahoe Blvd, South Lake Tahoe – Great greasy spoon breakfast
My Thai Cuisine – 2108 Lake Tahoe Blvd, South Lake Tahoe – The only authentic Thai food in the area; the Hangover Noodles are particularly good
Lake Tahoe Pizza Company – 1168 Emerald Bay Rd, South Lake Tahoe — Fantastic family-friendly pizza joint.
Red Truck – Truckee/Tahoe Airport — A popular food truck-turned-airport lunch counter, Red Truck serves amazing Mediterranean food (the only decent falafel and gyro in Tahoe) plus delicious cookies.
Burger Me – 10418 Donner Pass Rd, Truckee – Natural, hormone-free meats make this a popular spot with local families (there’s a Reno location just off the freeway as well)
Truckee Tavern & Grill – 10118 Donner Pass Rd – Delicious comfort food — think roasted chicken done in a wood-fired oven — plus the only fancy cocktail list in town, complete with fresh-squeezed juices and inventive blends.
Le Bistro – 120 Country Club Dr, Incline Village – Super-charming spot for a romantic (and authentic), five-course traditional French meal.
Christy Hill – 115 Grove St., Tahoe City – Beautiful views of the lake, excellent wine list, and solid New American fare.
Soule Domain – 9983 Cove St, King’s Beach – Excellent seafood and next-level amazing desserts (even the vanilla ice cream, which is homemade, with a hint of cinnamon).
Trokay – 10046 Donner Pass Rd – Prix-fixe menu and beautiful plating make dinner here feel special even before you try the chef’s super-inventive daily creations.