The Insider’s Guide to Lake Tahoe in December

Last Updated on December 3, 2023 by foxintheforest

Between the glittering gem-colored waters of Tahoe’s pristine shores to world-class skiing and entertainment, visiting Lake Tahoe in December is a real treat. There are so many things to do and see in the Lake Tahoe Basin, you’ll be coming back year after year.

I’ve spent the last 22 years visiting Lake Tahoe in December. Yup, you read that correctly, 22 years. As a long-time Lake Tahoe local, I’ve seen things shift and change over the years.

My family lives here and I’m in the Lake Tahoe Basin multiple times a year, every year.

So if you’re looking to experience Lake Tahoe in December like a local, not a tourist, then you’re in the right place.

About this Local Guide to Tahoe in December

Inside this exclusive local guide to visiting Lake Tahoe in December you’ll get locally-tailored advice about:

  • Accessing Lake Tahoe in December
  • Local advice about North Lake Tahoe vs South Lake Tahoe.
  • Tips and tricks for beating the crowds in Lake Tahoe in December
  • Things to do in Lake Tahoe in winter – especially if you don’t ski
  • Places to stay in Lake Tahoe
  • Local tips for visiting Lake Tahoe in December
  • Additional Lake Tahoe travel resources
lake tahoe in december

Is December a Good Time to Visit Lake Tahoe?

If you’re looking for a natural, wintery feel to your holiday season, then visiting Lake Tahoe in December might be what you’re looking for when planning your Lake Tahoe itinerary.

There’s nothing more beautiful than a Tahoe holiday season (even when it doesn’t snow). There are a lot of fun-filled activities for everyone to enjoy from spas and casinos to backcountry skiing and sledding.

However, Lake Tahoe in December is certainly a busy time. Hotels, lodging, flights, and lift tickets are at their highest price points during December. Top attractions can be quite crowded.

As a local, I personally prefer visiting Lake Tahoe from late January through February. It’s a bit less crowded and the snow conditions are better if you want to ski or snowboard.

If you don’t like high prices and ample crowds, consider visiting Lake Tahoe at a different time.

Local Tip: Snow coverage can be rather light in December. Some years, it totally dumps snow, but sometimes there’s hardly any of the white fluff. Keep that in mind if you’re planning on spending a lot of time skiing in Lake Tahoe in December. Same goes for Lake Tahoe in November.

How to Get to Lake Tahoe in December

Always check for the latest road conditions, even if you’re flying into Lake Tahoe. As of 2019, you’re required to have a 4WD vehicle with snow tires or carry snow chains.

You’ll want to take the traction law seriously, as fines are steep and the road conditions can get dangerously rough during heavy snowfalls.

Here are the drive times to Lake Tahoe from the closest cities/airports:

• Reno: 45 minutes (35 miles)
• Sacramento: 2 hours (120 miles)
• San Francisco: 3.5 hours (210 miles)

Flying from Reno

Map of how to get Reno to Lake Tahoe in the winter.

The easiest way to get to Lake Tahoe in December is to fly into Reno. From Reno, it’s about a 45-minute drive up and over the Mount Rose Highway to access the north end of Lake Tahoe. If you’re headed to South Lake it’s an hour and 5-minute drive via Highway 50. Click here for the full map.

Local Tip: The Mount Rose Highway boasts as being one of the only permanently-maintained mountain passes into Lake Tahoe. As such, it’s often the only route in bad weather. This can add quite a few hours to your drive if you’re driving elsewhere in California, but it may be your only choice during a storm.

Getting to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco

Map of the drive from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe in December.

From San Fran head towards Sacramento. From here, if you’re headed to the North Shore, you’ll take Highway 80 to Truckee. In Truckee, head south on Highway 89 into Tahoe City.

If you’re headed to the South Shore, take Highway 50 east to Placerville. You’ll make your way through Spring Valley and Echo Lake before descending into South Lake. Click here for the full map.

How to Reach Lake Tahoe from Sacramento

Map of the drive from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe in December.

Follow the directions from San Francisco and take either highway 50 or I-80 depending on your final destination in Tahoe. Click here for the full map.

Local Tip: No matter which way you choose, plan ahead and check road conditions – even as you drive! In December of 2021, there were massive, week-long road closures that made Lake Tahoe impossible to access.

It was a bit unprecedented (Mount Rose highway is usually always opened or just closed for a half day), but with labor shortages continuing into 2022 I wouldn’t expect this issue to go away.

North Lake Tahoe vs South Lake Tahoe in Winter

When it comes to where to stay, the first choice you’ll need to make is staying in North Lake Tahoe or South Lake Tahoe.

There are multiple towns on each side of the Lake, each with its own feel.

North Lake Tahoe – home to Tahoe City, Incline Village, King’s Beach, and Carnelian Bay – has a much more local feel. Here you’ll find cute mountain villages nestled against the shoreline. It’s quieter and far less touristy than its southerly neighbor.

However, if you’re coming from San Fran or Sacramento, it’s a much longer drive. From Reno, it’s shorter – making it ideal for those arriving by plane.

South Lake Tahoe – or more specifically the stretch of development from South Lake Tahoe to Stateline – is a well-developed slice of high rises. When most people think of Lake Tahoe, they think of South Lake. This area is typically crowded, busy, and more touristy.

The bonus is you’ll have plenty of entertainment at your fingertips and enjoy more of a city vibe (complete with traffic). It’s closer to San Fran and Sacramento.

Personally, as a local, I much prefer the north shore for its quiet, laid-back nature. But it’s all a matter of preference.

Local Tip: Keep in mind that the north and south shores are an hour’s drive apart without traffic. So plan a home base near the activities you’d like to enjoy.

Weather in Lake Tahoe in December

Lake Tahoe weather in December definitely feels like winter. If you’re wondering when to visit Lake Tahoe, expect the average high temps in Tahoe in December to be in the low 40s, with nighttime dipping into the 20s. Lake Tahoe in December will also get plenty of snow, usually in the range of 30-40 inches.

Local Tip: Storms in Lake Tahoe are typically measured in feet, not inches. Be prepared for a LOT of snow. If it does decide to dump, you’ll have to navigate road closures and the potential to be snowed in.

Things to Do in Lake Tahoe in December If You Don’t Ski

Lake Tahoe in December is a popular holiday destination. Of course, people come for skiing but there are so many more things to do in Lake Tahoe in December.

Take a Scenic Drive Around Lake Tahoe

Get the lay of the land with a beautiful 72-mile drive around Lake Tahoe. While the drive itself takes about 2.5 hours, you’ll want to plan plenty of times for scenic stops and visits to the towns along the way.

Some of the must-do stops include Inspiration Point, D.L. Bliss State Park, and the Emerald Bay State Park lookout.

Local Tip: Check and plan ahead. The Emerald Bay Road frequently closes in bad weather. If this happens it’s impossible to circle the lake, so plan accordingly!

emerald bay hike lake tahoe

Hit the Trails on Snowshoes

One of the best things to do in Lake Tahoe in winter is to explore the trails by snowshoeing or winter hiking.

There are tons of Lake Tahoe hikes that are both beautiful and doable in December, including Donner Peak. Sugar Pine Point State Park on the west side of the lake also has several nice snowshoe trails.

Ice Skating

Ice skating is an awesome activity in Tahoe in December, and you’ll find rinks in both North and South Lake Tahoe.

  • North Lake Tahoe: The rink in the Village at Northstar is free if you have your own skates (rentals are available), and fire pits around the perimeter are perfect for a little aprés skate with a cocktail.
  • South Lake Tahoe: Heavenly Village is a lovely outdoor rink surrounded by the local shops and restaurants of the village. At night, the lights strung above the rink add to the charming atmosphere.

Slide Down a Sledding Hill

Sledding in Lake Tahoe is a true must-do in December! Many of the resorts offer sledding and tubing hills. Check out Blizzard Mountain at Sierra at Tahoe or Heavenly’s Adventure Peak for excellent tubing.

Granlibakken features “Spicy Sledding” on Saturday nights with laser lights, music, and glowsticks after dark.

Take a Sleigh Ride

Sit back and let someone else take the reins on a sleigh ride in Lake Tahoe in December. Borges Family Sleigh and Carriage Rides is a Tahoe institution offering winter sleigh rides through Sand Harbor Nevada State Park near Incline Village.

Go Snowmobiling

Amp up the adventure with a snowmobile tour of Lake Tahoe terrain. Lake Tahoe Adventures offers a snowmobiling experience in South Lake Tahoe, and Zephyr Cove Snowmobile Center takes you along the Tahoe Rim Trail for breathtaking views.

Check Out Cave Rock

Cave Rock is a short but stunning hike with incredible views from one of the highest points along Lake Tahoe. It is very doable in December – in fact, my first time doing this hike was over Christmas.

Local tip: I highly recommend doing this hike at sunset, since you’ll face west and have a spectacular view of the sun setting directly over Lake Tahoe.

Explore Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay State Park on the west shore might just have the best views in all of Lake Tahoe, with the jewel-colored water of the lake surrounded by pine trees.

When the trails are dusted with snow in the winter, it’s a picture-perfect Sierra Nevada fairytale (but bring your microspikes since it can get slippery).

Local tip: If the weather conditions are really bad, Highway 89 does sometimes close near Emerald Bay, so be sure to check the road conditions before you head out.

Lake Tahoe December

Try Your Luck at a Casino

Whether you like to play the slots or roll the dice at the craps table, you’ll find plenty of casinos at Lake Tahoe. Check out the vintage vibes at the historic Tahoe Biltmore on the North Shore, or head to Harrah’s for modern amenities in South Lake Tahoe.

Relax at a Spa

  • North Lake Tahoe: SAGE is a spa, apothecary, and shop that offers energy healing along with its amazing massages and facial treatments which use local plants.
  • South Lake Tahoe: Blue Water Day Spa features a variety of massage options, facials, and body wraps. CBD-infused treatments are also available for extra relaxation.

Skiing in Lake Tahoe in December

While you can see that there’s plenty to do in Lake Tahoe in December if you don’t ski, skiing in the Sierras is definitely a draw in December.

Resort Skiing

Here are some of the best Lake Tahoe ski resorts to choose from based on your budget.

North Lake Tahoe Skiing in December

  • Northstar California: With 100 runs, Northstar offers something for all levels as well as 8 terrain parks. Lift tickets start at $135.
  • Donner Ski Ranch: Although it’s smaller than the resorts, Donner Ski Ranch still offers 52 runs fairly evenly split between beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Lift tickets start at $99.
  • Granlibakken: While the hill might be tiny for Tahoe skiing, Granlibakken won’t break the bank and is especially great for beginners and families. Lift tickets start at $40 and it’s right in Tahoe City.

South Lake Tahoe Skiing in December

  • Heavenly: Ski across the state line from California to Nevada on the 4,800 skiable acres at Heavenly – the most in Lake Tahoe. The resort has 97 runs and one terrain park. Lift tickets start at $127.
  • Kirkwood: With 86 runs and access to backcountry terrain on the Kirkwood Peaks, Kirkwood is a mecca for advanced skiers looking for adventure. Lift tickets start at $103.
  • Sierra at Tahoe: Featuring something for everyone, Sierra at Tahoe has 47 runs, 6 terrain parks, a halfpipe, and gates to access Huckleberry Canyon backcountry. Lift tickets start at $TBD.
skiing in lake tahoe in december

Backcountry Skiing

If you’re an experienced skier with avalanche training, you’ll love the backcountry skiing around Lake Tahoe in December.

  • Castle Peak: With easy access off I-80 near Donner Pass in North Lake Tahoe, Castle Peak offers a variety of terrain on the south slopes and the north ridge from the summit.
  • Rubicon Peak: This west-side treasure offers panoramic Lake Tahoe views amid old-growth glades.
  • Waterhouse Peak: Climb Waterhouse Peak in South Lake Tahoe for mellow terrain and great glade-skiing in the powder.

Cross-Country Skiing

  • North Lake Tahoe: Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort is the largest cross-country ski area in North America, with 92 trails spread over 6,000 acres. Take in the amazing Sierra Nevada views as you ski, and enjoy one of the eight warming huts when you need a little break.
  • South Lake Tahoe: Kirkwood Cross Country Center offers 50 miles of machine-groomed tracks, as well as skate skiing lanes, in a lovely Sierra setting. The meadow system which connects the cross-country center to Kirkwood Village is excellent for beginners.

Events in Lake Tahoe in December

Tahoe in December brings lots of festive events to celebrate the holidays.

Northern Lights Festival

Incline Village brings sparkle to Lake Tahoe in December with the Northern Lights Festival. With events all month long, ranging from a Santa Pub Crawl, Sip & Shops, and New Year’s Eve parties, you’ll definitely get in the holiday spirit at the Northern Lights Festival. Don’t miss the Gingerbread Display at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe!

Noel Nights

The Village at Northstar California gets into the holiday spirit each Friday for the first three weeks in December with live music, photos with Santa, and more. You can also go ice skating on the rink at The Village.

Heavenly Holidays

Heavenly Holidays is a month-long celebration at Heavenly Resort in South Lake Tahoe. The fun begins the Friday after Thanksgiving with a tree-lighting ceremony and culminates with a grand New Year’s Eve celebration.

Throughout the month of December, there are ice sculpture contests, a Santa Run, a holiday Ferris wheel, and plenty of holiday-themed aprés ski parties.

Tahoe Film Fest

For a different kind of December event in Lake Tahoe, attend the Tahoe Film Fest. This film festival features films with environmental themes, including many adventure films.

All proceeds benefit the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center to help protect and steward the natural beauty and resources of Lake Tahoe.

Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe in December

When it comes to where to stay in Lake Tahoe, you’ll want to decide between the north and south shores. The north shore is more laid back and has more of a small mountain town feel. While the south shore offers bustling streets, nightlife, and tall high-rise hotels.

south lake tahoe december

Where to Stay in North Lake Tahoe in December

There are countless places to stay in Lake Tahoe throughout the year. Aside from awesome AirBnBs, here are my reccos for a few of my favorite spots.

Firelite Lodge is a modern boutique hotel right across from the beach.

Location: Tahoe Vista, CA/North Shore

Frog Lake Backcountry Huts provide a more adventurous stay near Donner Summit.

Location: Truckee, CA/North Lake Tahoe

Where to Stay in South Lake Tahoe in December

South Lake is home to high-rise casinos located right on the lakeshore. Many people opt for these accommodations, but if you’re looking for something a little more unique, I’d recommend these two hot spots.

Coachman Hotel is a base camp for outdoor adventure with all the amenities.

Location: South Lake Tahoe, CA/South Shore

Camp Richardson offers charming lakeside lodging year-round.

Location: South Lake Tahoe, CA/South Shore

Local Tips for Visiting Lake Tahoe in Winter

Visiting Lake Tahoe in December is a real treat, but if you want to blend in, you’ll want to follow these local travel tips.

Mind the Road Conditions

Roads in the winter can get really nasty. Last year, Lake Tahoe was a complete mess in December. It took us 6 hours to make a 40-minute drive due to road closures. I endured this total sh*tshow while 20 weeks pregnant (read, NOT fun).

Always check road conditions, and consider staying home if roads have been closed for a while. With staff shortages to clear the roads, I would expect small storms to have a huge impact on traffic.

Have 4WD, Snow tires, or Snow Chains

You’ll want to rent a capable vehicle for visits to Lake Tahoe in winter. This means 4WD at a minimum. Snow tires are certainly preferred and in certain conditions, snow chains are required for passenger vehicles.

Don’t skimp here – as there are cops stationed throughout the Lake Tahoe region who check at the bottom of mountain passes during a storm. You won’t be allowed to continue if you don’t have the right vehicle for the job.

Pull Over for Faster Traffic

Locals tend to drive fast in Lake Tahoe. I mean we get it, the views are stunning, but if you find there is a line of cars behind you, please pull over for faster traffic as soon as you can.

Along those lines, be sure to follow traffic laws, as there are large sections of roads without a turnaround. Turning on blind corners in winter causes accidents!

lake tahoe in december

Book Ahead

Lake Tahoe in December equals a packed house! Be sure to make any and all reservations well in advance, since lodging typically books up – especially around the holidays!

Emerald Bay is Frequently Closed

Due to snow and ice hazards, it’s not uncommon for Emerald Bay Road to close for a day or two. This can certainly be a bummer – especially if you haven’t visited this incredible cove.

Parking also fills up almost immediately, so if you want some solitude aim to be at Emerald Bay around sunrise on weekends and holidays.

Hike with Caution

Avalanche conditions, deep snow, and icy trails are all a part of the package while hiking in Tahoe during the winter. Come prepared – certainly, pack some microspikes if you’re planning on hiking.

Check the weather and never hike during or within 24 hours after a storm in order to avoid avalanche conditions.

When it Snows, it SNOWS

Thanks to the lake-effect and coastal moisture, snowstorms can be pretty intense in Lake Tahoe. Often times it will snow feet, especially at higher elevations. December can be really hit or miss with the snow – sometimes it snows a lot, and sometimes you may even think it’s summer (…almost).

Roads, trails, and even ski lifts can close down in the winter. Just be flexible and have a backup plan if the weather isn’t playing nice. Always pack extra food, water, layers, and even a blanket in the car. If there’s an accident the roads can get quite nasty with traffic.

What to Pack to Visit Lake Tahoe in December

When it comes to what to bring on your December Tahoe adventure, there are a few things you’ll want to bring with you. Here’s a look at what to pack:

  • Sunscreen – don’t forget to cover under your nose and chin!
  • Sunglasses
  • Microspikes if you’re going to hike
  • Warm snow pants
  • Snow jacket
  • Warm, waterproof gloves
  • Glove liners
  • Wooly hat
  • Wool or synthetic base layers
  • Camera with extra batteries
  • Warm pants
  • Fleece layer
  • Warm socks

Frequently Asked Questions About Visiting Lake Tahoe in Winter

You’ve got questions, here are you’re local answers to the most pressing questions about visiting Lake Tahoe in December

Is Lake Tahoe Frozen in December?

Lake Tahoe does not freeze. This is because the lake itself is deep – quite deep! With an average depth of around 1,000 feet, the lake is so deep it creates currents that enable the water to stay above freezing throughout winter.

Do People Go to Lake Tahoe in Winter?

Absolutely! Winter is the second busiest time to visit Lake Tahoe. With world-class skiing and plenty of snow globe-esque scenes, Tahoe is a real winter wonderland.

Is Lake Tahoe Worth Visiting in the Winter?

That largely depends! If you’re into the snow (and snowsports) then Tahoe is a must-visit slice of mountain heaven in the winter. But if you prefer milder temperatures then you may want to skip this wintery destination.

Additional Lake Tahoe Travel Resources

Travel like a local, not a tourist with these locally-curated guides to Lake Tahoe.

Meg Atteberry
Meg Atteberry

Meg is a long-time Colorado local and outdoor industry professional. She's spent the last 15 years hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and canyoneering all over Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada in search of the best views. She's written for Outside Magazine, REI, Backpacker Magazine, and appeared on the Weather Channel.

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Meg Atteberry standing on a mountain sticking her tongue out

Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Toddler mom, queer, and neuro-spicy her favorite things to do are climb in the alpine and camp in the desert. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure.