Pristine sapphire waters lap gently against the steep peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. Dramatic views unfold between pines and you hike along the ridges of the mountains. Perhaps hiking isn’t your thing, you’re more of a beach bum, that’s ok because there are countless nooks and crannies to find hidden patches of beach leading to brilliant blue waters you have to see to believe. This Lake Tahoe travel guide gives you the inside scoop on how to visit Lake Tahoe like a local.
Meet the Local Expert of Lake Tahoe, Yours Truly
My family lives in Lake Tahoe. I’ve been visiting since I was 15 years old and the sheer pristine beauty of the place never ceases to amaze me. The Tahoe basin’s beauty certainly isn’t a secret. Millions of people flock here every year. If you know me, you know that I have a knack for avoiding crowds in the world’s most beautiful places. Here are my two cents on avoiding crowds and blending in with the local community.
When is the Best Time to Visit Lake Tahoe?
Lake Tahoe is fantastic any time of year and it really depends on what you want to do. Skies and snowboarders will love the wintery scenes of Lake Tahoe. The scenery tends to be more memorable too. The snow-capped peaks contrast starkly against the deep blue lake. Not into skiing? You can still snowshoe, snowmobile, ice skate, and enjoy a variety of other activities.
Summers in Lake Tahoe brings sunny, warm weather. However, with that come the intense amount of crowds, especially on the weekends. Expect to wait in traffic, pay higher prices for accommodation and not find much solicitude.
Check out this guide to visiting Lake Tahoe in the summer.
If you have the chance, check out Lake Tahoe during the shoulder seasons. There’s still plenty of fun to be had and falls in Lake Tahoe still boast beautiful weather that is still suitable for swimming.
Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
If you check out a map, you’ll see that Lake Tahoe is actually a massive place, with several different towns and even cities with high rise buildings along the shore. South Lake Tahoe has a variety of casinos and is a more bustling area. However, South Lake lacks a natural, peaceful vibe. You’ll feel more like you’re in a touristy, Vegas-by-the-lake.
The North Shore has a smattering of smaller towns that create more of a mountain lake town feel. Areas along the northern shore tend to be quieter, smaller, and less commercialized. This is an excellent choice for those looking to unwind and relax.
The eastern shore doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of accommodation. There are a few houses, but the land is mostly controlled by the Toiyabe National Forest, native lands, and a few small state parks.
To the west, you’ll find even smaller hamlets and plenty of state parks to camp in. You’re only allowed to camp in campgrounds, so be sure to make your reservations well in advance.
What to Budget in Lake Tahoe
This is a toughy. Lake Tahoe is not a budget-friendly destination. If you’re tight on cash, consider staying outside of the Tahoe Basin in towns such as Donner, Truckee, or even Reno to save on accommodation. The average AirBnB cost is around $328 per night during the summer for two guests and an entire place. A room will set you back around $160 a night. YIKES!
There are cheaper options available, the north side of the lake is generally more expensive than the south, however, be prepared to shell out some cash, especially during the summer and winter months.
Activities range from free (hiking, swimming) to several hundred dollars for a guided day of climbing or exploring. To be on the safe side, set aside around $50 a day for activities. This will allow you to splurge a little and have a few cheaper days.
Check out the best Lake Tahoe Hikes!
Keep in mind gas is not cheap in Lake Tahoe. If you plan on renting a car (you only need a 4WD capable vehicle in winter), plan on spending around $30 a day, plus gas, which is at least $3.50 a gallon depending on the year.
Where to Eat in Lake Tahoe
Food costs about the same as anywhere else in the USA, you can eat for cheap at fast-food chains and a few small local shops (definitely check out T’s Rotisserie in Incline Village!), all the way to high-end resort experiences. I’d recommend a blend of eating out and in if possible. There are plenty of grocery stores around. However, you’ve got to check out these local favorite Lake Tahoe eateries:
- T’s Rotisserie
- The Log Cabin (for breakfast)
Lake Tahoe Travel Tips from a Local
When you visit Lake Tahoe for the first time, it’s easy to get caught up in the best-of lists you see. However, the best parts of Tahoe are seldom talked about. Locals covet their small slices of untouched paradise. I would be betraying my people if I told you where these places are, but I am more than happy to show you how to find them. Below are a few Lake Tahoe travel tips that us locals use to navigate the busy season.
Hate Sharing? Avoid South Lake Tahoe
My biggest Lake Tahoe travel tip is to avoid South Lake Tahoe. Unless high rise casinos, cheesy shops, and throngs of people pouring out of buses appeal to you don’t stay here. South Lake is worth a peep if you haven’t been, but don’t stay here. The only reason I’m ever down here is to visit a childhood friend whose parents live on the outskirts of town.
Desolation Wilderness and Emerald Bay are definitely worth seeing. However, over the years I’ve noticed that the place gets more and more clogged with mega tourist buses and people scattered all over the place. To be honest, I stopped visiting for that reason. But if you arrive by boat, arrive in the early morning or evening it usually isn’t nearly as crowded and you can find some solitude. If you are an outdoor enthusiast, which I’m guessing you are if you’re on this blog, consider backpacking into the Desolation Wilderness. Permits are required, so be sure to check with the permit offices if one is required for where you plan to go.
Visit Lake Tahoe During the Shoulder Season
Locals love the offseason at Tahoe. The best time to visit Lake Tahoe is when the crowds of summer are gone. Sure you may not be able to ski and maybe the water feels a little more chilling than refreshing, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t fully enjoy the outdoors and even still swim. The fall is one of the best seasons to explore Lake Tahoe because it’s quiet and the temps are still pretty warm. It’s the perfect time to go for a hike in the Tahoe area. The beach is still inviting as ever.
On a calm day, it’s a wonderful time to kayak around hidden beaches in Lake Tahoe. They are everywhere. Simply rent a kayak and head discover a cove. More often than not there will be a patch of sand to plop down on and enjoy a good book and soak up some rays.
Even public beaches during the offseason see fewer crowds. People out and about are typically all locals, as the seasonal crowd dies down this time of year. The towns have a more quaint and laid-back feel.
For a look at Lake Tahoe during the off-season, check out this photo essay featuring the emerald gem and its surroundings.
Lake Tahoe Local Travel Tip: Hit the Trail Early
If solitude in the mountains is what you seek, it’s easy to find with this Lake Tahoe travel guide. Simply get up early and hit the trail. Crowds usually peter out the earlier your awake and a bonus travel tip: it’s cooler too!.
One great summit to hit early is Mt Rose. Although we passed a lot of people on the way down, an early start beats the crowds and gives way to an iconic view of the lake and the breathtaking scenery of the region.
If backpacking is more your thing hit up the Tahoe Rim Trail. At 165 miles long this trail offers something for everyone. It’s broken into segments offering everything from the entire route to short day hikes.
Like hiking? Here are a few resources just for you!
- 6 bucket-list hikes in California you must try
- Hiking Mount Rose in the Tahoe Basin
- The beginner’s guide to hiking
- How to plan a hike
The Off-the-Beaten-Path Travel Guide to Lake Tahoe
Expert Tip: Pristine vacant beaches are easy to find. You just have to know where to go. Us locals hold our favorite spots as well-kept secrets, so I’m not going to give too much away here. Part of local experience in Lake Tahoe is finding your own hidden spot, which is actually very simple to do on your own.
Simply around trails on the side of the highway (make sure you’re parked legally) and find your own slice of beach. Head into neighborhoods to have a solo summit of Mt Rose Knob. Start your search with high-up cul-de-sacs for some excellent views.
Get out there and take the path less traveled! Almost anywhere there is a pull out along the main road gives you access to a hidden beach. Some are more well-hidden than others, but it’s really simple to find lakeside solitude here.
Get Away from the Lake
There is so much to explore in the Sierra. Step away from the lake and explore other areas such as Eldorado National Forest, Donner Pass and Truckee. There is world-class climbing, amazing hiking trails, unforgettable camping, and so much more to explore. During the crowded summer months,
Lake Tahoe can feel more like a major metropolitan area than a pristine wilderness, opt to get out dodge and explore the areas around Lake Tahoe for secluded summer fun!
Don’t be That Guy: Understand the Unspoken Road Rules
Aside from staying in South Lake, I’d ask people to respect the way we drive. Yes, we may be a bit crazy, but that’s because these roads are our everyday experience. We can do it in our sleep in the blinding snow. Those 12′ high snow poles don’t mean much to us.
One thing all the locals complain about is tourist drivers, so in this Lake Tahoe travel guide, we are going to get real about roads. It’s ok if you don’t feel comfortable blasting up a mountain in the snow – we get it. Heck, sometimes I come back to visit and find the drivers to be a bit quick. However, please do everyone a favor and use the pullouts. It’s actually illegal to allow a huge buildup of cars behind you!
If you’re traveling here over the winter months – please come prepared! Snow tires, chains, or 4-wheel drive are often required to travel the roads. Those rules are there for a reason – you will get stuck if you attempt to ride around in a 2-wheel drive vehicle not properly prepared for the weather!
This quick-and-easy travel guide to Lake Tahoe will have you experiencing this incredible area just like the locals.