Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains is Lake Tahoe, a year-round destination for travelers of all ilks. The pristine lake lies on the border between California and Nevada and offers every activity and amenity imaginable. Skiing, snowboarding, sledding? Check. Paddleboarding, kayaking, waterskiing? Check. Hiking, biking, rock climbing? Check. Camping, sailing, golfing? Check. Live music, gaming, great restaurants? Check. Beautiful sunsets and exceptional views? Double check. Perhaps Lake Tahoe wasn’t on your radar as a vacation destination before, but it should be.
As of May, JetBlue offers daily nonstop flights from JFK to Reno, which is less than a 90-minute drive to South Lake Tahoe, which offers entertainment from sun-up to sundown.
“I always recommend that anybody’s first time to Tahoe, you want to do two things,” said Jenn Boyd of Weidinger Public Relations, which represents South Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “You want to get above the water and on the water. And there’s so many different ways to do it—whether you want to skydive or take a helicopter ride or a hike or a gondola ride, getting that aerial viewpoint is just stunning. And then being on the water itself and seeing how crystal clear it is, is essential.”
The Heavenly Mountain Gondola is the best way to see the lake from above. A 2.4-mile ride provides panoramic views. At the Heavenly Observation Deck, with an elevation of 9,123-feet, you can see the lovely Carson Valley, the rugged Desolation Wilderness and shore-to-shore views of Lake Tahoe.
The top of Heavenly Mountain offers more than nice views though. You’ll also find a climbing wall, a ropes course, hiking trails and two zip lines. The Blue Streak Zip Line is the longest in the area at 3,300-feet and top speeds of 50 miles per hour.
Another family-friendly area is Camp Richardson. With live music on the beach, waterfront restaurants, 10 miles of paved bike paths, historic cabins, gardens and easy hikes, it’s a great place to take the family. The nearby Taylor Creek Visitor Center offers self-guided educational interactive trails where kids can learn about fish and nature. The Stream Profile Chamber is a unique underground viewing chamber that gives you close-up views to the wildlife through aquarium-like windows.
Boyd recommends Beacon Bar & Grill for a dining experience right on the water’s edge and Richardson’s Ice Cream Parlor for huge scoops of the best ice cream in town.
“Round Hill Pines is one of the best beaches for kids,” Boyd said, adding it is where most of her friends go with their children because the parking lot is close to the water and there is a swimming pool and tennis court nearby.
One of the most enjoyable ways to get on the water is an excursion on the M.S. Dixie II, a Mississippi-style paddle wheeler which embarks from the beautiful Zephyr Cove. The boat was completely redone and relaunched in July 2015. Both the daytime sightseeing cruise and the evening dinner dance cruise highlight the natural beauty of the lake. It is a wonderful way to see Emerald Bay and the historic Vikingsholm castle.
The evening cruise includes a gourmet meal, dessert, cocktails and wine available for purchase, live music entertainment and stunning views of the sunset. The M.S. Dixie II cruises the lake year-round. Even when it’s cold out, guests can alternate taking in the view from up top in the brisk air and through the large windows from the warm cabins. The cruise makes for an excellent activity for families and a romantic evening for couples.
Lodging is abundant throughout Lake Tahoe and more is being added every day. Boyd said, “A lot of properties are stepping up their game and investing. Montbleu just did room renovations…, Harrah’s redid all of their rooms and the Hard Rock is new…It opened in January.”
The Ridge Tahoe is a full-service resort with high quality accommodations and amenities and breathtaking views of both the lake and Carson Valley. “Sunrises are phenomenal from the Ridge,” said Boyd.
The Ridge Tahoe recently underwent major renovations. Many of the rooms now include full kitchens with granite countertops, a dishwasher, an oven and other appliances, a dining area, king bed, high-definition TVs, Blu-Ray players and a gas fireplace. Guests and timeshare owners have access to a health club, sports complex, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, Jacuzzis, a market, a spa and many organized activities to choose from.
Boyd highly recommends The Ridge’s Hungry Bear Restaurant for an elegant dining experience. The restaurant hosts many weddings and events, and thus has varying hours of operation. Whether you’re staying at the Ridge or not, you’ll want to make a reservation. “It’s amazing. The chef used to be the private chef for Tommy Hilfiger,” Boyd said. “He’s one of those people who has such a passion for food, when he talks about it, you get hungry. It’s wonderful.”
Something that may surprise you about Tahoe is that it’s a bigger summer destination than winter. “We see over six million visitors annually and we see two-thirds of that in summer,” said Boyd. At the end of June, Tahoe hosts one of the largest stand-up paddleboarding races in the country.
Another surprising fact is that there are 40 golf courses in the region. Edgewood Tahoe is the largest and right on the water and is home to a televised celebrity golf tournament every July. The week-long event brings sports celebrities and entertainers, such as Justin Timberlake who participated last year. “That’s probably our second busiest weekend of the entire year,” Boyd said, “Fourth of July being the first.”
“Gaming is an attraction, but it’s no longer the main reason people come up,” said Boyd. The casinos are now offering a lot more entertainment. Harvey’s does a big outdoor concert series—10 concerts in the summer. They had Elton John, and a lot of big country acts like Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.
The casinos provide 24-hour gaming, bars, nightclubs, live music and even comedy clubs. Boyd added, “Our casinos have really good food.”
Lake Tahoe is an up-and-coming culinary destination. McP’s Taphouse Grill, a longtime favorite with locals and visitors, has a new location at the new Chateau plaza, which is also home to Base Camp Pizza. “The owners of Base Camp Pizza just opened Azul, which is a Latin-Mexican place with really good margaritas and tacos,” said Boyd. “They have a Thai curry taco that blends flavors nicely, and coconut pulled pork.
“There are so many great little hole-in-the-wall taquerias,” Boyd said. “Jalepenos is one of my favorite spots.”
Boyd said Scusas is one of the best places for Italian food. “Scusas has a great atmosphere, really good pasta dishes, lobster ravioli and tomato bisque soup.” And for a big splurge, try Cafe Fiore. “It has a higher price range, but it’s phenomenal.”
There are a few restaurants that will cook your fish that you caught that day,” Boyd said, citing Blue Angel Cafe as one. Other restaurants might not promote it, but are willing if you ask.
Boyd is full of useful travel advice. “September-October is a fantastic time to come. It’s less crowded and weather’s still really nice,” she said. “It stays about 70 degrees during the day and drops down to about 50 at night.”
Winter is also a wonderful time to see Lake Tahoe, when there’s snowmobiling, ice skating, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, sleigh rides, horse and carriage rides and more. “There are tons of things to do the 10 days leading up to Christmas,” Boyd said, and mentioned Heavenly Holidays which has caroling, face painting and a Santa on-site to take a photo with inside a life-sized snow globe.
“For Christmas and New Year’s, do not plan last minute,” Boyd said. “It’s our third busiest week of the year.”
Snow has been recorded every month of the year in Tahoe. “It can snow any month. We start getting the first snowfall dusting in October, then it really starts in November,” Boyd said. “Ski resorts open around Thanksgiving and stay open until the end of April.” In big snowfall years, ski resorts may be open in July. The forecasted “Godzilla” El Niño this year is predicted to bring with it a ton of snow out west.
Summer is also an excellent time to visit. “I can’t think of an activity that isn’t around in the summer,” said Boyd. “What’s great about summertime is that you can find that niche for you, that’s either the casual recreation or the extreme.”
“A lot of our visitors are more on the casual side, you know, nice mellow bike rides on paved paths for a couple of miles, or you can be going down some really gnarly mountain biking trails and really push it to the max,” she said. “If you’re a huge adrenaline junkie, you have lots to choose from. You can be out on the lake and wakeboard and ski or you can just float around on a boat.”
That’s what’s really cool about this place,” Boyd added, “that you can get outside and enjoy the outdoors.”
From skydiving to scuba diving to simply lounging on one of many beaches surrounding the lake, in Tahoe, you will never be at a loss for something to do. Boyd recommends Nevada beach as a nice getaway and said you can even take a swim. The water temperature some might call very chilly, others call refreshing. “Jump in. It’ll definitely wake you up,” Boyd said.
Boyd’s last bit of advice: “Never take for granted the beauty of the lake… It’s gorgeous.”
No matter what your passion, Lake Tahoe has something for you.