12 Top-Rated Things to Do at Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a place of sublime beauty that inspires awe in even the most jaded of travelers. Mark Twain described the dazzling expanse of shimmering sapphire-blue waters as "the fairest picture the whole earth affords."
Surrounded by pristine pine forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, the lake has a brilliant cobalt color attributed to its depth of nearly 1,640 feet. The water owes its crystalline quality to the purity of the source: melted snow.
Lake Tahoe straddles the California and Nevada border, spanning 22 miles from north to south and 12 miles across. It would require at least three hours to drive around the entire lake in good weather conditions. However, plan on much more if you want to stop and see the attractions or hike the trails.
Lake Tahoe is a year-round destination for nature lovers and outdoor adventure enthusiasts. During summertime, some of the most popular things to do include nature walks, hiking, cycling, camping, and water sports.
From December through April, Lake Tahoe is a winter wonderland with opportunities for downhill and cross-country skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, and sleigh rides. The Lake Tahoe area is renowned for its world-class alpine ski resorts.
Learn about the best places to visit and plan your activities with our list of the things to do in Lake Tahoe.
1. Explore Emerald Bay State Park
A small sheltered section on Lake Tahoe's western shore, the Emerald Bay State Park is one of the areas top attractions. It is surrounded by forested hillsides of glacier-carved granite and dotted with a tiny islet at its center. Because the bay is slightly shallower than the rest of Lake Tahoe, the waters take on a striking aquamarine tint.
A surprising Scandinavian-style castle overlooks the glimmering waters of Emerald Bay. In this idyllic location, Vikingsholm Castle (built in 1929) is a unique example of a Lake Tahoe summer-vacation home and is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Access to Vikingsholm is via a steep one-mile pedestrian trail. (The path leads down to the castle, and it's a hike back up). To see the interior of the castle, visitors may take a 30-minute guided tour. Tours are available daily during the summer season, from early June through September, held every half hour from 10:30am until 4pm.
It's also possible to skip the hike and arrive at Vikingsholm by boat. A local company, Action Water Sports, runs cruises from Camp Richardson Marina to Vikingsholm Castle and includes a guided tour of the castle. Cruise Tahoe also offers an Emerald Bay cruise and Vikingsholm Castle tour package; the cruise departs from Round Hill Pines Beach Resort.
Outdoor sports enthusiasts head to Emerald Bay State Park for the recreational activities: hiking, swimming, boating, and camping. Designated as a National Natural Landmark, Emerald Bay State Park has two campsites: the Boat-In Camp, only accessible by boat or by foot, and the Eagle Point Campground, which is steps away from the lake and has a secluded beach. The park also features a lakeside picnic area with views of Fannette Island in Emerald Bay.
A must-see attraction in the area is Inspiration Point, appreciated for its bird's-eye views of Emerald Bay from 600 feet above, perfect for photo-ops.
To learn about other beautiful nature sights in Lake Tahoe and how to capture them with a camera, tourists can sign up for the Lake Tahoe Small-Group Photography Tour, which takes participants to Lake Tahoe's most photogenic spots including Emerald Bay.
2. Hike near South Lake Tahoe
Outdoor enthusiasts appreciate Lake Tahoe for its natural splendor. Some of the most beautiful hiking spots are the trails near South Lake Tahoe. These lakeside and lake-view trails offer rejuvenating alpine scenery and invigorating (or more mild) workouts.
A picturesque and family-friendly hike, the Cascade Falls Trail is an easy two-mile loop from Bayview Campground to Cascade Falls with sensational vistas of Lake Tahoe along the way.
The Fallen Leaf Lake Trail is a gentle jaunt from the Fallen Leaf Campground to a peaceful lakeside spot (on Fallen Leaf Lake rather than Lake Tahoe) and then a stroll along the lake's shoreline (the complete journey is 2.5 miles round trip).
A favorite Lake Tahoe hike is found along the rugged shoreline of Emerald Bay. The Rubicon Trail follows the water's edge from D.L. Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay State Park and passes by the Vikingsholm Castle. This 4.5-mile trail has a slight incline as it wraps around a ridge above Emerald Bay. This elevated vantage point affords sweeping panoramic vistas.
3. Go Alpine Skiing
During winter and into the spring, Lake Tahoe is a world-renowned destination for alpine skiing. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are prized for their extensive terrain, sunny weather, and powdery slopes.
The most popular of Lake Tahoe's ski resorts are Palisades Tahoe, where the 1960 Winter Olympics were held, and Heavenly, which offers 4,800 acres of gorgeous ski terrain with stunning lake vistas.
Even those who don't ski will enjoy taking the scenic 2.4-mile Heavenly Gondola ride that stops at an Observation Deck at 9,123 feet and affords commanding views of Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley, and the Desolation Wilderness.
For a day trip from San Francisco, the closest and most easily accessible resort is Sugar Bowl. This historic ski resort has a European-style village with a cozy old-fashioned lodge. The resort features 12 lifts (including a gondola) that provide access to trails for all ability levels, from beginner to advanced.
Intermediate skiers love the slopes at Northstar, while the most advanced skiers prefer Kirkwood and Mount Rose for the challenging black-diamond runs.
4. Take a Lake Tahoe Boat Cruise
A boat cruise on Lake Tahoe is a breathtaking and relaxing experience. While gliding through the glistening azure waters, passengers have a chance to admire the glorious scenery of refreshing pine forests and snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountain peaks.
Many local companies offer scenic cruises or boat tours of Lake Tahoe's North Shore, South Shore, West Shore, or Emerald Bay. Cruises and boat rides depart from Zephyr Cove, Camp Richardson, Timber Cove Marina, and Round Hill Pines Marina in South Lake Tahoe, as well as from Incline Village and North Tahoe Marina in North Lake Tahoe.
A recommended boat ride is the M.S. Dixie II cruise around Emerald Bay, which departs from Zephyr Cove Marina. On board an old-fashioned paddle wheeler, guests relish the mesmerizing lake scenery with up-close glimpses of Fannette Island and Vikingsholm Castle. The M.S. Dixie II offers two types of cruises: daytime sightseeing cruises that include commentary, and sunset dinner cruises with dancing and live entertainment.
5. Visit Tallac Historic Site
Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Tallac Historic Site includes the Pope, Baldwin, and Valhalla estates. From Memorial Day through September, the entire site is open to the public, and visitors may explore the grounds free of charge. The site also offers guided tours and special events.
Every year in August, the historic estates host a two-day Gatsby Festival, which draws crowds for elegant Roaring Twenties parties, jazz concerts, and other 1920s theme events that recall the social gatherings during the estates' heyday.
For more insight into how Tahoe's wealthy residents lived at the beginning of the 20th century, visitors can take a docent-led tour of the Pope House. Available Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the one-hour tour allows you to see the living room, dining room, servants' quarters, butler's pantry, and landscaped grounds of the Pope House.
The Baldwin House has been converted into the Tallac Museum (open to the public free of charge, Thursday through Sunday during the summer months), which focuses on local history, including exhibits about the native Washoe people. The museum has retained original elements of the house, such as the 1930s-era kitchen.
Once a grand summer retreat for San Francisco's upper crust, the Valhalla Estate is a favorite venue for private events and lakefront weddings.
Every summer from mid-June through mid-September, the Valhalla Estate hosts a Summer Concert Series, as well as theater performances at various venues on the estate: the Valhalla Boathouse Theatre (with lake views), the Grand Hall, and on the Grand Lawn overlooking Lake Tahoe.
For those who'd like to stay overnight in the area, Camp Richardson Resort is a great choice. This historic lakeside resort has a small beach; a marina with boat rentals; an "Old Tahoe"-style hotel; and a beachside inn, cabins, and campsites. The resort is a great place for summertime boating, hiking, and biking. During winter, cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing are popular things to do.
6. Spend a Day at Kings Beach
Backed by a forest of Jeffrey pine trees, this sun-drenched sandy beach is an ideal place for lounging, swimming, and boating during summertime. Kings Beach is on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe and enjoys direct sunshine from the early morning until late afternoon.
Well-designed for visitors, the Kings Beach State Recreation Area has plenty of parking, public restrooms, picnic tables in a shaded area, barbecue pits, a playground, and places that rent out kayaks and paddleboards. Fishing is allowed but requires a license.
The town of Kings Beach has many motels, restaurants, casual eateries, trendy retail shops, and street vendors that cater to tourists.
7. Make a Stop at Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park
The Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park extends along Lake Tahoe for nearly two miles, with densely wooded forests of aspen, fir, pine, and juniper trees. The property was built by wealthy financier Isaias W. Hellman in 1903. His daughter, Florence Hellman Ehrman, inherited the estate.
Surrounded by 2,000 acres of woodlands at Sugar Pine Point State Park, the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion features wonderful views of Lake Tahoe. The casual yet elegantly rustic mansion was designed as a summer vacation home and was equipped with the most modern conveniences of the time. The dining rooms feature redwood paneling, and the guest rooms are decorated with Navajo rugs.
The Hellman-Ehrman Mansion is open to the public for tours from the end of May through September. The grounds (open year-round, free of charge) include a flower garden with a gazebo, which is often used as a wedding venue.
Near the mansion is a Nature Center with interesting exhibits about birds, lake ecology, wildflowers, trees, and other environmental topics.
During summertime, visitors flock to the Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park to go hiking around the park's extensive trails, and swimming or sunbathing at the small lakeside beach. Fishing in the park's stream is allowed from mid-July to mid-September.
During the winter, cross-country skiers are delighted by the park's 20-kilometer system of trails. The ski season usually runs from December through March.
Ed Z'berg Sugar Pine Point State Park has campsites, picnic areas, and barbecue pits, and the facilities are available for use year-round (although only a limited number of campsites are open in the winter). During wintertime, it is advised to check the weather conditions in advance.
8. Enjoy the Beaches and Trails at D.L. Bliss State Park
Duane L. Bliss was a lumber baron who made his fortune in banking, logging, and railroads during the late 19th century and early 20th century. In 1929, the Bliss family donated 744 acres of private property to the California State park system.
Today, visitors can soak up the beauty of this public park, with its attractive picnic spots, pleasant lakeside areas, and lovely sandy beaches. The beaches have a secluded feel because they are tucked away in densely wooded groves and accessed by a steep two-mile hike.
The park's Lester Beach and Calawee Cove are among the most beautiful beaches in Tahoe. Swimmers enjoy the crystal-clear waters; sunbathers delight in basking under the warm summer rays; and water sports enthusiasts relish the perfect conditions for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding.
Visitors also come to D.L. Bliss State Park for hiking, especially the Rubicon Trail, which offers sensational views of Lake Tahoe. This 4.5-mile trail leads to Emerald Bay State Park; there is also a two-mile extension trail past the Vikingsholm Castle.
Other hikes include the Lighthouse Trail, which leads to a historic lighthouse, and the Balancing Rock Nature Trail, featuring the 130-ton granite "Balancing Rock," which marvelously rests on a narrow stone base.
During summertime, D.L. Bliss State Park campground has 150 campsites with restroom facilities and hot showers. This family-friendly camping area is very popular, and reservations are recommended. The campground is open from mid-June through mid-September.
9. Appreciate the Scenery and Activities at Sand Harbor State Park
In North Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side, Sand Harbor State Park offers miles of sandy beaches, as well as hidden coves and shady pine forests. The majestic scenery provides an awe-inspiring backdrop for summertime outdoor activities.
The 55-acre park offers opportunities for swimming, scuba diving, and kayaking in the translucent waters of Lake Tahoe. Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Sailing, kayaking, and boating enthusiasts appreciate the docks at the boat launch.
Visitors can take scenic walks along the Sand Point Nature Trail, a short hike with outstanding views of the lake, and the Sand Harbor to Memorial Point Trail, a half-mile trail with access to secluded beaches and rocky coves.
Sand Harbor State Park also has shaded picnic areas under the fragrant Jeffrey pines. Other facilities include the Sand Harbor Visitor Center (which has a gift shop), and a casual restaurant.
10. Hike the Eagle Rock Trail
The Eagle Rock Hiking Trail is a spectacular hiking trail on Lake Tahoe's west shore, just four miles away from Tahoe City. Eagle Rock is a dramatic volcanic outcrop, perched at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, which is a few hundred feet above Lake Tahoe.
This short, easy hike is about a half-mile long and can be completed in 20 minutes, however it rewards with magnificent views.
11. Hit the Trails or Enjoy the Lake at Donner Memorial State Park
The infamous Donner Party embarked on their westward journey from Springfield, Illinois in April of 1846, part of a wave of pioneers who emigrated to California in the mid-1800s. When the party reached Fort Bridger, they decided to take a route that was considered a shortcut to California. Unfortunately, this route had been recommended by an unreliable guide.
By the time the Donner Party reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains in October of 1846, heavy snowfall obstructed the mountain pass on their route. The party was forced to set up a lakeside camp with crude cabins and inadequate food. Due to the extreme cold, malnutrition, and perilous conditions, nearly half of the party died during the winter.
Today, the mountain pass that blocked the Donner Party's progress is called Donner Pass, and it is found within the Tahoe National Forest. Nearby, the Donner Memorial State Park commemorates the California pioneers with its Pioneer Monument.
Donner Memorial State Park encompasses Donner Lake and eight miles of trails, including a Lakeside Interpretive Trail. During summertime, visitors can go hiking, mountain biking (guided mountain-bike tours are available on Saturdays from late May through September), picnicking, fishing, boating, and camping. In the snow season, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing draw many winter-sports enthusiasts to the park.
The park also has a visitor center that presents exhibits about the Donner Party, the emigrant (pioneer) experience, and other local history.
Address: 12593 Donner Pass Road, Truckee, California
12. Catch a Performance at Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival
Literary types should plan to attend the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (held from mid-July through mid-August). The festival presents a series of performances, highlighting some of Shakespeare's most famous works.
Audiences will enjoy the entertaining performances in an exquisite outdoor theater, set amid a grove of towering pine trees. The serene scenery and the starry night skies add to the special experience.
Where to Stay near Lake Tahoe for Sightseeing
Visitors can choose from a wide variety of accommodations in Lake Tahoe, from upscale resorts and rustic-chic lodges to family-friendly hotels and more affordable motels. We recommend these highly rated hotels and resorts with easy access to the top sites around Lake Tahoe:
- The Ritz-Carlton Club, Lake Tahoe: 5-star luxury accommodations, ski-in/ski-out Northstar California location, slope-side spa, children's program, lake club, cabana-lined pool.
- Deerfield Lodge at Heavenly: 4-star boutique hotel, sleek contemporary décor, gas fireplaces, in-room coffee makers.
- 7 Seas Inn at Tahoe: charming boutique hotel, short walk to Heavenly Village and Lake Tahoe, private beach, complimentary breakfast, hot tub.
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Highlights of the Sierra Nevadas: Lake Tahoe is at the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which includes other spectacular national parks such as Yosemite, with its dramatic waterfalls and glacier-carved valley. This UNESCO-listed national park (about a three-hour drive from Lake Tahoe) is one of the top attractions in California. Mount Shasta (a five-hour drive from Lake Tahoe) is another amazing sight and has some of the best hiking trails in California.
Interesting Towns near Lake Tahoe: Just a 45-minute drive from Lake Tahoe in northwestern Nevada is the bustling town of Reno, known for its large resort hotels with a flashy Las Vegas-style ambience.
The Sierra Nevada foothills (about an hour's drive away) are also worth exploring. From 1849 until the 1850s, this area along the American River was the booming Gold Rush territory. Today, the Gold Country is one of the best places to visit in California. In the charming old western towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley, visitors can browse art galleries and locally owned boutiques, dine at gourmet restaurants, and stay at Victorian-era hotels.