Descending off Echo Summit on Highway 50 into South Lake Tahoe, you might gasp. The road gets real narrow, your car feels real big, and the steep cliff to your right opens up to a vast wilderness that shrinks your lungs and widens your eyes. Then you see Lake Tahoe.
The view of North America’s largest alpine lake generates an awed desire to discover it all—South Shore’s lively neon casino action and white-sand beaches, North Shore’s rocky coves and cozy communities, and all that lies between—and there is plenty. Go for it. At the Y in South Lake Tahoe, take a deep breath, veer right and begin your drive around the expanse of deep, clear blue. You’ll find lots of spots to explore on your journey.
South Lake Tahoe
Start with lunch at Freshies, famous for its fish tacos and lake-view deck adorned with a Barbie and Ken display. The menu, packed with organics, allows vegetarians and omnivores many options, so trouble awaits in deciding what to order. If healthful isn’t your thing, head for Big Daddy’s Burgers, where your cholesterol count will suffer, but it’s worth it to dive into a burly bacon burger sided by crispy fries. Have a beer while you’re at it. Afterward, walk it off along the park trail that fronts the lake along Lake Tahoe Boulevard.
Within an eighth-inch of the state line distinguishing Nevada from California lie the front doors of Harveys on the left, Harrah’s on the right, and the signs screaming “CASINO.” The Horizon, Montbleu (formerly Caesars) and Lakeside Inn come up next. Gamble all afternoon—once inside the noisy cave of slot machines and game tables, you’ll forget the great outdoors exists mere steps away—or plan to return that night to catch a cabaret show and win your fortune (or lose your shirt, whichever the case may be).
A few miles past Stateline, Zephyr Cove invites visitors to board the M.S. Dixie II paddle-wheeler for a daytime sightseeing cruise or a dinner-and-dancing excursion. Or take a sunset sail on the Woodwind II, a 55-foot catamaran. On shore, sunbathe, horseback ride, play volleyball or barbecue; go offshore with a water toy rental (powerboat, personal watercraft, paddleboat, canoe or kayak). For a new adventure, sign up to parasail—up, up and away on a 1,000-foot rope behind a boat over that gorgeous lake.
A View and a Tunnel
Continuing north on Highway 50, pull into Logan Shoals Vista Point to snap a few pics and ogle at the natural wonders around you: the water, the mountains, the trees, the bears. Wait a minute. Bears? Yep. Signs abound on this side of the lake—yellow ones that say “bear crossing,” brown ones where you stash your trash. Just up the road, Cave Rock juts imposingly above the highway, drilled through to allow cars to traverse its tunnel. Honk your horn for good luck.
Make the left turn onto Highway 28 and stop at Spooner Lake recreation area. A cross country ski destination during the winter, in summer it’s a mecca for hikers, anglers, picnickers, wildflower fans and bird-watchers. Walk the nearly two-mile loop to the lake and back, listening to the breeze shimmering the aspens.
Memorial Point and Hidden Beach
On the Nevada side of the lake between the Spooner Lake area and Sand Harbor, an unmarked parking lot comes up suddenly on the left. Pull in to find restroom facilities—such as they are, nasty outhouses full of spiders—a placard welcoming you to Nevada’s Lake Tahoe and a small sign reading “Trail To Beach.” Strap on your Keens, slap on the sunscreen and hit the trail, binoculars in hand. It’s a severe path, cut with knee-rattling steps that do little to smooth the way, but you’re heading for something special: a collection of boulders on shore that beckon you into the cool water and, a little farther along the trail, a pretty beach that feels like a remote oasis. Watch for sun worshippers on the bigger rocks and yank up the binocs for an eyeful: Some of these sunbathers are probably nude.
One of Tahoe’s most famous gathering spots, Sand Harbor is fun, with summer festivals and weddings adding excitement. The beach—lovely with creamy, fine sand and super-clear water—lures scuba divers and snorkelers. Bring a picnic and stay for the day, exploring the granite boulders and the trails beneath the Jeffrey pines. Arrive early, though, if you want a place to park.
On Tahoe’s North Shore, roll through Incline Village and admire big mountain homes, huge pines, the golf course and the Hyatt Regency. Did you bring your dog? One of Lake Tahoe’s only off-leash dog parks lies behind the Hyatt. Make dinner reservations at Le Bistro, a tiny but highly recommended French restaurant located on the backside of Incline Village’s Country Club Centre. The five-course prix fix menu, $48, might include items such as fresh black truffle soup; rock shrimp, live Maine lobster and mussels bouillabaisse; Belgian endive salad with Gorgonzola; braised venison osso buco; and a variety of desserts. Or it might not. Chef Jean-Pierre Doignon decides on the menu daily, depending on what’s fresh and good.
It’s a big dirty expanse of red-sandy beach—step out here barefoot in shorts and you’ll look like the self-tanner went awry. But it’s fun to stop off at the Char-Pit for a dipped frosty cone and mosey over to the beach to wiggle your toes and drop chunks of chocolate shell onto your legs. Just adds to the mess.
What a cute little metropolis this is, with old alpine buildings housing shops and restaurants, and a roadside beach perfect for paddle surfing. Laugh at the bear-a-phernalia for sale in the Tahoe T-Shirtery—pajama pants, mugs, signs—and get inspired by the mountain-themed décor at Mother Nature’s Cabin Fever, where you’ll find rustic bunk beds, luxury bedding in warm colors, some ample, richly stained wood furniture adorned with plump throw pillows and, of course, lots of stuffed bears. Stop for live music and dinner at Fat Cat Cafe or, if you’re after seasonal, sustainable stuff, try Evergreen. While you’re in Tahoe City, check out Fanny Bridge, located over the outlet of Lake Tahoe and so-named for all the butts on display as tourists hang over the side to eye the trout and mackinaw below.
Between Tahoe City and Emerald Bay
The rocky beaches tempt pebble-throwers to try their hand at skipping—find a flat one, lean over low and skim it across the water top. The Truckee River Recreation Trail, a path winding through the pines alongside the highway, brings dog-walkers, stroller-pushers and Sunday cyclists. At Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park, tour the Hellman-Ehrman mansion, built in 1903 as an “informal summer home,” with eight bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a spiral staircase and space for 27 live-in staffers. At D.L. Bliss State Park, hike the six-plus-mile stretch of the shoreline Rubicon Trail to Emerald Bay’s Vikingsholm. Keep in mind this will take several hours, so start early, stop for a swim to keep cool, then plan to take the Emerald Bay Connection shuttle back to your car. Save some strength for the climb out of Vikingsholm to pick up the shuttle.
If you park at the Vikingsholm trailhead, the breezy mile-long stroll down the road to the Vikingsholm mansion is punctuated by waterfalls and lake views. The descent raises your heart rate only because you know you’ll have to hike back up. Take a tour of the Scandinavian-style castle built in the 1920s, and you’ll learn a fair bit about Tahoe’s history. Also in Emerald Bay, the Eagle Falls trail leads hikers on a short but strenuous loop that includes a spectacular vista point (that’s Emerald Bay and Fannette Island out there) and waterfalls roaring beneath a lookout bridge.
Camp Richardson, Valhalla and Tallac Historic Site
Stop at Camp Richardson for ice cream, a horseback ride, water-ski lessons, a stiff drink at The Beacon Bar & Grill (Rum Runners, anyone?) or a lazy day on one of South Lake Tahoe’s most popular beaches. See what’s going on at Valhalla, where summertime brings children’s theater, music in the boathouse and other entertainment. Wander through the Tallac Historic Site with its three estates and numerous guesthouses, staff quarters, gardens and racket sport courts. (What did they play back in the early 1900s?) Plop onto one of the mysteriously one-armed benches on the Tallac property and imagine what it would be like to stay in one of those guesthouses—the double-A-frame Pope Twin Cabin, for example. Or consider actually living there, full staff at hand to satisfy your every whim, while you lounge by the gazebo and pond, gazing out at Lake Tahoe’s glassy surface and surrounding snow-capped Sierra. That would be the life.
Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival—From July 9 through Aug. 22, Sand Harbor hosts the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and the Sand Harbor Music Series. See all the plays of William Shakespeare performed in one hilarious night in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Dance the night away on Mondays and Fridays to live performances during the music series. This year, expect to hear jazz, blues, classic rock, the Reno Philharmonic and Latin rhythms—but not all in the same night. For more information, go to laketahoeshakespeare.com.