Lake Tahoe: 72 Miles of Pure Magic

Drive around Lake Tahoe (literally, around) and discover unlimited options for fun—and some of the most magnificent scenery in America.
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lake tahoe 72 miles of pure magic
Photo by Gabriel Teague

While descending the grade from Echo Summit into the Tahoe Basin on Highway 50, mixed emotions boil up. Within sight distance, the lake beckons, its water the deepest blue, and excitement sets in. Yet off to the right, black tree trunks and a rusted-out pine canopy  bring sobering reality about the damage done last summer. Already, it’s been a hard drive up, past communities destroyed and forests turned to char. Rolling down the grade into South Lake Tahoe, it’s easy to see how close the Caldor Fire came to taking the beauty of the Lake Tahoe playground away from us all.

So let’s celebrate this natural wonder with a drive around the lake, making stops along the way. Whether you start on the north shore or south, the 72 miles of shoreline highway present opportunities for all manner of recreation and sightseeing—possibly even some bear spotting. It’s impossible to cover it all, but here are some highlights from recent trips.

Beaches/Camp Richardson/Valhalla/Tallac Historic Site

camp richardson in lake tahoe

The South Shore beaches come one after another off of Highway 89, with a bike and pedestrian trail running alongside the roadway. Pull into POPE BEACH for a classic sandy beach, or hit CAMP RICHARDSON for more amenities, including horseback riding stables, an ice cream parlor, cabins for rent and the BEACON BAR & GRILL. (A Rum Runner is a must.) Camp Richardson connects with historic VALHALLA, with its boathouse theater (for plays and musical performances), and just beyond that, TALLAC HISTORIC SITE. Even if you visit on a day tours aren’t held, you can wander the grounds and admire the Pope, Baldwin and Heller estate houses, guesthouses, staff quarters, gardens, racket sport courts and more. KIVA BEACH, TAYLOR CREEK VISITOR CENTER and BALDWIN BEACH are in this area as well, for fun in the sun, swimming, paddling and even some education. Taylor Creek provides lots of information about Tahoe’s natural resources, and its amphitheater events, which run in July and August, promise plenty of fascinating facts.

pope beach in lake tahoe
Pope Beach

Fallen Leaf Lake

fallen leaf lake

ABOUT A MILE SOUTHWEST OF LAKE TAHOE’S SOUTH SHORE, FALLEN LEAF LAKE WAS FORMED BY SOME GLACIERS THAT SLIPPED DOWN THE GLEN ALPINE VALLEY. IT’S A LARGE, SPARKLY LAKE RINGED BY HOUSESSOME ACCESSIBLE ONLY FROM THE WATER WITH A CAMPGROUND AND TRAIL THAT DRAW VISITORS. TAKE THE 3.6MILE OUT AND BACK HIKE ALONG THE SHORELINE AND BE READY TO HOP OVER DOWNED TREES AND DODGE THE OVERGROWTH. ALSO, KEEP YOUR EYES UP FOR BEARS. THIS IS A HOT SPOT FOR THEM.

Emerald Bay

emerald bay in lake tahoe

Whether you view this stunningly turquoise spur of Lake Tahoe from the INSPIRATION POINT overlook or you take the walk down to VIKINGSHOLM CASTLE (a masterpiece of Scandinavian architecture) and the beach, Emerald Bay is an iconic must-see aspect of any trip to Tahoe. At the overlook, signs tell the history of the bay and Mount Tallac. You’ll get an overhead look at FANNETTE ISLAND, the only island in Lake Tahoe, and you can watch the kayakers who paddle there from surrounding shores. About a mile beyond the vista point, at the Emerald Bay State Park parking lot, you’ll find the entrance to the steep trail to shore, and also the trailhead to EAGLE FALLS across the highway. This bears repeating: Go early if you want a parking space! Tours of Vikingsholm run daily every half-hour throughout the summer, and you’ll learn all about life here in the 1920s and ’30s. Vikingsholm can also be accessed by boat—far easier than hoofing it back up the milelong hill—through CRUISE TAHOE or ACTION WATER SPORTS, and lots of people kayak in. Another way is via the RUBICON TRAIL, a worthy hike in itself. The trailhead is at D.L. BLISS STATE PARK—a popular campground—and the path skirts the water’s edge for much of the oh-so-scenic trek.

upper eagle falls
Upper Eagle Falls

Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park

a man kayaking around the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion in Sugar Pine

The day-use portion of Sugar Pine Point near Tahoma includes the HELLMAN-EHRMAN MANSION, a 1903 summer home called Pine Lodge that’s now a popular wedding site. To tour the mansion and learn about its history, purchase tickets at the NATURE CENTER. It’s easy to see why the wealthy chose to build their summer mansions on the western Tahoe waterfront: It’s just gorgeous. The whispering pines, clear blue water and clean beaches invite visitors to plop down a folding chair and stay awhile. Bring a picnic, go for a swim, rent a board or kayak, explore the boathouses—old boats within—and walk out to the end of the dock to see the fish and pebbles below. No jumping or diving.

Homewood

homewood

This month in the little community of Homewood, Obexer’s Boat Company hosts the LAKE TAHOE CONCOURS D’ELEGANCE (Aug. 12–13), which will showcase more than 60 of the finest wooden boats. Wander the docks to admire the boats, which are in pristine condition. This year’s event celebrates the 100th anniversary of Chris-Craft, builder of runabouts. While you’re here, head for FIRE SIGN CAFÉ, where the huge breakfasts can include cheesy veggie potatoes and the day’s house-baked good (raspberry coffeecake, for instance). After breakfast, take a short (but steep) 20-minute hike up EAGLE ROCK TRAIL for one of the region’s best panoramas.

eagle rock in Homewood, Lake Tahoe area
Eagle Rock

Tahoe City

A concert at Commons Beach
A concert at Commons Beach.

Coming into Tahoe City, some lakefront establishments await with lively decks for drinks and snacks. At CHAMBERS LANDING pier bar, partake in the Chambers Punch, with its wicked float of rum on top. (Sacramento jeweler Ted Grebitus is rumored to have helped invent this slushy treat.) SUNNYSIDE RESORT, with 23 rooms should you need a pillow for the night, has the largest outdoor deck on Lake Tahoe, and it hums with energy on summer evenings. WEST SHORE CAFE & INN has a lakefront deck and an award-winning food and beverage program that sources its ingredients locally. (Think AleWorX brews and Tahoe Blue Vodka.) A little farther along Highway 89, TAHOE TREETOP ADVENTURE PARK at Granlibakken invites fun seekers to zip line through the forest. In Tahoe City proper, Highway 89 splits off toward Olympic Valley; you’ll continue on Highway 28 to stay lakeside. Park the car and plan to spend an afternoon—at least—poking around Tahoe City’s shops. A few of our favorites: LAND TO LIVING and CABIN FEVER for high-end home decor, and ALPENGLOW SPORTS, where you can find any sports apparel you might need and the book selection in the back corner is packed with inspiring reads about naturalists, climbers, skiers and other environmentally active folks. In your travels, check out the bridge over the Truckee River—aptly named FANNY BRIDGE for what drivers see when they go by: a bunch of behinds as people bend over to watch for fish below. Meander down to COMMONS BEACH, where a playground lures the kids and free concerts happen every summer Sunday from 4 till 7 p.m. Grab a meal at FAT CAT CAFÉ (great paleo bowls and Frisky Kitty slushy cocktails), the renowned CHRISTY HILL (inventive small plates menu), WOLFDALE’S (ahi poke cones are a specialty) or—for a multicourse Italian feast from a venerable establishment that some of us remember from our childhoods—BACCHI’S, in business since 1932.

fanny bridge
Fanny Bridge

Carnelian Bay and Tahoe Vista

carnelian bay

This pretty area was a hub for boat racing and recreational boating in the 1930s and ’40s. Sit waterside on the deck at GAR WOODS GRILL & PIER, named for Garfield Wood, a championship motorboat builder and the first man to break 100 miles an hour on the water (in 1930). Enjoy a burger and a Wet Woody—a rum-heavy fruit juice cocktail—and laugh your way through the drinks menu, which lists concoctions like the Rock Hard Woody, Hung Like a Bear and The Stiffest.

gar woods grill and pier

Kings Beach

kings beach

Alongside a dirt-sandy beach, this town on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore is lined with motels, shops and snackeries. Beach time means filthy feet and legs, but the water’s lovely and inviting. Rent a paddleboard at a number of outlets along the main drag, or reserve a ride beneath a parasail—lifted about 800 feet—at CALIFORNIA PARASAIL. Pick up a gift or something for the house or garden at THE ROBIN’S NEST boutique or JAI YEN artist collective, two of many shops in town. JASON’S BEACHSIDE GRILLE has fabulous views, towering burgers and tall drinks; the specialty Bloody Mary carries a float of ancho chili liqueur. Grab a cone at LOG CABIN ICE CREAM and relax on the patio while you lick your way through it. At LANZA’S RESTAURANT, you’ll find classic spaghetti, pizza, baked pastas and more, served up on red-checkered tablecloths. Go to CALIENTE and sit outside beneath lighted umbrellas and indulge in a plateful of nachos. There, the house signature cocktail, a Chupacabra, involves rum, tequila, schnapps and fruit juice. But go easy—these things, like their folkloric namesake, can be mean.

jai yen
Jai Yen

Northstar Mountain Bike Park

northstar mountain bike park
Courtesy of Vail Resorts, Northstar California

IT’S OFF YOUR PATH, BUT WORTH THE DETOUR VIA HIGHWAY 267. NORTHSTAR’S MOUNTAIN BIKE PARK PROVIDES LIFT SERVICE TO ICONIC TRAILS VIA BIG SPRINGS GONDOLA, TAHOE ZEPHYR AND VISTA ROUTES. EXPECT TECHNICAL DESCENTS, WILD JUMPS AND ANTI-GRAVITY OPTIONS GALORE. FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED A LITTLE TRAINING, NORTHSTAR BIKE ACADEMY IS HOLDING FREERIDE 101 GROUP CLASSES THIS SUMMER AS WELL. GO TO NORTH STARCALIFORNIA.COM FOR MORE INFORMATION AND TO PURCHASE DAY TICKETS OR SEASON PASSES.

Crystal Bay

crystal bay

While South Shore has a stronger reputation for gaming, North Shore’s state line is straddled by some casinos as well. People have gotten lucky at CRYSTAL BAY CASINO, JIM KELLEY’S NUGGET and the TAHOE BILTMORE since the ’40s and ’50s. Play the tables, pull slots 24 hours a day or take in a variety of live music performances.

Incline Village

flume trail near incline village
Flume Trail

Anchored by the INCLINE VILLAGE GOLF CLUB, this little community teems with vacation rentals. Homes and condos rent for reasonable rates, especially if you wait till shoulder seasons. From this location, you’ve got plenty of nearby amenities, including a couple of beach entrances, plus easy access to Lake Tahoe’s East Shore gems just a few miles beyond. Grab a pine latte (tastes like the forest) at DRINK COFFEE DO STUFF or breakfast at TUNNEL CREEK CAFÉ, where the veggie power bowl—packed with sweet potatoes, black beans, peppers, kale and eggs—will fuel you up for a mountain bike ride or hike on the FLUME TRAIL, which starts right there. Also in town, LE BISTRO French restaurant has drawn rave reviews for years—hours can be iffy, so make sure and call ahead. AZZARA’S serves, among other Italian favorites, a creamy pesto seafood pasta special that’s crowded with shellfish. Or hit FUMO for dinner—they do some incredible things with mushrooms. (Start with the wild mushroom baked brie appetizer.) At the HYATT REGENCY, the beach (limited to guests) and PIER 111 bar (open to anyone) make great hangouts, especially at twilight’s gloaming with a pretty drink in your hand. For high-end, lake-view dining: LONE EAGLE GRILLE and BIG WATER GRILLE (which had a surprisingly delicious vegan enchilada when we visited). The TAHOE SCIENCE CENTER teaches visitors through interactive exhibits about lake health and environmental influences on it—and how humans can help.

incline village golf club
Incline Village Golf Club

Monkey Rock

monkey rock

A 2.6-MILE OUT-AND-BACK TRAIL FROM THE EAST SHORE TRAILHEAD WILL TAKE YOU TO MONKEY ROCK, AN APE-SHAPED FORMATION PERFECT FOR A PHOTO OP, WITH FABULOUS LAKE VIEWS.

Tahoe East Shore Trail

tahoe east shore trail

Between Incline Village and Sand Harbor, the paved 3-mile, 10-foot-wide Tahoe East Shore Trail begins on the mountain side of Highway 28, then crosses via a tunnel and hugs the lake for 2 miles. Cyclists and walkers can access 16 vista points and 11 beach entrances along the way (including some clothing-optional coves—yeah, we know it’s not allowed, but people do it anyway). The only catch: parking. To nab one of 90 or so spots at the north end trailhead lots near Tunnel Creek Cafe (you’ll pay by the hour), arrive early. There is no parking on Highway 28.

Spooner Lake

spooner lake

As you continue your drive deeper into Nevada, about 13 miles from Incline Village you’ll pass a verdant meadow, then see the turnoff for Spooner Lake. This serene little lake tucks into a landscape sprinkled with aspen groves. Some 50 miles of trails exist within the park, including several that link up with the FLUME and TAHOE RIM TRAILS. A 2-miler around Spooner Lake involves sightseers, anglers (Nevada fishing license required) and lots of Sierra flora and fauna. (High possibility of bear encounters out here!) The SPOONER LAKE VISITOR CENTER & AMPHITHEATER is under construction, which may limit access and parking on occasion, so check parks.nv.gov before you go.

Sand Harbor

sand harbor

One of Tahoe’s most alluring locations, with rocky coves and water as turquoise as the Caribbean, Sand Harbor draws crowds during the summer. It’s got strict limitations on the number of people allowed in—get there early enough to park, or you’re out. No drop-offs or walk-ins allowed. Once you’re there, though, enjoy a wide sandy beach, swimming, paddle-boarding, kayaking, picnicking, exploring the visitor center and more. What you can’t enjoy this year: boating. Boat launches are closed due to low water. The LAKE TAHOE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL goes on at Sand Harbor each summer—the stage backdropped by the lake at sunset just adds to the magical experience. See “Mamma Mia!” and “Much Ado About Nothing” through Aug. 21.

Logan Shoals Vista Point

Logan Shoals Vista Point

The views from this Nevada side of Lake Tahoe are simply stunning, and a sunset from Logan Shoals Vista Point sends rays beaming across the water before dropping, ribbon by peach ribbon, behind the mountains on the other side. Evening clouds add more layers for dramatic effect. From the parking pullout, walk up to the various vantage points.

Zephyr Cove

zephyr cove

A full-service resort with beach access, a restaurant, lodge, campground and rental cabins, Zephyr Cove is the prime spot to get out on the water, whether that’s by parasailing, boarding the M.S. DIXIE II paddle-wheeler for a lake cruise or powering your own ride on the water with a pedal boat, stand-up paddleboard or kayak. Personal watercraft rentals are available, as well as powerboats and the Weekender 36-foot pontoon, large enough for 12 people—and it includes a waterslide. Also available for rent: water skis, tubes and wakeboards.

Cave Rock

cave rock

Take the .8-mile out-and-back walk to experience Cave Rock, a notorious landmark frequented by sunset and sunrise watchers and meditators. Climb (carefully) to the rock’s top for the best vantage point.

Nevada Beach

nevada beach

This beautiful swath of beachfront near Zephyr Cove includes a campground, a calm swimming beach and summertime amenities including a paddleboard and kayak rentals kiosk. The LAM WATAH NATURE TRAIL will also deliver walkers here—it traverses meadow, marsh and forest, rife with wildlife (many beaver and bird sightings reported). For a beautiful bird’s eye view, take a short hike up ROUND MOUND just north of the campground. Nevada Beach is a stop along the LAKE TAHOE WATER TRAIL, dubbed as “72 miles of liquid fun,” designed to help paddlers enjoy their journey along the lake’s shoreline.

view from Round Mound
View from Round Mound

Tahoe Rim Trail

tahoe rim trail

THE 165-MILE TAHOE RIM TRAIL CIRCLES LAKE TAHOE, HITTING VARIOUS PEAKS ALONG THE WAY. SOME HARDCORE BACKPACKERS DO THE LOOP AS A THROUGH-HIKE, AND MULTIPLE ACCESS POINTS BRING DAY HIKERS IN FOR A SEGMENT. ON YOUR TREK, YOU MAY PASS MOUNTAIN BIKERS OR EQUESTRIANS, TOO. PORTIONS OF THE TRAIL TRAVERSE DESOLATION WILDERNESS, WHICH REQUIRES A PERMIT. GO TO RECREATION.GOV. THE TAHOE RIM TRAIL ASSOCIATION RUNS GUIDED HIKES, PROVIDES MAPS AND DETAILED TRAIL SEGMENT DESCRIPTIONS (INCLUDING SCENIC HIGHLIGHTS AND WHAT TO EXPECT.) TAHOERIMTRAIL.ORG

Stateline

stateline

In the last minute before you enter California, casinos crowd the state line. The four biggies: HARRAH’S, HARVEYS, HARD ROCK and BALLY’S (formerly Montbleu and Caesars). Play the games all day and night if you like, but take a break long enough to take in a show or indulge in dinner by the window at one of the sky-high restaurants. Watch for the opening of the new 6,000-seat TAHOE SOUTH event center later this year for concerts, youth sporting events and conferences. For the more outdoors-focused, VAN SICKLE BI-STATE PARK also straddles the state line and is open to bicyclists, equestrians and hikers (who may want to pick up the Tahoe Rim Trail connector). Keep your eyes open—it’s in this park, among the rock outcroppings and towering pines, that we saw bears in broad daylight. Also in Stateline, the expansive and gorgeous EDGEWOOD—Tahoe’s only lakefront golf resort—includes luxurious accommodations at the lodge, an award-winning spa and several restaurants, including a casual bistro and lake-view fine dining.

edgewood interior room
Edgewood Premier Room

South Lake Tahoe

heavenly gondola
Heavenly gondola

Stateline runs right into South Lake Tahoe. Wander around HEAVENLY VILLAGE to shop—local and national retailers do business side by side in the busy center—or dine. The combination pizza at BASE CAMP PIZZA comes adorned with pepperoni, sausage and red peppers, or consider a heap of Azul Nacho Grande washed down with a margarita at AZUL LATIN KITCHEN. But the highlight of Heavenly Village is the tram house—for where it’ll take you. Hop aboard for a ride up the side of the mountain, a climb of over 2 miles and 2,000 feet in about seven minutes. During summertime, the glass-walled gondola car—worth the ride for the scenery alone—delivers adventurers to EPIC DISCOVERY. There, you can zip line, climb a wall, go tubing down a track, do a ropes course or take a screaming ride in a gravity-powered “mountain coaster” through forest and rocks. Also in South Lake Tahoe, several outstanding casual restaurants made our list: ALEWORX (at the Y and in Stateline) for wood-fired pizza, a self-serve beer wall and the new BACKYARD BAR & GRILL that brings burgers, brats and fries to the equation. In the same center, VERDE MEXICAN ROTISSERIE serves the freshest-tasting tacos, salads and burritos created from house-rotisseried chicken and tri-tip, with carefully sourced, often organic ingredients. At EMPANASH in the SOUTH LAKE TAHOE MARINA, handcrafted Argentine empanadas come crammed with multiple combos of meats and veggies. Grab a big sandwich from SPROUTS and take it to a nearby beach (EL DORADO BEACH or MEMORIAL CITY BEACH).

ridge rider mountain coaster
Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster