When it comes to mountain towns in California, there isn’t much that compares to Lake Tahoe. With over 10 world class ski resorts, the largest alpine lake in the U.S., high quality rock climbing, and endless hiking, biking and running trails – Tahoe might just be your one stop shop for Adventure.
All of these options make it a great place to visit any time of year depending on what adventure activity you’re looking for, but it can be a but overwhelming to try and figure out where to start when planning a trip to the area.
To make things a bit easier for you, we’ve built a comprehensive guide for adventure in the Lake Tahoe Basin. This page will work as your logistics outline and big picture view of what to do in Lake Tahoe. From here, you can navigate your way through any sport category, giving you an in-depth view of the top spots in Tahoe to explore your favorite activities.
Let’s dive in!
Lake Tahoe: Quick Stats:
- Lake Tahoe has 15 ski resorts and an estimated 840 kilometers of slope
- Lake Tahoe, a lake that is over 2 million years old, is the second deepest lake in the US at 1,645 feet in depth. The lake also crosses state borders with approximately 1/3 of the lake being located in Nevada.
- There are over 3,000 rock climbing routes in the Tahoe area.
- Many ski resorts average over 400 inches of snowfall each year – allowing for plenty of powder days!
- There are over 10 trail running races in Tahoe each year and endless trails for the recreational runner.
- Hikers can challenge themselves to the 165 miles Tahoe Rim trail that loops the entire lake! Don’t worry, you don’t need to do the whole thing to have a great experience as there are broken up sections for more moderate outings.
How to get to Lake Tahoe:
The first thing you will want to determine is where in Lake Tahoe you want to go. Generally speaking the Lake is broken down between North Lake Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe, The East Shore and the West Shore. It will make a difference on the route you take. Luckily GPS pretty much does all the work for us when sorting this out, but here are a few directions for your reference.
From San Francisco: The San Francisco Bay Area heads out of town weekly to play in Tahoe so this route is heavily traffic both to Tahoe on Friday’s and out of Tahoe on Sunday’s. It’s generally pretty simple – If you’re heading to the North Shore you can take 80 East all the way to Truckee, which is a great mountain community right before you hit Lake Tahoe proper.
If South Lake Tahoe is your final destination you will start on 80 East, but eventually head onto Hwy 50, which will bring you straight to the Lake!
If you’re heading to the East or West Shore heading through Truckee also works well, although you do have the option of coming up through South Lake Tahoe as well.
From the Pacific Northwest:
Generally speaking, you are going to start your journey to Tahoe on Interstate 5 South. From there you can take a few different routes so make sure to reference your GPS.
We like taking 5 south to 395 south which will bring you to Reno. Once in Reno you will take 80 West for about 40 minutes to reach the Lake!
From Southern California:
Per usual, there are also a few ways to get to Lake Tahoe from SoCal. One option, from the LA area is to take interstate 5 North all the way to Sacramento and then hop on 80 East to access North Lake Tahoe or Hwy 50 to end up in South Lake Tahoe.
The other option, and this one will bring you through the Eastern Sierra, which is an amazing place , is to head up 395 North all the way to Carson City before heading up or down the lake depending on your final destination.
One great thing about Tahoe is you have a few options when choosing how to get there via air travel.
- Reno/Tahoe International Airport will be your closest option, which will have you on the lake within 40 minutes. This airport has flights from major hubs and avoids the chaos of a larger airport.
- Sacramento International Airport is another option nearby. Your drive will be about 2 hours to Lake Tahoe depending on traffic and time of day. This airport is slightly larger than Reno and might have cheaper flights and more direct flight options
- San Francisco International Airport usually takes the cake on the cheapest flights and it also works out nicely if you want to check out this amazing city as an add on to your trip. It can take anywhere from 3-5 hours to get to Tahoe from here, so you will want to plan accordingly based on traffic and the day you are traveling.
Where to stay in Lake Tahoe: Many times, people make this decision based on what activity they are doing and what season it is. Are you heading to Tahoe mid-winter? Maybe you want to stay at one of the many ski resort villages around Lake Tahoe. Is it the fourth of July? Well, being located on Lake Tahoe can be great for this to enjoy the festivities right out your door. We will break it down into a few categories for you to make things a bit easier.
Truckee: This can be considered the Gateway to North Lake Tahoe. Located 15 minutes to the lake this town boast a couple of ski resorts, endless biking/hiking/running trails, high quality rock climbing and a quaint little downtown. It also has it’s own Lake – Donner Lake! Not as big as Tahoe but very impressive in its own right.
North Lake Tahoe: You might hear locals refer to this area as “The North Shore” and you’ll find plenty of activity going on along this part of the lake. Tahoe city, works a sort of a central hub for the north end of Lake Tahoe with a fun downtown, local beaches, farmers markets, and lots of access to outdoor activities.
East Shore: The East shore is known for its aqua waters and as long as it’s sunny outside you’ll feel a hint of the Caribbean in crystal clear waters. Also, as you travel down the Eastern side of the lake you will travel from California into Nevada as the Lake is located in both states.
West Shore: If you’ve seen pictures of Lake Tahoe you’ve probably see a picture of the West Shore – specifically, Emerald Bay. This side of the lake boasts ski resorts, rock climbing, wonderful water access and lakefront property that makes the mouth water.
South Lake Tahoe: If you’re looking for a bit more of a city feel you might enjoy South Lake Tahoe. Situated on the Stateline between California and Nevada, you’ll find music venues, casinos, and ski resort access right downtown!
There are over 15 ski resorts in Lake Tahoe ranging from previous winter Olympic destinations such as Squaw Valley, all the way down to small scale operations. Tahoe can see snow as early as October and as late as June. This makes for a pretty long season for those seeking snow when visiting the area. You can find more info on each resort, their location, and what type of experience to expect on our ski/snowboard specific page.
Seasons in Lake Tahoe: Determining when to come is best determined by the type of activity you are interested in doing. Once there is snow on the ground, usually starting in November, it might be Spring before you’re back at the crag or on the trail. Spring and Fall are amazing in Tahoe, especially with less crowds in the area. That being said, weather can be a little finicky during these months so plan to be a bit flexible as a winter storm in June is not unheard of. If you’re looking for consistent sunshine, July and August are your best bet and you’ll have plenty of outdoor adventures to choose from.
Camping in Lake Tahoe:
There is a pretty decent mix of camping in the Lake Tahoe area. From big group campgrounds to backcountry hike-in destinations, you will have plenty of options when seeking out a place to pitch your tent. Beware that summers are extremely busy here and best practice is to reserve as far in advance as possible for best availability. If you’re sleeping, you’re car you can get creative on forest roads throughout the area, but make sure its national forest land.
Adventure activities in Lake Tahoe:
Skiing: With 15 ski resorts to choose from and endless backcountry skiing opportunities, many associate Tahoe specifically as a world class ski destination – and that’s because it is. Read more in our Tahoe Ski Guide
Hiking: Ranging from big lake loops, to quick scenic overlooks and portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, you won’t be in short supply of hiking on your trip to Lake Tahoe. Read more in our Tahoe Hiking Guide
Climbing: Ever wonder where the famed Yosemite climbers came when it got too hot in the summers? Lake Tahoe. With over 3,000 routes in the area you could spend a lifetime climbing in the area. Read more in our Tahoe Climbing Guide
Via Ferrata: This isn’t Europe, but you can still test your nerve on a via ferrata adventure here in Tahoe! Check out Squaw Valley Resort for this fun family activity.
Backcountry Skiing: While thereare plenty of options for inbound skiing, you can truly explore in solitude here in Tahoe’s backcountry. From mellow and accessible glade skiing to steep couloirs, you can find it all in the Tahoe basin. Read more in our Tahoe Backcountry Skiing Guide
Trail Running: All of those hiking trails we mentioned are also great options for trail runners. There is a great mix of flat scenic loops and steep, technical mountain missions to be had. Read more in our Tahoe Trail Running Guide.
Mountain Biking: If you like Mountain Biking for the views, Tahoe might take the cake. Choose from long cross country trails along the lake or technical downhills throughout the region. If you’re looking for ski lift service and downhill, Tahoe also has a few options for you as well. Read more in our Tahoe Mountain Biking Guide
Ice Climbing: Many people might think that California and Ice climbing just don’t mix. Well, we may not have as much as Montana or Colorado but you can still swing the tools during cold winters in the Tahoe Basin. Read more in our Tahoe Ice Climbing Guide.
Water sports: The name Lake Tahoe says it all. This massive Alpine lake begs to be played in. Boating, fishing, floating, sailing, and much more – you’ll never get bored on the water in Lake Tahoe. Want to check out a smaller, more local lake in the area? Head to Donner Lake in Truckee. Read more in our Tahoe Water Sports Guide.
Tips from the locals:
- Choose your season wisely. The obvious choices for when to visit are Summeer for the Lake and Winter for the skiing. Any local will tell you their favorite season are the shoulder seasons – portions of the Spring and Fall. This is because the weather is perfect and the crowds are at a minimum.
- Everyone is friendly and will welcome you with open arms – but like many tourist destinations trash can be an issue. The motto in the Tahoe area is leave it better than you found it.
- Float the Truckee River – While not technically on the lake, Truckee is a great kick off point for skiing, climbing, hiking and more. When you’re finished with the daily adventure grab a tube and take a ride down the Truckee river – very family friendly.