By: Jordan Simon
Mark Twain (when he was still known as Samuel Clemens) rhapsodized about Lake Tahoe, describing it as, "a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the seas . . . As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it surely must be the fairest picture the whole world affords." That statement remains true nearly 150 years later. Everything about Lake Tahoe is larger than life: Nestled among the Sierra Nevada's 10,000-foot peaks, North America's highest and largest alpine lake (at 22 miles long, 12 wide, with 72 miles of shoreline), straddles two states (California and Nevada), and, with a depth of 1000 feet (on average), ranks as the country's second-deepest swimming hole. Indeed, with this kind of setting, Tahoe certainly merits its indigenous Washoe name – the tribe's word for "Lake of the Sky" was, you guessed it, Tahoe.
But exercise is optional. Year-round concerts, performances, and festivals celebrating everything from the arts to gastronomy satisfy culture vultures. History buffs can lasso a taste of the Old West in preserved logging/railroad towns like Truckee. Tahoe's equally action-packed at night, including lively casinos and world-class headliners in showrooms on the Nevada side. Major resort developers have rolled the dice on Tahoe, investing more than $1 billion in upscale renovations, upgrades and expansions since 2002, including a $750 million makeover for the formerly garish South Lake Tahoe. As a rule, Tahoe's North Shore is quieter, with pampering luxury resorts and posh residential enclaves; a faster, party-hearty pace prevails on the South Shore. But no matter what your interest, age or budget, you won't be gambling on a quality vacation: Tahoe comes up aces in every department.
Given the wealth of recreational activities – day and night, winter, summer, spring or fall – where should you stay and play? If you have a long weekend we recommend sticking to either the North or South side, and restricting your activities to a couple of resorts. With five days, you can take advantage of discount packages on everything from lodging to lift tickets, expanding your horizons to take a paddlewheeler cruise and ride panoramic trams. A week permits sampling at least four or five areas; depending on the timing of your visit, try spring skiing one day and golfing or fishing the next, and explore historic mansions and museums before hitting casinos and showrooms at night.
Tahoe is informally divided into the North and South Shores, with the (western) California and (eastern) Nevada sides encompassing numerous towns and resort developments. North Shore embraces several famed four-season resorts, like Squaw Valley and Northstar-at-Tahoe (both 10-15 minutes' drive from the lake), as well as historic towns like Truckee (north of the lake off US 80) and lakefront Tahoe City; the former is particularly noted for its chic boutiques, galleries and bistros. Just over the Nevada border, Incline Village/Crystal Bay is another beehive for everything from golf to gambling. Heavenly Resort, straddling both states, dominates the South Shore, whose main hub, South Lake Tahoe (CA), conjoins Stateline (NV).
A car is a must for exploring: It would take at least 90 minutes to drive around the lake without stops (several North Shore resorts do offer shuttle service to and from the south). Nightlife aficionados can bar-hop and gamble around South Lake Tahoe/Stateline; families will adore such activity- and entertainment-packed mountain villages as Heavenly, Squaw, and Northstar; nature-lovers are in their element(s) almost anywhere; Truckee, Squaw, and Tahoe City make fine headquarters. No matter where you focus your energies, remember that you're at 6300 feet (and higher) – acclimate to the altitude by limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, drinking plenty of water, and trying not to overdo it the first day or two.
No companies offer orientation tours, though several communities promote self-guided snowshoe/hiking scenic and/or historic walking tours, while the various cruises usually include sightseeing narration. Stop by the various visitors' centers around the lake for brochures, maps, and other info or check their websites for comprehensive recreational info, events listings, insider tips, updated ski and road conditions, and even webcams. South Shore bests include: Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority in South Lake Tahoe (1156 Ski Run Blvd., CA; 530/544-5050 or 800/AT-TAHOE; www.bluelaketahoe.com) and Lake Tahoe's Tahoe-Douglas Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center (195 US Hwy 50, Round Hill Mall, NV; 775/588-4591; http://tahoe.tahoechamber.org/). North Shore information centers include Incline Village/Crystal Bay Visitor Center (969 Tahoe Blvd., NV; 775/832-1606 or 800/GO-Tahoe; www.GoTahoe.com) and Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center (Train Depot, 10065 Donner Pass Rd., CA; 530/587-2757; www.truckee.com).
Other resources include The Weekly magazine and its website (www.tahoethisweek.com) for the scuttlebutt on the hottest cultural, dining, shopping, and barhopping listings. The Tahoe Daily Tribune (www.tahoedailytribune.com) includes links to most area newspapers, plus special sections like ski/board guides, and suggestions on everything from dining to hiking.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Tahoe is one of North America's supreme four-season playgrounds. While skiers and riders intone such names as Squaw Valley and Heavenly like a mantra, the lake is arguably even more popular in summer, with watersports galore, golf courses, and fantastic hiking and mountain biking along the same steep descents. You'll find the continent's largest concentration of ski areas – more than 15 covering nearly 25,000 total skiable acres – in a region that averages 50 inches of fluffy stuff and 274 sunny days per year – and boasts ski areas that stay open well into May. There's terrain for all abilities, from tight glades to expansive bowls – and naturally, stunning lake views. Lift ticket prices are often equally steep, but check individual resorts for incredible multi-day deals on lift passes, equipment rentals, lessons, and more.
Squaw Valley USA (Olympic Valley; 530/583-6985 or 800/403-0206; www.squaw.com), host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, is one of ski-dom's ultimate testosterone test drives: if you think you're good come here to find out how good. The sick chutes, glades, cornices, and cliffs attract extreme skiers and shredders, who especially love its legendary KT22 side, where runs include Chute 75 (reputedly Tahoe's steepest); the cliff drop off The Fingers; the 1900 vertical feet of bronco-busting bumps on Jonny Moseley's Run; the precipitous but groomed Women's Downhill course; and the aptly named Waterfall, Funnel and Elevator Shaft. But this mammoth – 2850-foot vertical, 4000+ skiable acres, six peaks, 16 open bowls, 100+ runs – bully has a gentler side: Chicken Bowl, Sun Bowl, the groomed tree-lined runs of Shirley Lake, Snow King Peak ridge, and Bailey's Beach. The cable car accesses bountiful beginner/intermediate mid-mountain terrain (open for night skiing/riding) via the year-round mountaintop High Camp Bath & Tennis Club, a fully equipped sports club that even boasts a climbing wall.
Practically adjacent, Alpine Meadows (2600 Alpine Meadows Rd., six miles north of Tahoe City; 530/583-4232 or 800/949-3296; www.skialpine.com) features similar rock-strewn, above-treeline terrain. But there's no macho daredevil attitude (despite the off-piste skiing and hair-raising, heart-pounding cliffs and back bowls). The lake views here may be Tahoe's most jaw-dropping; lift ticket prices are reasonable; and the snow's usually better, especially early and late in the season – thanks to the higher altitude. Summit Six Chair on Ward Peak accesses the "no-fall" Keyhole powder chute and the VW-sized moguls of Waterfall; Alpine Bowl Chair leads to the eponymous intermediate dream; the aptly-named Lakeview Chair plunges into the kamikaze Scott Chute, but its sun-drenched backside accesses sweet cruisers (do stop by the wacky Ice Bar).
Intermediate skiers, families, and snowboarders should look no further than Truckee's Northstar-at-Tahoe (Hwy. 267; 530/562-1010 or 800/GO-NORTH; www.northstarattahoe.com), where half the 2420 acres are designated for blue and tot-friendly activities like the kids-only Adventure Parks (with pint-sized features); the Parent Predicament perk (allowing two parents with young children to share one lift ticket); free après-ski ice skating and s'mores roasts; and moonlight snowmobile tours get raves from families with youngsters in tow. Shredders laud Northstar, too, especially as it just added the West's first Burton Progression Park for beginners, as well as several innovative tricks, including a DC Shoebox and a massive Dragon Trapezoid Box, to six already sick terrain parks. You can also avail yourself of Tahoe's best freebie: complimentary weekday 1 1/4–hour lessons for stronger skiers and riders.
Locals' secret Sugar Bowl (629 Sugar Bowl Rd.; 530/426-9000; www.sugarbowl.com), in Norden, is California's snowiest spot, translating into a six-month season. Powderhounds find its 1500+ skiable acres sweet indeed, despite its relatively short 1500-foot vertical. Strong intermediates enjoy plentiful cruising off the Disney Express on Mt. Disney (yes, Walt financed the resort and California's first chairlift in 1939; movie stars like Errol Flynn, Doris Day, and Bing Crosby were regulars). Bonuses include a skilled ski school, comparatively low prices and crowds, X Games qualifiers, and continual improvements. It's also a Nordic nexus, connecting with the 9000-acre Royal Gorge Ski Area (Soda Springs; 530/426-3871 or 800/500-3871; www.royalgorge.com), which offers North America's largest cross-country skiing resort (as well as 10 warming huts, four trailside cafes, overnight lodges, lessons, and rentals).
On the Nevada side, Mt. Rose – Ski Tahoe (15 miles from Incline Village; 775/849-0704 or 800/SKI-ROSE; www.skirose.com) is Tahoe's highest ski area, with a base elevation of 7900ft that translates into great snow and thrilling views of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, and the Nevada desert. The Chutes, a 200-acre playground, features some of the region's most accessible extreme terrain, with sustained pitches of 40+ degrees for over 1000ft. You'll find marvelous tree skiing at the South Rim, Pioneer Glade, or the Olympic Trees in the Slide Bowl, and classic cruisers with unbeatable panoramas just behind the Lakeview Lift. Mt. Rose really entertains guests with zany events including "Elvis Day" (The King's birthday, when guests and staffers don sideburns and jumpsuits), "Slide Back" (retro ‘80s fashion competitions), and Bud Light "Ladies" Day (when men dress like the fairer sex replete with falsies and compete for cash in the "Beauty or the Beast" pageant and "Drag Race").
The south is no longer Tahoe-hum, what with a recent $250+ million investment in South Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Mountain Resort (End of Ski Run Blvd.; 775/586-7000 or 800/432-8365; www.skiheavenly.com), Tahoe's loftiest mountain (at 10,067ft), spanning two states and offering downright celestial vistas of Lake Tahoe and the Nevada desert. Much of downtown (tacky T-shirt stores, cheesy wedding chapel-cum-motels) was demolished –- save for the casinos – to construct a new gondola linking the resort and town and to form the upscale pedestrian-only Heavenly Village. Even non-athletes love the absurdly scenic 2.4-mile, 12-minute gondola ride soaring 3,000ft above the lake. There's plenty of room, with 4,800 skiable acres and the West Coast's longest vertical (3,500ft), but the Nevada side is usually less crowded and offers a great combination of silky cruisers and extreme pistes. Freeriders also flip for the five terrain parks, Tahoe's largest superpipe, and the new High Roller Night Life Terrain Park with a DJ spinning discs while riders spin 360's after sundown. Small wonder it's a Spring Break scene (SouthShore Soldiers Camp, arguably North America's top snowboard school, offers the chance to ride with top pros, then party with them!).
Tahoe's southernmost area, finds Sierra-at-Tahoe (Twin Bridges; 530/659-7453; www.sierratahoe.com), which, like its northern sister, Northstar, also offers tremendous bargains: sensational spring deals; "three-pak" day-pass or demo steals without blackout or mandatory consecutive days; phenomenal all-day ski camps; and free ski lessons for advanced skiers and riders over 13. Sierra's also divinely deserted, with 2000 acres of wide-sweeping bowls and top-to-bottom groomed runs spread over three mountains with breathtaking lake views. For powder stashes and glades, check out Castle off the top of Grandview Chair (stop for sustenance at the Grandview Bar & Grille), rolling Preacher's Passion, or the five backcountry gates (tours also available) accessing old-growth forests and some of the South Shore's steepest terrain. Aficionados love the many après-ski rail jams and free-heeling, free-wheeling events like the Telegrass Festival.
On the Water
Tahoe's cobalt waters provide boaters and floaters with plenty of room to make waves. Anglers can wrangle with rainbow, brook and Mackinaw trout, Kokanee salmon, and mountain whitefish. Sailors delight in exploring the various coves, many of them perfect for a secluded picnic. Divers discover an underwater world of sheer granite cliffs dropping over 1000ft, whimsically shaped boulders, and yawning menacing caverns teeming with iridescent fish. Lake Tahoe's extreme depth prevents it from freezing in winter, making it the perfect year-round vantage point from which to admire the stunning surrounding Sierra Nevada.
Arguably the most popular lake activity is cruising the eponymous lake itself: Lake Tahoe Cruises (900 Ski Run Blvd.; 775/589-4906 or 800/23-TAHOE; $29+; www.zephyrcove.com) offers sightseeing, family, historic, and dinner/dancing sailings into Emerald Bay aboard two old Mississippi-style paddle-wheelers: the M.S. Dixie II (which leaves from Zephyr Cove on the Nevada side) and the Tahoe Queen (departing from Ski Run Marina in South Lake Tahoe). In winters, the latter boat also doubles as the world's only aquatic ski shuttle, ferrying South Shore skiers and boarders to and from Squaw and Northstar-at-Tahoe.
The best fishing is generally in deeper waters from boats; if shore fishing, try spots where the shoreline drops quickly (such as Rubicon Point on the west shore, Cave Rock on the east). Don't overlook the many smaller sapphires like Spooner Lake, Blue Lakes, Echo Lakes, and Fallen Leaf Lake, as well as deep pools of the Truckee and Carson Rivers. Fishing licenses and occasional day-use fees are required, but are available through most charters, as is any necessary equipment. Charters vary in length and cost; most companies offer both morning and evening cruises (some with meals and/or refreshments). For more information (including restrictions October through June), contact local tourist boards and/or state parks.
Several companies rent watercraft, like Hobies, Sunfish, windsurfers, jet skis, pontoons, and fully-equipped power boats – along with accoutrements from wet suits to wakeboards. You can also charter yachts for overnights. Contact the top marinas, many of which host reputable outfitters: North Shore options include North Tahoe Marina (Tahoe Vista; 530/546-8248; www.northtahoemarina.com) and Tahoe City Marina (Tahoe City; 530/583-1039; www.tahoecitymarina.com); South Shore spots are Camp Richardson Marina (South Lake Tahoe; 530/542-6570; www.camprichardson.com) and Ski Run Marina (South Lake Tahoe; 530/544-9500; www.skirunmarina.com).
Hiking & Biking
More than 900 miles of scenic hiking and biking trails surround the Lake Tahoe basin, most notably the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, a multi-use loop with numerous trailheads and sections for hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. Various sections snake through pristine aspen meadows and evergreen forests; skirt volcanic peaks, forbidding granite cliffs, and hundreds of sparkling lakes; and traverse above-treeline ridge tops with astounding views. Trails range from easy to strenuous, with elevation gains of up to 2500 feet. Always bring bottled water, hat, trail maps, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, wind-resistant gear (weather changes capriciously from hot and sticky to blustery and rainy – you may encounter snow drifts, even in August). Trail maps are available at local visitor centers.
A few of our favorites trails include: Nevada Shoreline Trail, a four-mile trek along some of Lake Tahoe's most beautiful beaches; Page Meadows, glorious in spring (carpeted with wildflowers) and autumn (glowing aspens and pyrotechnic turning leaves); the paved Truckee River Bike Path linking Squaw and Tahoe City; the two-mile Eagle Falls Trail, located across from Emerald Bay, passes the roaring cataracts ending at unspoiled Eagle Lake; the slightly more arduous Five Lakes Trail below Alpine Meadows delivers on the name's promise; the 7.5-mile hike from Hidden Beach to Twin Lakes, featuring some of the most stirring lake vistas; the strenuous Mt. Tallac Trail, offering still more astonishing views of Fallen Leaf Lake, Tahoe, and Desolation Wilderness (itself a grueling but rewarding trek).
Tahoe's high altitude gives golf balls extra loft, but that doesn't always translate into ego boosts for duffers. Most courses open in April or May (allowing for spring skiing during your visit) and stay active into October.
The two Incline Village Courses – Championship Course (955 Fairway Blvd., Incline Village; 775/832-1146; www.golfincline.com) and Mountain Course (690 Wilson Way, Incline Village; 775/832-1150; both toll-free 866/925-4653) – offer sweeping lake views. Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the 3513-yard par-58, environmentally friendly Mountain Course using nature as guide and inspiration, carving greens and fairways out of the mountain landscape and naturally winding stream; renowned golf-course architect Kyle Phillips refurbished the 7106-yard par-72 Championship Course, preserving Robert Trent Jones, Sr.'s original gorgeous design while enhancing visibility and landscaping.
Designer Brad Bell took full advantage of Coyote Moon Golf Course's (10685 Northwoods Blvd., across US 80 from Truckee; 530/587-0886; www.coyotemoongolf.com) natural setting: the 7177-yard par-72 layout weaves dramatically through 250 acres of towering pines, enormous granite outcroppings, and shimmering Trout Creek – and there isn't a single house to obstruct the splendid views (particularly the postcard-perfect back nine).
The Resort at Squaw Creek (400 Squaw Creek Rd.; 530/583-6300 or 800/327-3353; www.squawcreek.com) offers a scintillating, 6931-yard par-71, links-style course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. in an ecologically sensitive manner, preserving the sudden elevation shifts and surrounding protected wetlands (that lurk as natural bunkers behind several holes).
The South Shore's Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course (Lake Parkway, Stateline; 775/588-3566 or 888/881-8659; www.edgewood-tahoe.com) is a par-72, 7445-yard beauty consistently rated one of the country's top courses by Golf Digest.
William Bell's challenging yet aesthetically appealing design for the affordable 6741-yard par-71 Lake Tahoe Golf Course (2500 Emerald Bay Rd.; South Lake Tahoe; 530/577-0788; www.laketahoegc.com) incorporates the Angora Creek (and its wildlife) as a natural hazard on several holes.
Tahoe's rich history remains on display around the lake, in an array of museums and restored buildings. There are sites sacred to the indigenous Washoe tribe, cabins built by pioneers, and, most notably, grand estates in a melange of architectural styles erected by San Francisco movers-and-shakers from the 1890s through the Great Depression. Many anchor state parks offering splendid beaches and nature trails.
In California, Truckee's historic downtown provides a wonderful glimpse into the area's gritty, rough-and-tumble history. Nearly 100 of the 300 downtown buildings were erected prior to 1900, including one of the West's oldest jails in continuous use (until 1964) and the 1896 railroad depot (still operational and housing the local Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center), now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two miles east, Emigrant Trail Museum in Donner State Memorial Park (12593 Donner Pass Rd.; daily 10am–5pm; $2; www.parks.ca.gov) vividly chronicles the hardships of westward emigration via a 25-minute video which recreates the ordeal of the infamous ill-fated Donner Party's trek during the brutal winter of 1846-7. Rangers and local historians lead free Donner Party History snowshoe excursions and hikes at least once a week from the museum. The surrounding park also offers self-guided nature trails, a large campground, a beachfront picnic area, and sensational boating and fishing.
Halfway down the lake is arguably the California Park System's crown jewel, Emerald Bay State Park (Hwy. 89, south of Tahoma; daily Memorial Day-Labor Day 10am–4pm; parking $6, mansion tour $5; www.parks.ca.gov), home to a dramatic three-mile long by one-mile wide fjord carved by a massive receding glacier – head to the Emerald Bay Lookout for a primo view. The 593-acre park (and adjacent US Forest Service land) also holds Eagle Falls, three successive cascades up to 80 feet that gush into the bay. The other high point, Vikingsholm Castle (same hours), is man-made, and accessible only by hiking down an extremely steep, one-mile-long (paved) trail. Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight, (a wealthy Chicago widow) spared no expense to reproduce a 9th-century Norse castle with intricately carved beams and antiques culled from her exhaustive travels through Scandinavia. The granite foundation, hand-hewn timber and stonework, turrets and high-pitched roofs – some of them blanketed by seeded sod that sprouts wildflowers in spring – were constructed out of local materials.
The US Forest Service operates Lake Tahoe Visitor Center (Hwy. 89, 3 miles north of junction with US 50; weekends Memorial Day to mid-June, daily mid-June to late-Sept. 8am–5.30pm; free; www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu), where self-guided nature trails wind through meadow, marsh and forest, and past the site of a Washoe settlement. Along the Rainbow Trail, the remarkable Stream Profile Chamber (an underground water display with aquarium-like, 12-foot-high floor-to-ceiling windows affording views right into Taylor Creek) allows you to view lake trout in summer and the spectacular spawning Kokanee salmon digging their nests in fall. US Forest Service naturalists organize discovery walks, lectures in the Lake of the Sky Amphitheater, and nighttime campfires with sing-alongs and marshmallow roasts.
The US Forest Service also manages the Tallac Historic Site (Hwy. 89, 3 miles north of the Y; 530/541-5227; Memorial Day to mid-June Sat–Sun10am–4pm; daily mid-June to mid-Sept 10am–4pm; free; www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu), a 150-acre tract in South Lake Tahoe that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site contains three of Tahoe's most ornate estates, all of them remnants of "the Grandest Resort in the World" – a palatial playground built in 1880 by Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin for northern California nouveau riche. Many of the estate buildings are inaccessible now, save the hand-hewn log Baldwin Estate, which houses the Tallac Museum (with exhibits on local Washoe Indian culture, the Baldwin family's significance in California history, photographs of the hotel and casino), and the 1923 Heller Estate, nicknamed Valhalla, where jazz, bluegrass and classical music concerts are held on the grounds in summer. The buildings are closed during winter, but the site remains a popular cross-country skiing/snowshoeing destination.
Four miles north of Zephyr Cove (760 Hwy. 50, Zephyr Cove; 775/589-4906 or 800/238-2463; www.zephyrcove.com), a major marina/resort development, is Cave Rock, an imposing 75-foot-high stone outcropping, the maw of an extinct volcano. The Washoe considered this a sacred burial site; Tahoe Tessie, the lake's answer to the Loch Ness monster, reputedly dwells in a cavern underneath. It's a marvelous lakeshore picnic spot for those who aren't spooked. At the North Shore, take a shuttle from the Incline Village's Visitors Center to the 1930s Thunderbird Lodge (5 miles south of Incline Village; 775/832-8750; open summer by reservation only, call for hours; www.thunderbirdlodge.org), built by flamboyant San Francisco real estate tycoon, George Whittell. The fabulous estate, designed to blend harmoniously with the surrounding towering Ponderosa pines and mammoth boulders, features a lighthouse and a 600-foot underground tunnel carved through solid granite, leading to the Card House (where Ty Cobb and Howard Hughes allegedly gambled) and Boat House (housing the Thunderbird, Whittell's unique 55-foot speed-yacht with mahogany hull and twin aircraft engines). One mile north are the gorgeous long beaches and polished cylindrical granite formations of Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park (Hwy 28; $4-8; www.parks.nv.gov), with protected rock coves ideal for snorkeling, barbecue pits, picnic tables, natural amphitheatre, and boat launch.
In addition to the sights listed above, we also love Tahoe's many historic museums, particularly the Gatekeeper's Cabin and Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum, (130 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City; www.northtahoemuseums.org), with displays ranging from 1960 Winter Olympics artifacts to Marion Steinbach's remarkable collection of over 800 Native American baskets (utilitarian to decorative from more than 85 tribes nationwide), and the sumptuous 1902 Queen Anne Victorian Ehrman Mansion (Hwy 89, Tahoma; www.cal-parks.ca.gov) in Sugar Pine Point State Park (with a fine trails system, romantic beach, and memorable ranger-led full-moon snowshoe tours including a campfire and hot chocolate at the shore).
You'll find plentiful luxury, moderate, and budget options in the Lake Tahoe area, from historic Wild West inns to luxurious slopeside ski/spa resorts, and reliable mid-priced chains to rustic ranch-style retreats and even stylish boutique properties. Most offer remarkable discounts, especially mid-week, and often include free or discounted lift passes, tram rides, buffet dinners, show tickets, hot waxes (skis, not skin!), and more in their rates. Centrally located Squaw Village is convenient (along with Truckee and Tahoe City) to all North Shore resorts, Incline Village/Crystal Bay is a stone's throw from Nevada's sleepers, and the South Lake Tahoe/Stateline area offers the widest selection for all tastes and pocketbooks. To help you choose the right overnight address convenient to most attractions, we've outlined our Tahoe favorites in each category.
For the ultimate luxury, we recommend two Squaw properties: The slopeside Resort at Squaw Creek (400 Squaw Creek Rd.; 530/583-6300 or 800/327-3353; www.squawcreek.com) recently received a much-needed, dazzling $53 million refurbishment, adding gas fireplaces, flat-screen televisions, complimentary WiFi, resort-style kitchens, and more; extra perks include several fine dining options, 18-hole Robert Trent Jones, Jr., championship golf course, ski-in/ski-out access, and full-service spa. PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn (1920 Squaw Valley Rd.; 530/583-1576 or 800/323-7666; www.plumpjack.com), part of San Francisco's renowned PlumpJack Group, offers unmatched boutique ambience, luxurious fittings, and a magnificent restaurant.
Incline Village/Crystal Bay offers quieter casino action. In the moderate category, we love the 80-year-old Cal-Neva Resort, Spa and Casino (2 Stateline Rd.; 775/832-4000 or 800/225-6382; www.calnevaresort.com), formerly owned by the "Chairman of the Board." New owners promise major renovations, but the history (Sinatra memorabilia through the public spaces, tunnels used for bootlegging and – supposedly – smuggling Marilyn Monroe to her paramour's suites) remains; all 220 rooms and suites boast at least partial views of the lake. A great budget bet, Tahoe Biltmore (Hwy 28 at Stateline; 775/831-0660 or 800/245-8667; www.tahoe-biltmore.com), offers amazing value, whether in the stately 1940s lodge or quaint surrounding cottages; the casino, hip new nightclub, and popular BBQ restaurant are bonuses.
Among South Lake Tahoe/Stateline's moderate choices, South Lake Tahoe's Black Bear Inn (1202 Ski Run Blvd.; 530/544-4451 or 877/232-7466; www.tahoeblackbear.com) is consistently ranked among California's top-ten B&Bs thanks to its rustic-chic look, cordial owners, spacious antiques-filled rooms, and contemporary gadgetry – the ideal blend of Old World charm and new-fangled convenience. Stateline's Harveys Resort & Casino (Hwy 50; 775-588-2411 or 800/HARVEYS; www.harrahs.com) is a long-running AAA Four-Diamond award-winner with every conceivable amenity and great package deals that make it cheaper than Harrah's and Caesars. We can't resist the old-time, winking deluxe tackiness (heart-shaped tubs, strategically placed mirrors, themed rooms from Roman to Rainforest) of South Lake Tahoe's Fantasy Inn & Wedding Chapel (3696 Lake Tahoe Blvd.; 530/541-4200 or 800/367-7736; www.fantasy-inn.com).
Action-seekers on a budget adore Stateline's Lakeside Inn & Casino (168 Hwy 50; 775/588-7777 or 800/624-7980; www.lakesideinn.com), which lives up to its motto – "Always friendly, always fun" – with sensational promotional room rates and bountiful bargains ($2 beer, wine and cocktails 24/7 at the casino bars).
Tahoe's restaurant scene only recently branched out from predominantly old-fashioned lakefront bistros, diners, and casino gourmet rooms where the preferred greens were C-notes. More than 100 restaurants circle the lake, but fortunately the often-scintillating vistas aren't the only reason to dine there: the increasingly sophisticated smorgasbord offers classic bistro French, Italian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, and fresh seasonal New California cuisine. Of course, there are plenty of family-friendly burger and pizza joints, as well as affordable bar bites at several fancier eateries. Foodies will particularly love Truckee (the most creative spots per capita), though the best buys are generally around Incline Village and South Lake Tahoe. Here's a small taste of centrally located possibilities (we haven't even listed big-ticket stunners in hotels like PlumpJack Café in Squaw Valley Inn, Echo in the Embassy Suites, and Graham's in the Christy Lodge).
On the expensive end of things is Moody's Bistro & Lounge (10007 Bridge St.; 530/587-8688; www.moodysbistro.com), one part Art Deco, one part 1950s Baghdad-by-the-Bay beat cool, and several parts superb-in-any-era food, courtesy of co-owner/chef Mark Estee's daily-changing contemporary California dishes emphasizing fresh, seasonal, local ingredients bursting with flavor. We love the savvy, mostly-California wine list (go Tuesday when every bottle is half price all day, or Monday, when the appetizers get the same discount). Just steps from Northstar's slopes, Timbercreek (Hwy. 267 at Northstar Dr.; 530/562-2250; www.northstarattahoe.com) practices true environmental stewardship with a totally organic menu of succulent hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and seafood caught and farmed in environmentally friendly ways; chef Christopher Banovich titillates taste buds with pan-seared diver scallops with lavender beurre blanc, applewood-smoked buffalo tenderloin, and Kahlua-toffee cheesecake; look for special winemaker dinners. Dragonfly (10118 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee; 530/587-0557; www.dragonflycuisine.com) showcases Billy McCullough's "Cal-Asian" fare, an eclectic blend of fresh California produce, meat, game, poultry, and seafood enhanced by traditional French cooking principles using the flavors and traditions of Thailand, Japan, China, Malaysia, India, and Vietnam. On the budget front, OB's Pub & Restaurant (10046 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee; 530/587-4164; www.obstruckee.com) is a family fave (super kids' menu, patient waitstaff), but also hops for adults with microbrews, Thursday karaoke cocktail parties, joyous Happy Hour specials, homey historic ambience, terrific lunches (hefty heifer burgers), and occasional live bands.
Tahoe City/Tahoe Vista
Mid-range winner Sol y Lago (760 North Lake Blvd., Boatworks Mall, Tahoe City; 530/583-0358; www.solylago.com) appropriately means "sun and lake" in Spanish – and every seat boasts a stunning panoramic lake view. Co-owner/chef Johnny Alamilla (of San Francisco's acclaimed Alma) dubs his food "Sierra Latino," culling from various mountainous Latin ingredients, flavors, and cultures; standouts include pan-seared striped bass with melted Peruvian onions; butternut-squash empanadas; and an inspired chocolate jalapeño gelato. Emulating the sleek lines of 1920s lake cruisers, the decor of Wild Goose (7320 North Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista; 530/546-3640; www.wildgoosetahoe.com) similarly reflects the environment (materials were primarily locally sourced and, whenever possible, recycled or sustainably procured). Chef David Lutz's seasonal contemporary American menu continues the theme, using mostly organic ingredients; we love the adventuresome wine list, food-friendly wine flights, and soaring wine-pairing tasting menus.
Incline Village/Crystal Bay
Lovely Mirabelle (290 Kingsbury Grade; 775/586-1007; www.mirabelletahoe.com), an expensive spot that transports a sunny French country inn to Tahoe courtesy of Alsatian-born owner/chef Camille Schwartz, features a light, almost ethereal décor that matches the food (especially gossamer sauces and soufflés). Moderate delight Soule Domain (9983 Cove Ave.; 530/546-7529; www.souledomain.com) might be Tahoe's most romantic eatery: a cozy 1935 lakefront log cabin where candlelight flickers in the tiny paned windows. Owner/Chef Charlie Soule's soulfully inventive hybrid French-American cuisine is tinged with Pacific Rim influences and ingredients (witness sea scallops poached in champagne with kiwi-mango cream sauce). Budget bet Hacienda de la Sierra (931 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village; 775/831-8300; www.haciendadelasierra.com) always corrals "best of" votes in local publications – Best Mexican, Happy Hour, Drinks (Margaritas to Martinis), Inexpensive Food – and rightfully so. Lots of TVs and wooden parrots adorn the walls and you can chow down on great enchiladas, chimis, nachos, natch, and macho (even frou frou fruit-flavored) margaritas.
South Lake Tahoe/Stateline
A moderate choice right off Heavenly's gondola is Kalani's (1001 Heavenly Village Way #26, South Lake Tahoe; 530/544-6100; www.kalanis.com), whose Pacific Rim fusion menu boldly blends Hawaiian regional cooking with Asian and European spices and sauces (think Kahlua-smoked pork quesadilla with mango citrus salsa and Asian guacamole) in a cool contemporary space of curved woods, leather accents and metallic mobiles. Budget buy Passaretti's (1181 Emerald Bay Rd., South Lake Tahoe; 530/541-3433; www.passarettis.com) defines Mamma Mia Italian: it's all garlic and warmth and guaranteed to satisfy with Italy's greatest hits (veal saltimbocca, chicken parmigiana, stuffed eggplant); you'll also find an extensive kids' menu, great lunch specials, and amazing throwback prices.
Lake Tahoe offers a marvelous blend of gamboling and gambling, wildlife and wild life. There are casinos on the Nevada side, all with showrooms headlined by the diverse likes of Jay Leno, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, and ZZ Top. Throughout you'll find stand-up comedy clubs, karaoke bars, intimate jazz/blues venues, glitzy nightclubs, rollicking hard-rocking pubs, and firesides and hot tubs redefining après-ski. We particularly recommend Truckee for cool live music and laid-back bars, the après scene at Squaw Valley, and lively South Lake Tahoe/Stateline for casinos and more frat party ambiance. But whatever your mood, Tahoe can scratch the itch, and we've got the lowdown on the high-octane see-and-be-scenes.
Upscale PlumpJack Café (1920 Squaw Valley Rd.; 530/583-1576; www.plumpjack.com), at Squaw's cable-car base, features a circular fireplace (all metal, no stone), plush lounge seating, and admirable selection of wines by the glass; stay for one of ski-dom's finest dinners. Bar One (Olympic Plaza; 530/583-1588) is an institution at the base of the KT-22 offering pool tables, extreme ski/ride flicks on the big-screen TVs, and cool events, from the Saturday Concert Series to the Adventure Slide Show Series. It almost seems "squaw-lid" compared to its glam neighbor, Plaza Bar (Olympic Plaza; 530/583-1588), where even the wealthy and famous get starry-eyed ogling the pro skiers and riders tossing their manes after a righteous ride (or photo shoot). Nearby at Alpine Meadows, the river-rock fireplace and curved wall cantilevered over the Truckee River at River Ranch (Hwy. 89 at Alpine Meadows Rd.; 530/583-4264; www.riverranchlodge.com) lure a gnarly bunch stoked from the slopes, eager to share adventures.
Surf's always up at the Tiki Bar (Twin Bridges; 530/659-7453; www.sierraattahoe.com), a straw hut on the deck of Sierra-at-Tahoe's base lodge (just follow the Polynesian rhythms); it's the only place to soak up a fishbowl for two (a startling electric-blue liquid with a rubber shark floating on top) while refueling on Hawaiian-style burgers. South Lake Tahoe's Nepheles (1169 Ski Run Blvd.; 530/544-8130; www.nepheles.com), a longtime favorite for romantic dining, also offers soaking in private hot tubs replete with intercom – to order more cocktails! Also in South Lake Tahoe, the lakefront hotspot Riva Grill (Ski Run Marina; 900 Ski Run Blvd., Suite 3; 530/542-2600; www.rivagrill.com) – along with North Shore sister property Gar Woods – is beloved for Wet Woody rum smoothies (you can opt for Twin Screws, Dean Martinis, etc.), best enjoyed on the deck after a day bashing the bumps or, even better, come summer. Locals flock to The Divided Sky (530/577-0775; www.thedividedsky.com), 5 miles south of South Tahoe, in Meyers, California, for its subdued hipster vibe, fab organic gourmet sandwiches and salads, and live music leaning toward acoustic and bluegrass bands.
Bar of America (Commercial Row, 10042 Donner Pass Rd.; 530/587-3110) has undergone many incarnations since 1891, including serving as Truckee's "unofficial town hall" for three decades. The look is Wild Wild West (pictures of famous gunslingers hang everywhere), but the vibe is plain wild, especially when northern California bands blast the joint with everything from folk-funk fusion to acid jazz; you can also partake of the Pacific Crest Grill menu (courtesy of the adjacent nouvelle Mediterranean resto) at the bar. Cottonwood (Corner Brockway & Old Brockway, Hwy 267; 530/587-5711; www.cottonwoodrestaurant.com) offers a splendid deck (sublime sunsets over the Sierras), scrumptious food, romantic ambience, historic decor (antique sleds, skis – and 1930s wooden scaffold ski jump), and live alt country and acoustic music. The bar overflows with character and characters like Doug "Dougman" Thompson – there's even a sign that says, "A Note to Our Bar Customer . . . Please do not speak to Doug about Skiing, The Weather, Motorcycles, ‘Gettin' Some', The Grateful Dead (especially ‘that one show from 1973') . . . Thank You, The Rest of the Bar Staff." Moody's Bistro & Lounge (10007 Bridge St.; 530/587-8688) has an established live-jazz reputation thanks to hosting past acts like as Mose Allison and Dred Scott; even Paul McCartney occasionally drops for impromptu performances at this retro-hip/speakeasy venue which also doesn't charge a cover.
Sierra Vista (Tahoe City Marina Mall, 700 N. Lake Blvd.; 530/583-0233; www.sierravistatahoe.com) offers the perfect blend of unsurpassed lake views and innovative live music from African rhythms to acoustic surf rock. The barely-legal crowd frequents Pierce St. Annex (850 N. Lake Blvd.; 530/583-5800; piercestreet.com), a pickup party central with DJs, pool tables, and a crowded dance floor spread over a duplex.
Zenbu (Olympic Plaza Building; 530/583-9900), is groovadelic, from the late-night menu of Mediterranean and Asian tapas, to the ultra-LA decor (waterfall entrance, velvet lounge booths, black leather couches, bamboo floors) and celebrities writhing to the beat of local and national DJs.
South Lake Tahoe/Stateline
Whiskey Dick's (2660 Lake Tahoe Blvd.; 530/544-3425; www.whiskeydickssaloon.com), in South Lake Tahoe, ropes them in for awesome happy hours and other promos, 90+ beers, pool tables, big-screen plasma TVs, and a cool lineup of live acts (with unforgettable names from Echo of Souls to Eek-a-Mouse). Stateline's Cabo Wabo (Harveys Resort & Casino, Hwy 50; 775/588-2411) is the Red Rocket's joint (rockster Sammy Hagar often jams here) and serves up Tex-Mex food and rocking specialty drinks made with Sammy's signature Cabo Wabo tequila.
On the North Shore, Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (111 Country Club Dr., Incline Village; 775/832-1234), Crystal Bay Club (14 Hwy 28, Crystal Bay; 775/831-0512; www.crystalbaycasino.com), and Cal Neva Resort Spa & Casino (2 Stateline Rd., Crystal Bay; 800/225-6382; www.calnevaresort.com) lead the pack with gorgeous old-style casinos and legendary lounges. Crystal Bay's acts are edgier (acid jazz, funk), while the others book softer sounds. South Shore casino-hotels, headquartered along Highway 50, in Stateline, are larger, livelier, and louder, with the big three often sharing headliners. Caesars Tahoe (55 Hwy 50; 775/586-2044 or 888/829-7630; www.caesarstahoe.com), whose Circus Maximus Showroom hosts the likes of Kathy Griffin, Dana Carvey, Chris Isaak, and Girls Gone Wild Tour, also hosts a throwback disco with incredibly popular nightly promotions. Harveys Resort & Casino (Hwy 50; 775/588-2411; www.harrahs.com) sports the lake's largest casino; entertainment here ranges from The Improv comedy spot to adult revues to a summer outdoor concert series headlining the likes of Toby Keith and the Eagles. Harrah's Lake Tahoe (Hwy 50/Lake Tahoe Blvd.; 775/588-6611; www.harrahstahoe.com) fronts a wild range of acts (Ice Cube, Bo Diddley, David Spade), while an oxygen bar at its Altitude disco provides respite from the dancing hordes.
When To Go
High season is, of course, Christmas week, February-March (non-stop special events from free concerts to exciting World Cup and Freeride competitions), Spring Break, and June through September. Low season is "mud season" from late-May to mid-June and again from November to mid-December. January ("low" high winter season) offers the best bang for your buck thanks to generally excellent snow and fewer crowds, while April "corn" snow is ideal for spring skiing in shorts. Rates dip in October, but several fun fests and pyrotechnic turning colors make fall a great time to visit. Still, no matter when you visit, you're likely to arrive during a major festival or sporting event; indeed, Tahoe's calendar is filled with year-round activities that are draws in themselves.
In winter, Squaw Valley, Heavenly, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, and Sierra-at-Tahoe host numerous major ski competitions in everything from rail jams to tele-marking to free-riding throughout the winter season. The 10-day March Snow Festival (www.tahoesnowfestival.com) is a "Mountain Mardi Gras" featuring nearly 50 events around North Lake Tahoe including torchlight parades, Snow Sculpture contest, live music, and such prestigious competitions as the Vans Tahoe Cup. Spring break is huge, especially at Squaw (www.squaw.com) and Heavenly (www.skiheavenly.com).
Spring fests include April's Telegrass Festival (www.sierra-at-tahoe.com) at Sierra-at-Tahoe, combining stomping bluegrass with free-heeling clinics. May stages the equally jammed – and jamming – Lake Tahoe Jazz Festival (www.laketahoejazzfestival.com). Late June's popular three-day Tour de Nez (www.tourdenez.com) peddles live music, belly dancing, equipment demos, mint juleps, bike decorating contests, face painting, clinics, and pro and clunker races.
Summer is equally packed, with Truckee River Regional Park's (www.tdrpd.com/regional_park.htm) Wednesday Night Summer Music Series from mid-June to late-August; Sand Harbor State Park hosts the month-long mid-summer Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (www.laketahoeshakespeare.com); late-August sees the Tahoe Reno International Film Festival; while historic Tallac holds the Valhalla Arts & Music Festival (www.valhalla-tallac.com) from August through September. Other festivals to consider include the synergistically sybaritic Art, Music & Wine Fest (www.squaw.com) in late July; mid-August's Brews, Jazz & Funk Fest (www.squaw.com); and mid-September's Animal Wine & Art Bark Festival (www.thebarkfestival.com) showcasing abstract watercolors by Cholla the horse, wines such as Rosenblum's Côtes du Bone Blanc – and serious stuff too, including kick-ass music.
Autumn events include the respected Lake Tahoe Food & Wine Festival (www.puertahoenorth.com) in September followed by the boisterous beer-and-brat Village Oktoberfest Brew Ha Ha (www.squaw.com). Check the various visitors bureau and resort websites for details and more options.High season:
Christmas week; February-March; mid-June to September
Late-May to mid-June; November to mid-December
Best bang for your buck:
January, April, and October
Reno/Tahoe International Airport (www.renoairport.com) provides 180 daily flights with nonstop service on the likes of American (www.aa.com), United (www.united.com), Continental (www.continental.com), Southwest (www.southwest.com), and Delta (www.delta.com) to nearly 20 destinations including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City. An additional 20 destinations are serviced via direct, one-stop flights. The airport is 45-60 minutes' drive from various points on the lake.
You can also arrive by train: Amtrak (800/USA-RAIL; www.amtrak.com) provides service between Chicago and Oakland on the California Zephyr to Truckee, just 10 miles northwest of the lake.
Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority (530/544-5050 or 800/288-2463; www.bluelaketahoe.com), Incline Village/Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau (775/832-1606 or 800/468-2463; www.gotahoe.com), North Lake Tahoe Resort Association Central Reservations (800/824-6348 or 888/434-1262; www.puretahoenorth.com), and Ski Lake Tahoe (www.skilaketahoe.com) are all excellent sources for hotel/land packages, and can even help customize your trip (arranging rental car, lift passes, equipment rentals, lessons, tee times, show tickets, and more, at significant savings); most websites include travel planners and e-newsletters. Or link to Ski Lake Tahoe's seven member resorts (Alpine Meadows, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Squaw Valley) directly for late-breaking deals. Discounters such as Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) also offer worthy land/air deals.
Getting Into & Around Tahoe
The Tahoe's Best website (www.tahoesbest.com) provides links to most local transportation options. Schedules, stops, and fares vary widely according to season, even time of day. Check individual resort websites for shuttle schedules within the mountain villages and surrounding towns. Shuttles from Reno-Tahoe Airport are usually quite expensive; we recommend renting a car instead. Major agencies at the airport include Avis (800/984-8840; www.avis.com), Budget (800/527-0700; www.budget.com), Dollar (800/800-4000; www.dollarcar.com), Hertz (800/654-3131; www.hertz.com), and Thrifty (800/FOR-CARS; www.thrifty.com). You'll be grateful to have your own wheels to get around and explore different resorts and towns.