11 of the best things to do in Lake Tahoe

The shimmering beauty of Lake Tahoe makes travelers stop and stare.

But to fully appreciate this alpine beauty spot, you need to get active. From water sports to winter sports, we’ve hand-picked the best things to do in and around Lake Tahoe. And for days when you don’t want to break a sweat, there are cruises, history and culture galore.

1. Kayak or paddleboard the Lake Tahoe Water Trail 

What better way to experience North America’s largest freshwater lake than by bobbing along its glassy surface? Whether you prefer to SUP or kayak, the Lake Tahoe Water Trail has 72 miles of marked and mapped water routes to explore, including 20 “trailhead” signs for put-in and take-out. You can plot out a day trip from numerous starting points including Emerald Bay and Cave Rock. Sunscreen essential, serenity guaranteed.

Planning tip: Kayak Tahoe can set you up gear at locations in Pope Beach, Nevada Beach, Emerald Bay and Baldwin Beach.

An adult and a child wheel their bikes along a trail that runs beside a lake
Cycling part of the Tahoe East Shore Trail is an essential Lake Tahoe experience © 1000Photography / Shutterstock

2. Bike the Tahoe East Shore Trail

Though there are four paved bike trails that run parallel to the lake’s shores, Tahoe East Shore Trail is a favorite because it’s an all-in-one Tahoe summer day of bike-riding and beach-hopping easily orchestrated on a budget. There is plenty of parking and the Tunnel Creek Cafe and Flume Trail Bike rentals are conveniently located at the trailhead so you can get gear and protein-packed breakfasts to start you off. The trailhead is located near Incline Village on State Route 28.

The 3-mile trail begins with an 8% incline (and decline), but after that, it gently undulates over rocky coves and past 16 viewpoints with interpretive signs. The southern terminus is Sand Harbor State Park, Nevada’s most popular.

Planning tip: There is a $2 fee per bike to access the lake from Sand Harbor, but there’s no need to pay if you find one of a handful of free lake access footpaths along the way.

3. Catch a festival or local event

With venues as varied as breweries, beaches and casinos, Tahoe attracts world-class as well as home-grown entertainment. Thespians and literary buffs will be hard-pressed to find a finer setting for theater than the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor. This summer festival draws crowds of over 33,000 each year to enjoy the lakeside atmosphere with performances taking place under the stars. Costumed revelry continues in late August at the Valhalla Renaissance Faire, which brings jousting and live music to the Tahoe Valley Campground. Winter brings Snowfest, complete with live music, a parade, competitions and ice sculptures in late February or early March. 

Planning tip: If you’re visiting in late spring, keep an eye on ski resort websites for end-of-season hi-jinks. One of the best is the annual pond skimming contest at Palisades, where costumed skiers attempt to launch themselves across a pool.

A cable car carriage on its ascent up a mountain. A large lake is in the background
Climb aboard a gondola for scenic views over Lake Tahoe © Sundry Photography / Shutterstock

4. Ride a gondola to heavenly views

A gondola ride with Heavenly ski resort isn’t cheap (adult tickets start at $69 per person), but the views are so expansive and blue that even wilting toddlers and bored teens will be impressed. Each gondola lifts eight passengers in a four-sided glass cabin, granting bird’s-eye views along the way. The observation deck at the top, an incredibly scenic 9136ft (2785m), is ideal for a group photo. 

Planning tip: The gondola runs year-round but check the weather before handing over your credit card. You need a clear day to get big views for your buck.

Ready to plan your trip to Lake Tahoe? Here’s our seasonal guide to the best times to visit

5. Spend a sunny day at Pope Beach

The golden sands and crystalline waters of Pope Beach wouldn’t be out of place in SoCal. With the dreamy backdrop of the snow-streaked Sierra Mountains, its appeal is increased by its accessibility, with concessions, shade and bathrooms. Three miles west of South Lake Tahoe, the parking lot ($10 per vehicle) stretches the length of the beach, so no matter where you park, you’ll be close to a short wooded trail that leads to nearly a mile of sandy shoreline. The beach is accessible via the mixed-use paved Pope-Baldwin Bike Path.

Planning tip: The beach has picnic tables and barbecues at regular intervals. But if you don’t want to pack a meal, there are food trucks nearby.

Small boats dock in a bay in front of a Scandinavian-style mansion surrounded by woodland
Emerald Bay is home to the Scandinavian-style Vikingsholm Castle © Boogich / Getty Images

6. Cruise to Emerald Bay at sunset

Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm Castle top many must-see-in-Tahoe lists. The dramatically curved bay secludes the lake’s only island (Fannette), atop of which sits a surprising stone teahouse that seems to rise out of the granite itself. In the nook of that bending shoreline sits another surprising stone structure – Scandinavian in style – an heiress’ mansion known as Vikingsholm Castle.

A pleasant alternative to the hassle of parking at Emerald Bay Park is to take a motorized boat tour, like the 1½-hour Rum Runner cruise from the Camp Richardson Marina in South Lake Tahoe ($75 per adult, rum cocktail included, or $40 for kids). Less intimate and at the higher end of the cost spectrum are dinner and dance cruises with live entertainment aboard the 500-passenger red and white MS Dixie II paddle wheeler. It operates out of Zephyr Cove Resort & Marina just over the southern lake border in Nevada.

7. Hike and bike the mountain trails

Whether you’re a casual hiker or endurance athlete, the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe are laced with scenic trails – from short and leisurely to long and technical. Family-friendly hikes at Taylor Creek Visitor Center or Fallen Leaf Lake allow nature lovers of all ages to explore Tahoe’s natural wonders in meandering loops and jaunts that are less than a mile long.

The popular Flume Trail, a point-to-point 10–14 miler (depending on where you choose to start and stop), is a favorite with mountain bikers since its moderate ascents earn spectacular views of the east side of the lake. For those seeking a longer dash of adventure, the mixed-use Tahoe Rim Trail offers 165 miles of backcountry exploration around the full circumference of the lake.

Kids playing on a jetty and diving into a lake
The Ehrman Mansion in Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park has forested paths that lead to the shoreline © Michael Marfell / Getty Images

8. Experience elite living at Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park

Walk the manicured grounds surrounding the 1902 Ehrman Mansion at Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park for a taste of the serenity enjoyed by the Ehrmans and their guests over a hundred years ago.

With a tour of the Ehrman mansion (adult tickets start at $15), visitors learn how Isaias Hellman built his wealth and acclaim, and how his daughter, Florence Ehrman, ran her summer estate with precision and grace. Stroll the paved, quarter-mile interpretive trail that meanders the shoreline between the North and South Boathouses, and wade through General Creek.

Planning tip: With 2000 acres of forested paths and 2 miles of shoreline, it is easy to find a private stretch of beach.

9. Marvel at fall foliage and wildlife 

Fall is a sweet spot in Tahoe’s calendar. Hotels are cheaper than during summer or winter, you can find blissful solitude on hiking trails and beaches, and it’s leaf-peeping season. The whole of September is ideal for hiking and cycling, but late September to mid-October is prime time for colorful leaves. There are plenty of spots to admire aspens and willows blushing gold, but the aptly named Fallen Leaf Lake is one of the best. Visions of autumn splendor aside, pack for all weather: snowy squalls can start as early as October.

Fall is also when Kokanee salmon return to the river to spawn. Go watch them amass in silvery shoals and take part in eco-conscious educational activities at Fall Fish Fest.

Detour: For the most photogenic scenery, Hope Valley, 22 miles south of South Lake Tahoe, is awash in orange and yellow each fall. Lace up your hiking boots for the colorful but moderately tough 12-mile out-and-back Burnside Lake Trail.

Here are some other great places across the US to see fall colors 

An adult and a child in full snow gear cross-country-ski along a snowy ridge high above a lake
There are all kinds of snow sports on offer at Lake Tahoe’s alpine resorts © Cavan Images / Shutterstock

10. Delight in snow sports at alpine resorts

With an average snowfall of over 400in, Tahoe undergoes a powdery facelift that converts it into a winter terrain park from December to March (though with enough snow, ski season can extend well into May). Proximity to several modern alpine resorts such as Heavenly, Palisades, Kirkwood, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Mt Rose thrills visitors with over 11,000 acres of groomed and powder downhill runs. Trouble deciding? Heavenly has sublime views with an easy-access gondola, while 1960 Winter Olympics venue Palisades has easy greens to steep drops and receives serious snow. Isolated Kirkwood, away from the lake, also collects epic snowfall – it’s the place for devoted snowheads.

For a slower pace than downhill skiing, Kirkwood and Hope Valley have groomed cross-country skiing trails (limber up, it’s tougher exercise than downhill). Five of California’s SNO-Parks are around Lake Tahoe and numerous State Parks offer snowshoe trails, sledding hills and trailhead access for snowmobiling and dog-sledding. Snowball fights are encouraged.

11. Tour Thunderbird Lodge

Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site in north Tahoe, once the home of George Whittell, Jr, now offers a menu of tours and experiences. From the lion that rode alongside him in his Murphy convertible roadster to a stint in Barnum and Baily Circus (and a possible role in the stock market crash in 1929), George Whittell Jr, otherwise known as “Captain,” was no ordinary heir to the family fortune. However, in the same shrewd fashion of his San Francisco patriarchs who amassed the family’s wealth before him, he knew how to strike when an opportunity arose, and acquired 25 miles of Lake Tahoe shoreline from landowners still recovering from stock market losses. 

The Lodge, constructed in 1936, is the opulent expression of his playboy lifestyle. Now a National Historic Site, there are multiple tours through the Lodge, including estate tours (from $75) and wine and cheese tasting (from $125).

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