Have you ever had a holiday so perfect it set the bar for all future holidays? Like that time family flew in and you splurged on a Christmas tea at The Jefferson? Or when you took the kids (in their jammies) to see the The Polar Express at the Science Museum of Virginia? And what about the year most of RVA woke up to a white Christmas?
This story is like that – about a trip so magical it raises the bar for all future trips. And our story begins…
It was the 1860s when a young man visiting Carson City, Nevada, was encouraged to check out a scenic spot just outside town. Many miles (and steep mountains) later, he finally rounded a bend and was blown away by the sight before him. In eleven carefully selected words, he shared his discovery with the world when he wrote, “It must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” And here’s what Samuel Clemons (not yet Mark Twain) beheld as pine needles crunched beneath his feet and the scent of natural vanilla perfumed his every breath: “a noble sheet of blue water lifted 6,300 feet above the level of the sea,” wreathed in majestic, snow-topped mountains, outnumbered by a carpet of Jeffrey pines.
And with the great man’s enthusiastic endorsement, the world – and generations to come – flocked to see the marvel that the Washoe people, Native Americans indigenous to the Great Basin, named Tahoe.
Twain fell hard for what we now know is the largest alpine lake in North America at twenty-two miles long and twelve miles wide. At 1,600 feet deep, Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the country after Oregon’s Crater Lake.
Nicknamed the Jewel of the Sierra, Twain’s find still sparkles today. The kitsch of beach boardwalks and the Disneyfication of our planet never infiltrated Lake Tahoe, nor the regions surrounding it. Yet, as you’d expect, Tahoe has seen many changes since Twain trekked this wonderland – changes that might make it your family’s dream vacation.
Explore the South Shore
Should you choose the north or south shore of Lake Tahoe? The easy answer? Sorry, there isn’t one. Both are studded with impressive ski resorts, beaches, hiking trails, and wondrous views. But we have to start somewhere. (tahoesouth.com)
The South Shore of Lake Tahoe has three magnificent ski resorts, casinos, nightlife, family-friendly camping, and beach activities galore. The ski resorts are: Kirkwood for intermediate and expert skiers; Sierra-at-Tahoe, a super family-friendly choice with a nice first-time ski package starting at $49 (sierraattahoe.com); and Heavenly, which is great for all levels.
This last ski resort is exquisitely named for its gorgeous views. Heavenly features ninety-seven runs and two terrain parks that are the snow-equivalent of a skateboard park. Not a skier? Ride The Gondola at Heavenly in any season (other-worldly!), and chill with a picnic on The Deck while you take in the spectacular view. If you’re visiting in the summer, your kids will go out of their minds for the variety of warm weather fun, including the gravity-propelled Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster, tubing (schush down a 500-foot drop and take a lift back to the top), the 1,000-foot Hot Shot Zip Line, an intricate ropes course, rock-climbing walls, a summer day camp, and a whole lot more. (skiheavenly.com)
If you’re into cruising, I recommend the M.S. Dixie II. My family and I enjoyed this fabulous cruise with one grumpy 5-year-old, who eventually fell asleep in a snit, and his twin brother who was wide-eyed and excited at every little thing on this two-and-a-half hour cruise.
Whether you take a scenic cruise like we did, or a sunset dinner cruise, you’ll tour Emerald Bay, see underwater footage on screens, and listen to Tahoe history as you pass old ruins on the shore. Cruises depart from Zephyr Cove Resort and Marina every day of the year. (zephyrcove.com)
For nature lovers, Taylor Creek is a wonderful natural habitat that boasts four self-guided trails with naturalists around every bend ready to answer questions. You’ll encounter wildlife, including birds, butterflies, and black bears. Evening programs at Lake of the Sky Amphitheater include Amazing Tahoe Facts, Winged Flight at Night, An Evening with Mark Twain, and many others. (tahoeheritage.org)
Zephyr Cove Marina is the sweet spot for all water-related activities on the South Shore. Rent a powerboat, pontoon boat, or personal water craft. You’ll also find parasailing and horseback riding. The public beach is popular for sunning, beach volleyball, and swimming. In the winter, take a snowmobile tour starting from Spooner Summit with panoramic views overlooking the lake. (zephyrcove.com)
Hiking families enjoy the Tahoe Rim Hiking Trail for all levels of hiking (tahoerimtrail.org), and Eagle Falls or Echo Lake are gorgeous treks for beginners.
Where to Eat in South Tahoe
Locals love Freshies for healthy, Hawaiian cuisine and Evan’s American Gourmet Café. Ciera Steak + Chophouse is Tahoe’s only AAA 4-diamond restaurant. The Sage Room is a classic that’s celebrating its seventieth anniversary this year. Sprouts Café offers healthy and casual fare. I can also recommend the Samurai for Japanese cuisine, and Nepheles for a pricey, but tasty California eclectic menu.
For trendy and memorable Mexican food and margaritas, try Azul-Latin Kitchen in the Heavenly village (azullatinkitchen.com), Chimayo (chimayotahoe.com) and Latin Soul (lakesideInn.com).
Where to Sleep on the South Shore
Choosing the right hotel for your family matters in Tahoe because – depending on which hotel you select – you’ll be closer to the things you want to do: skiing, beaches, dining, hiking, s’more pits, and so on.
Fancy but kinda practical: The Marriott Grand Residence Club sits at the base of The Gondola at Heavenly and offers studios to 3-bedroom condos. Expect a full kitchen, a lavish master bedroom, and a resort-style heated outdoor pool. The Marriott is steps from skiing, dining, and shopping, and there’s a shuttle to the beach. (marriott.com)
Upscale home away from home: Lakeland Village is your middle-of-town location smack on the water with a free resort shuttle. The Ridge Tahoe is a lavish spot that’s full of amenities with stunning views, plus features easy access to Heavenly on the Nevada side.
Extravagance on the lake: The newest luxury addition to the South Shore of Lake Tahoe is Edgewood Tahoe. This beauty beckons from the hem of Lake Tahoe, meaning you walk out of your room and hit the sand. (edgewoodtahoe.com)
Cabin camping: Camp Richardson has been in Tahoe since the beginning of time and offers a glimpse of what Twain’s yesteryear Tahoe must have been like. This popular camp offers year-round cabins with full kitchens that sleep two to eight. The cabin vibe is rustic with no TVs or phones. The property also has a historic hotel. (camprichardson.com)
Nice value, great location: Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel is a former Embassy Suites that offers free breakfast, an indoor pool, and a great location near Heavenly. The Forest Suites Resort at Heavenly Village (a hop, skip, and a jump from Heavenly) is also a superb choice for families. (tahoeresorthotel.com)
AirBnB.com, VRBO.com: Empty vacation homes are everywhere in Tahoe. Choose from cottages to castles – and yes, families use AirBnB, so don’t miss out on this resource.
Explore the North Shore
North Tahoe boasts twelve exquisite ski resorts, many glorious beaches, and a practically endless supply of activities for the family year round. (gotahoenorth.com)
Looking for the sweet spot of a ski resort that will engage every generation in your family? Welcome to Northstar, where the red carpet is rolled out for everyone from grandparents to toddlers. Northstar is located fifteen minutes from King’s Beach (highly recommended), and is fourteen minutes away from Truckee, California, where families will find loads of outdoorsy fun. Northstar is a hot spot for winter sports
Where to Eat in North Tahoe
North Tahoe locals love Wolfdale’s elegant, California cuisine, the Bridgetender Tavern and Grill for great burgers, Za’s Italian for the best pizza, and Drunken Monkey for sushi and Japanese tapas. At the Sugar Pine Cakery, try the unforgettable cheesecake brownies. Jake’s On The Lake with its California and Hawaiian cuisine is a great choice, and Manzanita (Ritz-Carlton’s restaurant) is fantastic, but the prices!? PB&Js and pizza are on the menu, but for $18 and $20. While the food at Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge is okay, you should eat there for the view and the prices.
Snoozing on the North Shore
Fancy schmancy: The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe … ’nuff said. Even if you don’t sleep at the Ritz, dining in one of the restaurants or on the patio is a fun indulgence. And P.S. – the Ritz is more kid-friendly than you’d think! (ritzcarlton.com)
Elegant cabin vibe: The Basecamp Hotel located in Tahoe City delivers rustic elegance and is just a 3-minute drive to the active Commons Beach (for movies, farmer’s market, and more). Warm up on a chilly evening with hot chocolate and/or s’mores at the outdoor fire pit. (basecamptahoecity.com)
Value on the beach: Ferrari’s Crown Resort is a family-owned hotel that fronts a sparkling swath of sand. Some suites come with a kitchenette and fireplace, so be sure to ask. During your stay, you’ll enjoy complimentary breakfast, two heated pools, and hot tubs.
AirBnB.com, VRBO.com: North Tahoe is loaded with vacation homes from condos to colossal homesteads.
Resort life: Forget San Francisco, I left my heart in The Resort at Squaw Creek. This incredible resort sits five miles from the lake and nestles at the base of the world-famous Squaw Valley Mountain where the 1960 winter Olympics made history. Many of the luxury rooms have a full kitchen (with dishwasher). The resort offers awesome skiing, golfing, biking, a resort-style pool, a full-service spa, and an active kids’ program. And of course, those Tahoe views! (destinationhotels.com)
Prepping for Your Tahoe Trip
1. Geek out! Get to know the Tahoe region through Google maps. Your geography knowledge will come in handy on your trip. (And make you sound super smart!)
2. What to wear? Snow clothes rule in the winter and range from well-worn to fancy labels – but everyone demands that apparel be highly functional to work on the Tahoe slopes. In the warm months, it’s flip-flops, t-shirts, shorts, and bathing suits if you’re hitting the lake. If you’re hitting a mountain in the summer, wear closed-toe shoes for hiking and bring layers in case it gets chilly or rainy in the higher elevations.
3. Avoid the major ouch. At higher elevations, your sun exposure is greater. Bring sun block and apply, apply, apply. Apply more when it’s snowy!
4. Just no! Don’t wedge Tahoe in with other destinations like San Francisco. You need a fair amount of time – at the very least, four full days to explore. Five to seven is better.
5. Is flying into San Francisco or Oakland smart? Unless you’re visiting someone in the Bay Area, there’s no reason to fly into San Francisco. San Fran is a 4-hour drive – without traffic – to Tahoe. Fortunately, the Reno-Tahoe International Airport sits a lovely 44-minute drive to Lake Tahoe. Save by flying from D.C. to Reno, and pay $300 to $500 per round-trip. A flight from RVA to Reno will run you $500 to $1,000 round-trip.
A Tahoe local suggested flying into Sacramento International Airport as a good option, but only if it makes sense for your journey. Sacramento is a solid 2-hour drive – without traffic – to Tahoe, but if you must use Sacramento, drive I-80, not I-50. The I-50 corridor in the mountain region is antiquated and a little scary.
6. When is Tahoe quiet? Tahoe’s quiet season in the winter is the last two weeks in January and the first week in February. For summer fun, Fourth of July is Tahoe’s packed summer weekend, but fly in after Labor Day and you might score nice temps with low crowds. The fall is also a quiet – and stunning – time to see Tahoe.
7. Is driving around the lake fun? Super fun in the spring, early summer (June), and fall – but not smart in the winter or during heavy traffic times in July and August. Driving around the lake takes a day since you’ll want to stop at pull-offs, take photos, eat lunch, swim at a beach, and just chill with people you love.
Photos: Jamie Kingham, Ambera Dodson, North Lake Tahoe