Lake Tahoe is such a beautiful serene lake that crosses over two states, northern California and northern Nevada. We took a weekend vacation with our family there this June and had a wonderful time. We stayed in a VRBO cabin and got a pretty decent deal. There are so many places to stay around the Lake. We chose to stay in Carnelian Bay, which is on north side of the lake. It is a little less populated than the more popular Kings Beach and Tahoe City but it is only a 10 minute drive from either and that put us in a more central location to see more of the Lake.
DAY 1: Truckee
We spent our first day in Truckee. This is a small town with much to offer. The first thing we did was head to the Donner Memorial State Park. The visitor center has a small museum that highlights local Native American history and, of course, the story of the Donner Party. They show a 25 minute film that is from the 1960’s but has a lot of great information. Then just outside of the museum you can see the humungous Pioneer Monument that stands as tall as the snow was that cold winter of 1846. The monument is also the start of a self-guided half-mile nature trail that takes you along the Truckee River and shows you a rock where one of the families had set up camp. The cost is $5 to get into the park.
After visiting the museum we took part of the Truckee River Region Trail which led to Donner Lake. Along the trail are picnic areas, and the Legacy nature trail that runs along the Truckee River. Besides the 0.8 mile nature trail, there is a disc golf course and a very nice skate park that is all free. Also don’t forget to walk over the dam, skip a few rocks in the water, and further up stream jump into the ice cool lake.
Other things to do in Truckee that we ran out of time for are the boutique shopping in historic downtown Truckee and the Kidzone Museum. On Thursdays in the summer Truckee also holds Street Fairs downtown that include a farmers’ market, live music, and kids’ activities. Also if you are hungry we found an amazing barbecue place that was kid friendly and priced pretty reasonably. It was called Smokey’s Kitchen, be sure to check it out and get the brisket.
DAY 2: Incline Village, Tahoe Meadows, Sand Harbor, Crystal Bay, & Kings Beach
We decided to head East our first day. We drove about 15 minutes and headed up towards Tahoe Meadows Whole Access Trail. About halfway up on Highway 431 there is a breathtaking lake overlook. You can’t miss it. Make sure you stop and take the time to enjoy the breathtaking view.
We went a little further up the highway and saw the parking lot for the Tahoe Meadows Whole Access Trail. It was late June and the snow was still all around. We couldn’t find the trail for the 1.4 mile loop but I hear it is stroller friendly. Instead we just stopped and played in the snow.
Afterwards we drove through Incline Village. There isn’t much to do there. The city is just a few shops and restaurants. We next had plans to explore Sand Harbor. This is a really popular place and the parking lot was full. It’s cash only and costs $12 to park. Since that wasn’t an option anymore we found free parking a little further down the road and took the Chimney Beach Trail. It is a 2.4 mile moderately easy hike. It only takes 10 minutes to walk to the beachfront. Then you spend the rest of the hike enjoying walking along the shore. Around this area are more hikes that split off to other beaches such as Whale Beach and Secret Harbor. We didn’t choose to walk any further then we had to with toddlers but we did hear the Secret Harbor is sometimes a nude beach so we chose to stay away.
On our way back to the cabin there was another short hike called Stateline Lookout Point in Crystal Bay. It’s about 1.5 miles and you can access it on Lakeshore Avenue behind the Biltmore. The trailhead is hard to find so just go into the Biltmore and ask someone to show you where it starts.
At the end of the day we headed to Kings Beach State Recreation Area. This is a crowded and small but sandy beach with picnic tables and a basketball court. You can pay $10 to park near the beach but you can also find lots of free parking along all the streets. Kings Beach area is really quaint with lots shops and ice cream spots. We got some humongous Hawaiian shaved ice just before hitting the beach. It was so delicious!
DAY 3: Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, High Camp, Olympic Valley, & Tahoe City
We packed a lot into our third day at Tahoe. We wanted to head northwest and so we drove 30 minutes to Alpine Meadows where Squaw Valley ski resort resides and we took an Aerial Tram ride to the top of Olympic Valley at High Camp. That’s a mouthful, but seriously when I was preparing for this trip all these places seemed like their own destination when really they are all the same thing. Down at the base camp of Squaw Valley there are lots of resort like shops and restaurants. We skipped those and went straight to the tram ride. It was pretty expensive but one of the only things we knew we were going to spend money on during this vacation. We decided to just go ahead and do it. The Tram ride was $46 a person, kids under 5 were free. If you buy your tickets online and in advance you can save $10.
The tram ride is a 10 minute ride in which you soar from 6,000′ elevation to over 8,200′ in a fully enclosed tram. So no worries no one can fall out. It leaves every 20 minutes. Try to be the first in line so you can have a seat instead of having to stand in the middle. The view is gorgeous, the ride gets a little bumpy when you make it to each tower. With your ticket you can go up and down as much as you want all day.
At the top is High Camp where there is a small free Olympic Museum, and it’s free for a reason, there isn’t much there. It was cool learning about the 1960 Winter Olympics but they don’t have anything interactive for kids and there were only a handful of displays. At the top there is also a pool and a skating rink, or ice skating rink in the winter. It costs $9 to get into these attractions. They have restaurant there as well.
What we spent our time doing up at High Camp was looking at the view and hiking around. There was a lot of snow up here and we were actually able to build a snowman in June! We walked around underneath the ski lifts and through the meadows. The trails would be more visible in late summer but we didn’t venture too far from camp.
Afterwards we took the epic tram ride back down and drove our car 5 minutes to see the Shirley Canyon Trail. We could see the waterfall from the parking lot. Shirley Canyon Trail, we were told, is a moderately difficult 4.1 mile hike with waterfalls and wildflowers all along the way. We were pretty tired of hiking by this point so we just enjoyed the view from below.
Next we drove 10 minutes to Tahoe City. This is another small city similar to Kings Beach. There was free parking at the Gatekeepers Museum and we walked across the Fanny Bridge to view the dam and feed the fish. There is also a visitor center there fully equipped with maps and souvenirs. Further down the road is Watson Cabin and Heritage Plaza that overlook the lake.
Our last stop was going up to Northstar Village. This is another ski resort but they do a free gondola ride from Northstar Village to the Ritz-Carlton. It was a quick 8 minute ride. Had we not just done the Aerial Tram it would have been a lot cooler. Good to know that you can do this for free instead of pay, but it is just over flat woodlands and resorts. Really fun and better still absolutely FREE! Just make sure you take the gondola ride from Northstar Village to the Ritz instead of the other way around because there is no free parking at the Ritz.
DAY 4: Eagle Falls, Emerald Bay, & Kiva Beach
We were sad to pack up and leave the cabin on our last day at Lake Tahoe. We loved the cozy little place we called home for a weekend. There is so much wildlife everywhere you go. Just at our small cabin we saw birds and squirrels, and a coyote wandered through the backyard. Our neighbors also told us of a bear that came through. He actually was smart enough to open our friends van door and take out a bag of chips and devour them. Luckily he moved on but it is something to be very cautious of while you are at Tahoe. Don’t leave any food in your car and make sure to lock everything up.
On our way back home we drove down through Southern Lake Tahoe. We will have to make our next trip to Tahoe here as there are so many things to do on this end of the lake as well. We passed D.L. Bliss State Park with lots of places to hike. There are also more epic gondola rides at Heavenly Village as well as zipline parks and more. Sugar Pine Point State Park is another stop we passed that has a free taxidermy museum. Our only stop was Eagle Falls. It was packed! We circled the area for a good 15 minutes trying to find a parking spot. Lots of people were getting parking tickets for parking in undesignated areas along the highway. We asked the officer handing them out and he said the fine was $32. It almost seemed worth it. We ended up parking about a mile from the trailhead. So make sure if you go you beat the crowds and get there early. It was totally worth it. One of the best things we did!
There are two trails to take for Eagle Falls. The first is Upper Eagle Falls and it is a short easy ¼ mile walk up to the bridge and the falls. If you go the whole 1.8 miles you will make it to Eagle Lake. Lower Eagle Falls can be seen from the road and the parking lot. It is beautiful. The overlook also gives you a gorgeous view of Fannette Island, the only Island in Lake Tahoe, and the popular Emerald Bay State Park. This trail is steep and about a mile one way. It is the only way to access Emerald Bay. Once you make it to the bottom you can tour Vikingsholm Castle.
After our hikes and the beautiful views we headed to a less crowded place just past Baldwin Beach called Kiva Beach. One of the park rangers told us about it. It was super small but with less people and free parking it worked out perfect for us.
More Tips about Tahoe
We were sad to leave this beautiful spot of country. I can’t wait to return and explore more of its beauty. Here are a few last tips of trails and places around Tahoe. Make sure when you go you download the All Trails App. This was our lifeline as it gave detailed directions and information for every hike.
You may also notice we didn’t spend much time on the actual lake. Because of our kids young ages (two and three) we opted out of the water sports. That being said Lake Tahoe offers some of the best water experiences from paddle boarding, and kayaking to boating and parasailing. We saw so many people out on the Lake having so much fun. We had just as much fun on the beach but make sure to look into all those options if that’s what you like to do.