Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Top 10 Things to Do and See in Tahoe (A Mini Tourist Guide to Tahoe)

More than a few times, I’ve met visitors at the end of their vacation in Tahoe, and I learned that they never saw Emerald Bay. Not only is it sad that people miss such a beautiful place, but it must be embarrassing to get home and endure the scowls of friends who say, “What? You went to Tahoe and never saw Emerald Bay?”
Emerald Bay State Park
Emerald Bay
Of course, you can have the most fantastic vacation of your life in Tahoe without having seen its only bay. But not seeing Emerald Bay is like visiting Yosemite and never looking up at Half Dome. It's like walking the hills of San Francisco and never noticing the Golden Gate. Like going to Paris and not ever laying eyes on the Eiffel Tower. You get the idea.
I decided that I should make a list of must-see places so I could reduce the post-vacation Ouch Factor for visitors.
My list is biased toward those things that are unique to Tahoe. For example, there are people who come to Tahoe to gamble and they may think that Tahoe is the best place to play the tables. But you can gamble anywhere, and many people would claim that Vegas or Monte Carlo or a Mississippi riverboat provides a better gambling experience. So gambling in Tahoe is not on my list.
Likewise, Tahoe has many fantastic restaurants that draw visitors. But great as they are, our restaurants are not really what sets Tahoe apart from any other place on the planet.
I have also weighted this list toward those things that most visitors always rave about. If you routinely find that you dislike what most other people like, this list won't be for you.
I should also mention that my list has some physical activities that not everyone pursues, so not everything on the list is for everybody.
Because I'm highlighting only ten items, everyone will think that I'm leaving out absolutely essential things. But such are the constraints of a limited list. You may disagree with my choices. But if you come to Tahoe without experiencing several of these, you'll risk going home without really knowing the essence of Tahoe.

First comes the list. Farther down is information about each entry. Because some people are less mobile than others, my list is divided into two groups based on how physical the activities are.


1) Visit Emerald Bay by car or boat.
2) Drive around Lake Tahoe (This automatically takes you around Emerald Bay.)
3) Take a boat ride on Lake Tahoe (This can also encompass #1)
4) Ride the Squaw Valley Cable Car and/or the Heavenly Gondola.
5) Spend some time hanging out at one of Tahoe's great beaches
6) Visit one of Tahoe's grand estates


7) Climb a Tahoe mountain.
8) Hike to a remote mountain lake
9) Mountain bike The Flume Trail
10) Ski or ride one of the downhill resorts that faces Lake Tahoe


1) Visit Emerald Bay by car or boat.

You can drive to Emerald Bay or you can take a boat to Emerald Bay. Driving has the advantages of allowing you to hike down to the Vikingsholm Castle – an easy 1-mile hike. (It's best to go relatively early in the morning, because the parking areas often fill up.)
You may want to tour the Vikingsholm. You can also hike to the top or the bottom of Eagle Falls, the biggest waterfall in Tahoe. 
Eagle Falls Trail Lake Tahoe CA
Eagle Falls from Tahoe'
If you park at the Bay View campground on the southwest side of the bay (across the highway from the vista overlook above Emerald Bay), you can easily hike to Cascade Falls above Cascade Lake. 
You can also hike up to the top of the famous Rock Slide from 1955 and look down on Emerald Bay from above. (A gorgeous view.)
There are multiple tourist boats that cruise to Emerald Bay, the Tahoe Queen and the M.S. Dixie among the most prominent. 
Tahoe Queen
While the boats don't generally allow you ground access, the view of the bay and mountains from the water is a sight you won't forget.
Seeing Emerald Bay may not be a thrill like skiing or sailing, but nevertheless, no trip to Tahoe is complete without a visit to one of the most famous bays in the world.

2) Drive around Lake Tahoe

Tahoe is so big that the only way to really grasp its essence is to take the 75-mile drive around its circumference. The route is simple even though the highway changes numbers depending on county and state. Get a map before you go. If you drive clockwise, you keep turning right and it is nearly impossible to get lost. If you drive counter-clockwise, you need to watch for one turn. When you come up the East Shore from the south, Highway 50 leaves the lake for a bit and begins its climb up toward Spooner summit. Before you get to the top, you need to watch for a left turn onto Highway 28, which takes you back to the lake as you head up the north portion of the East Shore.
The entire drive takes 3 hours on average. My advice is to plan an entire day for your drive so that you can take a couple of side trips. One begins just west of Incline Village. Turn up the Mt. Rose Highway #431 and drive it up to the vista overlook. From there you will be able to see a spectacular view of the lake below. A second side trip begins in Tahoe City. Turn west at the Tahoe City “Y” and take 89 downstream alongside of the Truckee River. A few miles down, you will see the Olympic rings and flame at the entrance to Squaw Valley, where the winter Olympics were held in 1960. Driving into Squaw Valley is worthwhile for the beauty as well as the history.
Squaw Valley Ski Day!
Squaw Valley photo by
Another, longer side trip is to continue north to Truckee, a hip mountain town with a lot of railroad history.
Note for two-wheel enthusiasts:
Cruising the lake's circumference on your motorcycle is a special treat.
And if your choice of recreation is road bicycling, circumnavigating Lake Tahoe is an experience you'll cherish for the rest of your life. There are even planned rides where thousands of bicyclers circle the lake together.

3) Take a boat ride on Lake Tahoe

When you are at what is arguably the the most beautiful lake in the entire world (and the biggest, highest, clearest lake in the Northern Hemisphere), going out on the water is a no-brainer. You can choose from a wide variety of tourist boats, from the big stern-wheelers to large cruisers to big sailboats. If smaller is your choice, you can rent every kind of vessel from speedboats to runabouts to jetskis, or – my favorites – boats without engines, i.e., quiet rides like canoes, kayaks, sailboats, sailboards, or stand-up paddleboards.
Tahoe Boat Cruises - Woodwind II
Tahoe Cruises' huge catamaran
Once you've looked down through mountain water as clear and turquoise as the best dive spots on the Great Barrier Reef, you will never forget the experience.
For those of you bringing your own boats, do some online research for current boat ramp conditions, and plan extra time to get your boat inspected (required by law) for invasive species, and cleaned if necessary.

4) Ride the Squaw Valley Cable Car and/or the Heavenly Gondola.

The Heavenly Gondola takes you up nearly 3000 vertical feet to the highest easy-access overlook in the Tahoe Basin. The view of Tahoe from 9100 feet is beyond spectacular.
Heavenly Gondola

The Squaw Valley Cable Car doesn't take you quite as high, nor is it as close to the lake, but the view is still spectacular and the ride itself is astonishing as you make a near-vertical climb up the face of a 2000-foot cliff.
Squaw Valley Cable Car, courtesy of Tierra Unica

Both Squaw and Heavenly have a restaurants and recreation facilities at the top, so you can spend a whole day up on the mountain, if you like, hiking, lounging, lunching. At Squaw you can even go ice skating or swimming in the mountaintop pool.
Squaw Valley High Camp pool
If you want to get a sense of Tahoe from above, either of these rides is fantastic.

5) Spend some time at one of Tahoe's great beaches

After millions of years of winter storm-generated waves pounding Tahoe's shores, the water has ground the rocks into huge beaches of fine sand. Tahoe has dozens of great beaches. Some of most celebrated are Sand Harbor (East Shore), Baldwin Beach (Southwest shore), Nevada Beach (Southeast Shore), King's Beach (North Shore)
Baldwin Beach photo courtesy of
Many beaches have barbecues, some have volleyball, all are good for Frisbee, swimming, reading novels, and launching self-carry paddle craft like kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. A few beaches, like Kiva Beach on the South Shore, allow dogs. Many do not.
Remember that Tahoe is cold. Although the water can warm up to 60 or more at the shallow beaches, pay special attention to your kids. Their desire for play makes them oblivious to hypothermia. If they start shivering or slurring their speech, get them out of the water!

6) Visit one of Tahoe's grand old estates

Over the years, some of the richest people in the world chose to build fantastic estates at Lake Tahoe. This is still going on today, most notably along Lake Shore Blvd. in Incline Village where multiple billionaires have built spreads that, when sold, make headlines as the most expensive residences in the country. (A recent “For Sale” (not at Incline) is Tommy Hilfiger's palace on the mountain up above the Southeast Shore, which listed at $100 million. Lemme see... Standard mortgage calculations would suggest a monthly payment of $1 million!)
Many of the older estates are available to tour. Follow the links to find the details of tour times and other useful information. Here are some of the grand estates.
Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay is an intriguing look into Tahoe at the end of the Roaring Twenties. The woman who built Vikingsholm was Lora Knight. She had connections to the Union Pacific Railroad, Diamond Match, Wells Fargo Bank and other companies. She and her husband backed Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. Vikingsholm is great to tour, and it is now owned and run by the California State Park system.
Vikingsholm Castle
The Ehrman Mansion at Sugar Pine Point State Park on the West Shore. Built in 1902 by the Hellman Ehrman family, it is a fine example of a glorious summer estate.
Ehrman Mansion photo courtesy of  Lake Tahoe Getaways

The Thunderbird Lodge on the East Shore was the focus of George Whittell's 40,000-acre estate, which is now part of the Nevada State Park system. 
Thunderbird Lodge photo courtesy of
The Thunderbird Lodge is known for its secret tunnel down to the boathouse where George would take his lion Bill and go for a cruise on the 75 mph Thunderbird wooden boat, Tahoe's fastest boat of the era and still one of the fastest boats on the lake. For more info visit
Note: One of the most asked-about estates is the one that was featured in The Godfather II movie. This was the Kaiser Estate (Kaiser Aluminum) on the West Shore. Unfortunately, it was sold, and the land was turned into a condo development.


The following items on the list are more physical activities, so the usual qualifiers apply: Wear good hiking boots (or appropriate footgear if bicycling), carry lots of water and food, bring extra rain and weather clothing, have a good trail map and guidebook, and don't ever attempt any climb/hike/bike unless you are confident of your physical abilities, strength, fitness, and your adaptation to high altitude.

7) Climb a Tahoe mountain.

Tahoe mountains are great because, frankly, they are not that tall and not that steep. This means that the average person in decent shape can hike to the top of any Tahoe mountain. No handholds or special gear are required. (Yes, we have lots of world-class rock climbing that requires technical skill, but that's completely different than hiking to a mountain summit.)
Hiking a 10,000-foot mountain is no small thing. Not only is the view of the lake and its surrounding mountains unmatched anywhere, but getting to a mountain summit under your own power is something to be proud of.
We have lots of mountains to choose from. Perhaps the most popular are Mt. Tallac on the South Shore and Mt. Rose on the North Shore. Both have good parking areas, well-marked trails, and spectacular views.
Most hiking guidebooks provide the details about trails to many peaks. The only one that is possibly excessively strenuous to hike is Tahoe's highest, Freel Peak on the South Shore. The reason is that the route is not over solid rocks or hard dirt but grus, a type of granitic sand where you slide back a half-foot for every foot you step up.
There's something about standing on a mountain summit with the entire world stretched out below you. And if you're lucky, you can look down into the rocky crags below you and see Golden Eagles riding the updrafts.

Mt. Tallac with its famous snow cross

8) Hike to a remote mountain lake.

The Tahoe area is peppered with hundreds of smaller lakes, from Hollywood favorites like Fallen Leaf Lake on the South Shore to Donner Lake near Truckee. If you get a hiking guide, you will find several dozens of great hikes that take you to smaller wilderness lakes perfect for swimming, fishing and camping. (Note that there are strict camping rules, and areas such as the Desolation Wilderness require permits before entering. Most guidebooks tell you everything you need to know.) 

Lake Aloha under the Crystal Range on the Sierra Crest

9) Mountain bike the Flume Trail

Up above the East Shore of Lake Tahoe is the Flume Trail, one of mountain biking's grandest adventures.

The Flume Trail may be the world's most spectacular mountain biking trail

Note the tiny bicyclist on the left!

The Flume Trail's history dates back to the lumber days, when the Tahoe Basin was clear-cut by lumbermen who supplied timbers to shore up the mine tunnels under Virginia City. Getting the logs off the mountain was difficult, so they built a water flume, essentially a big wooden trough-like viaduct up at 7800 feet of elevation. The flume stretched from the outlet dam of Marlette Lake, which is tucked up in the East Shore mountains. The flume was built along the steep mountainside facing the lake. Water from the lake flowed through the flume, and the loggers floated logs in the artificial “Flume” creek. The flume ran north for approximately 8 miles, then turned east into a tunnel that burrowed through the mountain toward Washoe Valley on the other side. Once out of the mountain tunnel, the logs shot down a very steep wooden chute toward the valley floor. (Daredevil lumberjacks would sit on the logs and ride them down to the valley at speeds estimated to be over 60 mph.)
When the lumber days were over, the flume fell into disuse. Years later, its remnants were cleared away, and it was turned into one of the world's most amazing mountain bike trails.
Because the trail is perched on the side of a steep mountain with thousand-foot drop-offs, it can be dangerous, and only sure-footed bikers should try it. Nevertheless, it is not a technical challenge. If one simply pays attention, it is not difficult.
The typical way to enjoy The Flume is to park a shuttle car on Highway 28 near the north end of the trail, then drive to the Spooner Lake Campground just off Spooner Summit. You begin the ride by biking from Spooner Lake up the canyon to Marlette Lake. From there, you ride around the south end of Marlette to the dam where The Flume begins. Prepare for excitement as you ride the cliff-edge trail with the world's grandest view! At the north end of the trail, you make a fast descent down a gravel road to the highway where you've left your shuttle car.
Many mountain bikers will claim that other mountain bike trails, such as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, are more exciting and challenging than The Flume Trail. But for a combination of excitement and beauty and uniqueness, little if anything beats Tahoe's Flume Trail.

10) Ski or ride one of the downhill resorts that faces Lake Tahoe

All of the dozen-plus resorts around Tahoe have their superlatives, and several of them such as Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, Sierra At Tahoe, Mt. Rose, and Northstar, have distant and/or filtered views of the lake from certain places on the mountain. But there are three resorts that directly face the lake and have the best views of the lake: Heavenly - the California side (South Shore), Homewood (West Shore), and Diamond Peak (Northeast Shore). The views from these resorts are the stuff that clog up visitor's photo memory cards and iPhones. Magazines and websites that showcase the lake rely heavily on photos taken from these resorts. You may like the fresh powder at Kirkwood or the chutes and steeps of Squaw or the history at Sugar Bowl, but nowhere on Earth will you find views like those from Homewood, Heavenly and Diamond Peak.

Homewood Ski Resort

Other attractions not on my list...

While I've mentioned 10 spectacular things to do, there are many other great activities such as:
Hot air ballooning
Horseback riding
Scuba diving
(Yes, there is great scuba diving in Tahoe for those of you who are certified divers. You just need to have a guide who is familiar with high-altitude diving (greater decompression concerns), and you need to be conversant with cold-water diving. Hint: Think insulated, pressurized drysuits! The East Shore is especially intriguing, and even has under-water tunnels.)
Cross-country skiing
Water skiing
(For example, golfing at Edgwood, where the celebrity championship is held each year, may provide more dramatic views than nearly any golf course.)
Edgewood Golf Course
While I mentioned the more dramatic bicycling experiences, there are many great but tamer places to bike. Guidebooks detail many beautiful mountain bike trails. There are also several great paved trails from South Lake Tahoe out to Baldwin Beach, up the West Shore from Sugar Pine Point Part to Tahoe City, and along the North Shore from Tahoe City to Dollar Point and Tahoe City to Squaw Valley.

There are countless things to do in Tahoe, so come up the and have the time of your life!
(Just don't forget to see Emerald Bay!)


  1. After all the years of coming here (since I was a child) then moving near Tahoe (Minden) in 2006 I FINALLY went on the MS Dixie last August. It was a wonderful two hours or so. There was a man narrating the entire time who told all kinds of tales of Tahoe and surrounding areas. Wish I'd done it years ago! Highly I'm trying to get my Mom to go (she's not too crazy about being out on the water!)

    1. Hi Auntie Deb,

      Glad you liked the Dixie! I recommend that you watch the weather and take your mom out when the wind is supposed to be calm. Being out on the decks is more pleasant then. Calm wind also makes for calmer water, another plus. Please tell your mom that I think she'll like it.


  2. Hi Todd,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Dollar Point in Lake Tahoe to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you!