Your detailed Lake Tahoe itinerary for a summer weekend in the Sierras, including the best things to do, places to eat, and where to stay.
Lake Tahoe Summer Itinerary
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Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular places to visit in California and a favorite weekend getaway from San Francisco. And it’s easy to see why with the amount of natural beauty to be found in the area and the year-round attractions for families, couples, and adventurous travelers around the lake.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevadas, Lake Tahoe straddles the California and Nevada state line. Since gambling is legal in Nevada, numerous casinos have popped up on the Nevada side of the lake for those who are looking to test their luck. But gambling isn’t the only thing that makes Lake Tahoe such an attractive destination to visit in California.
From snowboarding, skiing, snowshoeing, gondolas, and cozy cabins in the winter, to hiking, water sports, lazy beach days, and hot weather in the summer, there’s a lot to love about Lake Tahoe – no matter the season.
When people say Lake Tahoe, they’re usually referring to South Lake Tahoe. The lake is huge (72 miles) and takes three hours to drive around, so visitors tend to base themselves in South or North Lake Tahoe.
South Lake Tahoe is by far the most popular area of the lake to visit and has a lot of attractions, beaches, and hikes to enjoy, so I always recommend starting there if it’s your first time in Lake Tahoe.
For that reason, this 2-day itinerary focuses on how to spend a summer weekend in South Lake Tahoe to soak up the best scenery and attractions in the area.
Let’s dive in!
Travel Tips for Lake Tahoe
- Book accommodation early and expect it to be busy – Summer is Lake Tahoe’s high season so expect it to be fairly busy. In the summer, there’s usually some traffic to and from Lake Tahoe. It’s also good to book accommodation far in advance. If you can visit Lake Tahoe during the week instead of the weekend, even better. If you go on the weekend and you’re coming from San Francisco, try to leave before noon on Friday from the Bay Area.
- Bring layers and a warm jacket – Even during the summer when the weather is hot during the day, nights are often cool. Make sure to bring a jacket to bundle up once the sun goes down. It’s also good to bring at least one pair of warmer shoes besides flip flops that can be used for activities and easy hikes around the lake (I’m personally a fan of Allbirds).
- Drink plenty of water – At over 6,200 feet, the higher elevation of South Lake Tahoe means that dehydration is common. Drink more water than you normally would and bring extra water with you if you plan to go hiking.
- Protect yourself from the sun – It’s easier to get sunburned at higher altitudes, so lather on plenty of sunscreen, bring a hat, sunglasses, and some aloe vera just in case (especially if you tend to sunburn easily like me).
- Plan how you want to get around – If you’re staying near downtown South Lake Tahoe, it’s a fairly walkable area that can easily be explored by your own two feet. If you want to explore outside the downtown area though, it’s best to have your own car. There is public transport in Lake Tahoe but it’s not the fastest or most convenient way to get around. It also won’t take you to the more off-the-beaten-path trailheads and beaches. There are both Lyfts and Ubers in South Lake Tahoe too, which are ideal to use after a night at the casinos or bars.
- Check conditions ahead of time for the possibility of forest fires – In the summer, it’s not uncommon for forest fires to happen near Lake Tahoe. Check conditions and air quality ahead of time before you head up to the lake.
A 2-Day Itinerary for Lake Tahoe in the Summer
Lake Tahoe Itinerary: Day 1
Morning Hike to Eagle Falls
Start your time in Lake Tahoe by going on a hike to Eagle Falls – one of the most scenic hikes in the region. Besides waterfalls, you’ll come across evergreen forests, granite peaks, and the reflective Eagle Lake. This is one of the most beautiful spots in all of Lake Tahoe.
The hike starts near Emerald Bay, from the parking area on the west side of Highway 89. It’s only around 2.5 miles roundtrip but full of generous views and plenty of local flora and fauna to make it a worthwhile hike. Since this is one of the most popular hikes in Lake Tahoe it’s recommended to get to the parking lot before 9am as it fills up quickly.
Also, this hike goes into the backcountry of the Lake Tahoe area, called Desolation Wilderness. Because of this, you’ll need to pick up a permit (which you can do on the trail) as soon as you reach the backcountry portion of the trail.
Kayak or SUP to Fannette Island
After getting a dose of gorgeous views from the Eagle Falls Trail, head to Emerald Bay to rent a kayak and paddle out to Fannette Island. Emerald Bay gets its name from its beautiful blue-green shades that come out on sunny days, so one of the best ways to experience the bay is by getting out on the water.
This is the only island in Lake Tahoe and it’s close enough to the shore to paddle to either via kayak or a standup paddleboard (depending on your preference). You can rent kayaks or standup paddleboards near Vikingsholm and paddle out directly from the rental location.
Emerald Bay State Park is one of the most scenic state parks around Lake Tahoe, so make sure to give yourself time to soak up the views on the way to the island. Once you get to the island, hike to the top of the hill to find an abandoned tea house at the top and stunning 360-degree views of the bay, before heading back towards Vikingsholm.
After you drop off your kayak, sign up for a tour of Vikingsholm. This 38-room Viking-inspired castle is nestled in the dramatic scenery of Emerald Bay State Park. It’s a quirky sight to visit next to the bay and features one of the best examples of Scandinavian architecture in the United States.
The castle was built in 1929 and commissioned by Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight, who drew similarities between Lake Tahoe and the fjords of Scandinavia. It became the summer home for Mrs. Knight and her family for 15 years until her death. And if you’re visiting in the summer, you can take a tour of the property.
Afternoon Hike in D.L. Bliss State Park
If you have the energy to squeeze in one more short hike, head to D.L. Bliss State Park, on the west side of the lake. This beautiful park is the perfect place to further explore the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe and get some fresh air and exercise in the afternoon.
There are numerous trails you can tackle at D.L. Bliss State Park, but I’d recommend doing the Rubicon Lighthouse Trail. This easy 1.5-mile trail takes you up 250 feet in elevation to the historic Rubicon Lighthouse that was built in 1919. Along the way, you’ll get stunning bay views that peak out from green forests. Most of the trail is shaded and it’s easy to do within an hour.
Explore Heavenly Village and Ride the Gondola
Head into Heavenly Village for an afternoon of shopping, eating, and gondola riding. With over 40 shops featuring international and local brands, there are a lot of boutiques to poke your head into.
And even more than the shops, Heavenly Village is a lively place to get a good feel for the Lake Tahoe community. There’s often live music, as well as ice skating, spas, and mini-golf around the village. The Village is also where you’ll find some of the best restaurants in the region, such as The Loft and Base Camp Pizza Co. Time your visit around dinner time to taste test what the Tahoe culinary scene has to offer.
Once you’ve explored Heavenly Village thoroughly, hop on the Heavenly Village Gondola for expansive views over the Lake Tahoe area.
Optional: Ride the Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster
A fun add-on to the scenic gondola, especially in the summer when skiing and snowboarding aren’t happening, is to ride the Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster at Heavenly Ski Resort.
This high altitude gravity-powered coaster will not only give you a good adrenaline rush but also stunning views looking out over the lake from Heavenly Mountain.
Gambling at a Casino on the Nevada Side
To end your day in Lake Tahoe, try your hand at the slot machines or blackjack tables at one of the many casinos that line the Nevada side of the lake. A few of the most popular casinos in Lake Tahoe include Montbleu, Harrah’s, and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Even if you’re not that into gambling, similar to Las Vegas, it’s a fun activity to do at Lake Tahoe because it’s such a big part of the culture.
Finally, there are various dance clubs and bars in and near the casinos if you want to experience the Lake Tahoe nightlife before calling it a night.
Lake Tahoe Itinerary: Day 2
Road Trip Around the Perimeter of the Lake
There’s no better way to start a morning in Lake Tahoe than by exploring the perimeter of the lake.
The scenic 72-mile drive around Lake Tahoe takes around three hours with no stopping, but I’d give yourself at least five hours so you can take your time.
Hit the road early to avoid traffic and enjoy the viewpoints around the lake without the crowds. I’d also recommend driving the lake clockwise so you’re always driving on the right side of the road closest to the lake.
A few popular stops that can be added on to your Lake Tahoe road trip are Meeks Bay, Sugar Pine Point State Park (and the Ehrman Mansion), the Tahoe Maritime Museum, Gatekeeper’s Museum, Watson Cabin Museum, Kings Beach, Crystal Bay, Stateline Lookout, Mt. Rose Lookout, Memorial Point, Sand Harbor, Spooner Lake, and Cave Rock Vista Point.
If you have a couple of extra hours, I’d also add on a trip to the Olympic Museum at Squaw Valley, the Donner Party Museum, and the historic railroad town of Truckee.
Optional: Horseback Riding at Camp Richardson Corral
If you have the time to squeeze in an hour-long activity onto your road trip around the lake, sign up for a horseback ride through the Lake Tahoe wilderness at Camp Richardson Corral.
In operation since 1934, this family-owned corral is the place for scenic guided horseback rides or summer hay wagon rides for the little ones.
Their standard trail rides leave hourly in the summer and start at $56 per person. With tours lasting about an hour, you’ll see the best parts of South Lake Tahoe by horseback, as well as ride through the lush national forest, meadows, and see stunning lake views along the way.
Head to the Beach at Zephyr Cove
After a full morning of driving, head to Zephyr Cove in the late afternoon to experience one of Lake Tahoe’s best beaches.
This is the perfect spot to relax for a couple of hours. You can go swimming in the transparent alpine water, enjoy parasailing or jet skiing, play a game of beach volleyball, or simply soak up the sun, read a book on the beach, and breathe in the fresh mountain air.
Dinner Cruise on The MS Dixie II PaddleWheeler
Wrap up your time in Lake Tahoe with a dinner cruise on The MS Dixie II PaddleWheeler, which leaves from Zephyr Cove. The cruise usually leaves around 5pm every night and lasts for three hours so you can see the lake in daylight and at dusk.
On the cruise, you’ll enjoy live music, champagne, dancing, and a nice dinner on the water. The best part about this cruise is that you’ll be able to watch the sky change as it transitions into dusk from the water.
If you’re lucky and the cloud cover isn’t too low, you might luck out with being able to see one of Lake Tahoe’s multi-hued sunsets that light up the sky on your way back to the dock. Just make sure to bring layers and a warm jacket because the lake gets chilly at night.
Where to Eat in Lake Tahoe
Alpina Coffee Cafe – One of the best coffee shops in Lake Tahoe, Alpina Coffee Cafe is a good spot to get your caffeine fix and start your day in a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. The cafe is located in a cottage and offers the usual cafe fare, decent coffee, and even mimosas, wine, and beer if you’re looking to imbibe.
Base Camp Pizza Co – For some reason, Lake Tahoe has a ton of pizza places (I guess eating pizza near a beautiful lake isn’t the worst thing ever). One of the tastiest is Base Camp Pizza Co. Besides pizza, they have a good selection of other Italian fare that comes out in generous portions. This is a lively place that often has live music and an outdoor patio, perfect for those long and hot summer days.
Simple Bliss – For anyone looking for something a little healthier than pizza and burgers, Simple Bliss is South Lake Tahoe’s first and only vegan cafe. On the menu, you’ll find organic, soy-free, and gluten-free dishes that are full of colorful veggies. They also have a decent selection of vegan desserts and fresh juices and smoothies, as well as coffee and tea.
The Loft – A popular place for dinner and a show in Lake Tahoe, The Loft features bistro-style dishes and a casual setting full of friendly service, good food, and entertainment. They’re most well known for their nightly magic shows that are a fun way to spend an evening in Heavenly Village.
Heavenly Donuts – If you’re looking to satisfy your sweet tooth, there’s no better place than Heavenly Donuts. The guys who own this shop have been making donuts for 30 years and they’ve now expanded to six locations on the West Coast. This is all to say that they know their stuff when it comes to donuts. At their location in Tahoe, you’ll be able to find every type of traditional donut your heart might desire.
Where to Stay in South Lake Tahoe
Although cabin rentals and Airbnbs can be a fun way to go when you’re staying in Lake Tahoe, especially if you’re traveling with a group, sometimes it’s nice to have the luxury of a hotel. These are some of my top picks for accommodation in Lake Tahoe for all budgets.
7 Seas Inn at Tahoe – The best word to describe this accommodation is charming. At 7 Seas Inn, you’ll find the friendliness and feel of a bed & breakfast but with an affordable price tag. Another plus to this inn is that it’s centrally-located. The property is only a seven-minute walk from the lake and just a few blocks from the most popular South Lake Tahoe casinos.
Grand Residences by Marriott – If you’re looking for a little more luxury, the Grand Residences by Marriott is a good mid-range accommodation option in South Lake Tahoe. Located right in the heart of Heavenly Village, there are various shops, restaurants, and the ski resort (and its scenic gondola) just steps away.
Hotel Azure – For a more luxe weekend getaway accommodation that won’t break the bank, Hotel Azure is a solid choice in South Lake Tahoe. Conveniently located right on Lake Tahoe Boulevard and right across the street from the lake, this recently remodeled accommodation oozes comfort and relaxation. The property features two hot tubs, a heated pool, a small gym, and a game room. It’s also dog-friendly if you’re looking for a hotel to bring your pooch.
Mimi McFadden is a travel blogger, avid yogi, and paneer enthusiast. Originally from California, she has been slow traveling the world and blogging about it since 2013.
After living abroad for five years in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Greece, and Portugal she has finally found a home in San Francisco, California. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog, The Atlas Heart.
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