Lake Tahoe is one of California’s most beautiful nature spots and a haven for hikers, skiers, and outdoor enthusiasts. As North America’s largest alpine lake (and second deepest after Crater Lake in Oregon), there is undoubtedly much to see and do with 72 miles of shoreline, multiple state parks, and a vast mountain range. But don’t let the abundance of things to do in Lake Tahoe make planning your first day trip or weekend in Lake Tahoe overwhelming.
Fear not, though, as we’re here to share what to do in Lake Tahoe on a short road trip. Read on to discover the best Lake Tahoe itinerary for one, two, or three days.
Lake Tahoe 1 Day Itinerary
With just one day, your Lake Tahoe itinerary will be pretty fast-paced. While you won’t be able to see everything, you’ll undoubtedly be able to check out the highlights, such as Sand Harbor, Eagle Falls, and Emerald Bay which will take you from North Lake Tahoe to South Tahoe so you’ll get a great idea of the sights on the west coast of the lake.
But first: Just know that I’ve got plenty more California trip guides where this one came from!
Beaches: Sand Harbor, Secret Cove, Chimney Beach & Zephyr Cove
You have a few beach options to begin your trip! You could spend the morning in the northeast of the lake, enjoying the crystal-clear waters and long sandy beaches of Sand Harbor. The shoreline here gives a magnificent panoramic view of the lake and is beautiful all year round. In the winter, you can enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride along the snow-covered beach.
In the summer, you can rent a kayak or paddleboard from Sand Harbor Rentals and explore the rocky coves. Also, check out Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival to see if there is a show on while you’re here. Outdoor performances happen most evenings in July and August right in the park.
During peak season, Sand Harbor gets pretty crowded, as it’s only 3 miles south of Incline Village, one of the top areas to stay, which is why we recommend beginning your day here. Arrive as early as possible to experience the harbor while it’s still peaceful. Other nearby options (beach hopping anyone?) are Chimney Beach & Secret Cove Beach, but note that Secret Cove Beach is a nude beach!
Or, if you want to escape the crowds altogether, take the nearby Skunk Harbor Trail to discover one of Tahoe’s most hidden beaches. Alternatively, Zephyr Cove is 25 minutes south of Sand Harbor and is a great choice as you can rent lots of water equipment here and it’s closer to the next stop!
Heavenly Mountain Gondola
The 2.4-mile gondola ride up Heavenly Mountain is undoubtedly one of the most popular Lake Tahoe attractions. The 8-passenger glass cabin departs from Heavenly Village in South Lake Tahoe and takes you up to an observation deck sitting 9,123 feet above sea level.
Here you can take in the breathtaking perspective of the lake and incredible views out to Carson Valley and the Desolation Wilderness. There is also a cafe at the observation deck where you can enjoy a coffee or cocktail with the best landscape in town.
Eagle Falls and Eagle Lake
Eagle Falls within Emerald Bay State Park is another of the most popular things to do in Lake Tahoe for daytrippers. It takes just one hour to hike from the falls to the lake and back. This natural lake is perfect for cooling off during the hot summer months, and the water has a mirror effect, reflecting the surrounding mountains and trees for a truly breathtaking view.
However, if you’re short on time, you can skip the lake and just drive to the trailhead at the falls to admire the gorgeous waterfall up close.
Sunset cruise in Emerald Bay
Conclude your Lake Tahoe day trip by catching the sunset in the best spot in the state, Emerald Bay. As the sun goes down, the lake reflects the sky’s ever-changing colors, creating one of the most memorable Lake Tahoe sights.
The best way to enjoy the sunset at Emerald Bay is onboard the famous Tahoe Bleu Wave yacht. You’ll cruise 11 kilometers of the lake, see the sky turn from day to night, and maybe even spot some native wildlife.
Lake Tahoe 2 Day Itinerary
On a Lake Tahoe weekend getaway, you can explore extra attractions and spend more time in nature. If you’re visiting in the summer, check out the beaches and coves and enjoy a picnic by the shoreline. Or, if you’re coming in the winter, head up to the mountains and spend a day on one of Lake Tahoe’s famous ski resorts.
Sunrise at Inspiration Point
Resist the temptation to sleep in, and instead, head to Inspiration Point in Emerald Bay State Park before it gets light. Inspiration Point is set in the tall pines 600 feet above Lake Tahoe. The east-facing direction means you’ll see the sunrise behind the Sierra Mountains in the background. As well as being the best spot to see dawn break, visiting Inspiration Point early in the morning makes for a much more tranquil experience before the crowds arrive.
Cascade Falls is a quieter but equally beautiful alternative to Eagle Falls. Located just by Inspiration Point, it makes sense to check out this waterfall before leaving Emerald Bay. It’s a short and easy walk down to the falls, starting at Bayview Campground opposite the Inspiration Point parking lot. The entire trail is incredibly scenic, too, so be sure to include this natural wonder on your Lake Tahoe itinerary.
As the most loved beach in the area, Kings Beach is a must-see on any 2-day Lake Tahoe summer itinerary. The long stretch of sand in the north of the lake gets sunshine from morning until late afternoon, giving you plenty of opportunities to catch a tan. However, if it gets too hot, the pine tree backdrop means you don’t have to go far to find a shady spot either.
The beach is well equipped for visitors, with plenty of parking, public restrooms, and a shaded picnic area with barbecues. It’s a safe spot for swimming, and there are places to rent kayaks and paddleboards from here. What’s more, Kings Beach town is full of independent boutiques and awesome restaurants. So if you don’t fancy the hassle of doing a barbeque on the beach, you can enjoy the splendid food options in town.
Suppose it’s not beach weather during your Lake Tahoe weekend getaway. In that case, naturally, you’ll prefer to head into the mountains than to the shoreline. There are many excellent ski resorts around Lake Tahoe, but Squaw Valley (Palisades Tahoe) is perhaps the most popular.
As the 1960 Winter Olympics site, you’re bound to have an incredible skiing experience here, whether it’s your 1st, 10th, or 100th time hitting the slopes. Here you’ll have 34 lifts and 6,000 skiable acres with slopes for all levels and classes available for beginners. Squaw Valley has a super fun ski town feel, too, so be sure to finish the day with an “apres-ski” in one of the resort’s cozy bars.
Lake Tahoe 3 Day Itinerary
A 3-day Lake Tahoe trip itinerary can feature lesser-known sites like the hidden Vikingsholm Castle. Plus, if you’re an avid hiker, you can use this extra time to tackle one of the longer and more strenuous trails like Rubicon. Alternatively, you might even decide to climb one of the tallest peaks in the park, like Mount Rose or Mount Tallac.
One of the most popular routes for hiking in Lake Tahoe is the Rubicon Trail. The route follows the western shore but is set high above the water, resulting in incredible lake views. If you have the time to complete it, this 10-mile hike from D.L. Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay State Park is an excellent way to see a large part of the lake.
Most tourists coming to Lake Tahoe for a day totally miss this abandoned castle. Vikingsholm is a 38-room mansion hidden by the trees on the sandy shore of Emerald Bay with a truly enchanting feel. It’s also open for tours during the summer months, so you can check out the fascinating interior. It’s also easy to get to, with a leisurely 1-mile downhill stroll, so it is totally worth adding this cool attraction to your Tahoe itinerary.
Van Sickle Bi-State Park
Van Sickle Bi-State Park sits right on the border of California and Nevada, with the entrance close to Heavenly Resort in South Lake Tahoe. It’s a fantastic place to spend an afternoon as there’s plenty to do and see here. You can go hiking or horseback riding between the two states or explore the park’s ancient buildings, such as the historic barn from the Van Sickle farm.
Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
There are several best places to stay in Lake Tahoe, but the most popular area is undoubtedly South Lake Tahoe. Here you are close to all the attractions of Emerald Bay State Park, the famous Heavenly Ski Village, and plenty of restaurants and bars. So, no matter what you’re coming for or what time of year, you’ll always be in the heart of the action in South Lake Tahoe.
Here are the top picks for hotels and resorts in South Lake Tahoe, covering all budgets.
Luxury: The Landing Resort and Spa is a beachfront hotel with 5-star views, service, and facilities. The resort has an on-site spa with a hot tub, a heated outdoor pool, and a rooftop terrace.
Mid-range: The 3-star Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel offers value for money suites with private balconies in one of the most convenient locations, at the base of Heavenly Mountain Resort. Highlights include an expansive breakfast buffet spread, an indoor heated pool, and a hot tub.
Budget: Bluelake Inn in Heavenly Village offers clean and comfortable motel-style rooms for an excellent price. Guests can enjoy the use of the seasonal outdoor pool and hot tub and tasty breakfast each day, too.
Lake Tahoe FAQs
If you’re tight on time, 2 days in Lake Tahoe will suffice, but if your timeline allows it, it’s best visited over a long weekend, 3 days being ideal. Of course, more time can always be spent here, there’s enough to do!
This destination is spectacular to visit year-round thanks to the numerous activities that change with the seasons. The shoulder seasons offer the best time to visit Lake Tahoe, from March-May, and Septmber-November. Both seasons offer good weather and fewer crowds.
Enjoy your trip to Lake Tahoe!