Follow Your Bliss to the Most Stunning Lake Paradise in America

For anyone who enjoys a view, a hike, a game of blackjack, or a zen-like dip.

Taken on its own, Lake Tahoe is a marvel. Isolated and expansive, its deep turquoise waters are flanked by the pine-cloaked Sierra Nevada mountain range in a loose bear hug. The area is marked by large boulders deposited by geologic faults and mountainous glaciers millions of years ago.

It's the sum of those parts—and its unique location straddling the California/Nevada line—that makes Tahoe one America's greatest lake destinations. An hour south of Reno and three east of San Francisco, it's a land where hikers can explore the dense forests on the California side, blissfully unaware of the casino-based debauchery happening over in Stateline, Nevada… or feel free to join in after a dip in the lake.

Although there are people lucky enough to live here year round, for the most part Lake Tahoe was built to host visitors. Towns like Stateline and Incline Village have populations of well under 10,000, but you’ll find high-rise casino hotels, block after block of restaurants, golf courses, hiking trails, and ski resorts among them. It’s no wonder the sidewalks buzz year-round with gamblers, nature lovers, and adventure seekers.

The region is a great equalizer, full of flip flops in summer and knit hats in winter, making it impossible to know whether you're standing next to a weekending Silicon Valley millionaire or a local ski bum at any given moment. It’s a tossed salad of humanity where everyone is bound together by a shared love of the lake. Here are the best things to do once you heed its call.

kids kayaking
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Dip in the crystal waters of Lake Tahoe

The water in Lake Tahoe is so clear, there are places where you can gaze 70 feet into its depths from the comfort of a kayak. The lake gets a lot deeper than that, though. Lake Tahoe is one of the deepest lakes in the world, plunging 1,600 feet in some places. It’s 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, which means despite being one of the most popular vacation destinations in the west, the water rarely seems overcrowded.

While it might not be entirely accurate to say that there are secret beaches in Lake Tahoe, there are plenty of less-populated spots off the beaten path, including incredible diving spots and traditionally nude beaches.

Whale Beach and Secret Cove in Carson City, Nevada are both a bit of a hike to get to, but the secluded views of the lake and the densely forested Sierra Nevada range are spectacular at both locations. These were traditionally nude beaches, but recently rangers have been enforcing a more PG-13 vibe… though it appears many didn't get the memo.

emerald bay, lake tahoe
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Angora Lakes is another must-see while you’re in the area. You’ll have to hike a mile uphill to get there, but one of the lakes is noted for the sheer rock cliffs that frame the far side. Local divers swim or paddle their way across to jump off from ledges ranging from 20 feet to 60 feet high. Even if you’re not brave enough to make the leap yourself, it’s exciting to watch from the safety of the shore. Just be sure to get there early: the parking lot and the sandy area around the lake fill up fast.

Floating on the lake is an awe-inspiring experience since the water is so blue it seems to melt into the sky. If you don’t have a truck or roof rack, Lake Tahoe Kayak Rentals will deliver stand-up paddleboards or kayaks to the beach. For more adventurous types, Tahoe Sports will take you parasailing or rent out powerboats, jet skis, or party boats for an adrenaline-fueled experience.

bikers
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Tackle some of California's most scenic trails

The best views in Lake Tahoe are found from the many hiking trails surrounding the lake, including the 2.6-mile out-and-back trail known as Monkey Rock. Named for a large primate-shaped boulder at the top, the stone formation is natural, but at some point an unknown local artist chiseled and enhanced it so they’ll be no mistaking its ape-like form. This trail is only moderately difficult, making it relatively easy to catch the impressive views at the top.

For more experienced hikers, the 10.5-mile trail at Mount Tallac can be punishing at times, but the vistas of Lake Tahoe from nearly 10,000 feet are worth it. If a simple stroll is more your speed, the 2.6-mile point-to-point Tahoe East Shore Trail in Nevada's Incline Village is an easy hike with views of the water and walkways down to the beach. The trail is extremely accessible with pavement smooth enough for strollers or wheelchairs.

mountain skiing with lake view
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Rocket down the slopes around Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a beach town that blossoms into a ski town in winter (or the other way around depending on how you look at it), and there are many options for all skill levels.

Even if you don’t ski, the Scenic Gondola Ride at Heavenly Ski Resort offers incredible views of the lake, forest, and mountain peaks. Although you can ride the gondola year-round, it is especially breathtaking when the region is covered with snow in winter. For skiers, the resort is phenomenal, whether you just want to enjoy the views on the beginner slopes or challenge yourself with 4,800-acres of off-grid terrain.

Meanwhile, at Squaw Valley Ski Resort — whose name is soon to change to something less offensive — skiers can lose themselves on 30 chairlifts spread out over 3,600 acres, while Tahoe Donner is ideal for beginners and families looking to escape the bigger crowds.

Take your chance at the casinos

When people think about "downtown Lake Tahoe," they’re usually thinking about an area called Tahoe South, where Stateline, Nevada joins South Lake Tahoe, California. The two towns share a bustling main street, but since gambling isn’t legal in California, all of the casinos are relegated to the Nevada side.

At first glance, these mega casinos might seem at odds with such a ruggedly beautiful place, but there are enough trees, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and bungalow-style motels in the area to make the high rises feel like they are just part of Lake Tahoe, as opposed to the thing that defines it.

On the whole, the casinos here aren’t as glitzy as you’ll find in Vegas, but you’ll still find plenty of neon lights, patterned carpet, live music, game tables, and slot machines to get your fix of gambling and nightlife. If you plan to hop from casino to casino, base yourself in Stateline where you can park your car and walk from the Hard Rock to Harrah’s, Montbleu and more.

Making your way between them is half the fun: The sidewalks are always busy but not in a pushy, hurried way. It’s almost as if everyone has decided to go out for a stroll at the same time. No one is in a rush — in Lake Tahoe, you’ll get there when you get there.

You don’t have to gamble to enjoy walking the sidewalks, though. There are plenty of places to eat, grab a drink, play mini golf, or just revel in the cross-section of people smiling and nodding hello as you pass by.

Lone Eagle Grille
Lone Eagle Grille

Sample a big-city food scene with small-town vibes

It might seem that every other restaurant around Lake Tahoe is a sushi joint: The place simply punches above its weight in fresh Japanese cuisine. One of the best spots is Sushi Pier, which offers more than 40 different rolls and a wide selection of sake and sake cocktails. If you’re really hungry after a day in the wilderness, skip the traditional menu and ask for the all-you-can-eat option, which is hands down one of the best deals in all of Lake Tahoe.

Lone Eagle Grille in Incline Village is one of the spendier restaurants in the area. The steaks and craft cocktails are fantastic, but the real draw is its waterfront location. Be sure to make a reservation at sunset when stripes of purple and gold move across the mountains and melt across the sky.

If you want to get away from the tourist areas, Tahoe Tavern and Grill is a great local spot. There’s no view (it’s in a strip mall by a gas station… just go with it), but they serve excellent, reasonably priced pizzas, pasta, and burgers with big-screen TVs to attract sports fans.

couple looking out at lake tahoe
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Where to stay around Lake Tahoe

If you’re staying in Lake Tahoe for a week or longer, private vacation homes and Airbnbs will usually offer the most flexibility since you’ll have access to practical amenities like a kitchen and laundry facilities. They tend to book quickly, though, so be sure to plan as soon as possible.

For shorter stays or visitors who prefer a hotel, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa, and Casino is located right on the water in Incline Village and offers traditional rooms, suites, and private cottages. Another fantastic, easier-on-the-wallet option is the Stardust Lodge, a refurbished retro motel with a swimming pool and a great location right in the middle of the action in South Lake Tahoe.

Since Lake Tahoe is all about the outdoors, there are also a number of campgrounds, including the primitive sites at the gorgeous waterfront D.L. Bliss State Park. Keep in mind that camping in Lake Tahoe is an extremely popular activity and in most locations reservations need to be made well in advance. That’s okay, it just gives you more time to daydream and plot your perfect Tahoe getaway, and no matter what you're dreaming of, it's likely you'll find it in California and Nevada lake paradise.

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Tamara Gane is a freelance writer specializing in food, drink, travel, family, and social justice stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find her work in The Washington Post, NPR, Fodor’s Travel, Reader’s Digest, HuffPost, and more. Follow her on Twitter @tamaragane.