aerial view of rocky coast and cabins
There’s plenty to see here both above and below the surface. | Photo courtesy of Go Tahoe North
There’s plenty to see here both above and below the surface. | Photo courtesy of Go Tahoe North

Follow Your Bliss to the Most Stunning Lake Paradise in America

Shred the slopes or dive into one of the world’s deepest lakes.

Lake Tahoe combines the best of all worlds: winter and water sports, nonstop nightlife and breathtaking backcountry hikes around glacier-carved bays and granite peaks. The pine-covered Sierra Nevada mountain range gently embraces the striking, turquoise-colored water that’s as clear as glass. Add its convenient location straddling the California/Nevada line, and it’s not hard to see why Tahoe is one America's greatest lake destinations.

An hour south of Reno and three east of San Francisco, you can go from hiking the forests in California to hopping the border to the casino side in Stateline, Nevada—pausing for a dip in the water at one of the many golden-sand beaches along the way.

Tahoe was practically 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. In fact, Tahoe claims the largest concentration of alpine ski resorts in North America—plus practically every kind of winter activity imaginable (yes, even dog-sledding is a thing here).

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. 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.

people kayaking
There’s no bad view here. Photo courtesy of Augustine Agency | Photo courtesy of Augustine Agency

Take a dip in Lake Tahoe’s crystal-clear water

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 nude beaches, like Whale Beach and Secret Cove in Carson City, Nevada. Both 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 have long been unofficial nude beaches, but recently, rangers have been enforcing a PG-13 vibe (though it appears many didn't get the memo).

people paddleboarding
Paddle your way around the coast and go cliff jumping. | Photo courtesy of Ryan Salm Photography

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 you can rent powerboats, jet skis, and party boats.

Mountain biker on bike trail
Tons of trails to choose from. | aaronj9/Shutterstock

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 there’s 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.

people skiing down mountain
There’s a slope for everyone here. | Photo courtesy of Jeff Engerbretson

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. 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.

At Palisades Tahoe, 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 mention “Downtown” Lake Tahoe, they’re usually referring to 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 aren’t consuming Lake Tahoe (or defining it).

In all fairness, the casinos here aren’t as glitzy as Vegas (probably not much of a shocker), 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, Bally's, 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.

chairs around firepit
Reserve a spot at Lone Eagle Grille at sunset. | Photo courtesy of Go North Tahoe

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-based 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 above the mountains and melt across the sky.

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

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 that’s located in the heart of the action in South Lake Tahoe.

Since Lake Tahoe is all about the outdoors, there are also a number of campgrounds, including those at the 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.