Lake Tahoe is in the grips of California and Nevada the way a prized sapphire might be in the claws of two rival gem dealers. Once you stand on the shores of the turquoise lake and gaze up at the surrounding mountains, whether they’re covered in snow or lush with pine forest, Tahoe is the perfect all-season destination for sports enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. And as the winter melts into spring, and spring blossoms into summer, the area’s myriad and stunning offerings evolve, too.
The snow at Lake Tahoe
Tahoe is California’s premier destination for snowboarding and skiing. With an annual snowfall between 300 and 400 feet and a perennial sunshine percentage of 75, chances are good that skiers and snowboarders can experience either spring skiing in winter or heavy powder days in spring. And if they’re lucky, both.
North Lake Tahoe has the unique distinction of having America’s largest concentration of ski resorts. With eleven mountains and five cross-country skiing areas, all within 30 miles of one another, it’s obvious why Squaw Valley was selected to host the 1960 Olympic Games.
Squaw is one of the most diverse mountains in the area. It has triple black diamond chutes atop the Palisades peak, incredible bowls for powder days, and excellent groomers. Both the terrain park jumps and half pipe are huge and nerve racking. Racers will find the slalom, ski cross, and freestyle skiing courses exciting. Encompassing the mountain are thick wooded areas, while the expansive middle is open terrain. The choices, once Squaw’s gondola shuttles riders nearly to the peak, are endless. They can pause for a coffee at the world’s first and only ski-in, ski-out Starbucks. Or load onto one of the many lifts that ascend even higher up the mountain. Or take a quad-burning, ten-minute run down to the base, where the ritzy Squaw village appeals to shoppers, lodge-junkies, and those who seek that sumptuous apres-ski ambiance. Additionally, if skiing or boarding don’t appeal to you, ride the Squaw tram to High Camp, where there is mountaintop ice skating and a museum dedicated to the story of the 1960 Olympic Games.
This past year, Squaw Valley merged with the resort at Alpine Meadows. Not only did it increase the available skiable terrain to more than 6,000 acres, but it allowed riders access to both mountains with one pass. A free shuttle bus traverses between the two locations, too.
Unlike the enormous Squaw, Alpine Meadows dishes up fewer crowds and offers a more laid back vibe. Despite being almost half the size of its sister resort, Alpine’s longest trail is still a quarter of a mile longer than Squaw Valley’s lengthiest 3.2-mile run. What’s best at Alpine, besides the terrain, are the views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains on the western banks and the Carson Range to the east. To reach Alpine’s best panoramas, take the Lakeview Chairlift to the top.
Contrary to the ski lodge assumption, both Squaw and Alpine serve up quality cuisine at reasonable prices. Go with the carne asada burrito for about $10.00 at both resorts or two fish tacos for $8.00 at the top of the Squaw Valley gondola.
Another Lake Tahoe mountain worth exploring is Northstar. The resort offers ski-in, ski-out accommodations, one of the best terrain parks in the country–including the opportunity to ride a half pipe and super pipe on one run–invigorating tree skiing, and the ability for riders to track their daily performance, measuring statistics like vertical feet and trails ridden.
Parents who are traveling with kids too young to ski can rent sleds at some of the mountains, too. But if the whole family is looking to sled, try Granlibakken and Donner Ski Ranch. If you’ve come to town with your own, head to Tahoe Vista’s North Regional Park. For those who have always dreamed of having a team of huskies pull their sleigh across a tundra, Lake Tahoe is the place to bring that dream to fruition with companies like Wilderness Adventures.
Next week, from March 1st to the 10th, North Lake Tahoe kicks off their 32nd Annual Winter Carnival, Snowfest. It’s ten days of fireworks, parades, parties, kid events, and of course, ski races. Make sure you head over to Carnelian Bay to partake in the festival’s icy Polar Bear swim.
Hiking and biking
Though Tahoe’s snow can last until early May, and remain in the mountains until July, once the melt begins, hiking and biking become one of the greatest draws. (If you do take to the trails in Tahoe before the snow disappears, you will need to acquire a pair of snowshoes. One of the best places to hike through snow is along the West Shore of the lake, where the halcyon scenery complements superb snowshoeing and cross country skiing routes through Blackwood Canyon, Paige Meadows, and Sugar Pine Point State Park.)
Once the snow does melt, hikers should journey from DL Bliss State Park along the Rubicon Trail, which travels the southwestern part of the lake. (It’s also a good place to rent ATVs.) From there, the more adventurous can extend their hike two and a half miles, round-trip, by heading into Emerald Bay, which is attached to Tahoe like an appendix. The bay, in and of itself is stunning, but it’s also home to one of the most beautiful, Scandinavian-inspired archetypes of architecture: the Vikingsholm Castle. You can also visit Vikingsholm by boat.
Those seeking a challenge can head for Mt. Tallac, a strenuous 9.5-mile round-trip climb that ascends 3,500 feet. The path is covered in wildflowers and meanders past alpine lakes. Many of the ski resorts also convert their lifts to transport hikers and bikers to their peaks. Hike Squaw’s Shirley Canyon or the Five Lakes trail, or bike California’s largest mountain bike park at Northstar. Of course, hikers can also attempt to tackle some (or all) of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail.
One of the best biking paths is along the northern part of the lake. Extend the trip by pedaling north along the Trukee River and up to Squaw Valley for a 16-mile round-trip journey.
Fishing and boating
The lake, sculpted by glacier, sits more than a mile above sea level and in some places reaches depths of three-miles. With a shoreline of 72 miles and a length that is nearly one-third the perimeter, the lake offers countless activities.
Anglers will never get bored. They can fish from the shoreline, cast for trout and mackinaw from charter boats, or fly-fish the tributaries. Kym Fabel, manager at the visitors’ center, recommended Mickey’s Big Mack Charters, which is a year-round operation. Fabel said that owner and master guide Mickey Daniels “knows the lake like no other. He’s a fixture here.”
Of course, water sports are also huge on the lake. Standup paddling, sailboating, kayaking, and wakeboarding are all but a few of the water activities that become more popular as the lake temperature rises from 40 degrees to its late summer peak in the 70s. This year, the waterborne shuttle, one of the area’s oldest forms of transportation, is returning to Tahoe, after disappearing nearly a century ago.
Book a water tour in Lake Tahoe
The Nevada side
Though Tahoe is renowned for its natural beauty, there are still numerous draws that are indoors. On the Nevada side of the lake, you’ll have endless casinos to choose from, including Cal Neva, which was once owned by Frank Sinatra.
But don’t assume that the Nevada side only hosts gamblers. California’s neighbor has ski slopes, too, like Mt. Rose, which is notorious for its double blacks, which, at 55 degrees, are as close to vertical as a boarder or skier wants to get. The Nevada side of Tahoe also has incredible hiking and biking paths, such as the challenging Flume Trail from Marlette Lake to Incline Village. On your trip to Incline Village, stop over at George Whittell’s Thuderbird Lodge. Whittell–the original owner of this stone estate and, in fact, the entire east side of the lake–has granite tunnels running through his former estate, where he once stashed a private zoo and a coterie of Cal Neva showgirls.
Whether you’re seeing Tahoe from the shores of Nevada or California, with skis or pedals beneath your feet, crunching over snow or leaves, seated on a watercraft or a mountain peak, you’ll be sure to experience the enchantment of Lake Tahoe.
On weekends and during holidays, visitors can catch the free shuttles that service the North Lake Tahoe and Trukee areas, like the day-time Tahoe Area Regional Transit (TART) and the evening Night Rider, which services the area from 7:00 pm to 2:00 am.
- Noah Lederman