During almost every season, there’s more to do in Lake Tahoe than can be crammed into any one visit. From the North Shore to the South Shore, beaches to summit hikes, the Lake of the Sky is an outdoorsy paradise with mountain charm and a host of amenities fit for all types of visitors.
With so many options, a Lake Tahoe summer vacation can quickly become overwhelming. A well-curated itinerary, like the one below, can help organize and maximize time around the 72-miles of clear blue water. The trick is sticking to it and not losing yourself at the beach for days on end. Actually, that’s a pretty good way to spend time, too.
The Ultimate Lake Tahoe Summer Itinerary
Day 1: Truckee | Donner Lake
Truckee’s charming downtown makes for a warm welcome to the Lake Tahoe region. Grab a room at Cedar House Sport Hotel as a basecamp for adventures. At lunch, head over to Burger Me! for a classic cheeseburger or try something a little more exotic (elk burger?).
Either take lunch to go or head out for an afternoon tour of Donner Lake. Though much of the shoreline is private, there are great access points at West End Beach or Shoreline Park. In the evening, check out Moody’s Bistro Bar & Beats for dinner and tunes. They host live music most nights and a cool selection of craft cocktails (We recommend the 1930s-inspired Brown Derby).
If you can squeeze in dessert, hit the Little Truckee Ice Creamery at their Donner Lake shop or they have a trailer in downtown Truckee. The Truckee Trails flavor with pine nut brittle and brownie chunks is as good as it gets.
Day 2: Northstar | Tahoe City
Mountain biking is one of the quintessential summer activities in the Lake Tahoe Basin. After the snow melts, Northstar California Resort’s many ski runs turn into a pedaling paradise. Head out early to get coffee and breakfast in the village (yes, there’s a Starbucks as well as a few other options) and rent bikes at the mountain’s full-service shop. The resort offers trails for every ability and a ton of lift-accessed terrain, including some hardcore downhill. Stop for lunch at Rubicon Pizza and finish the day with a ride up Zephyr Express for the 1,000-vertical-foot descent.
After biking, drive over Brockway Summit and along the lake to Tahoe City. Park at Commons Beach and walk over Fanny Bridge to Bridgetender Tavern for an easygoing dinner. If you’re looking to stay, try Basecamp Tahoe City. They’ve got family rooms and it’s an easy walking distance to the lake.
Day 3: East Shore | Incline Village
No trip to Lake Tahoe is complete without a day lounging by the sparkling teal waters of the granite boulder-studded East Shore. If driving from Tahoe City, swing by Old Post Office Cafe for a “Breakfast Parcel,” a loaded breakfast sandwich on sourdough. Pick up last minute snacks and supplies—and, seriously, don’t forget the sunscreen—at Safeway in Kings Beach or Raley’s in Incline Village.
The relatively new Tahoe East Shore Trail is one of the best ways to access some of the lake’s most beautiful shoreline or you can walk (or bicycle) the three miles to Sand Harbor. Parking for the trail is near Ponderosa Ranch Road in self-paid spots. Get there early to beat the crowds. After a day at the beach, sate the appetite at the classic North Shore spot, T’s Rotisserie. Don’t stop at burritos, everything with their tri-tip and chicken is good.
There are plenty of lodging options between Kings Beach and Incline Village. We like Parkside Inn for their simple and clean mountain-style rooms.
Day 4: West Shore | Emerald Bay | South Lake Tahoe
Tahoe’s West Shore is known as the quieter side of the lake, and it’s well worth the drive. First stop should definitely be the iconic West Shore Market for coffee. From there, cruise over to Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. The grounds are perfect for a morning stroll and the gravelly beaches are usually not too crowded.
Further down Highway 89, the Tahoma Market & Deli is an excellent lunch spot, specializing in heaping sandwiches on homemade bread. Get them to go and head for D.L. Bliss State Park. Hike the Rubicon Trail to Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm castle or relax on the white sand of Calawee Cove. Swimmers often jump from Rooster Rock just around Rubicon Point.
Continuing toward South Lake Tahoe, the drive around Emerald Bay offers unreal views of Fannette Island. Pull over in Camp Richardson for ice cream before checking into South Lake Tahoe’s dog-friendly 3 Peaks Resort & Beach Club. Unless you’re into napping, hop on the Heavenly gondola for the best views of Lake Tahoe and some cool short hikes. For dinner, it’s hard to beat the easy-going mediterranean fare of Artemis (watch out for the ghost pepper wings) or for a truly upscale waterfront experience, head to Riva Grill. South Lake Tahoe has a few breweries, from Sidellis to Cold Water, South Lake Brewing to South of North, and they all offer several unique beers.
At night, any visitor has to check out the South Shore’s infamous casino scene. There are arcades for kids or plenty of ways to gamble for adults. Base Camp Pizza in the Heavenly Village (just a short walk from the casinos) is popular for quality food and great bar service, often with live music and games in the patio area. If you’re into nightlife, saunter over to McPs or go for silent disco Fridays at Lake Tahoe AleworX Stateline.
Day 5: Desolation Wilderness | Fallen Leaf Lake
Some of the region’s best hiking is centered around Desolation Wilderness on the southwest side of Lake Tahoe. There are many entry points, but expect steep trails at most of them. Our favorites in this zone are bagging the summit of the unmissable South Shore peak, Mount Tallac. The trailhead is near Fallen Leaf Lake, which is great for cooling off after the hike. Start early on warm days and bring plenty of water. The south-facing trail climbs more than 2,500 feet and can be baking under full sun. For a more mellow walk, try the bike path that runs from Pope Beach to Baldwin Beach or rent bikes from one of many rentals along the trail or in town.
An easy and wallet-friendly meal, Classic Cue near the “Y” serves big burgers and has pool tables available by the hour. The occasional karaoke night is a hoot and can fill the small space.
Day 6: Zephyr Cove | Cave Rock
If you’re visiting Lake Tahoe, you’ve got to plan some time on the water. Zephyr Cove hosts rentals of everything from paddleboards to power boats and jet skis. There’s plenty of beach space to spread out a blanket and nearby Safeway is a good spot to grab everything you need for a picnic. With sandy shallows and a rocky high-water island to the north, the Zephyr Cove area is particularly good for kids. For the older crowd, there’s a beachfront bar and a pretty raucous crowd on the weekends. All ages will love the ride across the lake on the sternwheeler M.S. Dixie II, which leaves from the dock.
If you’re still into exploring after some beach time, hike to the top of Cave Rock. The short .8-mile walk leads to one of the lake’s best view points. Be careful at the top. There are no ropes or railings and the 250-foot drop leads straight to a busy Highway 50 and the rocky shore. It’s a great vantage for sunset, but it can be chilly if there’s a breeze.
Day 7: American River Rafting | OARS American River Outpost
For a fitting finale to this action-packed itinerary, you’d be remiss not to get a taste of the region’s wild rivers. A short detour from both North and South Lake Tahoe, and on the way home if you’re headed back to the Bay Area, an American River rafting trip is easy to work into any Lake Tahoe trip.
To get to the South Fork of the American River from South Lake, head west on Highway 50. For food on the way, Meyers is home to one of the region’s best breakfast joints, The Getaway Cafe. After hearty plates of eggs benedict (try the deluxe version!), it’s an easy and scenic 2-hour drive to OARS American River Outpost in Coloma, CA.
One-day South Fork American River rafting trips typically depart late morning and include lunch. Once on the river, a few miles of splashy, warm-up whitewater ramps up to exciting Class III rapids like Satan’s Cesspool, Hospital Bar, and Bouncing Rock. Make sure to smile for the photographers who will be waiting to catch all of the action at some of the best American River rapids.
If you’re not quite ready to head home after a fun-filled day on the river, throw down a tent at the Outpost, which offers camping for OARS rafters for $15 per person/per night for the night before and/or after your trip. You can also rent a tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag, or bring them from home.
For dinner, it’s a quick 2-minute walk across the street for some pub grub at Gorilla Rock Tacos or Marco’s Cafe. Then, kick back in camp for a laid-back evening under the stars.
Heading back to the Bay Area or Reno from there is easy. Spending just a week in Lake Tahoe is never enough, but hopefully this itinerary will help make the most out of your time.
Photos: Tahoe view – Simon Hurry on Unsplash, Dylan Silver, D.L. Bliss State Park – California State Parks