Emerald Bay © the_tahoe_guy (Flickr)

36 Hours in South Lake Tahoe: Outdoor Diversions in California’s Quintessential Getaway Destination

As one of the most stunning lakes in the entire United States (we’re talking all 50 here), it’s no surprise that Lake Tahoe is among the most visited natural destinations in the country. It’s long been a quintessential weekend getaway for left-coasters and those looking to travel a bit further from other U.S. points for that extra something special.

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The sun shines on Tahoe (as locals simply call it) more than 75% of the year, making it an ideal spot for all manner of outdoor sport. Summer is perfect for kayaking, hiking, windsurfing … and pretty much any activity that involves putting your arse in the water. In turn, winters are snow-heavy and the nearby peaks grow more than ready for powder-seeking adventure travelers.

Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe, California
Bonsai Rock in Lake Tahoe © Geoff Stearns

It’s no surprise then that you could spend weeks in, on, and around the lake without ever getting bored. Here, we distill the possibilities down to just thirty six near-perfect hours …

Day 1

Lake Tahoe is easily accessible by car from San Francisco (approximately 3 hours) or Reno, Nevada (less than an hour). Whatever your origin, you’ll likely arrive hungry!

Noon / Lunch @ The Brewery at Lake Tahoe

Sadly, there aren’t many microbreweries actually situated within Lake Tahoe. Happily you needn’t look much further than the aptly named Brewery at Lake Tahoe. With amazing waterviews and a no-nonsense mountain town atmosphere, it’s become somewhat of a local landmark over the past twenty-plus years.

The Brewery at Lake Tahoe, California
© The Brewery at Lake Tahoe

The menu is typical pub fare with an array of burgers, pizzas and hearty comfort food entrees like ribs, pot pie and baked mac ‘n cheese. Don’t miss their signature beer – Bad Ass Ale – with a smooth malty flavor bookended by varying bitterness upfront and on the finish.

But pace yourself so that you’re able to …

2p / Take a Scenic Drive Around Lake Tahoe

Drive Around Lake Tahoe, California
Drive Around Lake Tahoe © Mike Richard

It requires about two hours (three if you prefer to take your time) but it’s worth every minute:

Driving around the lakeshore’s 72 miles would give you quite a workout behind the wheel, but also reward you with spellbinding scenery. Generally speaking, the north shore is quiet and upscale, the west shore rugged and old-timey, the east shore undeveloped and the south shore busy and a tad tacky with aging motels and gaudy casinos. (Via)

Check out MyScenicDrives.com for a full write-up.

5p / Massage Treatment @ The Landing Spa

Head to your hotel for the next two nights to unwind and work off that driving tension with a proper massage treatment at The Landing Spa.

The Spa at The Landing Resort, Lake Tahoe, California

They offer a variety of treatments typical of a luxury hotel. I opted for the 80-minute Therapeutic Swedish Massage and it’s a damn good thing the spa is attached to the hotel. Because driving was not an option afterward. I stumbled helplessly back to my room — muscles thoroughly relaxed to a Gumby-like state — and proceeded to nap for three hours.

Dinner @ Jimmy’s Restaurant

Bar at Jimmy's Restaurant at The Landing, South Lake Tahoe, California
The Bar at Jimmy's Restaurant

Assuming you’ve had time to recoup from your massage … head downstairs to Jimmy’s Restaurant at The Landing. It’s all about fresh seafood, seasonal vegetables and other locally-sourced ingredients served with a blend of wood-fired Greek and California inspiration.

Offerings change almost daily, but I highly recommend the small plate experience – perfect for enjoying slowly on the outdoor patio while watching the sun go down.

Watch the Sunset from the Beach (… Any Beach Really)

Sunset from the Beach at The Landing Resort, Lake Tahoe, California
Sunset from the Beach at The Landing Resort, Lake Tahoe © Mike Richard

Given the lake’s massive footprint, sunsets are quite breathtaking from almost any vantage point. Jimmy’s restaurant offers al fresco dining where guests are welcome to sip a local microbrew while watching the sunset.

Or grab a blanket and walk the hundred feet to the beach out back to relax in the sand as the day ends. Given the stunning natural beauty, it’s no surprise that wedding ceremonies are often held here.

Overnight @ The Landing

Amid classic mom-and-pop motels and towering resort casinos, The Landing Resort & Spa is a diamond in the lakeside rough. As the only luxury boutique hotel in town, they’ve well cornered the market for Tahoe visitors looking for something different.

Guestroom at The Landing Resort, Lake Tahoe, California

In three words, I’d call it contemporary alpine lodge — touches of light wood paneling, rough wood shelving with plaid carpeting are reminiscent of a Nordic ski lodge. Contemporary colors and accents bring the entire decor into the 21st century in a modern, playful way.

Lake View from Guestroom Balcony at The Landing Resort & Spa, Lake Tahoe, California
View to Lake Tahoe from Guestroom Balcony © Mike Richard

My stay in one of their Premium Lake Front Suites was nothing short of extraordinary. The view to Lake Tahoe alone made me begin to question my decision to locate VagabondishHQ on the east coast.

With nearly 500 square feet (massive by local standards) to spread out inside and another 200 on the private balcony, I quickly began to envision myself being forcefully “escorted” from the property at checkout time. All of which is to say that it passed the “Honeymoon Suite test” (i.e. would I bring my own bride here?) with flying colors.

The list of modern amenities is lengthy to say the least:

  • Stone gas fireplace with twin leather club chairs
  • Deluxe King pillow top Simmons Beautyrest bed
  • Select 300 thread count sateen linens, goose down pillows and comforters
  • Wet bar with refrigerator
  • Granite writing desk with ergonomic chair
  • 55″ flat screen LCD television with DirecTV and premium HD channels
  • Keurig coffee maker with Starbucks Premium Blend Coffee and tea service

And even the bathroom was fit for a sultan. Sadly there was no gold-plated toilet. But most every other amenity was provided, including marble floors, double-basin granite vanity and a large, walk-in rain shower with separate jetted soaking tub. Oh, and heated floors and a heated toilet seat. Because, well, you’re on vacation and you really do owe it to yourself.

Day 2

5a / Sunrise @ Emerald Bay

Wait … what time do I have to get up? Yeah, yeah, I know. But, truthfully, how many sunrises have you seen in your life? I guarantee the answer is “not enough”. Trust me, you don’t want to miss the sunrise here. It’s simply stunning.

Raising the sun - sunrise at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California
Sunrise at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe © Mike Richard

Brave the early morning wake-up call and mere twenty-minute ride to Emerald Bay, camera in hand. Once you’ve snapped the requisite 1,480 photos, stick around to explore Eagle Falls located just across the street.

While you’re at it, don’t miss Vikingsholm – this “summer home”/small castle was built in the 1920’s and is recognized today as the best surviving example of Scandinavian architecture in North America.

10a / Breakfast @ Driftwood Cafe

The choices for breakfast in Lake Tahoe are myriad. You can opt for the convenient route and head back to the hotel for an insanely good breakfast at Jimmy’s (order this exactly: fresh OJ, cappuccino, smoked heritage ham and eggs with bacon … seriously, you won’t be disappointed).

Driftwood Cafe, Lake Tahoe, California

OR, since you’re already up, (probably) dressed and out of bed, why not head into town? Barely a 2-minute drive from The Landing is Driftwood Cafe. Try the eggs Benedict or homemade, thick cut sourdough French toast – both fantastic.

Noon / Ride the Heavenly Gondola

Hop aboard the Heavenly Gondola for a ride 2.4 miles up Heavenly Mountain. Stop at the observation deck to take in the stunning views of Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley and Desolation Wilderness.

Observation Deck, Heavenly Gondola, Lake Tahoe, California
The Observation Deck, Heavenly Gondola © favansc

Lunch @ Tamarack Lodge

Continue on up the mountain and hop off for lunch at Tamarack Lodge at the Top of the Gondola. Here you’ll find even more stunning, panoramic views of both the Nevada and California slopes. Relax for a bit (at nearly 9,150 feet!) on the outdoor deck – short of taking a helicopter ride, the views of Tahoe don’t get much better than this!

2p / Hike California’s Desolation Wilderness

Eagle Falls, Lake Tahoe, California
Eagle Falls in Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe © Mike Richard

With a full belly, it’s time to spend some serious time outdoors. Nearly 80% of the land around Lake Tahoe is public and almost completely available for every outdoor activity you can imagine. It totals more than 150,000 acres – that’s a lot of ground to cover!

Grab a map of the area at USFS Taylor Creek Visitor Center (north of the ‘Y’ intersection at Highways 50 and 89) and spend the afternoon outdoors. There are countless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, wilderness exploration and generally getting lost.

Dinner @ Base Camp Pizza

… and now that you’ve worked off lunch, head back to town for one last dinner in Tahoe. After a fancy dinner last night, why not relax with a bit of comfort food? Base Camp Pizza in Heavenly Village will do the trick. It’s a local staple with some of the best smoky BBQ chicken pizza I’ve ever had! Add a side of garlic chips to make it yet another heart healthy meal.

Overnight @ The Landing

Settle back in at the hotel for one last glimpse of the stunning Tahoe sunsets. Or simply decide to crash early – it’s been a long day and a half for sure. But I’m guessing it was worth every minute!

Founding Editor
  1. These places are all on the South shore. While I’m sure they are nice the North and West shores have many great hotels and restaurants without the madness of South shore’s big casinos and lounges that just make it feel like Reno. I personally avoid the Soith shore like the plague.

    1. @Pete: Right on. I actually edited the headline to be *South* Lake Tahoe because you’re absolutely right. Thanks for checking in!

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