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How to Survive a Vacation at Lake Tahoe, California

Updated on July 17, 2012

While planning a vacation to, say, Hawaii, or other tropical destination, is pretty basic, taking a vacation in the renowned Lake Tahoe, California's Alpine-like area requires planning.

Lake Tahoe is a small ocean-being nearly 20 miles long and 12-15 miles wide. Think, Salton Sea, also in California. Germany has its own "Lake Tahoe" size lake also. The lake sits at the 6000 ft level. It is surrounded by Alp-like mountains that still may have snow as late as June. These reach to over 9000 ft. The lake itself is one of the world's clearest and cleanest lakes. One can see down over 100 ft. in the more shallow areas. It is almost 1600 ft. deep. The lake is surrounded by towering pines. Beaches are primarily at the south and north ends, a few exist on the flanks. The lake's largest city is South Lake Tahoe with 30,000. All other towns are from a few hundred to a few thousand. Reno, Nevada is about one hour away. The lake itself is shared by California and Nevada. The water is snow fed, so it is cold in many places unless it is shallow.

Planning a vacation there requires preliminary decisions: winter or summer? What do you like to do the most? What end of the lake do you plan to stay? It matters because in the winter, you go there to ski at one of many ski resorts and because you love snow. In the summer, you go there to enjoy the beaches and water related sports, hiking along any of its many trails, camping, biking, gambling (in the Nevada side) or golf. Where you stay is important because it ties into getting there. For Californians, the two main roads are Hwy 50, a two lane affair that leads to South Lake Tahoe, or Hwy 80, a four lane affair that takes you to Reno. This takes you to the north end. The south end is more developed and tends to offer more, but the north end is less populated and still offers almost as much.

In the winter, you need snow gear. Temps seldom rise above 40F. In the summer, temps range from 50F (low) to 85F(high). The summer means summer attire: sandals, shorts, light tops, tennis shoes, maybe a light jacket, bathing suit, water shoes. Lake Tahoe is dry in the summer, there is no humidity. It is far easier to vacation there in the summer, than in the winter! Any season is beautiful.

The more people in involved in your vacation plans, the more complicated it will all be. Less is better unless everyone can agree on a day's activities. When hiking in the woods, know where you are going and where you came from. Watch for small posts with directions. After awhile, they tend to blend in with the trees. Missing your turn off IS a turn off, I know. If you are not sure, ask a stranger coming from the opposite direction for information. If they do not know, ask the next one. You might save hours of hiking in the wrong direction. Should you meet a black bear (no grizzly there), make considerable noise, but don't run. Try to be larger than the bear. Black bears are generally timid. Take a bottle of water and snacks. Figure that the average hiker can go about one mile in 45 min. Plan your hike when daylight hours exist. Hiking in the dark is NOT fun. Most hikes end at a lake. Swimming in them is fine, just take water shoes for rocks (many beaches have rocks, not sand on the lake floor). Diving off rocks is fine but verify by swimming out to a impact spot that it is safe.

Lake Tahoe has no really nasty problems, but mosquitoes do come out at night. They seem to like hikers quite a bit because of their sweat. Black bears may visit your area at night. Usually, they are after garbage. So-never leave food etc., in a car or in a container outside. Their keen sense of smell is amazing. Coyotes also exist. To be honest, despite hiking many times there, I have never seen either animal.

Taking your dog complicates many issues. First, you need to find a dog-friendly beach or area where they are allowed, it is harder than you think. Not all trails allow dogs. Most State parks are NOT dog friendly. If you own a timeshare there, they are not allowed. In the south, the best dog beach is Kiva Beach, left of Camp Richardson. In the north, Carelian beach, MoonDune beach, Ski Beach (Nevada side) and Kings Beach are dog friendly.

The best shopping for variety is in South Lake Tahoe city. From the north end, the drive is about 40 minutes. In the north, some limited shopping exists at Squaw Valley and NorthStar Ski resorts, even in the summer.

Speaking of ski resorts, in the summer, most of the large ones continue to function on a limited basis. Many will take the lift up to the heights for fantastic views or to ride a mountain bike or begin a hike. Heavenly and NorthStar offer these. In the winter, all offer skiing, snowboarding, cross country.

If you want warmer and less choppy water (for kayaking), I would go to the east or north shore where the depth is not more than 30 ft. even 100 yards or more offshore. At Incline Village, Kings Beach, Tahoe Vista, Carnelian (all on the north shore), the water is warmer and shallow. The water is like glass.

A must trip is taking the huge steam boat from Zephyr Cove on the east side to Emerald Bay on the west side. The trip crosses this small ocean to a beautiful bay that is nearly enclosed. It is well worth the price because it is a real steam boat!


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    • perrya profile image

      perrya 5 years ago

      We just got back after a week up there. we had some family from Germany, they felt right at home!

    • Nick Hanlon profile image

      Nick Hanlon 5 years ago from Chiang Mai

      Here's a tip.don't go fishing with the Corleones.Might get a hole in your head from a .22.Watch The Godfather to see what i'm talking about.

      Looks stunning anyway.nice hub and welcome aboard.

    • Doodlehead profile image

      Doodlehead 5 years ago from Northern California

      Wow...I live in Norcal, and it's been a while since I've been to Tahoe. I didn't know there were so many bike trails....mostly because I have gone in the have me deciding to take a trip in the next couple of months. You got my attention! Thanks.