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Lake Tahoe: Haven For Outdoors Lovers

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As some of you may know, South Lake Tahoe is currently battling the Caldor wildfire and many people have been evacuated from their homes.  Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Lake Tahoe. 

 

If you’d to help, we found three recommended organizations working closely with Lake Tahoe residents:

https://edcf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?funit_id=1792

  • Evacuation Teams of Amador County:

https://amadorevacs.com/donate/

 

We recently spent a long summer weekend in North Lake Tahoe during an extended trip to San Francisco.  I went to college out there and my husband has family out there, so we both love visiting the Bay Area.  We have visited Tahoe in the winter several times and rented seasonal ski houses out there in the past, so we knew Tahoe reasonably well but we did not have a lot of experience visiting in the summer.  Surprisingly, we all loved visiting in the summer even more than the winter after this trip – the location is even more beautiful with nature in full bloom and there is a wider variety of fun activities vs. only skiing and other snow activities.  Plus, the water is this deep, deep blue that makes you want to immediately take a refreshing dip, which is definitely not possible in the winter.

Where Is It?

Lake Tahoe is about a three-hour drive from San Francisco.  The Washoe Native Americans used Lake Tahoe as their sacred summering grounds originally and the name “Tahoe” comes from an anglicization of a Washoe term meaning “water in a high place.”  Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in the US and it sits at an elevation of 6,225 feet – this is really high.  Denver gets the rep as the mile-high city but it actually sits about 1,000 feet below Lake Tahoe.  The lake is super deep, super cold, and super pure – water suppliers who draw deep from Lake Tahoe are not even required to filter it.    

We visited in August for four days.  The weather was in the mid-80s during the day and it gets a little chilly at night, so bring a sweater.   The summer season really runs from June-September, with temperatures ranging from 70-80 degrees during this timeframe, then dipping back into the 60s before and after this period.  

Visiting Tahoe in the winter is a totally different experience since the days really focus on skiing, but that is also a pleasure and we highly recommend it.  The ski season runs from November-April with temperatures in the 40s during that time period.  One really nice thing about Lake Tahoe – it usually does not get quite as cold as some other West Coast ski destinations, which those of us acclimated to Miami weather appreciate.  

 

How To Get There

We flew into San Francisco and drove – it is about a three-hour drive.  You can also drive from Reno airport, which is about an hour away, or Sacramento airport, which is about two hours away.  There are two sides to Lake Tahoe – North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe.  Both sides have great skiing, nature, lake access, and a variety of small towns in which you can stay.  We prefer North Lake Tahoe because it is a bit more low-key and family-friendly than South Lake Tahoe, but there is more going on in South Lake Tahoe.  South Lake Tahoe has more restaurants, bars, the arts scene, and all the casinos.  It is lovely as well but parts of it can feel a little bit like Las Vegas vs. North Lake Tahoe feels more like a charming mountain town.  

Any of the small towns on either side are lovely.  You will be driving to get around, so the specific town does not matter so much.  You definitely need a car – everything is relatively close, but things are not accessible without a car.  We stayed at Squaw Valley, which was near Tahoe City.  Tahoe City is a town with some cute places but it is more of a series of strips of cute stores/restaurants/cafes as opposed to an easily walkable tourist town.  Squaw Valley was nice because there is a little area at the base of the ski resort with some shops, cafes, restaurants, and activities during the summer.  

 

Why Go

The water combined with the surrounding mountains is really beautiful, making for really wonderful views on and off the water while you’re surrounded by the crisp mountain air and some very fun activities.  We went boating, hiking, biking, wakeboarding, tubing, and rafting during our time in town, but there are a lot more activity options beyond this and all in an incredibly beautiful place.     

 

Kids Friendly

Lake Tahoe is a super family-friendly place, with many families from the Bay Area spending holidays here as their first choice or second home destination.  You see kids everywhere and almost every activity option is designed for families with kids.  Even the ski slopes start early here – several of the ski resorts can accommodate kids as young as two years old for lessons.  

We Liked

On our first night in town, the adults enjoyed the “Tahoe Gal” boat ride in the evening (https://tahoegal.com/).  It had mixed reviews so we were concerned it would be disappointing, but it was a pleasure to watch the sun go down, listen to some music and hear some Tahoe history and have some drinks, all while tooling around the lake for a couple of hours.  The food is only fine, but the experience is really lovely for an evening and it is a nice introduction to Lake Tahoe.  This was around $50 for the adults and $30 for the children over 4.  Kids under 4 are free.  This activity was probably a bit better for the adults than the kids, but the kids were fine on the boat and enjoyed the views (and the ice cream onboard).  

On our first day in town, we used a beautiful bike trail and biked into Tahoe City from Squaw Valley.  The trail was called the Truckee River Bike Path.  Our hotel had free bikes, but there is a bike rental shop attached to Fire Sign Cafe called West Side Sports.  They rent bikes for around $10-$12/hour, with lots of great bike options and kiddo trailers as well as convenience to the trail.  They also rent kayaks and paddleboards.  West Side Sports would be an easy way to do the bike trail in reverse from what we did.  The trail took us about an hour from Squaw to Tahoe City (a little longer on the way back) and it is a really pretty, paved, and very family-friendly ride along the water.  Everyone really enjoyed this activity.  There is a good amount of shade and you can see all the river rafters, which led us to one of our favorite activities on the Tahoe trip.  

The next day, we went rafting on the Truckee River and we super highly recommend this activity for everyone.  It was very relaxing in a gorgeous setting.  There are a couple of companies that run the rafting – Truckee River Raft and Truckee River Rafting.  Both are around $55-$60 for adults, $35 for kids, and free for kids under 5.  You get a raft that fits several people very comfortably, then take a leisurely, self-guided, five-mile float down the Truckee River that takes about 2-3 hours.  The float features picturesque mountain views and lively little rapids, punctuated here and there by swimming holes and sand bars.  Kids, dogs, and picnics are totally welcome.  The convenient thing about these companies is that the raft is nice and sturdy, plus there is a shuttle service at the end that takes you back to your car.  The float also ends at the River Ranch Lodge, which is a classic restaurant right on the water with a great view and terrific vibe.  

Unfortunately, both of these rafting companies were sold out by the time we thought to book.  We ended up going to CVS and buying some inflatable rafts to take down the river, which was also much cheaper.  These worked pretty well and the float was a blast, particularly on a hot day.  The scenery is gorgeous and the river moves slowly along, so it’s very relaxing and everyone is very chilled out for a couple of hours.  There are some rapids at the end that are very fun but a little intense for kids in a CVS floatie, so I would highly recommend exiting before the rapids and then walking to the end.  There are some signs right before the rapids and a lot of people exiting, so it will be clear when to exit.  The end of the float is about a 5-10 minute walk down from the rapids exit.  If you’re in an actual raft, it’s much easier to navigate the rapids and there’s no need to exit early with little ones.  After the end of the float, we called an Uber to get back to our car, which was cheap and easy.  

While we were in town, we also rented a boat for a few hours and we went wakeboarding and tubing.  The boat comes with a captain and everything you need to participate, so it’s just a show-up with your swimsuit type of situation.  This was super fun and we got our son out on the tube (moving very slowly), which he really enjoyed.  We used Tahoe Water Adventures and the boat rental was $600 for four hours, with an additional cost to try wake surfing.  Note that they do not appear to have a current website, but they have a phone number listed online in their Google review as well as pictures of how to locate their kiosk at the Tahoe City Marina.  We booked a few days in advance and they only had a one-time slot available during our trip, so I would recommend arranging well in advance.    

Lastly, Squaw Valley has an aerial tram running during the summer, which is a gorgeous ride up and then there are several family-friendly hiking trails off of the aerial tram as well as a couple of restaurants and a little Olympic Museum, with memorabilia from when Squaw Valley hosted the Olympics in 1960.  In non-covid times, there is also a pool and a hot tub open during the summer.  The tram ride is about $40 per adult, $30 per kid, and free for kids under 5.  The tram was closed when we were in town, so we did not do this, but it came highly recommended as a family outing from several friends who spend summers in Lake Tahoe.  

 

Day Trips

A good day trip could be to drive around the lake and visit South Lake Tahoe (or North Lake Tahoe, if you are staying on the south side).  It is about 75 miles all around, with lots of picturesque spots to stop and explore on the way.  We have also seen but never fully explored Emerald Bay, which is a more shallow area with beautiful emerald color water and a little island to wander around not very far away.  You can rent kayaks for $25/hr or $35 for two hours to paddle around and explore the island.  There’s also a historic mansion Scandinavian mansion around there called Vikingsholm that is supposed to be interesting to visit – you can take a 30-min tour for $15/adults and $12/kids, with kids under 7 free (https://sierrastateparks.org/emerald-bay-state-park/vikingsholm-tours/).  

 

Where To Eat

We ate at a few great restaurants while we were in town.  First, we had breakfast at Fire Sign almost every morning.  Breakfast runs around $15-20 per person.  The food is great and the little garden outside is delightful.  We ended up eating and then relaxing over coffee a couple of mornings while we took turns running after our kiddo because the garden is a really tranquil place to plan the day.  You can also rent bikes and bikes with kiddo seats or trailers here, which we would have done if our hotel had not had free bike rentals included.

Second, while we had the boat afternoon, we also placed an online order at Sunnyside and docked at the restaurant to pick up food and cocktails, then eat on the boat.  Lunch runs around $20-$30 per person and you can order online using Toast.  The food is good and Sunnyside is an iconic Lake Tahoe spot, so it’s worth checking out whether by boat or by car.  The hotel happened to be running fishing classes for little kids from the dock as well, which fascinated our son.

The restaurant at Plumpjack Inn was also excellent, with great food and drinks.  This was a delicious but more expensive option – dinner ran around $60 per person, before drinks.  Plumpjack is also a well-known Bay Area brand – they own a winery and several well-regarded restaurants in the city in addition to this hotel.  The brand was started by Gavin Newsom.  The restaurant also has really lovely outdoor seating in a courtyard next to the pool, so we each spent some time relaxing here while trading off playing with our son in the pool.   

 

Where To Stay

We stayed at the Plumpjack Inn at Squaw Valley, which we would definitely recommend.  The rooms were charming and the location was excellent for our itinerary.  Rooms run around $250/night.  

 

We also visited Sunnyside Lodge, around $300/night) and River Ranch Lodge, around $200/night), which were in very convenient locations for our activities.  I am not sure about the quality of the hotel rooms, but they seem to have fine (4.4ish) Google reviews overall.  We have also rented Airbnbs in North Lake Tahoe with great success – there are many excellent options in this area, especially if you are traveling with a larger group. 

 

 

 

You might also like these articles on the Bébé Voyage blog:

Southcentral Alaska – An Outdoor Enthusiast’s Dream

Duck Key: Planning Your Florida Family Vacation

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