Lake Tahoe is Northern California’s year-round adventure destination and South Lake Tahoe is its capital. South Lake is the most built up stretch of the shore and owes much of its success to the nearby Nevada-California stateline just across which several world class casinos, including the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, have been operating for decades. But South Lake is about much more than gambling. Nestled against the southern rim of Lake Tahoe, this town is an equally convenient jumping off point for summer fun like kayaking, water skiing and mountain biking and winter activities like cross-country skiing, tubing and snowmobiling.
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Best things to do in South Lake Tahoe
In the winter, Tahoe is the place for cold-weather sport and play. Snow turns South Lake Tahoe’s Bijou Community Park into a flat expanse for an easy snowshoe or cross country skiing adventure. Rent a tube or saucer or bring your own for endless rides down the 400-ft hill at nearby Hansen’s resort or head to the ice skating rink at Heavenly Village, open daily from 10am to 8pm from November through Easter.
Heavenly Resort already dominates the winter adventure-scene in South Lake Tahoe but, with the recent addition of the Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster, they’re upping their summer thrills, too. The gravity-powered roller coaster zooms among natural rock formations with incredible views of the Lake thousands of feet below. Just as thrilling is Heavenly’s Epic Discovery, a summer playground for both kids and adults with a ropes course, zip lines and a climbing wall. Both spots are located at the top of the Heavenly mountain and can only be reached with a trip on the Gondola, a worthwhile scenic ride (albeit, a much slower one) in-and-of itself.
In the winter, the only thing that stands between you and miles and miles of snow covered trail taken at top speeds is knowing where to rent a snowmobile. In South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Snowmobiles rents the vehicles for rides on their circle track from three locations. About 20 miles south of town, Lake Tahoe Adventures leads tours (including a moonlight version) through beautiful backcountry in Hope Valley.
In the winter, South Lake Tahoe is crawling with snowbums and bunnies ready to hit the slopes. From the hotel/casinos Harvey’s and Harrah’s, Tahoe’s Heavenly Ski Resort is literally just a five minute walk (or, at least, the gondola that takes skiers and snowboarders 2.4 miles up to the resort at the summit). There you’ll find 97 runs and 30 ski lifts spread over two states, and two terrain parks for practicing tricks. Twelve miles west, Sierra-at-Tahoe has 2000 acres of trails and tree skiing, half a dozen terrain parks and a half pipe.
Stateline, the border between California and Nevada, is just three miles from South Lake Tahoe. And where there’s Nevada, there’s gambling. Four resorts dominate the South Lake gambling scene. At the long-standing Harvey’s Resort and Casino and Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, located across the street from one another, you’ll find hundreds of slot machines and table games. The somewhat more stylish and newer Hard Rock Hotel & Casino down the street has 25,000 square feet of gaming space. The MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa across the street has a similar selection of slots, table games and an area for sports betting.
In warmer months, go deep into Tahoe’s legendary natural beauty on one of the dozens of hiking trails around Lake Tahoe. Near South Lake, the trails are easy and family friendly. Van Sickle Bi-State Park, which straddles the California-Nevada divide, has several shorter loop trails and links but also leads into the Tahoe Rim Trail which goes 165-miles around the lake’s perimeter. The easy 3-mile out-and-back Moraine Trail takes hikers to the area’s second largest alpine lake, Fallen Leaf and the 2.2 mile out-and-back Lam Watah Trail passes through Lam Watah meadows to Lake Tahoe’s Nevada Beach. For longer hikes a little farther out, try the Rubicon Trail at D.L. Bliss State Park in Emerald Bay or the challenging Mt. Tallac Hike, a 10-mile round-trip with a 3,255 elevation change.
You can’t go to Lake Tahoe without spending some time on the lake. If kayaking or S.U.P. isn’t your thing and the thought of jumping in the frigid water gives you chills, there are still plenty of options. The MS Dixie II Paddlewheeler, a Mississippi-river style steam paddler, offers two to three hour daytime and dinner cruises leaving from Zephyr Cove year round. For a more luxurious and exclusive experience, the Windsong Sailing Yacht sails daily through the summer from the Timber Cove Marina. The Venetian-style gondolas operated by Tahoe Amore is a great chance for romance on the water where you and your beloved can cuddle up with a glass of wine under the setting Sierra sun.
The Lake Tahoe Water Trail, a 72-mile route with plenty of beaches and campgrounds along the way, provides options for a day trip or longer excursion on the water. Kayak Tahoe has five beachfront rental locations for kayaks and stand-up paddleboards including Pope Beach, Nevada Beach and Timber Cove. Want to go a little faster? Birkholm’s Water Ski School does water skiing, wakeboarding and wakesurfing lessons, tours and boat rentals. Tahoe Sports, located at the Tahoe Keys Marina and the Ski Run Marina in South Lake, rents jet skis May through October.
Fancy a day on the links? The gorgeous 18-hole course at Edgewood Tahoe stretches all the way to the lakeshore. Farther from the lake, you’ll find a great place to practice your short game at the inexpensive, first-come-first-served 9-hole Bijou Municipal Golf Course. If you prefer a golf course with dinosaurs and pirate ships, try South Lake’s miniature golf destination, Magic Carpet Golf.
The lake has a fascinating history equally as worthy of exploration. At the small Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum (open May-December), photos and artifacts tell the story of Tahoe’s early days. During the summer, they open their historic log cabin to the public. At the Tallac Historic Site, visitors can examine a 19th century home and gardens, visit a working blacksmith shop and see a collection of vintage clothing in the Baldwin Museum. Down the road in Emerald Bay, stop by Vikingsholm, a Scandinavian castle built on the lakeshore in 1929.
South Lake’s Camp Richardson Corral has been leading scenic trail rides since 1934. Their standard 50-minute ride takes a scenic loop through the National Forest; the “extended trail ride” runs two-hours and has spectacular lake views. Camp Richardson also offers pony rides for kids, summer hay wagon rides and snowy winter sleigh rides complete with wool blankets and hot cocoa.
South Lake Tahoe is a mountain biker’s haven and the local Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association helps to keep it that way. Catch incredible views of the lake from the 22-mile Flume Trail or try the challenging, rocky Tahoe classic Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride/Saxon Creek. There are also a number of options for biking along the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail. If racing and trick riding is more your style, head to South Lake Tahoe’s Bijou Bike Park opening in early September 2018.
There is no shortage of beaches in and around South Lake Tahoe, including Lakeside Beach, a private stretch of sand within walking distance of the Stateline casinos (purchase a pass at Harrah’s or Harvey’s concierge). The ¾ mile long Pope Beach, freshly renovated and dog friendly El Dorado Beach, and slightly more secluded Regan Beach, the oldest in town, are perfect for swimming and picnicking. At Nevada Beach, concessions and kayak rentals are available.