The changing of seasons at Lake Tahoe
Photograph: Emma_Griffiths / Shutterstock.comThe changing of seasons at Lake Tahoe

The best things to do in South Lake Tahoe

A guide to the best things to do in South Lake Tahoe—from the region’s best hiking and skiing to museums and attractions

Erika Mailman
Contributor: Erika Mailman
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Lake Tahoe is an international destination famous for a long ski season and an equally rewarding recreational summer at the lake... and the truly Californian chance to do both in the same day! Depending on the time of year, you can ski in the morning and kayak in the afternoon, or snowshoe in the backcountry and then have a warm picnic on the sandy shores.

South Lake Tahoe refers to the California resort city on the southern end of the lake which also touches Nevada. You’ll be deep in the Sierra Nevada with alpine views and good, clean fun... and the opportunity to place some bets in Reno, if that's your thing. 

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Best things to do in South Lake Tahoe

Heavenly Resort is most famous for its skiing and riding in winter, but also offers summer thrills too. The gravity-powered Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster zooms among natural rock formations with incredible views of the lake thousands of feet below. Just as exciting is Heavenly’s Epic Discovery, a summer playground for both kids and adults with zip lines, gemstone panning and a granite peak 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 pricey but worthwhile scenic ride in and of itself.

The Lake Tahoe Water Trail, a 72-mile route with plenty of launching and landing beaches and campgrounds along the way, provides options for a day trip or longer excursion on the water. There are 20 marked 'trailheads' on the lake to help orient you while paddling. For instance, the 8.5-mile Tahoe City Day Trip lets you visit the historic Gatekeeper’s Museum at the Truckee River outlet, see the newly restored Barton Creek outfall in Lake Forest — you might even catch sight of the endangered Lake Tahoe fish, the Lahontan cutthroat trout — or just stop at Commons Beach to catch your breath. 

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3. Beaches

There is no shortage of beaches in and around South Lake Tahoe, including Lakeside Beach, a private stretch of sand which allows access to the public year-round within walking distance of the Stateline casinos (some hotels offer beach passes, or you can purchase a pass at the front gate on the day of your visit). The quiet, public Pope Beach is run by the National Forest Service, while El Dorado Beach has free parking and is an access point for the Lake Tahoe Water Trail. The dog-friendly, slightly more secluded Regan Beach has the city's only water dog park and is perfect for swimming and picnicking. At Nevada Beach, a half-mile stretch of sandy beach incorporates concessions and kayak rentals.

4. Hiking

In warmer months, go deep into the area'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 2.1-mile out-and-back Moraine Trail takes hikers to the area’s second largest alpine lake, Fallen Leaf Lake, while 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, an 11 mile out-and-back trip, or the challenging Mt. Tallac Hike, a 10-mile round-trip with a 3,255 elevation change.

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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 13-20 mile, challenging, rock-strewn 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 the Bijou Bike Park where you can ride various compacted dirt courses/features and hardscape areas, with pump tracks, a BMX race track and more. Finally, you have to experience America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride here!

You can’t go to Lake Tahoe without spending some time on the lake. If kayaking or balancing on a 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 paddle wheeler, which would look at home on the Mississippi River, offers two- to three-hour daytime and dinner cruises leaving from Zephyr Cove year round. Or try the Tahoe Paradise, a two-story luxury yacht that offers charter trips and a Sipping at Sundown cruise.

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Get up before sunrise to board the Tahoe Flyer, a launch and recovery vessel. You’ll watch the balloon inflate from the upper deck, and then board it for the experience of a lifetime while an experienced pilot narrates important vistas like Emerald Bay, Fallen Leaf Lake, Cascade Lake and the Desolution Wilderness. If it’s clear, you can even see the peaks of Yosemite more than 150 miles away! It all ends with deflating the balloon and celebrating with champagne, mimosas and snacks as you sail back to the marina. Although the entire experience lasts 4-5 hours for the boat ride and balloon inflation, the flight itself is 45 minutes to an hour.

If you want to get the bird’s eye view, parasailing is an exhilarating way to experience the lake. At Timber Cove Marina, you can do a 500 foot or 1,000 foot pass over the lake and its mountain ranges, with a dry take-off and landing from the back of a boat. This outfit has more than 20 years of parasailing experience on the lake—and you can be any age so long as your heart is courageous. If not, you can pay a small fee to remain in the boat and cheer others on. Parasailing is also offered at Ski Run Marina with two parasail boats that can accommodate up to 10 people on each trip.

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South Lake’s Camp Richardson Corral has been leading scenic trail rides since 1934. Their standard 50-minute ride takes a scenic tour of the National Forest, mountain meadows and/or Lake Tahoe views, while the extended trail ride runs two hours and has the same routes but also takes you by Fallen Leaf Lake. The pony ride for kids five and under is just a five-minute loop to get kids ready for bigger rodeos later! Camp Richardson itself is a historic resort and campground with lots of extras.

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 gambling scene. At the long-standing Harvey’s Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino and Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino, 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 Lake Tahoe down the street has 25,000 square feet of gaming space. Bally’s Lake Tahoe (formerly, the MontBleu) across the street has a similar selection of slots and table games.

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11. Golf courses

Fancy a day on the links? The gorgeous 18-hole course at the Edgewood Tahoe Resort stretches all the way to the lakeshore. This July, it will be the home of the 2022 American Century Championship. And for more down to earth experiences with your club and ball, watch this summer for the reopening of the city-owned Bijou Golf Course. It's Tahoe’s oldest golf course with a seasonal nine-hole executive course. If you prefer put-putting with dinosaurs while admiring a pirate ship, 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 seasonally), 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, generally open Memorial Day weekend through September, visitors can examine extant buildings from a 19th century summer resort, 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.

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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. Head to the ice skating rink at Heavenly Village, open for the preseason beginning October 31, and open daily for the full season 10am- 8pm. Or spend a day at Adventure Mountain Lake Tahoe, a 40-acre destination at 7,400 feet that claims it has the most snowfall and the largest expanse of sledding and tubing terrain in the entire Tahoe Basin.

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 two locations. For a more freerange experience, Lake Tahoe Adventures leads tours through beautiful backcountry in Hope Valley.

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