Travel Guide to South Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe, and especially South Lake Tahoe, is easily one of my favorite corners of the West Coast, which is no easy feat, especially when most of my favorite destinations are oceanfront and Tahoe is miles from the ocean. What makes Lake Tahoe so unique is that it has such strong merits as both a summer and winter destination, which is rare in California. California destinations are typically one or the other. Today, however, my guide to South Lake Tahoe largely speaks to a winter Lake Tahoe trip.
I’m not above traveling to great lengths for food. But food was the least of my interests when I traveled to Lake Tahoe for the first time. Yet it was the thing that I was most surprised by. South Lake Tahoe brings it in the way of food, with the diversity that I’d expect from a large West Coast metro, and not a ski town. It ranges from fine dining, like Café Fiore and Jimmy’s Restaurant at The Landing, to wild game at the German-inspired Himmel Haus, to multiple sushi restaurants, including Sushi Pier Tahoe, Off the Hook California Sushi Bar, and Kalani’s.
One of my favorite meals, however, came at the hands of Sprouts Café, a natural foods café that has been serving South Lake Tahoe for years. The rice bowls are where it’s at, like the Cadillac, featuring rice topped with guacamole, Mexican cheese, and nachos. My favorite post-ski food spot is Base Camp Pizza, located at the base of the Heavenly Gondola, and with a variety of different unique pizzas, such as the Thai Curry Chicken.
Après-ski is often as much a part of a ski town as skiing itself, and South Lake Tahoe is no exception. I mentioned Base Camp Pizza, which actually has an impressive craft beer selection, and has live music many nights. For craft beer actually made in South Lake Tahoe, there’s Stateline Brewery, a short walk from the Heavenly Gondola, and featuring a number of rotating beers, though you can always expect a wheat, pale ale, and IPA. Recently opened is Cold Water Brewery, which has an even longer list of beers brewed on-site, such as numerous IPA selections, amber, porter, rye, and wheat. The Divided Sky is largely a locals’ spot, with a great happy hour and craft selection of beers (many of which are from California). Most of these are more in the way of low-key, run-of-the-mill ski town bars. For a more proper dive bar, go to Whiskey Dick’s or the Lucky Beaver.
South Lake Tahoe is really the quintessential ski town in California. As such, whether a skier or not, this is the place in California for a proper winter trip. Heavenly, owned by Vail Resorts, is the main resort servicing South Lake Tahoe, with nearly 100 runs. Even if you’re not a skier or snowboarder, you’ll want to take the gondola up to the observation deck, which offers some of the best views overlooking the lake itself, and to the top to Adventure Peak, which is where the action happens, featuring a snow tubing park, access to numerous runs, Tamarack Lodge, and Unbuckle, Heavenly’s après ski party (every weekend during the winter) with deejays, half-priced drinks, and food specials.
Off the slopes, I recommend doing snowmobiling, as there are numerous outfitters in South Lake Tahoe that offer rentals and tours. What’s unique about snowmobiling in South Lake Tahoe, is that when there’s enough snow, some of the tours, like Zephyr Cove, go up into the mountains and offer unobstructed views of Lake Tahoe. Other outfitters, such as Lake Tahoe Adventures, go deep into the cut of the Sierra high country.
Also unique to Lake Tahoe is the 150-mile hiking trail that circles the lake. Many of these are just off Highway 89 and 50, both of which run parallel to the lake. The Tahoe Rim Trail Association has maps, but I’ve also just driven up the east or west side of the lake and pulled into some of the pull-offs and parks where the trail (and other trails) run through. Tahoe Adventure Company also does full moon snowshoe tours through the winter and spring months.
Every style of accommodations can be found in South Lake Tahoe, even luxury, after the first five-star property, The Landing Resort and Spa, recently opened. Hotels located at the base of the Heavenly gondola include the Grand Residences by Marriott and Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel. These are those who want to hit the slopes and not have to get back in their car, since it’s within walking distance of many of the restaurants and bars mentioned above. For a more boutique, yet budget hotel, in South Lake Tahoe, there’s Basecamp Hotel. If you’re traveling with friends or family, there are plenty of staple mountain houses to rent, such as Aston Lakeland Village, which is located directly on the south shore. Aston has both a lodge and townhomes, which feature up to five bedrooms. A few casino hotels can be found on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe, including Harrah’s, MontBleu, and Harveys.