Some might consider Lake Tahoe to be the crown jewel of the Sierras. But for locals and seasoned visitors, Lake Tahoe has plenty of hidden gems and highly treasured outdoor attractions that make this alpine lake on the California-Nevada border an ideal year-round destination for nature lovers. While there’s plenty to see and do at the lake shore, what makes Tahoe incredibly special is the wide variety of sights and activities across the region.
Today we’re climbing high up the mountains, diving deep into the lake, and even venturing into the golden desert to explore the great outdoors as you’ve never seen it before. At Lake Tahoe, there’s never really a bad time to head outside.
Situated about 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, 115 miles east of Sacramento, and 40 miles southwest of Reno, Nevada, Lake Tahoe offers a different side of California and Nevada from what you may be accustomed to seeing in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. While near-ish Reno offers some “big city amenities,” the Tahoe Basin features many more wide-open spaces where you can escape the big-box strip malls, leave the hustle and bustle behind, and enjoy all the scenic tranquility that Mother Nature has to offer.
As the U.S.’s largest lake outside the Great Lakes, the U.S.’s second-deepest lake (behind Oregon’s Crater Lake), and North America’s largest alpine lake, Tahoe offers plenty for water sports enthusiasts. With 72 miles of shoreline and some of the world’s clearest lake water, Tahoe is a dream come true for beachcombers who’ve always wanted to do a beach day high up the mountains. Since Tahoe spans two states and has about 75% of its watershed in national forest lands, Tahoe is rich in public lands for everyone to enjoy.
During the winter season, Olympic Valley boasts some of the region’s best ski slopes. During the summer season, Olympic Valley and the Palisades Tahoe ski resort make for a great base camp to explore Tahoe North. Three trails — including the stunningly gorgeous and waterfall-rich Shirley Canyon Trail – are currently open for hikers, and free guided hikes are available every day throughout the summer season.
In addition to hiking; bike rentals, Via Ferrata rock climbing, a ropes course, disc golf, and traditional golf are all available at Palisades Tahoe. If anyone in your group isn’t up for a long hike or bike ride, the aerial tram is open every day now through September 5. You will also find plenty of shopping, dining, and lodging options in Olympic Valley’s village.
While “Desolation Wilderness” typically doesn’t sound like a beautiful journey, this area makes for some legendary hiking. It consists of 63,960 acres of federal public lands full of granite cliffs, alpine forests, giant peaks, and some of the best terrains you’ll find in the region for expert hikers and backpackers.
If you’re up for a major challenge, try the Lyons Creek Trailhead to Pyramid Peak for legendary 360-degree mountain, forest, waterfall, and Lake Tahoe views, but make sure you’re ready to navigate through parts of the trail that were affected by last year’s wildfires.
The federal government requires permits for day use and overnight camping, but Recreation.gov makes it quite easy for you to request the permit you need in order to do what you want to do up here.
If you’re in desperate need of some quality time in the water, here’s a great spot to get wet in all sorts of fun ways. Located near Tahoe City on the California side of the north shore, Lake Forest Beach is a great spot for swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, and windsurfing. If you have any landlubbers in your crew, fear not: Lake Forest Beach also has beautiful dry areas that make for perfect birdwatching, floral photography, horseshoe tossing, and picnicking.
This park is also great for groups with four-legged friends, as Lake Forest includes a designated dog beach and a scenic play area.
This may be one of the more famous spots in Tahoe, yet it’s one that you must stop at to experience for yourself. Located along the lake’s southwestern corner, Emerald Bay offers some of Tahoe’s most jaw-dropping scenery. While most of Lake Tahoe features deep topaz blue-hued waters, Emerald Bay’s blue-green waters paint a gorgeous picture alongside tiny Fannette Island and the surrounding conifer-lined hills.
Not only does Emerald Bay offer a great beach for swimming, scuba diving, and kayaking, but on land, you can also visit the famous Vikingsholm Castle and tour this iconic Scandinavian-style manor by the lake. You can even paddle or row your way to Fannette Island to explore Lake Tahoe’s one and only islet.
Moving inland — and moving over to the Nevada side of the lake — the charming town of Genoa not only offers some nice creature comforts on the valley floor, but it’s also the starting point for 16 miles of trails for hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers, and people with dogs.
Take the Genoa Canyon Waterfalls Trail for a 6.2-mile journey out and back for major elevation change, pretty waterfalls, ample shade from trees, and a fairly easy-to-follow trail. For even more of a challenge, take the 10-mile Sierra Canyon Trail to connect to the Tahoe Rim Trail that wraps around the entire lake and offers remarkable lake views.
Whenever you’re done exploring the mountains, come on down to town to quench your thirst at Nevada’s oldest bar and learn some more Nevada history at Mormon Station State Park.
Moving back to the lakeshore, Sand Harbor is another one of our favorite Tahoe beaches. Beachcombers will love the wide and sandy beach for easy strolling and sunbathing. Swimmers, divers, kayakers, and paddleboarders will love the easy access to Tahoe’s signature azure waters. Nearly everyone else will treasure the lovely scenery across the park. Just keep in mind that if you decide to come here, come early to find parking: This is one of the most popular parks in the entire basin!
In case everything else on the beach isn’t enough excitement for you, Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park also hosts the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival every July and August. In addition, the park includes three hiking trails — one of which leads to more secluded beaches and picturesque rocky shorelines.
At the northern tip of Lake Tahoe and right on the California-Nevada state line, Crystal Bay (Nevada) and Kings Beach (California) offer plenty of scenery and a more relaxed vibe than the more crowded beaches in either direction. On the California side, Speedboat Beach is a small neighborhood beach featuring large boulder formations. If you’re staying in nearby Incline Village on the Nevada side, you have access to private beaches like Burnt Cedar Beach with extra amenities.
If you want to hike, try the easy 1.7-mile Stateline Lookout Trail for an easy loop that extends across both states. For more of a challenge, catch the Brockway Summit to Mount Baldy Trail just above Kings Beach for a 13.5-mile loop that’s great for expert hikers and mountain bikers. It also connects to the Tahoe Rim Trail.
In case you need more thrills beyond the lake, the larger region offers many more outdoor adventures on both sides of the state line. On the California side, the town of Truckee makes for a convenient and charming base camp to explore the larger Sierra Nevada region.
On the Nevada side, Virginia City makes for a fun day trip to fall back into American history, and the state capital of Carson City has a cute downtown that’s recently emerged as a regional arts and culture hub. And of course, Reno has been enjoying a “Reno-ssance” as Burning Man loyalists have come to realize that “The Biggest Little City in the World” offers more than merely an airport and casinos near the playa.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of Lake Tahoe’s great outdoor attractions, and we hope you’ve found some inspiration to forge your own path and embark on new adventures. For more ideas for your upcoming outdoor experiences, take a look at our exploration of the world’s loneliest highways, the 20 best national parks to explore now, and an introductory guide to paddleboards. Now that we’ve discussed all of this, it’s time to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
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