We visited Lake Tahoe in early October 2022 as part of Big Trip #4.
J and I had been to Lake Tahoe before: we went skiing at Homewood a million years ago, and while we don’t remember where we stayed or ate, or even all the people we traveled with, that bright blue lake framing each ski run is clearly etched in our memories. When planning this trip’s itinerary, we knew we wanted to spend a night in Reno visiting friends, and since Lake Tahoe is close to Reno, we happily added a stop at the lake.
Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the US (behind Crater Lake), the largest alpine lake in North America, and the sixth-largest lake in the US by volume (behind the Great Lakes). The southwest quadrant of shoreline is the least developed; the commercial centers are South Lake Tahoe, CA on the south shore, and the towns of Incline Village and Crystal Bay in NV and Kings Beach, CA, on the north shore. The whole area is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, with water sports, snow sports, and hiking galore. And there’s lots of beer! Our Reno buddies drove over twice, to hang out with us in South Lake Tahoe, and the next night we met them up in Kings Beach.
Figuring out our camping strategy in the area was a bit of a challenge. Lake Tahoe is roughly an oval cut vertically by the CA-NV state line, with 2/3 in California and 1/3 in Nevada, but people are more likely to split the lake across the middle and refer to North Tahoe or South Tahoe. From what we could tell, the best hiking is on the lower west side, and the best beer is either in South Lake Tahoe or on the north shore–no surprise that our goals revolved around hiking and drinking beer. We also wanted to be walking distance to the lake.
There are no RV campgrounds on the north shore that fit the bill, so we focused on the south, and booked one night (the night we carved off our Lassen stay) in a basic campground in South Lake Tahoe, and two at a swankier “resort” about twenty minutes north of South Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side.
Campground by the Lake
We spent our first night at Lake Tahoe at Campground by the Lake, a city-run campground in South Lake Tahoe, and wished we didn’t have to move to campground #2 the next day. Due to campground construction, none of the campsites had any hookups (spigots for drinking water are scattered throughout the park); not sure if that will change in 2023. There’s a rec center with a pool and weight room adjacent to the campground, a bike path along the road, and public beach across the street–and yes, it’s a busy street, but the traffic noise wasn’t a problem for us. Our site was shady and pleasant, and everything we needed was close by.
Zephyr Cove RV Park and Campground
We’d reserved a campsite for the next two nights on the eastern side of the lake, twenty minutes north of South Lake Tahoe, and 45 minutes south of Kings Beach, on the north shore. Zephyr Cove RV Park and Campground is across the highway from beachfront Zephyr Cove Resort, which offers watersports, boat rentals, lake cruises, and a restaurant. The beach doesn’t allow dogs (although there were dogs on the beach beyond the resort’s limits) and the beach bar was closed for the season.
It was not our favorite campground: there was no signage around where to check in and nowhere easy to park a trailer once we figured out where to go; our spot was not level at all and our “yard” with a picnic table was behind the trailer next to the sewer hookup, and our site was overrun with yellow jackets. We had no cell service, and Ubers into South Lake Tahoe were expensive and not plentiful. We missed the city campground!
There are a million lists online of the best hikes near Lake Tahoe, so we tried to choose some that were a mix of lengths and locations. Not all hikes in the area are dog-friendly (it seems CA state parks don’t allow dogs on trails), so be sure to confirm she’s allowed before taking your pup.
Eagle Lake was our favorite Lake Tahoe hike. Rather, Bugsy’s and my favorite: J had an early work meeting on East Coast time, so Bugsy and I beat the crowd on this very popular trail. Go early! The small parking lot fills quickly for this easy three-ish-mile hike. The falls weren’t much to behold when we visited, but Eagle Lake is beautiful, and the view of Lake Tahoe on the way back down is stellar.
Rubicon Trail from DL Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay State Park (and back) is a pleasant walk along the shore of Lake Tahoe, totaling just over seven miles. Again: go early! This is another very popular trail, with non-stop lake views and a turn-around in gorgeous Emerald Bay. Because the trail goes from one state park to another, no dogs are allowed.
Floating Island and Cathedral Lakes
Floating Island and Cathedral Lakes hike is a rocky, half-wooded and half-sunny trek up to two small lakes. Along the way, you’re treated with views of Fallen Leaf Lake below, and Lake Tahoe in the distance. We started this hike later in the day after parking the Airstream at the city campground, and the parking lot was close to full, but the trail wasn’t annoyingly crowded. Most people on this trail probably go all the way to Mount Tallac, which is on our to-do list; we didn’t think Bugsy’s little legs had that much mileage in them and so opted for the shorter hike, totaling almost 5.5 miles.
Cave Rock (not accessible from Cave Rock State Park) is a short walk to a rock formation towering over Lake Tahoe. Scramble up the rocks (tricky but doable for athletic dogs) for huge lake views. Within the rock below are two tunnels where the highway passes through. If you’re up for a bit of scrambling, this jaunt is a must-do.
Secret Cove is a secluded beach down a 1/2-mile trail from the highway. After going up Cave Rock, we wanted to let Bugsy have a swim, so picked Secret Cove off a list of nearby hikes. After zigzagging down to the water (there are some steep sections), we arrived at the lovely little cove, only to learn that it’s a nude beach. I figured I shouldn’t take photos because there were plenty of unclothed sunbathers, but we enjoyed relaxing (clothed) on a rock and throwing a stick for Bugsy.
East Shore Trail
East Shore Trail is a flat, paved multi-use path paralleling the highway and lake shore for three miles from Incline Village to Sand Harbor State Park. We parked at Tunnel Creek Cafe, picked up a yummy latte for fuel, and headed toward Sand Harbor, dodging the gangs of e-bikes. There are lots of spots to take your dog down to the water along the way, but dogs are only allowed at Sand Harbor from October 15 to April 15, and there’s a $2 fee per person to walk into the state park.
Exploring South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe has more of a cheesy beach town vibe than a quaint mountain town vibe. I get a kick out of cheesy beach towns, so that’s not an insult, just an observation. I wonder what it’s like during peak summer or winter season? On a sunny, mellow fall day, Bugsy and I sat on a public beach in the middle of town and relaxed while watching tourists on the pier and kids in the sand, but in high season I suspect it’s not so relaxing–and I wonder how clogged up with boats the lake gets. There are public beaches all around the lake, but not all are dog-friendly, and not all are free to visit.
You’ll find all the stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops you’d expect from a tourist town in South Lake Tahoe, and even casinos just across the Nevada border in Stateline. We patronized the Whole Foods and the Safeway, along with the eating and drinking establishments below.
Our favorite place for a drink in South Lake Tahoe was The Hangar, and we went there twice. It’s a taproom and bottle shop featuring lots of local and regional beers, to enjoy in a big, dog-friendly yard (“Tahoe’s largest outdoor beer garden”) (is there such thing as an indoor beer garden?) with fire pits and picnic tables.
Our intrepid Reno friends met us at Aleworx, where you pour your own beer/wine/cider from taps on the wall, or you can order a cocktail from a separate bar. They also have a great outdoor space. We ordered pizzas and they were fab–my veggie pizza actually had a lot of veggies on it, which isn’t always the case.
The only brewery we hit on the south side of the lake was South Lake Brewing. They have a tiny patio, but indoors is dog-friendly, so we chose to sit inside. J tried a couple IPAs, and they didn’t have a sour for me, but I liked the strawberry kiwi seltzer.
When you’re at the beach, you should have a cocktail with a water view, right? We struck out on our first two attempts: I’d read that Idle Hour was the best lakefront bar, but clearly I didn’t read the details. It’s a wine bar with very few outdoor tables overlooking the water, which were all taken, so we left. From there, we walked to The Beach Tiki Bar, which was closed for the season.
Finally, a cocktail with a view: we landed at Boathouse on the Pier and scored a table on the deck. The cocktails were overly sweet but I didn’t care because the view was fab.
South Lake Tahoe has an awesome coffee shop/bookstore/co-working space, Cuppa Tahoe. We went for lattes, and J returned the next morning for his work meetings. The silent co-working area is $3/hr, and the conference room with A/V equipment is $25/hr. It was the perfect solution for J’s meetings when we had no internet in the Airstream. And the seasonal latte was sooooo tasty!
We were still craving good sushi after our sushi fail in Bend, so we ordered carryout from The Naked Fish our first night in town. They were busy on a Monday night! The sushi was extremely fresh and made us happy after our sad previous experience.
Sprouts Cafe is just across Lake Tahoe Blvd from the city campground. After our morning hike on the Rubicon Trail, we wanted an easy and healthy lunch, so ordered online to pick up on the way home. Ordering online is definitely the way to go: they were slammed. My bowl and J’s turkey sandwich were delicious and exactly what we wanted.
Exploring North Lake Tahoe
North Lake Tahoe isn’t a single town, but rather a collection: Incline Village and Crystal Bay in NV, and Kings Beach in CA. Based on my research, Incline Village/Crystal Bay fancies itself as more upscale and country-clubby, while Kings Beach is more laid-back and funky. I’d like to spend more time exploring the whole area as we were only there for one evening. Kings Beach was 45 minutes from Zephyr Cove, but Incline Village was only a 25-minute drive.
Our Reno friends wanted to meet at Bear Belly Brewing in Kings Beach on night #2 of hanging out with them. They are known for a blueberry milkshake IPA that I was keen to try, but they’d recently run out. Oh well, their big yard was cool to hang out in, and very dog-friendly.
From there we moved on to Alibi Aleworks in Incline Village for more beer and dinner. In addition to spacious indoor seating, they have deck seating with heat lamps (where we ate dinner), and yet another fantastic big yard. This yard is not for dogs, but we were the only ones sitting down there, so after dinner we smuggled Bugsy into the yard and nobody seemed to mind. We all liked the beers we tried: my sour and gose, and the rest of the group’s IPAs. The food was good too; overall it was a super spot.
I already mentioned the coffee at Tunnel Creek Cafe at the southern edge of Incline Village. In addition to espresso drinks, they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have good outdoor dining areas. (Has everywhere around here figured out how to win at outdoor dining?) We didn’t try the food, but it’s a neat cafe and I’d go back.
- As I said above, I’d like to spend more time checking out the towns on the north side of the lake.
- On the south side, we noticed Lakeview Social not far from the city campground and wished we’d had time to have a beer there. We later learned it’s related to Aleworx.
- I’d like to hike the entire Mt Tallac trail, totaling 10.5 miles.
- I’d also like to hike our Reno buddy’s favorite hike in the area, Mount Rose, a 10.7-miler north of Incline Village.
- Another tip from our Reno friend: visit the birds at Chickadee Ridge!