Via magazine
Via magazine - Your AAA Magazine

South Lake Tahoe

Slots and solitude: something for everyone at the big blue mountain lake.

a beach front walkway in South Lake Tahoe, image
Photo caption
From a beachfront walkway, you can gaze across Lake Tahoe to casinos.

Every road leading to South Lake Tahoe is marvelously scenic, whether you’re dropping down from Echo Summit, or coming south along the shores of the lake, or driving up from the Great Basin deserts over the broad sweep of U.S. 50 or the cliff-clinging Kingsbury Grade. On each of these, you can relish what Mark Twain declared "the fairest picture the earth affords".

And once you arrive, you’re faced with a dizzying spectrum of possibilities. You can enjoy a fast-paced floorshow, say, with dancers and flashing lasers, or contemplate the wildflowers high in the granite wilds. Your lodging can be a posh suite in a highrise casino overlooking the lake, or a tent beneath the pines. You can be on the water, atop a peak, on a bike, walking in the woods, shopping at the "Y" Factory Stores, or letting hungry slot machines suck the quarters out of your jeans.

The main attraction is, of course, the lake itself. One of the best orientations is a visit to the Tallac Historic Site and the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center, 3 miles west of the junction of highways 50 and 89—known locally as the "Y." At Tallac, walking paths meander along the shore, through the trees, past summer mansions built along the shore early this century; now they house art and photo exhibits, crafts shops, children’s performance workshops, and the impressive Valhalla Summer Arts and Music Festival (music on Tuesdays, films on Wednesdays). For details, call (916) 541-4975. Nearby, at the Visitor Center, you can gather information on backpacking, day-hiking, birding, and other outdoor recreation. There’s a small bookstore and nature trails; the Lake of the Sky Trail leads to a viewing deck looking over the Taylor Marsh, where birders can look for waterfowl, songbirds, and occasional eagles. Phone number is (916) 573-2674.

Beaches: Don’t expect to see the wide sandy beaches of the drought years. A healthy snowmelt in the past couple of seasons has brought the level of Lake Tahoe near its limit of 6,229 feet. But there are still lots of local, state, and national public areas where you can get down to the water and claim a strip of sand beneath the pines for the day. You can locate them on the CSAA Lake Tahoe Communitiesmap; check out Nevada Beach on the Nevada side, and, on the California shore, Timber Cove (behind the lodge), El Dorado, and the U.S. Forest Service beaches west of the Y. Some charge a small day-use parking fee.

On the water: Ways to get out onto the lake, on your own or with a guide: kayaking, jet skiing, pedal boats, ski-doos, waterbikes, canoeing, water skiing, sailing, and parasailing. Private coves and marinas where visitors can find boat rentals, other recreation activities, and lakeview restaurants include Round Hill, Zephyr Cove, Tahoe Keys, Ski Run Marina, Timber Cove Marina, and Camp Richardson.

Two paddlewheelers with twin crown smokestacks depart from the south shore to tour Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Queen(800-23-TAHOE or 238-2463) sails from the Ski Run Marina; the M.S. Dixie II(702-588-3508) from Zephyr Cove. Both offer Emerald Bay cruises, sunset cruises, brunch cruises and evening dinner/dance cruises, most with live music. No views at night, of course, so you’d better have a good dance partner. Prices range from $14 to $36.

The Woodwindoffers pleasant 90-minute sailing cruises on a large new catamaran; phone (702) 588-3000.

If you prefer self-propelled travel on the lake, get a kayak. At the Timber Cove Marina, Kayak Tahoe offers guided trips along the lakeshore or to Emerald Bay, as well as daily and hourly rentals, call (916) 544-2011.

Hiking: Inveterate walkers will find opportunities here crazy-making. One can stroll short nature trails on the south shore, or spend a day struggling to the summit of 9,735-foot Mt. Tallac. Backpackers can disappear into the silvery granite-and-lake realms of 63,475-acre Desolation Wilderness, which contains many of those grand peaks you see rising to the southwest. Wilderness permits are required for overnight backpacking; for information phone (916) 644-6048. You can pick up the Tahoe Rim Trail on Kingsbury Grade and Spooner Summit. For details and a map, call (702) 588-0686.

Easy access to the heights is on the Heavenly Valley Tram, ferrying hikers and sightseers up 2,000 feet to the day lodge and restaurant; the tram departs every 15 minutes from the terminal off Ski Run Blvd., 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. ($11 adults). Interpretive hikes along the Tahoe Vista Trail (two miles) available daily in summer. For details, phone (702) 586-7000 and press 1.

Ballooning: At South Lake Tahoe—and they claim nowhere else on earth—hot air balloons use a boat for take-offs and landings. Lake Tahoe Balloons offers exhilarating half-hour rides for $99 per person. For an hour’s flight followed by champagne brunch at Caesar’s, it’s $165 per person. Phone (800) 872-9294 or (916) 544-1221.

Biking and ’blading: The Pope-Baldwin and the South Lake Tahoe paved bike paths wind through the trees and neighborhoods. Rentals available at nearby bike shops.

Golfers can tee-off at five public courses in the area: Edgewood Tahoe, Lake Tahoe Golf Course, Glenbrook, Tahoe Paradise, and Bijou Municipal.

The small Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum on Highway 50 has exhibits on the area’s Indian and pioneer history.

Getting around: Lots of public transportation: The Lake Lapper ($5 all day, with stops) circles the lake in both directions; (916) 542-5900. STAGE has buses from the Y to Zephyr Cove; (916) 542-6077. The Nifty "50" Trolley has a slow narrated sightseeing route between the casinos and the U.S.F.S. Visitor Center; for $2 you can use it all day. (916) 541-7548. Harvey’s, Harrah’s, and Caesars all provide shuttles to lodgings.

South Lake Tahoe Summer events: Fireworks over the lake, July 4. Two popular annual events at Tallac Historic Site: Reggae on August 10, and the Great Gatsby Festival (living history) August 16.

A few upcoming headliner shows at Caesars Tahoe: David Copperfield, July 16-22; James Brown August 15-17; Willie Nelson September 19-20. Phone (800) 648-3353.

Photography courtesy of Amadscientist/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in July 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.