Shaka Guide's Lake Tahoe Itinerary
Lake Tahoe is a large, freshwater, alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains with the most crystal-clear blue water. It sits at an elevation of 6,225 feet above sea level with California on one side and Nevada on the other.
The area surrounding the lake is also referred to as “Tahoe” or “Lake Tahoe,” and is a huge tourist destination in the winter for skiing, but especially in the summer for beach-goers, boaters, and all sorts of water activities, as well as hiking and biking. It’s arguably one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see, if you believe any of the 15-million or so people that visit each year.
Shaka Guide's Lake Tahoe Tour
The Shaka Guide Lake Tahoe Tour is a loop around the 72-mile lake with 26 stops along the way. So, although you could make the drive in less than four hours, the stops along the way will enrich your experience and that’s why you’ll need at least one full day – if not two or (ideally) three days if you want to try all of the recommendations that are offered.
There are so many things uniquely Tahoe that you’ll see along the tour route, from:
- high-elevation overlooks to sandy shorelines
- castles to historic cabins
- waterfalls to hiking trails
- mountain towns to shopping villages
- even a gondola ride with a birds-eye view lake view
The route described begins in Reno and takes you along the beautiful Mount Rose Highway to reach Lake Tahoe. There are also three additional starting points:
- Reno, NV, starting on Hwy 341 through Virginia City
- Pollock Pines, CA, starting on Hwy 50/El Dorado Fwy
- Truckee, CA, starting on I-80
Shaka Guide’s One-Day Lake Tahoe Driving Itinerary
1. Memorial Point Scenic Overlook
This marks the start of the leg that leads around the east side of Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side, as you head south along Highway 28 through Incline Village, with spectacular views of the lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains on the California side, and the Carson Range to your left.
There is an incredible walking and biking path called the East Shore Trail that runs alongside this part of the lake, which is just brilliant to take advantage of if you’re staying around Tahoe for longer than the day.
You can park at Memorial Point for about 20 minutes for free and walk down the stairs to the trail and even further if you want to touch the water or stand on some of Tahoe’s huge iconic boulders. Grab some photos and enjoy that view!
2. Sand Harbor
This beach is simply stunning. It’s actually got three beachfronts that all have different landscapes and views, with a nature boardwalk that is a must-do! It is a gorgeous, rambling, easy walk full of discovering wildlife creatures and water views for miles in every direction. Pay the entrance fee and park wherever you can. You can walk a path that leads to all three beaches.
The beach furthest south has a sandy beach and very shallow water pretty far out into the lake, making it perfect for stand-up paddleboarding! The middle section of this park is where the Visitor Center is and a really wonderful cafe where you can dine outside overlooking the lake. The two beaches on the north side of the park have those huge boulders that make it so much fun for kids who want to climb, and add such character to your photos.
3. Logan Shoals Vista Point
From this point, you’re heading toward South Lake Tahoe along Highway 50. And this overlook is very popular for those taking wedding and engagement photos. You’ll understand why once you park and walk up the short paved path for the views. Because at the last couple of stops you were close to lake level, and now….you’re high above Lake Tahoe. These panoramic views are just breathtaking!
4. Cave Rock Beach
Another must-see stop! You can pay just two dollars for a 10 minute photo opp! And after approaching Cave Rock and driving through that short tunnel, you’re going to want to head down to the shoreline and look straight up at the entire rock formation and cave! It is a marvel, for sure!
5. Zephyr Cove
You may not want to pay another entrance fee if you’re not planning on beaching it for the day, but you can pull into the entrance, then bear left for the restaurant and general store and park there just to get out for a few minutes and see this gorgeous beach and the forest surrounding it, complete with little log cabins you can rent for lodging.
But if you do want to pay the fee and spend a little while at this beach, or make a reservation on the M.S. Dixie Paddlewheeler for a boat ride out on the lake, I can’t say I blame you! There’s volleyball and water activity rentals available from here, too.
6. Nevada Beach
Image from Flickr by Andrew
Oh my gosh, this is another beachfront that is a must-see. The beauty of this beach is astounding. Once you drive down the road it’s on, you’ll see a wooden fence along the side of the road. So if you don’t want to pay to park in the lot, you can turn your car around and find a parking space along the fenceline.
Then you’ll see a beautiful walking path that you can take down to the shoreline of this gorgeous beach. The view from here of all the mountains in the distance that surround the lake, and the soaring trees along the shoreline make the landscape so unusual and glorious!
7. Heavenly Gondola & Heavenly Village
Image from Flickr by Chris Yunker
It’s a bit jarring coming into South Lake Tahoe, because we’re driving from all of this natural beauty into a casino zone at the ends of Nevada for those that want to do a little gambling just before they reach the California state line, where gambling comes to a sudden halt.
South Lake Tahoe is, compared to the other places around the lake, the most crowded area of the lake, but full of resorts and restaurants and shopping. In the winter, it is ski central, because up on your left is Heavenly Mountain, the tallest mountain along the lake.
On your left you’ll come to Heavenly Village, full of shops and places to eat. Once you park, walk inside the main hotel lobby of Heavenly to purchase tickets if you want to take the gondola ride for heavenly views of the lake.
It’s open in summertime, and (of course) in wintertime, but closes after Labor Day until the start of ski season. Right next door to the Heavenly Lodge entrance is a really nice, newer Visitor Center full of exhibits and hiking maps, too!
8. Camp Richardson Resort Beach
You’ll know what street to turn down for the beachfront because of the adorable log cabin General Store on the corner! Stop inside because it’s a cozy place and on a chilly day the fire will be going and you can even grab a meal from the little cafe, or shop for some souvenirs.
Then drive down to the beachfront where there’s a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating right along the shore if you want a cocktail or a meal on the water. This is another beachfront in the forest, so you’ll see little log cabins for rent among the trees. And along the pier from here you can reserve a spot on a Rum Runner cruise that’ll take you to Emerald Bay along the lake. But we’ll be driving there next.
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9. Tallac Historic Site
Just two driveways past Camp Richardson is the Tallac Historic Site. Definitely worth a walk-through. Park and take the trails through the old summer estates of the past. The Baldwin Museum, if open, is an old log cabin that you can tour. Some of the other old log cabin mansions on the water are just super cool to walk around, all in the gorgeous forest along the lake.
10. Taylor Creek Nature Trails & Visitor Center
Image from Flickr by Jonathan Cook-Fisher
The next road from Tallac leads to another visitor center and some nature trails. If you’re pressed for time, this is an optional stop that I’d say isn’t a priority – unless it’s salmon spawning season, in which case you can follow the creek along the Rainbow Trail and watch the bright orange salmon swimming upstream!
11. Inspiration Point
Image from Flickr by Jeff Wiles
Once you leave Taylor Creek you’ll start to climb again until you’re at a good 8,000 feet or so above sea level, and – boy oh boy – keep both of your eyes on the road and your wheels on the pavement because if you look over the edge (there are no guardrails) you’ll see just how long that drop-off is with the lake way, way down below.
But the payoff at the top is an overlook that beats the band! Inspiration Point will give you a jaw-dropping view of Emerald Bay, which lives up to its name – believe me! And you’ll also see Fannette Island down below, the only island in all of Lake Tahoe, that sits in the middle of Emerald Bay.
12. Eagle Falls
If you’re taking this tour in the spring or early summer, you may want to take the popular Eagle Falls hike that leads up to an amazing waterfall, flowing strong due to the snow melting off of the mountains above it.
But if you’re visiting toward the end of the summer or in the fall, the waterfalls will be down to a trickle – if that – since all the snow has already melted, in which case you can skip this stop unless you just want a nice hike through a forest. This is one of the few stops on the left side of the road.
13. Emerald Bay & Vikingsholm Castle
Practically across the street from Eagle Falls is the parking lot for Emerald Bay. You’ll be super lucky if you score parking because this is one of the most popular spots on the tour and highly recommended. But it requires a bit of a hike down a steep hill for about 20 minutes…and that means walking back up that big hill when you’re finished. So, just take it slow and steady.
This is the only way to reach the shoreline of Emerald Bay without a boat – and part of the reason it’s so pristine down there, since no vehicles are allowed! And at the bottom of the hill is Vikingsholm Castle!
Between the emerald- green bay, the sandy shoreline, that tiny island and the castle itself, the photo opps are stupendous! And the hike to get there is pretty nice, too, full of pocket waterfalls and rugged cliffs rising out of the ground, along a well-worn and wide path.
Plus, there are so many peek-a-boo views of the lake along the way! This is an experience you don’t want to miss out on. The tours of the castle run every half hour or so and you don’t need a reservation, so if you want to see inside, just walk past Vikingsholm to the next building, a small museum/gift shop, to purchase a ticket.
By the way, once you pay for your parking at the Emerald Bay Vikingsholm lot, keep your receipt, because you can use it again at the next two parks you visit if you do so within the same day, since they’re all California State Parks!
14. D.L. Bliss State Park
There’s a sweet little Visitor Center that you should stop inside upon arriving at this park, for souvenirs or for some maps and to talk to a ranger or volunteer. Although Shaka Guide’s got you covered on directions, it always helps to have a park ranger describe the conditions of The Rubicon Trail and where to park for Balancing Rock. Once you’ve stopped inside, we’ll drive the park’s forest to three sights so worth seeing!
15. Balancing Rock
You’re taking what seems like a dirt trail to find the little brown signage alerting you that you’re at the short trail leading up to this unique formation that looks like it’s going to topple at any second! So see it while you can! You’ll need a selfie, of course :)
16. Lester Beach
Next inside this park is Lester Beach. Once you find the parking lots, thanks to Shaka Guide directions, this is a sweet shoreline that you can walk, among those iconic Tahoe boulder formations. But if you’re short on time or there’s no parking, it’s not a priority to see the beach itself.
17. The Rubicon Trail
Just past Lester Beach, still inside D.L. Bliss State Park, you’ll head up a hill to the very popular Rubicon Trail. It’s super long and you don’t need to take the whole thing, but I’d recommend you take it for maybe ten minutes out and back just to see a view of the lake from high up along the cliffs of this trail.
Just be careful and stick to the path! There’s also an abandoned lighthouse trail, but that’s a little more challenging and time consuming. Now if you love to hike and you have a whole day to do so, this trail leads all the way to Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm Castle!
18. Sugar Pine Point State Park & Hellman Ehrman Mansion
And now you’re driving downhill back to lake-level (which, keep in mind, isn’t the same as sea level. Remember – Lake Tahoe’s elevation is 6,225 feet above sea level!) Reminder – keep that parking/state park entrance receipt because you’ll use it again at Sugar Pine Point State Park, since it’s another California State Park, and your next stop.
This park is totally different from the last. Once you pull into the main lot, look for the tall fire-lookout-type building, and if it’s open, you can stop inside this nature center to see the exhibits. But really, what you want to do is either tour the Hellman Ehrman mansion, or really just walk around the estate grounds.
But certainly do at least step foot on the back porch of the mansion and check out the lake view from there before heading down that mega-lawn and walking out along the pier over Lake Tahoe! Those views! The color of that water! It gets me every time.
Then, follow the path along the lake heading south (with the lake to your left) until you see the railroad tracks that head right into the lake! An Instagram-worthy photo if ever there was one! Especially with the clarity of the water, so that you can literally see the tracks almost to the bottom of the lake floor!
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19. Olympic Valley & The Village at Palisades Tahoe
Image from Flickr by the_tahoe_guy
This is an absolutely amazing valley to see, and to know that the ski slopes above it are where the Olympics once took place! In the summer or fall, when everything in the valley is green and lush, the verdant view feels like you’ve been transported to a land far, far away. And if the gondola is open, take it to the top for the Olympic museum exhibit and Washoe tribe displays!
Otherwise, take a stroll through Olympic Village for the shops, coffee houses and restaurants if you like – but there are still quite a few tour stops to go, so make sure you’re budgeting your time well if you’ve got only one day here in Tahoe.
It’s worth the couple of extra miles to drive across the valley and see the historic olympic signage, but maybe not a place to spend too much time walking around unless you’ve got several days in Tahoe and still have time to complete the Shaka Guide tour, which still has some excellent stops coming up!
20. Tahoe City Visitor Center, Lake Tahoe Dam, Fanny Bridge
Although some of the signs you’ll see as we head to Tahoe City might advise you to turn left, please stick to the Shaka Guide route so that you come out on the right side of the road that leads to the North Lake Tahoe Visitor Center, and make it a point to stop there.
Free parking is right out front, but it comes up fast so pay attention! It’ll be on your right-hand side once we hit this adorable town (one of my favorites in all of America!) After you’ve collected some maps, spoken to the volunteers about the best dining options and what entertainment is being offered in town, park anywhere along the main street, or park at Commons Beach.
21. Commons Beach, Gatekeepers & Basketmakers Museum
When you pull out of the Visitor Center, look for the sign for the Commons Beach public parking lot coming up on your right (or just park on the main street wherever you can find a spot.) Then walk around the town. There are so, so many things to see here.
First of all, there’s a path that leads along the lake along Heritage Square and Commons Beach that is just so lovely and picturesque. Then, walk back past the Visitor Center to see the Lake Tahoe Dam and Fanny Bridge, or even a little further past that to the Gatekeeper’s and Basketmakers Museum if you have time budgeted in your day for the exhibits.
Otherwise skip the museums to allow time for the other stops on the tour. When you’re finished on this side of town (it’s a one-light, one main road, small town) either get back in the car and drive to the parking lot at the other end of town, or just walk down the street along all the shopfronts. Then, on the east end of town there’s…
22. Watson Cabin, Penny Bear, Tahoe City Public Pier
On your right (the lake side) you’ll come to the Watson Log Cabin and Penny Bear! And if you head down the steps from there or down through that parking lot, you can walk out on the public pier over the lake. You can see all the way across to the opposite side for a view of Heavenly Mountain!
There are also some wonderful restaurants right along the lake in this town for dining on the waterfront. On the way to our next stop, we’ll pass Carnelian Bay. Make a quick stop for a photo if the view grabs your attention, because it’s hard to ever tire of the views from every part of the lake loop!
23. Kings Beach
Image from Flickr by Chris Yunker
This is a super popular beach, but if you’ve already been to Sand Harbor, then there’s not really a need to pay to stop at Kings Beach. (And if it’s a choice between Kings Beach or Sand Harbor, I’d choose Sand Harbor any day over Kings Beach.)
They’re similar in that they have gradually deepening shorelines, so the water stays shallow (and thereby warmer) longer than at some of the colder, deep-water beaches around the lake, but the view from here isn’t quite as mesmerizing as that of Sand Harbor.
Still, many people love this beach and town. To me, the town is similar to Tahoe City but with less to offer. So this stop is not highest on the priority list of stops if you’re having to pick and choose for time’s sake.
24. Historic Stateline Fire Lookout
Now this is a stop I’d recommend you not pass up. Once you drive up the steep hill to get there, you’ll take a hike similar to the one you took down to Vikingsholm Castle. Except this time it’s uphill on the way to the overlook, and downhill on the way back.
This is a wide, semi-paved path to an old fire lookout well over 7,000 feet elevation (but remember – you’re already pretty high up before you start along the trail so you’re not climbing that many feet) for a view overlooking Lake Tahoe that you won’t find anywhere else.
Last time I was there, a bride hiked all the way up in her gown to meet her groom and officiant just to get hitched with this Tahoe backdrop. Now that’s a commitment! (I couldn’t help myself – I asked the groom why he didn’t at least pull her up the hill in a wagon, lol!)
This path takes about 20 minutes to walk in each direction. Just pace yourself and enjoy the views along the way. And make sure you stay on the path – it’s a long way down!
25. Lake Tahoe Scenic Overlook
As you’re driving back to Reno, there’s an overlook along a hairpin turn out of Incline Village for one last memorable look down at Lake Tahoe.
26. Tahoe Meadows South Trail
If you’ve got some daylight and energy left, hiking along Mount Rose is a pretty wonderful way to end your Shaka Guide tour before heading back to the ‘biggest little city in the world.”
Although there is plenty of detailed information in this article, please make sure you also read Shaka Guide’s “Know Before You Go” article about Lake Tahoe to prepare for this road trip!
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