The Best Side of Lake Tahoe?
Remember those magazine quizzes you used to take? Buried at the end of the magazine, they supposedly helped you figure out everything from what type of haircut you should get to what your ideal career would be. Well I think there should be one of those quizzes for first-timers to Lake Tahoe. The North, West, and South Shores of Lake Tahoe couldn’t be more different and it can be overwhelming trying to decide which side of the lake to stay on .
Before you panic: 1) I actually created my own quiz to help you figure out what the best side of Lake Tahoe is for you. 2) I have written an excruciatingly detailed article on the pros and cons of the North, South, and West side of Lake Tahoe so that there will be no unpleasant surprises on your Tahoe vacation.
Picking a Side of Lake Tahoe..
Just like there isn’t one flavor of ice cream that’s better than all the others, there isn’t one side of Lake Tahoe that’s the best. It really just comes down to personal preference and what you’re in the mood for.
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Beaches
North: The main spots to go to the beach on the North side of Lake Tahoe are the Kings Beach area or Incline Village. Kings Beach has a long public sandy beach with a playground and a boat launch. While it’s easy to find, family friendly, and open to the public, I’ve found that the water in this section of lake isn’t quite as crystalline as other Lake Tahoe beaches. Nonetheless, it’s a fun spot to spend an afternoon.
Incline Village also has several beaches. A huge downside is these are private beaches and you must be staying in Incline Village to use these beaches. And did I mention, there’s a per person entrance fee which adds up quick if you’re a family. However, just outside of Incline Village is one of the most spectacular beaches in Lake Tahoe, Sand Harbor! This beach is absolutely gorgeous. The water is incredibly clear and it’s one of the best spots to kayak or SUP on the lake. Make sure you get here early because Sand Harbor is the worst kept summer secret in Lake Tahoe. On a hot day the parking lot can fill up by 9am.
South: Pope Beach, Baldwin Beach, and Lakeside Beach are well known beaches in the South. At Lakeside Beach you need to either pay an entrance fee or get a free day pass from a local hotel. There is a little bar on the beach as well as kayak/SUP rentals. However, there’s also tons of people and it feels a little un-Tahoe to have to get a wristband to spend a day by the lake.
Nevertheless, if you drive 15-20 minutes outside of the busyness of South Lake is one the most photogenic spots of Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay. Emerald Bay is overflowing with natural beauty and like Sand Harbor, you’ll need to get there early to get a parking spot. The upside of the parking limitations is that once you get away from the parking lot, it’s possible to find a quiet section of sand. While at Emerald Bay you can chose to walk down the pathway to the beach, check out the Vikingsholm house, or hike to Eagle Falls. If you bring a lunch and a couple outfit changes you could easily spend a day hiking and beaching at Emerald Bay.
West: The beaches right in Tahoe City have a tendency of being a bit rocky and windy. However, as you go towards the South Shore on Highway 89, you are rewarded with some beautiful sandy stretches. Sugar Pine State Park has a big pier that’s fun for jumping off once the lake water is warm enough. How much beach there is depends on the water level of the lake but usually there are at least a few pockets of sand to hang out on.
Meeks Bay is a crescent shaped beach with plenty of thick yellow sand. The recently extended bike path ends here at Meeks Bay making it a nice destination for bikers. There’s a restaurant on the beach, a campground, and the Meeks Bay Resort . Meeks Bay is a nice combo of natural beauty while also having the option of eating a burger on the sand.
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Skiing/Snowboarding
North: From the North Shore of Lake Tahoe the closest ski areas are Northstar and Diamond Peak. If you’re willing to drive a little further you can access all the ski areas in the Truckee area relatively easily. By driving thirty minutes or so to the Truckee area you have your pick of Tahoe-Donner, Sugar Bowl, Soda Springs, Boreal, and Donner Ski Ranch.
South: The main ski area on the South Shore is Heavenly. This massive ski resort has a gondola that you can walk to from many of the hotels in the area and has enough trails to keep you busy for days. It’s also one of the only ski areas where it’s possible to ski in California and Nevada on the same day.
A bit further from South Lake is Sierra at Tahoe, a smaller, more budget friendly ski resort. Additionally, about forty-five minutes from South Lake is Kirkwood, one of the best powder mountains in California. Kirkwood doesn’t have zippy chairlifts or a posh village scene but snow afficiendados consider the snow at Kirkwood to be some of the best in the Lake Tahoe area. This is the place to go if you love an unpretentious, challenging mountain.
West: The closest ski areas to the West Shore are Squaw Valley, Alpine Valley and Homewood, all of which are popular mountains. Homewood has big views of the lake from almost every run and Squaw Valley has some of the most challenging terrain in Lake Tahoe. Like the North Shore, you can also get to the Truckee ski areas in thirty minutes or less from the West Shore which gives skiers plenty of options.
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Hiking
North: The North Shore of Lake Tahoe has some really nice hikes with views of the lake. One of the best family hikes in Lake Tahoe is the short hike to Monkey Rock near Incline Village. The walk to Monkey Rock is a gradual climb that rewards hikers with big views. Once you’re at the top see if you can spot the monkey shaped rock! Other great hikes are the trails to Secret Beach, the trek up to the top of Mount Rose, and any of the trails near Tahoe Meadows off of Highway 431.
South: Despite having a more developed and urban feel than the other parts of Lake Tahoe, there are quite a few beautiful hiking hikes near South Lake Tahoe.The Desolation Wilderness, Fallen Leaf Lake, and Echo Lake are just a few of the popular hiking spots in South Lake Tahoe.
West: The west side of Lake Tahoe doesn’t have quite as many trails as the North or South Shore. An easy hike but spectacular hike on the West side is the walk up to Eagle Rock. It only takes about fifteen minutes but you’ll get 360 degree views and you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.
If you’re looking for waterfalls and alpine lakes there are some great trails out near Alpine Meadows/ Squaw Valley. Five Lakes trail is about five miles roundtrip and includes big views of the Sierra scenery and a series of alpine lakes. Fish, swim, or have a picnic at your favorite lake then head back down.
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Dining
North: North Lake Tahoe is all about burgers, fries, Mexican food, and ice cream. Overall, the restaurants on this side of the lake are more casual. Although that’s not to say there aren’t date-night worthy restaurants in North Lake Tahoe. If you are wanting something more upscale I highly recommend Soule Domain. A hidden gem, this restaurant charms you right away with it’s cute log cabin exterior. The inside is cozy, the staff are friendly, and the menu is an always changing adventure for your tastebuds. Definitely make a reservation, Soule Domain tends to have a long wait if you don’t have a reservation!
South: One of the best things about the South Shore of Lake Tahoe is the multitude of restaurants. Additionally, depending on where you’re staying it’s very possible that you can walk to wherever you want to eat. Compared to the rest of Lake Tahoe, the South Shore has a lot of cuisine diversity. My Thai, Tahoe Hot Pot, and Artemis Lakefront Cafe are all great choices if you’ve got a hankering for something a little different.
West: Many of the restaurants on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe are in Tahoe City. I’ve tried a handful of them and I have yet to have a meal that really wowed me. The food is decent and will fill your belly (try The Blue Agave for hefty portions of Mexican food) but at this point I haven’t discovered anything particularly exceptional.
Fortunately for folks visiting the West Shore there is one of the best places for lakeside dining in Lake Tahoe, Sunnyside Restaurant. Whether it’s a summery lunch or a sunset dinner, eating out on the deck overlooking the lake is the epitome of vacation dining.
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Biking
North: The new bike path from Incline Village to Sand Harbor is the only real bike path on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. This three mile bike path goes right next to the lake in some sections and has absolutely spectacular scenery. You can lock up your bike and scramble down one of the narrow sandy paths to the lake for a quick dip or you can pay to hang out on the beach at Sand Harbor. The biggest downsides to this path is it does have a few steeper sections which will be a challenge for young kiddos, and since it’s only three miles it’s a short ride for an adult. If you do want to extend your ride, there is a pathway that goes past the opulent houses on Lakeshore Blvd. in Incline Village. Views of the lake are obscured by the massive houses but it is an opportunity to fantasize about your dream home.
South: On the South Shore of Lake Tahoe is a family-friendly four mile (one-way) bike path. It’s mostly flat and gives bikers the option of visiting Baldwin Beach, Pope Beach, and the Taylor Creek Visitor Center. If you need to rent a bike there are bike rental shops in South Lake as well as a rental shop at Camp Richardson.
West: On the West Shore of Lake Tahoe you have two fantastic biking options. Cyclists can either ride the path from downtown Tahoe City to Squaw Valley or they can ride along the lake to Meeks Bay. Both rides are incredibly scenic and mostly flat. If you’re going out to Squaw Valley you’ll be riding along the Truckee River. Should you decide to go all the way to the village at Squaw Valley you’ll ride through a picturesque meadow for the last part of the ride. On the ride back to Tahoe City keep an eye out for a good swimming spot. Chances are you’ll want to cool off!
Riding from Tahoe City to Meeks Bay is about ten miles. Most families don’t attempt to do the entire ten mile bike ride. For a shorter ride stop at Sunnyside Restaurant or Sugar Pine State Park. Although if you’ve already made it the nine miles to Sugar Pine I would say you might as well keep going all the way to Meeks Bay!
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Kayaking/SUP
North: The crown jewel of kayaking in Lake Tahoe is Sand Harbor. As mentioned above in the “beaches” section, the water at Sand Harbor is crystal clear. When you’re kayaking or paddling an SUP on this section of the lake, you’re floating over a rainbow of blue and aqua color water. As you paddle you’ll pass over impressive granite boulders and schools of shimmering fish. If you don’t have a kayak there is a rental stand on the beach at Sand Harbor.
South: The best place to kayak in South Lake is out near Camp Richardson. The scenery is more natural (who wants to kayak near casinos ?) and you can paddle over to Emerald Bay. If you want a convenient spot to rent a kayak or SUP head to El Dorado Beach/ Lakeview Commons and rent gear from South Tahoe SUP.
West: The waters between Sugar Pine State Park and Meeks Bay are clear and calm. This section of coastline is less developed and the mountains provide a stunning backdrop. Rent a kayak or SUP at Sugar Pine and paddle south towards Meek’s Bay.
Tip for Kayaking Lake Tahoe: Start in the morning when there’s less wind and the water is calm. Usually by lunch time or even mid morning the lake gets breezier! Click here to learn more about kayaking on Lake Tahoe
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Places to Stay
North: The North Shore of Lake Tahoe has ample Airbnb/vacation rentals, some mid-range hotels in the Kings Beach/Tahoe Vista area and also some funky budget motels. And by funky I mean decrepit. Probably the most high-end resort style hotel on this side of the lake is the Hyatt in Incline Village. If you don’t mind being a little further from the lake there is also the Ritz-Carlton at Northstar.
For something between funky-decrepit and the Ritz, check out Red Wolf Lakeside Lodge. This mid-range hotel offers quaint, comfy rooms, and is centrally located. The two-bedroom units with kitchen are perfect for families.
South: You’ll probably find the best deals on hotels in South Lake Tahoe. There are so many places to stay that it keeps the prices lower. If walkability is important to you, check out 7 Seas Inn. It is a charming, reasonably priced bed and breakfast that’s walking distance to the lake, shopping, and restaurants. The owners are friendly and the complimentary happy hour in the beautiful garden is a great way to unwind. After having a glass of wine and snack, stroll to dinner then come back to 7 Seas for a good night’s sleep.
Another great place to stay in South Lake is the Fireside Lodge. This is perfect for people who want to stay on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe yet want a less urban feel. The Fireside Lodge is classic Lake Tahoe. Woodsy decor, an outdoor fire pit, and complimentary bikes for guests. The location is perfect for couples or families wanting to maximize their time enjoying all of Tahoe’s natural beauty but still be only a five minute drive from picking up a take-out order of Thai food. Did I mention that included in breakfast is a “waffle bar”?
West: The West Shore of Lake Tahoe is predominately mid-range hotels. Basecamp is a popular spot to stay if you want to be right in Tahoe City. Families love Granlibakken for it’s on-site activities, year-round heated pool and massive hot tub. As you head towards South Lake away from Tahoe City there are a few different hotels along the way. The upside to these places is their proximity to the bike path, the downside is many of them are right on the road, which might not be ideal if you’re wanting a quieter place to stay.
Best Side of Lake Tahoe for Things to Do
North: The North Shore is a little limited with it’s selection of touristy things to do. While there’s ample hiking and exploring opportunities, there’s not as many organized tours. However, if you’re a mountain biker you will be stoked on the top-notch mountain biking trails.
The Flume Trail, located in Incline Village, is an obscenely scenic mountain biking trail. Flume Trail Bikes offers a shuttle service to riders or you can save a little money and do it without assistance. Additionally, the Northstar ski area transforms into a mountain biking resort in the summer. Take a chairlift up and ride down.
South: Magic shows, snowmobiling, horseback rides, touring Vikingsholm, helicopter rides… the list goes on and on of things to do in South Lake Tahoe. One of the most timeless Tahoe tourist attractions is taking a cruise on the M.S Dixie II. While it’s not exactly an adrenaline rush to putter around on an old paddle wheeler, it is a mellow way to appreciate the beauty of the lake.
West: The West Shore has a surprising number of different things to do. Aside from hiking, biking, and paddling there are some other great family-friendly activities. Two of my favorite are the ropes course at Tahoe City and doing a rafting trip down the Truckee River. You can also venture out to Squaw Valley and ride the Aerial Tram to the top of the mountain. The views are incredible and the pool is a lot of fun during hotter months.
The “What Side of Lake Tahoe is Best For You” Quiz
As promised here is a quiz for helping you decide what side of Lake Tahoe to stay on!
1. Your ideal beach day
- a. Involves a drink in your hand
- b. You’re the only one on the beach
- c. Gets you a workout and a tan
2. Restaurants and food on vacation are:
- a. Vacation is all about going out to eat!
- b. Not super important but the occasional good meal is nice
- c. Who needs restaurants when there’s trail mix and a kitchen in your Airbnb?
3. Driving on vacation is:
- a. Not fun. I prefer to avoid driving when I’m on vacation
- b. Necessary to get to the best secret spots!
- c. Ok but I’m also happy to bike or walk to get around
4. You’re imagining your time in Lake Tahoe as:
- a. Spending days outside then watching a concert or playing blackjack at night
- b. Going on an epic hike and then watching the sunset with a beer by the lake
- c. Spent doing as many different activities as possible in one day
5. Pool, hot tub, spa day, fancy cocktail.. how important are these to vacation bliss?
- a. Yes please!
- b. After tacking a big hike I wouldn’t say no to a massage and mimosa
- c. If I wanted cocktails and a spa day I’d go to San Francisco not Lake Tahoe
If you got:
Mostly a’s: South Shore. A vacation in Lake Tahoe means checking out some hikes or beaches but also having the option to walk to dinner, have a spa day, or some late night shenanigans. Staying in South Lake you’ll have the the conveniences of being in a city but still be within a fifteen minute drive of some of Lake Tahoe’s most beautiful spots.
Mostly b’s: North Shore. You’re the outdoorsy type that is happiest discovering a secret cove or being the only one of the trail, yet also appreciates a good meal or a little pampering. You’ll love paddling around Sand Harbor and venturing up to the Mount Rose area. You don’t want your view of the lake to include casinos but you wouldn’t mind a more upscale hotel…
Mostly c’s: West Shore. You want to do and see everything that Lake Tahoe has to offer. With the miles of bike trails on the West Shore, hikes to alpine lakes, and pretty paddling possabilities, you have endless options for outdoor fun on the West Shore. Furthermore, staying on the West Shore means you’re halfway between the North and South Shore, making it very doable to check out those regions of the lake as well!
Further Reading on Lake Tahoe Travel
The Bottom Line: The North and West Shores of Lake Tahoe have a similar low-key vibe. For people who prefer tall trees over tall buildings, definitely find a place to stay on either the North or West Shore. If you want a wider range of activities, nightlife, or more dining options, then the South Shore is the best side of Lake Tahoe for you.