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Photo courtesy of Tahoe South

First Timer’s Guide: South Lake Tahoe, California

It's always a good time to visit this snow- and sun-kissed city in the Sierra Nevadas.

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More than 6,000 feet high in the Sierra Nevada mountains sits South Lake Tahoe, a friendly resort town that rests along the southern shores of its namesake—America’s largest (and arguably, its most splendid) alpine lake. It’s a welcoming city, with a local peak aptly named Heavenly, inviting beaches, and a varied climate—hot and dry in the summer; snow-packed in the winter—that lures all types of travelers and adventurers year-round. Whether you break out the road trip jams to tackle the lengthy drive from Denver or hop on a direct flight to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, where you can then catch a shuttle to South Lake Tahoe, it’s always a good time to explore this idyllic destination.

The Odometer: 1,018 miles, or about a 16-hour drive, from Denver

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Get Outside

Photo courtesy of Tahoe South

Regardless of the season, South Lake Tahoe is brimming with outdoor adventures. In the wintertime, this resort town is full of snowboard- and ski-toting visitors looking to take advantage of 300-plus inches of snow that fall on average at Heavenly Ski Resort each year. With lift access from the downtown area, you’ll have to battle for first chair, but it’s worth it to soak in the views at the top of the mountain and explore the 4,630 skiable acres, two terrain parks, and 3,500 vertical feet that Heavenly has to offer.

In the summertime, the resort transforms into a popular place for hikers eager to take advantage of groomed trails, wildflower hikes, and rewarding views. But for a truly unique experience, we recommend Emerald Bay State Park. A National Natural Landmark, Emerald Bay is the place to capture the perfect photograph of the lake’s glistening waters. Start at the Rubicon Trail, an eight-mile round-trip hike that includes views of Vikingsholm, known as Tahoe’s Hidden Castle, a historic 38-room mansion inspired by Scandinavian architecture. (The trail can also be traversed by snowshoes in the winter.)

If you’re road-tripping to South Lake Tahoe, be sure to load up the bikes. Casual cyclists will enjoy the four-mile South Shore Bike Path, which rambles around the lakeshore, past ample places to stop and grab a bite to eat or a local craft brew. Downhill mountain bikers can choose from an array of aptly titled trails, like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride/Saxon Creek, a thrilling 10-mile classic downhill route that features challenging terrain and fast descents.

But perhaps the most popular outdoor activity in South Lake Tahoe is a simple trip to the beach. Both El Dorado Beach (also known as the Commons Beach) and Kings Beach draw sunbathers and boaters looking to enjoy their boat ramps and other amenities, like the barbecue and picnic facilities and designated swimming areas. While many beaches are closed to the public during cold weather months, summer visitors can expect to find crowds of both locals and tourists looking to have a little fun in the sun. Just be prepared to pay an entrance or parking fee to access your beach nirvana.

Eat & Drink

Photo courtesy of Tahoe South

Though relatively small, South Lake Tahoe’s dining scene is eclectic. You’ll find cuisine inspired by cultures all over the world, with a few local craft beer joints mixed in for good measure. Kick off the day with a filling breakfast at the Driftwood Cafe, a downtown breakfast and lunch eatery. This place is always busy, and rightfully so—the dishes here are massive and delicious. For breakfast, try a tasty plate of Eggs Benedict topped with a cheesy herb sauce, or spring for one of the handful of omelettes on the menu. When lunch rolls around, take a break from the trails and grab a seat at Base Camp Pizza Co., located a stone’s throw from the lifts in Heavenly Village. In addition to a huge selection of gourmet pizzas—we liked the pear and gorgonzola combo and the Thai Chicken Curry pizza—Base Camp also whips up some pretty tasty (and carb-loaded) Italian pasta dishes. Not ready to leave the slopes for lunch? The Tamarack Lodge offers up fast-casual, on-mountain eats, killer drink specials, and tunes courtesy of Tamarack’s resident DJ.

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For a pre-dinner adult beverage, head to one of the city’s craft breweries, like the spacious ski-themed taproom at South Lake Tahoe Brewery. Beer drinkers can taste their way through 15 beers on the hop-forward menu, each one poured from a tap handle made from a ski pole. End the day with a nice meal at the Lake House, a timeless restaurant that’s a short drive from the city’s main drag, but worth the trip. Splurge on an expertly prepared filet mignon, duck, or steamed king crab legs, while enjoying a glass of vino from their tailored wine list, which offers options to complement every dish on the menu.

Stay

Photo courtesy of Basecamp South Lake Tahoe

If you’re a budget traveler or an outdoors aficionado just looking for a place to rest your head, book a room at the Base Camp Hotel, which is only a few blocks away from Heavenly Resort in one direction, and the shores of Lake Tahoe in the other. Nightly rates are around $129 in the winter, and $200 in the summertime. Each comfortable room is decorated with an outdoorsy vibe that perfectly captures South Lake Tahoe. Basecamp also leaves the notion of a stuffy hotel bar behind, instead offering guests a fun craft beer-focused lounge with a spacious outdoor patio, where guests can listen to live music and enjoy the outdoor fire pit. Another options is the Beach Retreat & Lodge, a cozy lakefront lodge with rooms between $94 to just over $150 per night. While the easygoing vibe and breathtaking views at this hotel will surely lure you into vacation mode, it’s the beach access and beachside Tiki Bar that keep people coming back every summer.

Of course, indoor lodging isn’t the only option. Campers looking to get off the grid can head into the Desolation Wildness, or to a handful of other campsites in the Lake Tahoe Basin managed by the U.S. Forest Service (find a list of available campsites online before you head out). For those looking for a less rugged experience with close proximity to beaches, Camp Richardson is a great option. The historic resort and marina dates back to 1904 and remains a blissful place to step back in time, unplug, and relax in nature. There are numerous lodging options to choose from, including tent camping, cabin rentals, hotel rooms, an inn, and the Richardson House—a seven-bedroom, 4.5-bathroom vacation rental steps from the onsite General Store, Ice Cream Parlor, and Mountain Sports Center. With amenities like parasailing and bike rentals, this iconic South Lake Tahoe gem stays busy in the summer, so book early.

For Families

Photo courtesy of Tahoe South

Relatively new to Heavenly Ski Resort is the activities-loaded EPIC Discovery adventure course. Just a gondola ride away from Heavenly Village is an alpine roller coaster, ropes courses (for adults and children), a 500-foot tubing hill, zipline, granite peak climbing wall, and even a gemstone panning station, where visitors can pan for gold and keep any shiny nuggets they find. Activities can be reserved and purchased individually, or lumped together in the Ultimate Adventure Pass ($99 per person or $74 for participants under 54 inches), which provides access to most of the park’s activities and will keep your entire family entertained all day.

Shopping

Photo courtesy of Tahoe South

South Lake Tahoe is an artists hub, and as such, you’ll find just as many art galleries in town as you will touristy shops and the standard big name outdoor brands. Spend time strolling through the shops at Heavenly Village, but be sure to stop into On Tahoe Time, which sells interesting and cute keepsakes from the area, like custom topography and nautical maps carved out of wood and throwback-style paintings. The Earthbound Trading Co. is inspired by nomadic travels and provides shoppers an eclectic variety of clothing, jewelry, and home decor at reasonable prices. Just outside of Heavenly Village, visit Marcus Ashley Fine Art Gallery—a stunning gallery featuring a mix of paintings, many of which delicately capture the natural beauty found throughout the Lake Tahoe area.

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If You Do One Thing

Take the 2.4-mile ride on the Heavenly Scenic Gondola. In winter and summer months, the gondola sweeps visitors up the mountain for exceptional views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding snowcapped peaks. Stop by the observation deck to snap a few photos and grab a drink at Cafe Blue before hiking one of the nearby trails. Pricing for the Scenic Gondola Ride varies from $58 to $64 throughout the year for adults, and $35 for children.

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