A complete guide to the family-friendliest shores of California’s most beautiful lake.
By Carolyn Jensen
Lake Tahoe has been impressing world travelers like Mark Twain for hundreds of years. No matter how many times I see it, I am always stunned. The color of the water is breathtaking. And there are so many ways to enjoy Tahoe – if you haven’t taken the family to see the largest alpine lake in North America when it’s NOT covered in ice and snow, this is the year to pack the car and go!
We love Tahoe so much we spent a year living in Alpine Meadows, located between Truckee and Tahoe City. So after our time as residents and dozens of both summer and winter escapes to the area, we’ve got a good idea of what works for family vacations alongside one of America’s most spectacular lakes.
We think most of Tahoe’s family-friendly attractions are in the North Shore and West Shore areas, though everyone has their favorite area to stay. Our stomping grounds radiate from Tahoe City, up to King’s Beach, out to Truckee, and down to Tahoma.
Planning is the key to getting the most out of your summer stay in Tahoe. There are so many options; it can be overwhelming to plan a stay – especially if you’re trying to please everyone in the family.
I encourage visitors to envision the type of Tahoe summer experience they want. “Do you want a lot of activity – biking, hiking, SUPing, kayaking, fishing or golfing? Or are you looking for a more “mellow” experience- relaxing by the lake, enjoying a good book, wandering the shops, or just soaking in the Sierra atmosphere?”
Most families are looking for a 50-50 mix. I recommend starting your Tahoe vacation plan by scanning our list of favorite things to do, below, and then running your top picks past the kids for their two cents. However you decide to allocate your time, be sure to leave space on your calendar to add activities when you arrive. You might meet friends and want to hang out, find out about a festival in town, or appease the kids with another day fishing for crawdads. I find that events always seem to present themselves and it’s nice to have some flexibility.
Whatever you do, don’t worry: Summers in Lake Tahoe are so perfect, your family will most certainly be back for more – because according to Twain, “To breathe the same air as the angels, you must go to Tahoe.”
Commons Beach in Tahoe City is one of the best family beaches on the lake. Get there early for a spot in the parking lot (street parking available too!) and you can take advantage of its shallow waters and super beachside playground.
Kids love to crawdad here, a simple net is all that is needed to catch these crustaceans. Most people release these critters at the end of the day for future beach goers. If water activities are your thing, a kiosk on the beach rents SUP boards and kayaks. Plenty of bathrooms are available. A short walk and you will find restaurants and a grocery store to pick up snacks or lunch.
On Wednesday nights in the summer, we arrive at around 6:00pm with a picnic dinner, low-slung beach chairs, a football and a board game. We eat, play and enjoy sunset before the weekly free “Movies on Common’s Beach” begin. Once the sun goes down, it gets cold so pack plenty of jackets, warm hats, blankets, socks and my favorite-a pair of UGGs.
Also in the summer on Sundays, the beach hosts Concerts at Commons Beach. These free concerts begin mid-June and run through Labor Day weekend from 4-7pm. Family friendly bands allow for both adults and kids to enjoy this beach and the stunning view of the lake.
Arguably the most picturesque family beach is Sand Harbor. It’s dotted with large boulders and and the bluest water you’ve ever seen! You must arrive early, paid parking is limited to a small lot otherwise you can take a shuttle from Incline Village. The beach can get narrow on years when the lake is especially full. No pets are allowed during the summer months.
Other good family beaches are Meek’s Bay, Sugar Pine Point State Park, and D.L. Bliss State Park, a good place for camping and even scuba diving (though there’s not much to see…) Chimney Beach is a “secret” hike-in beach on the Nevada side.
We like to rent a speedboat for at leastone day during our stay. We try to head out on a weekday because availability is higher and boat traffic is lower. You can rent gear for whatever water-top activity your family likes to do – tubing – a MUST for my kids – wakeboarding, water skiing, and more! We get an early start to take advantage of calmer morning waters.
If water sports are not your thing, don’t despair! A day boating across the lake is absolutely lovely. We head for Emerald Bay State Park to explore the historic Vikingsholm “castle” and the “Tea House” on Fannette Island. Although, we’ve never done so, tours are available for both buildings.
For lunch, you can boat-up to several bars and restaurants. Chambers Landing Bar & Grill is casual and fun (be sure to order their famous Chambers Punch!) or step-up, food-wise, to a deckside table at Sunnyside Restaurant or GarWoods. If you prefer to picnic on or off your boat, you can pick up supplies at several grocery stores around the lake.
By far, the most popular sport on the lake in recent years is stand-up paddle boarding (SUP). Several companies around the lake offer rentals. We visit Tahoe City Kayak and rent two boards for our family of four. If you haven’t SUPed, give it a try! It’s easy to get the hang of and a lot of fun.
Tahoe is perfect for kayaking and canoeing. You can rent boats in Tahoe City and paddle along the shore for as long as you like. Pack your beach gear and a picnic and pull ashore for lunch and a swim. There are even paddle-in campsites for the adventurous families. Oh, and you can parasail too. Contact Parasail Tahoe.
Truckee River Rafting
After several dry years with little or no rafting, the sight of families and partiers floating in the blue and orange rafts as they go “Truckin’ on the Truckee” again brought a smile to all faces. The trip floats down river from Tahoe City to River Ranch Lodge, near the road to Alpine Meadows. This is no white water experience: The rapids are just above a “0” in terms of difficulty, with only the final set rising to about a “1.” Reserve your spot in advance from one of the two almost-identical companies – Truckee River Rafting and White Water Tours – that will outfit you with rafts and life vests from their offices near the Tahoe City “Y” – the lakeside spot where highways 89 and 28 meet – get you truckin’ and then bus you back to your car from River Ranch after your day on the river.
You can take as little or as long as you like for the float, which typically takes about 2-4 hours. Opportunities to stop along the way for rest, picnics and water fights are plentiful. We pack snacks or lunch, beverages, water cannons, waterproof cameras, towels (in a waterproof bag) and plenty of sunscreen. When you set off, be sure to put a piece of gum in your mouth. You’ll want to stick it to the famous “gum bridge.”
The float ends at River Ranch, a hotel and restaurant. The large patio overlooking the river is open during the day, grab lunch or a snack from the outdoor BBQ, a large outdoor bar will be welcome after your float to enjoy on its large outside deck overlooking the river. Grab a seat and have fun watching all the rafters come in while you dry off.
Tahoe offers endless hiking opportunities. PLEASE REMEMBER to pack more water than you think you will need: The elevation at lake-level is 6,225 feet and just about any viewpoint you aim for will be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 to 1,500 feet higher.
The Tahoe Rim Trail runs 165 miles around Lake Tahoe but don’t let that scare you away! The trail is suitable for all ages, and is easy to tailor-make a hike to accommodate your group presenting boundless opportunities to enter and exit the trail around the lake.
Certainly one of the most popular, if not THE most popular, hike is Five Lakes Trail. The well-worn path is two miles up Alpine Meadows Road off Highway 89 a quarter mile from Squaw Valley in the Granite Chiefs Wilderness. The initial accent is strenuous but well worth the work. This article is an excellent overview of Five Lakes as well as many other hikes around Lake Tahoe.
Eagle Rock Trail is a quick, up and down hike of a prominent, roadside monolith that provides excellent views of the lake. It’s only about 20 minutes up – but hang onto those little ones!
Another popular and gorgeous hike is the Shirley Lake hike at Squaw Valley. With several waterfalls, blooming wildflowers and big granite boulders it’s a pleasant 3 hour hike for all ages. Click here for more info that will help you plan your day.
Rent bikes for the whole family at one of the shops at the Y, like Olympic or Willard’s. Head west on the trail along the Truckee River for as long as you like before stopping for a picnic or heading back to the Bridgetender or River Ranch for snacks and refreshments on the deck (see below). The Flume Trail is one of the best mountain bike trails near the lake.
You can catch rainbow trout in the lake, but we rarely have a lot of luck. Check this page for some lakeside fishing spots. We like Stampede Lake near Truckee. Real fisherpeople head to lakes in the nearby Sierras, like Webber Lake. Ace Hardware in Truckee has a well-stocked fishing section with a knowledgeable staff.
Pretend you’re on Bonanza and ride the trails of the Tahoe National Forest. Visit Alpine Meadows Stables for your pack horse.
Naked Ski Runs
Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, Northstar, Granlibaaken and other ski areas do their best to change into fair-weather play areas during summer. You can hike along many of the ski runs from the parking lots. Some offer mountain biking down the mountain. Squaw offers swimming and roller skating at High Camp.
The Treetop Adventure Park at Granlibaaken has a seemingly endless criss-cross of high and low ropes routes for both smaller and taller adventurers. It’s always best to book your climb time a few days (or more) in advance to be sure you can have time in the trees. Even experienced ropes coursers really love this course, and the pine forest is a very pleasant spot for non-climbers to watch and wait, as well.
Our home is located between two towns, Truckee and Tahoe City. In the last 10 years or so, Truckee has seen tremendous growth in both retail and restaurants. The historic part of Truckee is a tree-lined street with historic brick buildings full of shopping and dining. There is something for everyone.
Farmers’ Market – We never miss the Thursday market in Tahoe City when we’re in town. It is open from May to October. Additionally, the Tuesday farmer’s market in Truckee is truly special with a local feel.
Truckee Time – Wandering the Old West town of Truckee and poking into the great boutiques, galleries and restaurants is one of my favorite days near Tahoe. Here’s a Chronicle article that has some details.
Golf & Bowl – The standards can be found around the lake as well. Check out King’s Beach Mini Golf, Bowl Incline, Tahoe Art Haus Cinema, Incline Village Cinema, and Truckee Cinema.
Festivals – There are concerts and art, food and athletic festivals going on every week in the summertime. Check online listings to see what is going on while you’ll be in town. Our favorite source is the Tahoe Weekly.
Lake Tahoe offers plenty of dining options. From grab-and-go to five-course sit down meals and everything in-between.
Tahoe City/West Shore Restaurants
The Bridgetender – We love this spot for American classics. They have a lovely patio nestled alongside the Truckee River. After lunch be sure to take a picture at Fanny Bridge across the street. As you can probably guess, the bridge came into its name from all the fannies that can be seen from the road as people look over and admire the dam, cool water and feeding fish.
Jakes on the Lake – This Tahoe City spot continues to be popular because the view is nothing short of amazing.
River Ranch – There is nothing like BBQ on the deck after Truckin’ on the Truckee or a bike ride along the river. Nighttime dining can be a bit fancier but the bar/lounge serves a mean plate of nachos near the groovy midcentury fireplace.
GarWoods – One of Tahoe’s most [in]famous waterfront eateries, boaters and landlubbers have enjoyed Wet Woody rum concoctions since 1988.
Sunnyside – Eat outside on the deck while it’s still light. The peoplewatching is great and the kids can play on the sand below the dock.
Tahoe House – Not only does this legendary bakery bake up an incredible assortment of pastries and breads, it serves a deli-full of great take-out meals and picnic supplies.
Char-Pit – Parents who used to be kids on vacation in North Tahoe love to hit the Char-Pit in King’s Beach for a burger and soft-serve that tastes the same as it did in the 1970s (maybe because the new local owner aims to keep it that way.)
Truckee offers so many choices. Our favorites include Moody’s (famous for its live music, American fare and well-stocked bar), Burger Me, Jax At The Tracks and Marty’s Cafe. However, so many more choice abound. Pick your cuisine and chances are you’ll be able to find it. And if you’re into beer, the local beer scene has taken off in recent years with a handful of options.
The SF Chronicle published this list of favorite road stops along the way to the lake from the Bay Area.
How to Get to Lake Tahoe
We drive from the Bay Area to Tahoe. A typical trip takes 3 1/2 hours. However, we try to avoid traveling peak commute time. The I-80 corridor is notoriously horrendous especially on Fridays and holiday weekends.
If traveling by air, the Reno-Tahoe International Airport is approximately an hour away. Amtrak runs the California Zephyr daily from Chicago with plenty of cities along the way to jump on, including many in the Bay Area.
Where to Stay on the West Shore
We are fortunate to own a home in the Lake Tahoe area. Most families settle in for a week and that means renting a home is the most economical option. Tahoe has an abundance of rental properties as well as hotels. Prices run the gamut from a condo near the lake for $200/night to $9,000/night for a lakefront home that’ll sleep most everyone you know. There is a price to fit any budget! Airbnb and VRBO are stocked with rentals but old school property management companies like Tahoe Luxury Properties maintain a lot of great listings and deliver high-touch service as well. Try Go Tahoe North for a wider variety of lodging.
More Tips for Summer in Tahoe
Check Events – The very first thing you should do when you get to Tahoe is pick up The Tahoe Weekly and check out all the activities going on while you are in town. You can find it in most grocery stores or you can view it online. The online versions of Go Tahoe North and the Tahoe Quarterly for listings of local events.
Beware Crowds – It’s summer, it’s Tahoe…..everyone wants to be there! Weekenders come in from surrounding areas and the beach parking can fill early – crazy early sometimes.
Lakeside Traffic – Local traffic can be a hindrance especially traveling from the West Shore. They say in Tahoe that there are two seasons, “winter” and “cone season” because summer is the time when roads are repaired. That means the two-lane road that runs around the lake is often constricted to one lane in construction zones… Be patient!
Tahoe Time – It’s our opinion that locals and restaurant servers work on “Tahoe Time.” All I can say is embrace it!!!!!
Carolyn Jensen – June 2019
A trained chef, food writer, ice skater, sports mom and karaoke artiste, Carolyn is religious about the Thursday Marin Farmer’s Market, her family, and escapes to their Lake Tahoe cabin. Follow her incredibly gorgeous and mouth-watering IG feed at #gatherweekly.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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