3 Days in Lake Tahoe: How to Plan Your Lake Tahoe Itinerary
Nestled in the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is a breathtaking sight to behold. The largest, and second deepest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe attracts countless visitors with the beauty of its clear blue waters, framed by snow-capped peaks and towering pine forests.
Beyond the stunning vistas, Lake Tahoe is also the ultimate outdoor and adventure lover’s playground, with 72 miles of shoreline, hundreds of miles of trails, and so many different ways to play.
This Lake Tahoe itinerary was written to help you make the most of your limited time, with a curated list of ideas on where to eat, stay, and play.
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Where is Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is located around 200 miles northeast of San Francisco, California, and 58 miles south of Reno, Nevada. It’s at an elevation of 6,224 feet, and straddles the California and Nevada border.
Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is massive—it’s 20 miles long by 12 miles wide and takes an hour to drive from one side to the other—so where you stay is important. You can stay in multiple places, but it doesn’t really make sense for just 3 days in Lake Tahoe.
For such a short time, I recommend just staying in one place and making it your base.
For the activities listed in this Lake Tahoe summer itinerary, the two top choices are either South Lake Tahoe or Tahoe City. South Lake Tahoe offers more amenities and a livelier experience while charming Tahoe City offers a more laid-back experience.
Hotels in Tahoe
If you’d rather stay in a hotel, Basecamp is a stylish and affordable option for the outdoor adventurer. Offering two convenient locations, this eco-friendly boutique hotel offers unique rooms that include bunk beds or a giant canvas tent.
Located just minutes from Heavenly Village and the lake, Basecamp Tahoe South offers a rooftop hot tub, outdoor beer garden with fire pits and live music nightly.
Located in the heart of Tahoe City along the western side of Tahoe, and just minutes from the lake, Basecamp Tahoe City offers a sun terrace and a cozy lobby bar.
For a cozier, more romantic spot, check out the Cottage Inn. It’s right along West Lake Blvd just before 89 turns west towards Squaw, which is a great location for exploring Tahoe. You’ll find cozy, rustic rooms and super friendly (and helpful) staff. Adults only – no kids allowed.
In South Lake Tahoe, there are three nice options to consider.
- Hotel Azure: A modern, stylish, and clean hotel that is within walking distance to the lake and multiple beaches.
- The Alder Inn: Located on Ski Run Blvd, you just need to walk five blocks to reach the lake. Rooms are nice – choose between a king and two queens – and it has an outdoor pool and hot tub.
- Heavenly Village B&B: Stylish rooms that have kitchenettes – which is a luxury in Tahoe because you’ll save money on eating out. They have a bunch of fun amenities, like an outdoor firepit and a nice deck where you can enjoy a beer (or glass of wine) after a day of adventuring. In-room fireplaces are more for the winter months, but it’s still a lovely place to stay over the summer. In the winter, you’ll have a shuttle to Heavenly Ski Resort.
Vacation Rentals in Tahoe
If you’d rather stay indoors with all the amenities of home, look for a vacation rental instead.
Near South Lake Tahoe
Located mere minutes from South Lake Tahoe, this spacious cabin is perfect for both a couple who want some extra space, or a group of 4-6. The Tahoe Rim Trail is nearby, and there’s a large deck to enjoy the epic views over Carson Valley.
Ideally situated in the heart of South Lake Tahoe near Heavenly Ski Resort, this adorable three bedroom, two bath Tahoe Cabin is the perfect base for exploring Tahoe if you have a bigger group, with a fenced in yard, hot tub, fire pit, and grill.
Near Tahoe City (West Shore)
Tahoe City is along the western edge of Lake Tahoe, which puts you roughly equidistant between Tahoe’s north shore and Emerald Bay.
For couples, this cozy cabin that is mere blocks from the lake the perfect place to spend a long weekend in. If you use this as a home base for exploring Tahoe, you’ll enjoy modern amenities, a hot tub, and direct access to trails.
Got a bigger group? Check out this spacious barn-style home near Tahoe City that sleeps 6-9 and has a brand new kitchen and a hot tub.
Camping in Tahoe
Camping is a great way to experience Lake Tahoe.
D.L. Bliss: There are five campgrounds at this pretty park on the west shore. Beach Camp is the top choice, as it’s right by two beaches. Pine Camp is the largest and you can guess where East Ridge and West Ridge are located.
Eagle Point: Located on a promontory at the entrance to Emerald Bay State Park, Eagle Point offers stunning lake views and more than 100 campsites available. Book a premium site for the best views.
Reservations can be made up to six months in advance and they go quick.
A Complete 3 Day Lake Tahoe Summer Itinerary
Day 1: West Shore
Spend your first day in Tahoe exploring the West Shore, focusing on the area around Emerald Lake.
Morning: Sunrise and Eagle Lake
For your first day, plan to catch a sunrise at Emerald Bay. The only inlet on Lake Tahoe, and home to the lake’s only island, Emerald Bay is one of the prettiest spots around the lake and a must see. There’s a reason it’s one of the most photographed spots in the world.
Watch the sunrise from a viewpoint such as Inspiration Point, from Eagle Falls, or from various pull outs along the road. There are two paid parking lots that fill up quickly. You can also park along certain stretches of the road for free.
Eagle Falls is one of the most accessible waterfalls in the area. There are actually two falls, Lower Eagle Falls and Upper Eagle Falls, and you can see both with minimal effort. Park at the trailhead for $5, or find parking on the road for free.
Lower Eagle Falls is located on the other side of Highway 89 from the Eagle Falls Trailhead. The location of many an Instagram photo, you’ll be able to see the falls from above, with views of Emerald Bay beyond.
The trail to Upper Eagle Falls is only only about a quarter of a mile, but there will be a section of steep steps. A small footbridge crosses the top of the cascading falls, and is a great vantage point for views and photos. There’s also a side loop that leads to additional vista points.
Hike to Eagle Lake
From the top of Eagle Falls, it’s only another 0.8 miles to reach Eagle Lake. Along the way, enjoy views of towering pine forests and massive granite slabs. Once you reach the lake, take the trail to the left and continue on a little further until you see the mountain clearly reflected in the lake. If you can stand the cold, I also recommend taking a quick dip in the lake.
Afternoon: Explore Emerald Bay
Vikingsholm and Picnic Lunch Along the Lakeshore
After Eagle Lake, head down to Vikingsholm. It’s a steep 1-mile hike down to the beach, with a 500-foot change in elevation. One of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the US, the 38-room castle was constructed for Mrs. Lora J. Knight in the 1920s. A wealthy widow, Mrs. Knight wanted her summer home to match the majestic surroundings of Emerald Bay, which reminded her of the fjords of Scandinavia.
Take a guided tour of the castle. Afterwards, enjoy a nice picnic lunch along the shore while taking in the stunning views. Take advantage of one of the handy picnic tables, or spread a blanket out on the sand.
Get Out on the Water
To fully appreciate Emerald Bay, you need to get out on the water. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard at the pier and paddle out to Fannette Island. Hike about 150 feet up to the top of the island, where you’ll find the remains of the stone teahouse where Mrs. Knight used to enjoy tea. The tea is long gone but you can still enjoy stunning, 360-degree views.
As you paddle around Emerald Bay, keep your eye out for bald eagles and ospreys, which often nest in the area.
Walk Part of the Rubicon Trail
The Rubicon Trail is a picturesque hiking trail that connects Emerald Bay State Park with D.L. Bliss State Park. Tracking along the shoreline, this trail is largely flat and offers panoramic views of Lake Tahoe nearly the entire way, both from lake-level and higher up.
It’s 4.5 miles from Vikingsholm to the northern end at D.L. Bliss, so you probably won’t have time to walk the entire way. The Emerald Bay section is largely at lake level. To enjoy lake views from higher up, hike until the trail curves past Emerald Bay or drive to D. L. Bliss to start from the northern end.
Evening: Dinner in South Lake
To close out the first day of your Lake Tahoe itinerary, grab dinner and drinks in South Lake Tahoe. Here are some recommendations for you to choose from.
Artemis Lakefront Cafe: Enjoy delicious Greek food in a casual setting at Ski Run Marina. Sit at the outdoor patio to enjoy the lake views. The Artemis fries, with their special sauce, is a must. There’s also a good selection of cocktails, beers, wine, and an espresso bar.
Basecamp Pizza: Located in Heavenly Village, Base Camp offers gourmet pizza in a lively atmosphere, with live music nightly. There’s also a great selection of craft beers. Afterwards, check out a magic show at the Loft Theatre, or grab a drink at the Community Speakeasy inside Social House.
Bistro at Edgewood: For fine dining in a beautiful setting, head to the Bistro at Edgewood Resort. With stunning views, and a casual yet refined menu, it’s perfect for that special occasion. The outside patio offers fire pits and stunning views.
Beacon Bar: Having a Rum Runner at the Beacon Bar is practically a Tahoe summer tradition. Enjoy classic pub fare on the spacious deck near the water’s edge at historic Camp Richardson. For the ultimate experience, pull up to the dock on a boat.
Idle Hour: Enjoy tastings and a great selection of wine at this lakefront wine and piano bar. Sit at the cozy outdoor terraces overlooking the lake, or gather around with a group at the waterfront tables and fire pits.
Day 2: Truckee and Donner Pass
On your second day, explore the north side of Lake Tahoe where you’ll find Truckee and Donner Pass.
But First, Coffee
Start your day right with quality coffee and food at Coffeebar in Truckee, including organic, Italian-style espresso and specialty coffee drinks and flavors, which you can enjoy on their outdoor patio. There’s also a Coffeebar bakery in West Truckee and another shop in the Village at Squaw Valley.
Morning: Hike the Five Lakes Trail
Located between Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley, the Five Lakes Trail is one of the prettiest hikes in the Granite Chief Wilderness. It’s 5 miles round trip and rated moderate. Along the way, you’ll enjoy views of granite canyons and walls, manzanitas and pine forests.
You’ll climb more than 1,000 feet in less than 2 miles, but the payoff is well worth it. Once you reach the top of the ridge, the trail opens up to a meadow with five beautiful alpine lakes where you can relax, swim or fish. Those who are ambitious can continue on and hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Afternoon: Donner Pass and Donner Lake
Spend the afternoon exploring the history and nature of the region at Donner Pass and Donner Lake. The whole area was named after the tragic Donner Party, a group of California-bound pioneers who got stranded in the area by heavy snow in 1846. Only about half the party survived (and many had to resort to cannibalism to do so).
Rainbow Bridge: At the top of Donner Summit Road, park at the Donner Lake Overlook to get a closer look at the historic Rainbow Bridge (also known as the Donner Summit Bridge) and Donner Lake below. You can also walk across the bridge.
Donner Pass Tunnels: Originally completed in 1867 for the transcontinental railroad, these abandoned tunnels make for a unique experience. Largely dark and covered in graffiti, there are also openings that offer great views of Donner Lake and the surrounding region. Look for petroglyphs and the China Wall at the eastern end of the tunnels, near Rainbow Bridge.
Donner Lake: Spend the rest of your afternoon relaxing or playing in the water at Donner Lake. The north shore of the lake offers more than 30 public docks stretched over 1.5 miles. You can rent a variety of watersports and crafts, including motorized boats. Visit the nearby Donner State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum to learn more about the Donner Party and other regional settlers.
Evening: Dinner and Drinks in Truckee
Here are some spots in Truckee to check out for dinner and drinks after your day of exploring.
Truckee Tavern and Grill: This local favorite specializes in wood fire cuisine with locally grown produce and meats. But the real standout is their cocktails, made using unique syrups and concoctions, and best enjoyed on their patio.
Moody’s Bistro Bar & Beats: Located in the historic Truckee Hotel, Moody’s is great for dinner and drinks. Fill up with their farm-to-table mountain bistro cuisine and delicious craft cocktails while listening to live jazz, soul or rhythm and blues.
Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar: For fine dining with a view, head to Cottonwood, housed in one of the oldest ski lodges in the country. Enjoy classic American food, tasty cocktails, views over downtown Truckee and live music on Thursdays and Fridays.
Alibi Ale Works: Local craft brewery Alibi offers a rotating selection of interesting beers and flavors brewed on the North Shore using Lake Tahoe water. They also serve food and have the largest outdoor beer garden in Truckee.
Uncorked Truckee: This small gem of a wine bar offers by-the-glass and wine tastings that change daily. There’s a huge selection of limited production wines and a helpful staff. Enjoy live music on Friday nights.
Day 3: South Shore and East/North Shore
On your last day in Tahoe, explore the Nevada side of the lake from bottom to top, starting in South Lake Tahoe and making your way up the entire eastern shore to Incline Village.
Morning: Heavenly Gondola and Adventure Park
Heavenly Mountain is not just a winter destination. It’s also a great adventure destination in the summer for the whole family. The 2.4-mile gondola ride takes you up to 9,100 feet and offers incredible panoramic views of Lake Tahoe. Be sure to get off at the first stop (it only stops here on the way up), a 14,000-square-foot observation deck, for sweeping views of the Tahoe Basin and Carson Valley.
At the very top, there’s an entire adventure park, with zip lines, ropes courses, rock climbing, tubing and a gravity-assisted, open-air mountain coaster. While you have to pay for each activity in the park, you can hike more than a half dozen trails for free.
Afternoon: Secret Cove + Sand Harbor
In the afternoon, after spending some time in South Lake Tahoe, head north along Tahoe’s eastern shore, stopping at some of the incredibly scenic beaches on this side of the lake.
Secret Cove and Chimney Beach
The Tahoe shoreline is full of hidden coves and pretty little beaches that you can access with just a little bit of effort. Two great options are Secret Cove and Chimney Beach. Both beaches are also dog friendly. Park at the Secret Harbor parking lot and access both beaches on a 2.5-mile round trip hike.
Chimney Beach offers one of the more unique beach views on the lake—a freestanding stone chimney, remnants of an old beachfront cabin. It’s also a beautiful stretch of sandy beach, with large boulders you can relax or play on.
Less than a mile south of Chimney beach, Secret Cove is one of the most pristine beaches around the lake. This tiny gem is known for its clear waters and sand, great views, and for being clothing optional.
Sand Harbor and the East Shore Trail
Located around 3 miles south of Incline Village, this family-friendly beach is one of the most beautiful, and popular, beaches in Tahoe, with long stretches of sandy beach, giant boulders and short, scenic hikes. Amenities are plentiful and include a visitor center, food concession and snack bar, picnic areas, restrooms, boat ramps and watersport rentals.
Sand Harbor is incredibly popular and the parking lot tends to fill up really early. If the parking lot is full, you can take a shuttle bus (East Shore Express) from Incline Village.
For a more scenic option, hike or bike the East Shore Trail. Park at the Tunnel Creek Cafe then follow the 3-mile (one way), pet-friendly trail to Sand Harbor. The southern 2 miles of the trail follows right along the shoreline. Along the way, you’ll come across 11 beach access points and 16 vista points.
Make your last night in Tahoe count with a memorable and uniquely Tahoe experience.
Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival: Every July and August, you can watch Shakespeare under the stars most evenings at Sand Harbor. The scenic outdoor amphitheater has seats in the sand and Lake Tahoe as its backdrop. You can BYOB or grab food and drinks from the on-site restaurant to enjoy your meal al fresco before the show.
M.S. Dixie Cruise: If you’d rather be on the water, opt for a sunset dinner cruise on the M.S. Dixie II instead. The historic paddle wheeler cruises to Emerald Bay from Zephyr Cove. During the 3-hour cruise, you’ll be able to see the sunset and stars, along with a sit-down dinner and live entertainment.
Whichever option you choose, don’t forget to look up at the stars, either from the beach at Sand Harbor, or the deck of the M.S. Dixie II. Summer is Milky Way season, and Lake Tahoe is a great place to catch this unforgettable sight.
What to Add If You Have More Time
There are so many other fun adventures you can enjoy if you’re lucky enough to have more days at Lake Tahoe. Here are some options if you have more than a long weekend in Tahoe.
Mountain Biking: Tahoe is home to hundreds of miles of world-class mountain biking trails. A must is the Flume Trail. Enjoy spectacular lake views as you ride along the cliff’s edge. The Tahoe Rim Trail is another great option, while Northstar California Resort offers lift-assisted single-track riding.
Rock Climbing: The Tahoe Basin also offers a large number of mostly granite crags and boulders for climbers of all levels and styles. Head to Eagle Lake for easy approaches and stunning views, Lovers Leap for epic multi-pitch lines, and Donner Summit for a wide variety of routes.
Scuba Diving: Scuba diving the incredibly clear waters at high altitude is an unforgettable experience. There are more than a dozen sites around the lake. Top choices include Sand Harbor, Rubicon Point and the Maritime Heritage Underwater Trail.
Beaches: Lake Tahoe is the star here, so if you have more time, spend it at the beach. On the North Shore, King’s Beach is family-friendly and offers lots of rentals, while Commons Beach in Tahoe City hosts free concerts on Sundays. Nevada Beach’s long and wide stretch of sand is a local favorite, while Zephyr Cove offers rentals, beach volleyball, and a great beach bar. If you’re visiting with your pup, head to Kiva Beach on the South Shore, a less-frequented gem that also offers great views of Mt. Tallac.
Getting to Lake Tahoe
Driving From San Francisco
Lake Tahoe is around a 3.5-hour drive from San Francisco, though it can take longer at peak times like Friday evening and Sunday, when weekend trippers make the journey. Take I-80 to Sacramento, then either continue on I-80 to areas on the North Shore, or take US-50 to South Lake Tahoe.
Flying From Elsewhere
Reno-Tahoe International Airport is the closest airport to Lake Tahoe. It’s around a 45-minute drive to the North Shore and a 1-hour drive to South Lake Tahoe. You’ll find several rental car agencies right at the terminal.
There are also shuttle buses to both the North Shore and South Shore, and rideshares such as Uber and Lyft operate at the airport, but you’ll want to rent a car to make the most of your time in Tahoe. Public transportation around the lake is very limited, and rideshares can be sporadic and expensive.
Sacramento International Airport is another option to consider, and located around 100 miles away.
The Best Time to Visit Lake Tahoe
Summer is the best time to visit to enjoy the lake, beaches and parks, go on hikes, mountain bike, climb and golf. It’s also peak season, which means higher prices and larger crowds, but the sublime water and temperatures, and wide range of activities, make it worthwhile.
Winter is the other peak season. With 15 ski resorts around the lake, it’s easy to understand why. Other great winter activities include snowshoeing, sledding, snowmobiling and more. Plus the snow-capped mountains are a sight to behold.
Spring and fall are the shoulder seasons and a great time to visit to escape the crowds and benefit from lower prices. Depending on the weather, you might still be able to enjoy some winter or summer activities. Spring is a great time to spot waterfalls and wildflowers, while fall colors can be pretty spectacular here.
There’s really no bad time to visit Lake Tahoe, as there’s something for every season. This Lake Tahoe itinerary was written for a summer visit, but the recommendations on where to stay, play, and eat still apply.
You can still do some activities, such as hiking, depending on how much snow there is. If there is a lot of snow, you’ll probably want to spend most of your time playing in the snow, at the ski resorts or otherwise.
That’s all we’ve got! We hope you have an incredible time in Tahoe – you’re going to love the crystal clear waters and pleasantly warm summer weather.
Plan an Unforgettable California Adventure
Heading to California? We’ve got all sorts of super detailed, in-depth California travel guides written by locals to help you plan an amazing trip.
- San Francisco: We’ve got a guide to spending 3 days in SF, one day in San Francisco for planning a shorter trip, and a complete guide to finding the perfect place to stay in San Francisco. We also have guides to 14 perfect weekend getaways from San Francisco and the best day trips in the Bay Area. Oh, we almost forgot, here are the 15 best hikes near San Francisco, written by two Bay Area locals.
- Los Angeles: Read our perfect 2 Day L.A. itinerary, our guide to spending one amazing day in L.A. (with two versions!), and a guide to helping you figure out where to stay.
- San Diego: Learn how to spend a day in San Diego, a weekend in San Diego, and where you should stay.
- Lake Tahoe: Plan the perfect summertime adventure with our 3 day Tahoe itinerary, guide to the best hikes, and our guide to the best things to do in Tahoe.
- Santa Barbara: We have a guide to planning a weekend in Santa Barbara, and a guide to a day trip to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles if you’re pressed for time.
- Mammoth Lakes: To plan a perfect getaway in the Eastern Sierra, read our guide to the best things to do in Mammoth Lakes in the summer. Plus, our guide to the best hikes in Mammoth, featuring the epic climb to the top of Duck Pass.
- Big Sur: Plan the perfect weekend away with our complete Big Sur itinerary.
- Yosemite National Park: Plan an amazing trip with our guide to planning an amazing Yosemite itinerary, and our guide to choosing where to stay at Yosemite.
- Joshua Tree National Park: Plan the perfect trip with our perfect weekend itinerary (or a day trip, if you have less time), a guide to the best hikes, and some cool places to stay in Joshua Tree.
- Death Valley National Park: We have a SUPER detailed guide to planning the perfect Death Valley itinerary, and a guide to the best hikes in Death Valley National Park.
- California Road Trips: See the best of the Pacific Coast Highway on our San Francisco to San Diego road trip, or make the trip up Highway from on a Los Angeles to SanFrancisco road trip. If you’re more into mountains than beaches, a Highway 395 road trip from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe might be more your speed.