The Instagram Guide to Lake Tahoe

Dreamy scenery, day trips to Alpine County, and a whole lot of local charm.

lake tahoe
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Editor's note: As we continue to practice social distancing, we encourage our readers to check the Center for Disease Control website for up-to-date information on how to safely travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. For now, bookmark this Instagram travel guide for inspo—you're going to love it.

Many travelers think of Lake Tahoe as a destination for snow sports during winter and recreational water activities during summer, which makes fall a perfect time to explore “Big Blue” without all of the crowds. With highs in the 60s and 70s, Lake Tahoe’s autumn weather is great for everything outdoorsy: hiking, cycling, kayaking, and, yes, even swimming (lake temps can reach the high 60s).

Straddling the border between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a 45-minute drive from Reno, the nearest major airport. The largest alpine lake (read: high-altitude lake) in North America, Lake Tahoe stretches 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, with clear blue water that’s more than 99 percent pure. Situated more than 6,000 feet above sea level, Lake Tahoe has 72 miles of pristine shoreline that’s filled with sandy beaches, rocky coves, jagged cliffs, and dense pine forests.

Wildfires can be a concern in this area, particularly during hot and dry weather conditions, so visitors should check Cal Fire reports before traveling to Tahoe. During the 2020 fire season, Tahoe had some hazy days with unhealthy air quality due to smoke from fires across the region, but much of that depends on wind directions.

Snow season in the Tahoe area typically begins in mid-November, with the region receiving an average of 33 to 66 feet of powder annually. But for those who are still in a swimsuit state of mind and don't wait to head to the destination until next year, this Instagram guide will show you the best ways to explore Lake Tahoe by foot, bike, car, and boat now.

No Tahoe trip is complete without visiting Emerald Bay, a stunning inlet and state park in South Lake Tahoe that’s also home to the lake’s only island, Fannette Island. Once you’ve captured photos from the hills high above Emerald Bay, hike down to Vikingsholm Castle—a Scandinavian-style mansion steps from the water. Here, you’ll have better views of Fannette Island and can enjoy a castle tour or secluded beach day. The trail is a very steep, one-mile trek each way, so be sure to choose proper footwear. For longer, more accessible hiking trails, head to Van Sickle Bi-State Park, which offers easy to moderate options, plus a waterfall and plenty of scenic overlooks. The heavily-forested Van Sickle Connector Trail is easy to follow, and provides access to the Tahoe Rim Trail, which loops around the entire lake for a total of 170 miles.

Scenic Bike Trails

Breathe in clean mountain air while cycling around the lake or winding through the Sierra Nevadas. For a leisurely ride with incredible views, hit the Tahoe East Shore Trail in Incline Village, a paved three-mile pathway that begins near Tunnel Creek Cafe and continues on to Sand Harbor. You’ll go through a short tunnel with cool mural artwork and pass by Hidden Beach—a great place for photo opps with boulders emerging from the turquoise-colored water. More advanced cyclists flock to the 14-mile Flume Trail Mountain Bike Ride, situated at a higher elevation with steep climbs and gorgeous vistas. Bike rentals for either trail can be found at Flume Trail Bikes.

Transparent Kayaks

Spending a day on the water is a must-do while in Tahoe—whether it’s by boat, personal watercraft, or stand-up paddle board. Enjoy an unobstructed view of the lake while paddling in a clear-bottom kayak from Wild Society in Kings Beach. The completely transparent kayaks have a wide shape similar to that of a canoe. Rentals come fully stocked with a wireless speaker, waterproof phone case, dry bags, and other goodies. Launch your single or tandem kayak from the nearby boat ramp, and travel south along the shoreline to take in beautiful homes and tranquil coves. Afterward, be sure to browse Wild Society’s trendy boutique for hanging plants, clothing, home decor, and more.

Charming Local Dining

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a generic chain restaurant in North Lake Tahoe, which makes way for unique local dining concepts to shine. Don’t let the fact that many of them are located within hotels or casinos deter you from visiting—local favorites like Crystal Bay Casino Steak & Lobster House are not to miss. The steakhouse has a storied history of famous guests, such as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and other members of the Rat Pack. Besides steak and seafood, the restaurant is best known for its tableside preparations of caesar salad and bananas foster. For lakefront dining, head to Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge to try their fried zucchini or signature Hula Pie, or visit Lone Eagle Grille to taste their Dungeness crab melt or baked Tahoe dessert. If you're on the go, stop by Mountain High Sandwich Company for quick takeaway options, including several vegetarian and vegan selections like house-smoked barbecue tofu.

Lakeside Lodging

Kick your feet up after a long day of outdoor activities by settling into your cozy accommodations. Coachman Hotel is a boutique property in South Lake Tahoe that’s away from the hustle and bustle of area casinos. This Instagram-worthy mountain lodge offers complimentary s’mores kits nightly, bike rentals, and exclusive access to nearby Lakeside Beach. On the main drag, Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel is steps away from the shops and restaurants at Heavenly Village, as well as the Heavenly Mountain Gondola ride. The hotel offers easy access to Van Sickle Bi-State Park, and serves a complimentary breakfast each morning. In North Lake Tahoe, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa & Casino is a sizable property with private beach access and a heated outdoor pool located in the charming resort town of Incline Village. Guests can rent paddleboards, kayaks, or jet skis from their private pier, or charter a boat or fishing tour.

Day Trip to Alpine County

Become one with nature during a visit to Alpine County—California’s least populous county—located less than 30 minutes south of Lake Tahoe. Wylder Hotel Hope Valley is a destination property with cozy-chic cabins, yurts, a vintage Spartan trailer, and full campsite. It's easy to go completely off-the-grid thanks to spotty WiFi and an absence of TVs on the property, and the wood-fired sauna is an enjoyable substitute for the internet. Wylder’s well-appointed cabins include a full kitchen and spice rack. On-site restaurant Sorenson’s Café has been serving its legendary berry cobbler since 1926, while the neighboring General Store sells tasty breakfast and bakery items. During your stay, hike Popo’s Trail, or make the short drive over to Caples Lake. The closest town of Markleeville is a 15-minute drive, where you’ll find natural hot springs within Grover Hot Springs State Park, as well as delicious bites and beers from Cutthroat Brewing Company.

If you've fallen in love with Lake Tahoe, book a trip here.


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(Image credit: Marie Claire)
Kai Oliver-Kurtin

Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering travel, dining and lifestyle. As her Hawaiian name might suggest, she’s most happy while bobbing in the ocean.