If you’ve never been to Lake Tahoe, put it on your bucket list now
Simply known as “Tahoe,” the region is named for the spectacular lake at its center, which spans 22 by 12 miles and plunges more than 1,600-foot-deep, making it the largest alpine lake in North America. On a clear day, the lake reflects the cloudless skies above, making it appear a fantastical sapphire blue. This is only one of the magical and majestic attractions of Lake Tahoe.
Its natural beauty has brought generations of visitors to Tahoe to enjoy all that the lake and the mountains that surround it have to offer. While winter may be the most popular time to go, for the world-class downhill and cross-country skiing – which often lasts through late spring and into summer – Tahoe is a year-round destination.
When the snowcaps melt, the mountains become an outdoor adventure wonderland. Snowmobiling, dogsledding, and snowshoeing give way to camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. The lake becomes a water sports playground, for fishing, boating, parasailing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and even swimming, for those enjoy the refreshment of the chilly alpine waters.
After I moved to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles two years ago, I lamented that my long-weekend getaways to Tahoe were over. The one-hour flight from LA was easy; but I figured that the cross-country trip would be too long a haul for a short stint. I am thrilled to say, I figured wrong. My four-day jaunt in spring 2019 proved to be the perfect West Coast ski escape.
It was a crazy winter in D.C. in 2019, with temperatures dipping into the teens one day and soaring into the 60s and 70s the next. Snow skiing on the East Coast is generally a three out of 10, but the iffy weather this past season rated local skiing one to nil, leaving me no choice but to head west if I wanted to hit the slopes.
While the logistics of a Tahoe trip are a bit more complicated than when I lived just one state away, I made it there with my ski pal, Craig, without too much hassle, with a bit of advance planning. I didn’t even have to miss a day of work to travel. At 5 pm quitting time, we caught an evening flight out of DC, which put us on the ground in Reno around midnight. At first, we dreaded our late arrival, but it ended up being a convenient and time-saving plan.
Flying into Reno is the easiest route to Tahoe. The Reno airport is small but serviceable, with many rental car options right on premises. There are also slot machines the minute you walk out of the jetway, for those who can’t wait to try their luck. There’s also a number of airport hotels, perfect for those like us who fly in late at night.
Easy Come, Easy Go
Rather than wind our way up the mountain in the dark, chancing icy roads, we settled in at the Best Western Airport Plaza Hotel. It’s located directly across from the airport, so we opted to walk across the road and wait to rent our car the next morning, to save on rental fees. Another bonus was getting a good night’s sleep closer to sea level, avoiding the altitude insomnia that some visitors experience until they acclimate to the elevation. The hotel was affordable, clean, and has all the basic amenities, including a fast-service restaurant serving a $10 breakfast.
Gear Up, Get Out
As our four-day trip was relatively short amount of time to spend on a skiing excursion, we wanted to make the most of every minute, which meant streamlining some of the schlepping and waiting in lines to rent and return equipment that is part-and-parcel of the ski experience.
As I always do whenever possible, I reserved ahead of our trip using Black Tie Ski Rental Delivery concierge service. Their laid-back and expert fitters bring the gear — all performance and demo quality — to your hotel, with a couple size and style options in their van, to fit you in the comfort of your hotel room. If you have any issue with your skis, they will come to the resort and meet you slopeside to adjust or replace your skis. When done, you give them a call to come pick up the gear at the base of the mountain or at your hotel. Easy peasy, and a timesaver that removes one of the biggest hassles of skiing and gives you more time on the slopes.
Wish Up on Northstar
As we cruised the scenic road around the lake heading to one of my favorite resorts, Northstar, we marveled at the glorious aqua hue of the water, mirroring the clear blue skies. A lone paddleboarder left a wake like a slice in the still water. Even though the trip from South Lake Tahoe to the north shore took us over 45 minutes, we didn’t mind, as the breathtaking drive was premium site-seeing in itself.
As is common in Tahoe, the weather changes quickly, and soon we were driving in freezing rain. By the time we pulled into the parking lot at Northstar, tiny snow grains were falling heavily.
As we sat on the tailgate of our car buckling up our ski boots, the precipitation came down so quickly that within minutes our beanies looked like snowcaps. Despite the falling snow, the temperatures were moderate, which is another reason to love skiing in Tahoe. We suited up for our day of spring skiing, wearing just our base layers and light jackets.
It was my third trip to Northstar, and it was a charm. Northstar is resort development done right. The resort resides on the California side of the lake, known as the North Shore, above Incline Village, where life is a bit slower and laid back than in its neighboring town of South Lake Tahoe.
Surrounding the main lodge at Northstar is a complex of shops, restaurants and low-rise luxury condos that overlook the red brick plaza at the center of Northstar Village. The resort is a lively place, great for people watching, as an array of skiers and boarders dressed in bright colors scurry about, clunking in their boots, pulling wagons full of gear and kids.
Northstar is a true ski-in and ski-out resort, where the slopes literally bottom out at the front doors of the resort’s condos. The resort properties are designed for ideal convenience for guests, who can get onto the slopes within steps of their accommodations, with minimum hauling of equipment.
One of the easiest ways to traverse the resort is to catch the gondola from the village and ride it mid-mountain to base camp, where you can hop on one of the three chair lifts leading to several beginner and intermediate runs.
As a family oriented resort, Northstar features plenty of long mellow trails for kids and beginners. Because there are so many options, the bunny slopes are not overly crowded, which makes for a more relaxing experience when you have young children along.
As intermediate skiers, Craig and I found that the runs were fairly appropriately rated, noting that West Coast downhills are considerably more advanced than those on the East Coast. The blue runs sported some steep drops, but because the Sierra snow is so light and powdery, it’s easier to maneuver in than on icy East Coast slopes.
Our goal was getting in 10 good runs for the day, with a break for lunch. With the swift-moving quads and six-person chair lifts, we were never in line more than a few minutes. The slopes were groomed overnight, and the conditions were excellent. We progressed from our first-of-the-season run on the Lumberjack green-rated trail and quickly graduated to the blue-rated Flume connecting to the satisfyingly challenging Powerbowl.
Mountains of Food
For lunch, we headed to the Zephry Lodge, the must-see on-mountain lodge with floor-to-ceiling windows featuring breath-taking vistas of the Sierra Nevada range. Even if you aren’t skiing or riding, you can dine at the lodge, which is accessible to all mountain guests with a lift ticket.
Just before our last run of the day, we rode the Comstock Express to the top of Mt. Pluto to the Summit Smokehouse, which offers a wide selection of craft bears along with BBQ and sausages; and it boasts some awesome views of Lake Tahoe from 8,610 feet above sea level, overlooking the untouched backcountry.
For Apres Ski, the Northstar Village is the place to be, where you can put up your boots, get an adult beverage (or hot cocoa), hang out at the outdoor Rink Bar, and listen to music. You can make s’mores and socialize by the firepits or rent skates and glide around on the ice rink in the middle of the plaza. For dinner options, Rubicon Pizza Company is very popular – just get in early before the crowd, or you may wait a while to get seated.
When you truly want to splurge for a meal on the mountain, Manzanita, is the finest dining in Lake Tahoe, located at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, which is the first AAA Five Diamond resort in the Lake Tahoe area.
For starters, we enjoyed the light and fluffy potato roll buns with four sauces, fresh-made butter, jam, hummus, and a cheese vegetable dressing. Because it was on the menu and we couldn’t resist having elk when in the mountains, we shared the hearty and satisfying elk meatball appetizer, which was served with smoked marinara sauce and a salsa.
While seafood at a mountain resort might seem like an odd choice, the crab pasta dish was absolutely delicious and flavorful, with plentiful crab, served in a cream sauce. We also tried the duck, which was cooked perfectly, and we rounded out the meal with the vegetarian sofritas, a dish featuring garbanzo beans, “chicken of the forest,” mushrooms, and vegetables.
Besides to dine at Manzanita, another reason to visit the Ritz at its hidden-away location, mid-mountain at Northstar California Resort, is to experience the wonderful mix of luxury and rustic, at this contemporary mountain retreat. It features a 17,000 square foot spa and fitness center and an inter-mountain gondola that connects the resort to the nearby Village at Northstar.
During the summer months, the Ritz hosts Lake Club, an exclusive waterside venue that offers al fresco dining, water activities, and direct access to the lake. Recently the resort added a new amenity of high-performance MasterCraft elite X-series powerboats, operated by the premier Elevation Surf Charters, offering guests the experience the best of summer in Lake Tahoe with wake surfing aboard boats, to romantic sunset cruises.
Whether you choose luxury or roughing it in Tahoe, there’s an ideal accommodation to meet your needs, from privately owned condos to large hotels, including flashy casino hotels on the Nevada side of the border.
We hung our beanies at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe as our home base for the trip. It’s nestled in a tree-lined residential area, so it truly feels like a chalet in the mountains. The hotel carries on that lodge theme in their interior décor and design, with stone walls, large sofas, and burning hearths in the lobby, where guests can lounge and socialize by the fire.
Across the street, the hotel’s restaurant, the Lone Eagle Grill, is situated on Lake Tahoe’s beach, sporting a spectacular view of the lake with snowcapped mountains behind it. We lucked out with last-minute reservations and got a table by a window, where we watched a gorgeous sunset. The restaurant’s interior was almost as impressive as the exterior, with oversized modern alpine décor worthy of a Game of Thrones set. The food was equally superb, especially the famous mountainous torched meringue Baked Tahoe dessert.
We had the luxury of a full day of downtime between ski outings, so we did what one does while visiting a mountain wonderland — we headed for the hills. First, we donned some snowshoes, courtesy of the Hyatt, and we headed out equipped with a map of local parks from the Hyatt concierge.
There are many trails for snowshoeing for those who want to explore the snowy lakeside on foot. Sand Harbor State Park is about eight minutes from the Hyatt. In the summer, Sand Harbor is known as a hub for boating, kayaking, paddle boarding and other water sports, and in July and August it plays backdrop for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.
We opted to drive a bit farther, to Spooner Lake State Park, which is about 16 minutes away, At this spectacular park we enjoyed an aerobic one-hour snowshoe excursion, where we traipsed along the frozen, snow-covered beach, admiring a 360 view of beauty all around us.
Snow, Snow, Everywhere
Even during peak season, Tahoe never seems crowed. The restaurants, shops, and most importantly the slopes never feel overcrowded, perhaps because there are 18 resorts where visitors can spread out.
Each resort has its own personality and style, offering something for everyone. We couldn’t get to every resort, so we chose to hit two of the best – for their own reasons – in a single four-day trip. After a day at Northstar, we headed to Diamond Peak, known as one of the most affordable resorts in Tahoe. Not only is the price right for lift tickets, this little gem of a resort boasts some of the most gorgeous views of Tahoe, with trails that look like they empty right into the lake.
Even during dry seasons, Diamond Peak is usually snow-covered, thanks to dozens of snowmaking guns that help keep the base thick and skiable no matter the weather. The day we visited the resort, high winds had closed down most of the other area resorts, but Diamond Peak also has the advantage of a position between the mountains that partially shield the primary runs, so most of the lifts remained in operation despite 30- to 40-mile-per-hour gusts.
Riding and Sliding
When in Tahoe, and snow’s aplenty, visitors can make the most of snow sports activities, including dogsledding, tubing, snowshoeing, and my favorite, snowmobiling. Zephyr Cove Resort is the only game in town when it comes to snowmobiling, so be prepared for a long line of people at check-in, even if you’ve made reservations. The good news is that the company has been doing this for many years, so registration is fairly organized and efficient.
After our tour group loaded us into the Greyhound-sized buses and traveled about 14 minutes to the state park where snowmobiling is permitted, the amiable guides then divided up the groups and gave a brief lesson on riding. Hint, if you don’t want to tip over, hang a butt cheek off the side when your turn, to keep your ski rudders on the ground.
The guides ride ahead and use hand signals to let followers know when to slow down or stop. At one point our tour was slogging along slowly behind a group that had the misfortune of having a very timid lead rider holding up her group because she just couldn’t get the hang of the machine. Lucky for everyone, we were allowed to pass.
Once we got out on the trail, we let lose. I saw my speedometer hit 40 at one point. My wild ride was exhilarating, until my ski rail caught an edge, and my machine jerked abruptly almost hitting a tree — where I observed several scuff marks in the bark from previous accidents. After that, I let off the gas but still rode at an exciting pace. I could hardly wait to get back on my machine after our mid-tour hot cocoa break, and I didn’t want the ride to end. Overall, the experience was tremendous fun, and better than I expected as part of a large group tour.
A Winning Last Night
Our Tahoe jaunt was coming to a close, and in keeping with our running theme of maximizing our vacation time and ensuring travel logistics as painless as possible, we opted to stay in Reno on our last night, so we could get out quickly in the morning.
While I’m not an avid gambler, I have always enjoyed the grandeur of casinos, and Peppermill Reno Hotel Resort did not disappoint. This AAA Four Diamond resort features 1,621 guest rooms and a plethora of restaurants of every variety. Even the standard guest rooms are luxurious, elegantly appointed, and incredibly spacious, with a huge bathroom that rivals the size of most hotel sleeping rooms.
The sprawling property has so many dining options it was hard to choose, but we decided on Italian at Biscotti’s, which ended up being a great choice because we had worked up hearty appetites, and the portions were enormous. Despite the its scale and level of amenities, I was glad to learn that the Peppermill is an eco-friendly resort, featuring many innovative energy saving technologies, such as on-site geothermal grids for heat. This fascinating venture involved the hotel drilling 4,400 feet to tap into a vast reservoir of natural geothermal activity more than three quarters of a mile underground to heat the property’s two million square feet of hotel, resort and casino.
A Destination for All Seasons
My last trip to Tahoe won’t be my last. And I plan to go back during summer to see and experience the mountains without skis, well, maybe water skis, in a wet suit. Now that I know how to manage the logistics for a cross-country span of under four days, I plan to put Tahoe on my list of places to travel as often as possible. Every year would be nice. Twice a year would be nicer.