Lake Tahoe has long been the playground of Hollywood’s elite – Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Howard Hughes all spent time on Tahoe’s north shore in the 1960s.
Nowadays, Tahoe is still a playground for the elite, but this time, it’s the San Francisco and Silicon Valley elites making their way to this alpine paradise. With the average price of a home in north Lake Tahoe hovering close to $850,000 USD – more than four time the average for the United States – it’s not surprising that this adventurous outdoor destination continues to appeal to west coast high society.
However, that’s not all there is to north Lake Tahoe. With a heavily service-focused industry, there are plenty of locals who live on the north shore without breaking the bank. Despite the fact that lift tickets to Tahoe’s most well known resorts can cost upwards of $130 USD or more – and that’s not including ski and snowboard rentals – plenty of people making close to the US’s minimum wage manage to thrive in this expensive area. It’s a no-brainer that when you’re visiting this unique destination, you’ll want to look to the locals who know it best for what to do and how to best take advantage of the area.
Whether you decide to live like a San Fran local in Tahoe, or really want a feel for how local local’s live, follow our insider guide to the best tips, tricks, and must-visit locations in north Lake Tahoe to make the most of your 48 hours.
When & how to go
Let’s state the obvious: if you can avoid it, don’t come on a weekend. Especially if you’re driving from San Francisco, you’ll risk dealing with heavy traffic on a Friday afternoon. Coming up on the weekends can easily add a few hours to your drive. If you must travel on the weekends, avoid the bulk of the traffic by leaving before noon or after 8 PM. Plus, you’ll find the slopes and restaurants crowded on weekends – but on weekdays, you’ll often have your choice of walk in dining options.
The closest airport to Tahoe is Reno-Tahoe International Airport, approximately 30 minutes from the north shore. With direct flights from major American cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and more, it’s a fairly easy airport to access. However, if you’re including Lake Tahoe as a stop on a multi-day US tour, you may find it easiest to simply rent a car and drive from San Francisco, especially if you’re adding on nearby destinations like Yosemite National Park to your itinerary.
Where to stay
While the north shore doesn’t offer the lodging options found in a city, you do have you choice of options, whether you want to live the life of Riley or prefer to have a more local, authentic experience. Go luxury with the Ritz Carlton, located slopeside at Northstar Resort. This alpine-inspired lodge revolves around a huge centre column, designed to represent a giant tree sheltering the resort. With guest rooms on the top branches and a luxury spa on the lower “root” area, you’ll find this resort to be the ultimate in north shore luxury.
For more of a local experience, do what locals do and rent an AirBnB. More than half of the north shore’s homes sit empty, as they’re either second homes or available for vacation rentals. With such significant inventory, you can stay in anything from a luxurious five-bedroom custom home to the guest room of a local’s 1950’s-style ski lodge. Truckee, the north shore’s most popular place to stay, has 153 rentals with on-site hot tubs available – no shortage of options.
Hit the slopes
Start off your day early in the morning to maximize your time on the hill. Most lifts start spinning at 9am, so if you arrive by 8:30 or so, you’ll find yourself with plenty of time to park, pick up rental gear if you need it, and still be on the first lift chair up. Lift tickets are pricey and children’s programs start early in the morning, so getting there early is almost always advantageous. Make your turns at Squaw Valley, the north shore’s most well known resort. Squaw Valley put Tahoe on the map by hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics, and it continues to provide both the most advanced and largest variety of terrain in Tahoe. Intermediate skiers will love the Shirley Lake lift on the backside, where advanced skiers can jump on KT-22, Squaw’s most famous lift, and hit the fingers, a series of steep chutes under the lifts where you’re often find pros showing off their skills.
For more of a local experience, skip the major resorts and head to Homewood Resort, on Tahoe’s west shore. Homewood is one of the few privately owned resorts left in the country and as a result, it doesn’t have quite the price inflation of other resorts. Plus, it’s base is located literally steps from Tahoe’s shore, which means all the slopes on the front side of the resort have amazing, ‘am-I-going-to-ski-into-the-lake?’-type views.
In Tahoe, there’s no such thing as happy hour – it’s après-ski or, if you’re feeling it, just après. It runs from about 3 to 5pm, since most lifts stop running at 4pm. Though après is all about the local California beers, make sure you drink plenty of water as well, as the elevation can leave you extremely dehydrated. Head to the PlumpJack Squaw Valley cafe, just a few steps outside of the Squaw Village. With a comfortable and lively lounge scene, this restaurant brings the best of their wines – because they own a winery in Napa, too (of course!) – and seasonally inspired cuisine to après ski. We recommend the macadamia nut and serrano chili ahi poke cones as a light, shareable appetiser.
For more of a local experience, stay in the Squaw village and head to Le Chamois Loft Bar, known affectionately as “the chammy” (pronounced shammy) by locals. This extremely popular bar offers outdoor service and tasty pizza-by-the-slice during the afternoons. The Chammy is one of the most iconic ski bars in the country, popularised in the classic ski film Hot Dog, now a cult favourite among skiers.
Once you’ve had time to shower and change, trade in your ski boots for furry boots and head to Tahoe City for a lakeside dining experience. Sunsets are early in the winter, so opt for an early dinner if you’re hoping to capture photos of snow-covered mountain sunsets across the lake. Head to Tahoe’s West Shore Cafe. Don’t let the name fool you – this elegant lakeside restaurant is steeped in classic Tahoe charm, with dark wood, warm lighting, and oversized windows with Instagram-worthy lake views. It’s not cheap – cocktails start at USD $14 – but for the views and the creative cuisine, it’s well worth the splurge.
For more of a local experience, head to Moe’s Original BBQ, just steps from a public pier that offers amazing views of the north shore. While the BBQ-heavy menu isn’t as gourmet as other options, it’s extremely popular with locals and highly rated online. Guests looking for lighter or healthier options can choose from smoked tofu, seafood dishes, and salads with homemade dressings.
Explore the peaks
If your knees and muscles are a little too sore for another day of downhill skiing, spend your second day exploring Tahoe’s peaks in a less tiring way. Head on a snowmobile tour with Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Tours, offering guided tours on Tahoe’s trails and peaks. Tours go past scenic viewpoints with amazing views of the lake and can also include time to try your skills on easy jumps and bumps. The snowmobiles are easy to drive and seat two, so you can choose to drive or go as a passenger. Helmets are included and cold-weather snowmobile suits can be rented as well. There are several snowmobile tour companies in the area, but we love the views offered from this company’s location on one of the north shore’s highest peaks.
For more of a local experience, skip the machines and opt for a guided snowshoe tour with Tahoe Adventure company. There’s no experience required and tours take place on gentle, beginner trails. All tours include use of snowshoes and gear plus hot beverages. Along the way, your guide will talk to you about Tahoe’s flora and fauna, as well as the history of the area.
Rest & Relaxation
After two days spent skiing and exploring in chilly Tahoe weather, it’s time to refresh and recharge at one of the area’s popular high-end spas. Tahoe’s spas have a reputation for focusing on wellness and holistic treatments, and many offer treatments specifically designed to refresh muscles used in outdoor sports. Treat yourself to a Chai Spice Bodywarmer treatment at the elegant and indulgent Ritz Carlton Spa. This wellness-focused space featured dark wood, oversized beams, and even an indoor hot tub in the moody lounge area. Though an extensive spa menu is available, the Chai Spice treatment is an especially nice choice for winter, featuring a spiced body wrap for muscle rejuvenation and a neck and scalp massage to release tension.
For more of a local experience, take the 30-minute or so drive to Incline Village, where Stillwater Spa & Salon offers a $70 facial or massage deal on most Tuesday and Thursdays. With a full gym, swim-in/swim-out pool access, and a Eucalyptus steam room available for all-day use, this may be the best deal on the north shore.
Get a true taste of Tahoe
Though Tahoe may not have the culinary variety of, say, London’s SoHo district, there are a few stand out locations that have received their fair share of local and national recognition. For the two options below, you’ll be in the town of Truckee, with a downtown covered in white lights, artisan boutiques, and quaint stores offering all you could need or want to live a mountain lifestyle.
Make a reservation in advance for Trokay, which sets the standard for fine dining on the north shore. With a focus on molecular gastronomy, Trokay’s kitchen is part kitchen and part chemistry lab, with a culinary team that deconstructs, samples, and creates new tastes and food combinations. While they offer a standard menu, the real reason to go here is for the prix fixe chef’s tasting menu, with plenty of amuse bouche peppered in (pun slightly intended.) Curated wine pairings are available as well. An evening at Trokay is less of a restaurant visit and more of a gourmet experience for the senses. Reservations required.
For more of a local experience, spend your evening at Old Town Tap, just down the street from Trokay. This recently opened restaurant is extremely popular with Tahoe locals, owing to its creative pizzas, extensive craft beer selection, and variety of shareable appetizers, like the homemade cheese curds. We recommend arriving early and having a beer at the bar while you wait for your table.
Late night drinks
Since you’ll be in downtown Truckee regardless of which dining experience you choose, you’ll be within walking distance to a dozen more restaurants and lounges. Different restaurants attract different crowds – locals, tourists, ski bums – and you’ll probably notice as soon as you walk in what sort of crowd hangs out in each venue. We recommend the two below as our top choices, though Truckee’s Uncorked wine bar deserves an honourable mention.
Head straight to Truckee Tavern and try to get a table next to the second floor windows that overlook the downtown area. Truckee Tavern is where Tahoe’s top bartenders hone their skills; the winners of Tahoe’s top bartender competitions are known to do guest bartending on busy weekends. Winter 2017 cocktails include the ‘Salvador,’ made with mezcal, blood orange and egg white; the ‘Son and Silk,’ made with whiskey and sweet potato liquor, and several more creative options.
For more of a local experience, set your sights on Alibi Brewery. With Oktoberfest-style seating and more than two dozen homemade beers on the menu, this modern beer hall is extremely popular with Tahoe locals. Though California is known for its India Pale Ales, hop-haters are also in luck, as Alibi offers many non-IPA options, including brown ales, ciders, and kombucha blends.
A few more suggestions…
Hang out at the Northstar Village and swing by the Villager Candle shop to try your hand at making your own candles and pottery, Then, head towards the centre of the village and enjoy complimentary s’mores around the numerous firepits at 3:30, or strap on some skates and take a spin in the ice skating rink, located in the heart of the village.
If you’re more excited about après-ski than skiing itself, stop by Manzanita Restaurant at the Ritz Carlton for their “Art of Mixology” classes, offered on select Sundays. Make reservations through Manzanita Restaurant at Manzanitalaketahoe.com. And if there’s no snow on the ground in Truckee, head to the Truckee River Winery for wine tastings and afternoon bocce ball.
Has the allure of Tahoe’s mountains inspired you to create something equally beautiful? Artistic types will want to explore the class calendar at Truckee’s trendy Atelier gallery, with classes ranging from silk scarf painting to modern calligraphy. See the schedule at AtelierTruckee.com. If your prefered medium is of the digital variety, consider a Tahoe photography tour with a regional expert. Full and half-day classes are available
History buffs are in luck in Lake Tahoe, with options like the Donner Party Museum in Truckee, which both celebrates and sets the record straight on America’s notorious Donner Party pioneers. In Tahoe City, you’ll find the Gatekeeper’s museum and the historic Tahoe dam. Walking tours are also available of historic Truckee. The North Lake Tahoe Historical Society has information on all the area points of interest.
Tahoe is a beautiful place, serving as an outdoor mecca for winter adventurers but offering plenty to do for non-skiers, too. Whether you’re coming for the snow, s’mores or speciality foods, you’re sure to fall in love with the natural and inviting spirit of the region. Don’t forget your camera!