At an elevation of 1897m, Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine lake in North America. With mountains surrounding the lake on all sides, it is an extremely popular skiing destination in winter while the mesmerizing lake/mountain scenery captivates visitors all year round.
Located right on the border between California and Nevada; the western half of Lake Tahoe is in California while the eastern half is in Nevada. It is also home to a number of casinos on the Nevada side.
By car, Lake Tahoe is ~4 hours from San Francisco and ~2 hours from Sacramento. By flight, the nearest major airport is Reno-Tahoe Airport (RNO) which is 40 minutes to Incline Village (northern end of Lake Tahoe).
I was lucky enough to be invited to a seminar at Harvey’s Resort and Casino (South Lake Tahoe), and stayed there over a four-day period in Sept-2014.
The period was at the tail-end of Lake Tahoe’s warm season. However, it is a pity that the weather was mainly cloudy with intermittent rain when I was there; with my resultant photos not doing justice to the absolute beauty of the place. Not surprising, the temperature was cold enough that I did not observe anyone doing water sports in the lake.
A short 5 minutes walk from Harvey’s and Harrah’s is Heavenly Village, site of the Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort. Heavenly Mountain Resort is the largest ski resort in California/Nevada. The gondola station which leads up to the ski area is located in the village.
Since it was not the skiing season, it was no surprise that the village was essentially deserted during my visit. However, the gondola was still operating and offers visitors the chance to travel up to the mountain for scenic views of the lake and surrounding. In addition, summer activities are also available in the resort. Unfortunately, rain and strong wind prevented me from taking the gondola ride up the mountain for a panoramic view of the area.
A short distance next to the Gondola station is an amenities centre. There are a major supermarket and some retail stores here, including a huge sports equipment store. Parking is ample. Much to my relief, I managed to stock up on some food and essential items at the supermarket as there weren’t much marketing options near Harvey’s.
Exploring the lake | Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive
The easiest way to travel around the lake is to self-drive. It takes 2-3 hours to do a leisure drive round the entire lake (~68miles loop), taking in all the magical sights of the area.
If you’re planning to rent a vehicle on location, especially in South Lake Tahoe, do make reservations in advance as there’re not an awful lot of car rental companies in the area. Doing a 1-day rental just to make a round trip of the lake is still cost-effective, more so if you can pack the car with 4-5 pax. More importantly, it allows for flexibility in being able to stop at any scenic turnouts along the way.
However, do take note of the opening hours of the car rental companies. I noticed that some company’s opening hours can be rather limited; not sure if it’s due to the off-peak season or the “small-town” nature of the area.
Being a cautious individual, I made my car rental reservation a couple of weeks in advance. Collection point was just across the road of Harvey’s, at Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel. On the day of rental, I collected my vehicle just after lunch and immediately began my circuit of the lake.
Finding your way round the lake is extremely easy; just follow the Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive which makes a circuit of the lake and hugs the entire lakefront (map below).
Tips: There are a number of vista points along the drive that offer great views. As such, be prepared for impromptu stops along the way. For this reason, it is best to do the drive via going around the lake in a clockwise direction. This way, you’re driving on the side of the road (i.e. right) nearest to the lake and it’ll be far more easier/safer to drive your car into the vista points. (FYI, USA driving is on the right side of road)
Best viewing points around the lake
Of the few designated viewing points, Sand Harbor (NV), Memorial Point (NV) and Inspiration Point vista (Emerald Bay; CA) must be the three best points to view the lake. All three are conveniently located along Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive and prominently signposted.
Inspiration Point vista (Emerald Bay; California) (map)
Without doubt the best-elevated viewing point on the entire lakefront. Inspiration Point Vista is located on the southern tip of Emerald Bay, which joins into Lake Tahoe. In the middle of the small bay is a mini island (Fanette Island).
“600 feet above Lake Tahoe, Inspiration Point provides the perfect overlook for all of Emerald Bay, the boats, Vikingsholm, and Fanette Island.” (Source: USDA, www.fs.usda.gov)
Given its excellent view and proximity to South Lake Tahoe, Inspiration Point Vista is extremely popular among visitors. Consequently, finding parking space at the vista can be tricky especially during peak timings. Amenities include coin-operated telescopes and toilets.
Located merely 0.8 miles north of Sand Harbor, Memorial Point Overlook is a reasonably sized vista point complete with parking, visitor centre, toilets etc. The visitor centre is slightly elevated, thus offering good views of the area. The area around the visitor centre has a number of short pathways that lead right to the lake. There are many large granite rocks along the lakefront which makes this area unique.
The views are simply magical. Even though I arrived at Sand Harbour late (~6 pm) on a cloudy day, the views are still fantastic.
The beach here is one of the best that I’ve seen around the lake and a number of amenities are available (e.g. shelters, benches, toilet). The harbor seems to be as popular with locals as I saw a few group of them having gatherings in the area.
Parking is ample. Located 0.8 miles south of Memorial Point Overlook.