Lake Tahoe has got to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Some places don’t live up to the hype, but Lake Tahoe really is as awesome as everyone claims, and as awesome as it looks!
The first time I visited Lake Tahoe in my adult life was during a winter snowboarding trip. I’m not a winter sports kind of person, so I thought it was really just okay. Then I visited in the summer. I was mind-blown by the sheer beauty of Tahoe in the summertime and completely fell in love with the lake life. After just one night of camping, one hike, and one dip in the lake, I immediately knew that I had to be back.
One year later and here we are! After taking a super fun summer kick-off road trip to the Lake Tahoe and Reno area from the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m happy to report to you all that Lake Tahoe is still as blue as ever and still as amazing as ever.
Today, I want to share with you our latest and greatest 3-day Lake Tahoe / Reno weekend road trip itinerary! This off-the-beaten-path road trip is all about blue lakes, the great outdoors, a bit of the casino life, and a boatload of historical gold and silver mining towns.
If this sounds like your kinda road trip, then keep on reading! This is where the largest alpine lake collides with the Biggest Little City in the World.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, western towns and mining towns? Yep, they’re my guilty pleasure. If you’re not interested in historical gold rush towns, not to worry! There’s still a ton of other cool things to see on this road trip.
In this post, you’ll discover some of the best things to do in Lake Tahoe and Reno, roadside attractions worth stopping for, hidden gems along the way, and more western towns and mining towns than you can probably handle.
This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful and free content. Thanks a lot!
MAP OF LAKE TAHOE ROAD TRIP FROM SAN FRANCISCO (BAY AREA)
The blue markers – all of the stops we made on our actual road trip last month.
The orange markers – a few other noteworthy stops worth exploring, mentioned in this post as well. We either didn’t have time to visit these spots during this road trip, or we had already visited them on previous road trips.
If you find yourself more drawn to one of the towns in this list compared to the towns marked in blue, feel free to swap them in and out of your itinerary! If you have more than three days for this trip, you should feel free to add them in as you see fit as well. They are all along the way to/from the Lake Tahoe and Reno area and do not require too much of a detour.
WHY VISIT LAKE TAHOE?
Tahoe is the only lake I’ve visited that actually looks tropical. I mean, from the looks of these photos, you would think we’re hanging out in the turquoise waters of Cancun or the Caribbean. You’d be completely wrong! This incredibly clear turquoise water belongs to Lake Tahoe, CA. It’s a gorgeous place that you must see for yourself.
Tahoe also has a lot of really great beaches, which is something a lot of lakes lack. That means not only can you partake in a bunch of usual watersports, but you can even beach and sunbathe.
No matter the season, Lake Tahoe offers up a ton of fun. During the warmer seasons, you can get your fill of swimming, water sports, golfing, cycling, mountain biking, and hiking. During the winter season, there’s snowshoeing, snowboarding, cross country skiing, and world-class downhill skiing.
All year round, visitors can enjoy several touristy, fun towns dotted all around the lake, perfect for exploring after a day of outdoor recreation.
WHY VISIT RENO?
Reno offers a great weekend away for far less money than Las Vegas, making it one of the best alternatives to Vegas. It costs less to gamble or watch shows compared to Vegas, and offers one of the best opportunities to get away from the heat if you so choose–the Truckee River or Lake Tahoe!
Reno is also a cool place to visit, even if you take away all the penny slots, cheap cigarette smells, and vintage neon lights. Midtown Reno is one of the funkiest and most vibrant neighborhoods of all. While Reno may not be worth an entire 3-day stay, it’s still heaps of fun to spend a day or two in the Biggest Little City.
WHY MAKE ALL THESE OTHER STOPS?
Because you’ll get to enjoy fresh fruit and produce! Because you’ll get to feel like you’re a kid again! Because you’ll get to learn so much about the Gold Rush era and the mining history of California and Nevada!
Not to mention, who doesn’t want to get away from the city and feel as if you’ve been transported back a few centuries in these old mining towns? All these ‘other stops’ ended up being some of the most entertaining parts of our road trip.
LAKE TAHOE/RENO: HOW TO GET THERE
There are a few different ways to get to Lake Tahoe and Reno. The closest airports to Lake Tahoe and Reno are:
- Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO) – about 50 miles to North Tahoe and about 60 miles to South Lake Tahoe
- Sacramento International Airport (SMF) – about 119 miles to North Tahoe and 114 miles to South Lake Tahoe
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO) – about 246 miles to Reno/Lake Tahoe
- Oakland International Airport (OAK) – about 246 miles to Reno/Lake Tahoe
This post assumes you’re either based somewhere in the Bay Area, or that you’ll be flying into either Sacramento or San Francisco. From either of these airports, simply rent a car and be on your merry way.
SAN FRANCISCO TO LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP ROUTE
If you’re driving from San Francisco straight to Lake Tahoe, you can expect the journey to take approximately 3.5 to 4 hours. San Francisco to Reno will take about 4 hours. Route I-80 East will be your fastest route.
But on a road trip, we’re not looking for the fastest route. We’re looking for the most entertaining route! So here’s what we did:
SF Bay Area – Dixon – Auburn – Grass Valley – Nevada City – Reno – North Lake Tahoe – Carson City – Reno – Virginia City – South Lake Tahoe – SF Bay Area
The reason why you see Reno on there twice is that we ended up staying in Reno for 2 nights during this road trip. In a perfect world, we would have stayed in Reno for the first night and South Lake Tahoe for the second. Unfortunately for us, it was slim pickings when we decided to take this trip (literally one day before we departed). I guess that’s what we get for being spontaneous!
SACRAMENTO TO LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP ROUTE
As long as you beat rush hour traffic, driving from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe is a breeze, taking just 2 to 3 hours. If you’re visiting North Lake Tahoe (Tahoe City), you’ll take the I-80 East to Highway 89 South. If you’re visiting South Lake Tahoe, it’s a better move to take Highway 50 East. There are great views along the way!
If you’re visiting from Sacramento, this road trip will be great for you too.
LOS ANGELES TO LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP ROUTE
The best way to travel from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe/Reno is via US 395. While there are other routes you could take, US 395 will be the most scenic. On this route, you’ll be able to soak in sweeping views of the Sierras while you pass through charming towns and natural landscapes. The entire drive should take about 7 to 8 hours.
Though not covered in this post, some cool places to stop on the way to Lake Tahoe/Reno are Red Rock Canyon State Park, Grover Hot Springs, Bishop, Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite National Park. These are all wonderful areas to get out of the car for a stretch, take in the postcard-worthy views, and even spend a night!
3-DAY SAN FRANCISCO TO LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP: ALL THE BEST STOPS ALONG THE WAY
SAN FRANCISCO / BAY AREA, CA
Your Starting Point
If you’ve never visited SF, this is where you need to start. The city of San Francisco deserves at least an entire week of exploration (and even then you’ll barely scratch the surface).
There are three international airports in the Bay Area, making it so easy to fly into: San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), and San Jose (SJC). The Bay Area is pretty large and includes many other cities worth exploring, such as Pacifica, San Mateo, Berkeley, and San Jose. If you’re limited on time and can only see one city, we suggest exploring San Francisco if you haven’t already.
Since we’re locals and get the chance to enjoy SF whenever we want, we didn’t explore SF on this trip. We departed on our road trip from here, from Berkeley, CA to be exact. From here, we take off on our weekend adventure!
1-hour drive from SF Bay Area, CA
First stop of the morning–one of the many fruit stands you see along the way! We stopped at Dixon Fruit Market and were blown away by the product offerings. This place offers so many goodies, including dried fruits, nuts, fresh fruits and produce, as well as fruit pies and even tamales!
We bought some cheese and jalapeno tamales and some dried mango candy and were on our merry way. Both tasted great! I’m sure you’re thinking, tamales and candy for breakfast? Absolutely! For us, rules and healthy eating go right out the window when we road trip.
45-minute drive from Dixon, CA
There are two very cool reasons to stop in Auburn. Old Town Auburn and Ikeda’s.
Let’s start with Old Town Auburn. This place has been a hit since the discovery of gold to today, where you’ll now find restaurants, shops, and year-round special events taking place. This pleasant neighborhood has a variety of nice shops and fun antique stores. We recommend spending 30 minutes to an hour relaxing and enjoy the pleasures and treasures of Old Town Auburn.
Then, stop by Ikeda’s for some of the best burgers, pies and shakes you’ll ever taste! Enjoy a slice of fruit pie, your choices are literally endless. Choose from dutch apple, french apple, marionberry, peach, blueberry, razzleberry, cherry and banana, to name a few. You can either buy by the slice or buy a whole one to dive into later.
Along with the massive burger and shake we ordered, we got a slice each of the Dutch Apple and the Marionberry Cobbler. Both were absolutely delightful.
Got a bit more time and looking for an adrenaline-pumping activity? Whitewater rafting is huge out here! Check out this Full-Day Whitewater Rafting Trip on Middle Fork from Auburn.
From here, we head to Nevada County! Be sure to stop along the way for all the sweeping views and vista points.
GRASS VALLEY, CA
30-minute drive from Auburn, CA
Our next stop was Grass Valley, CA. Let me tell you, this charming little town blew me away! When I was doing research on towns to visit along the way to Lake Tahoe, I had found way more content on Nevada City as being the mining town to visit. Grass Valley was always mentioned as an afterthought.
Grass Valley is SO much more than an afterthought! Here, you will find a vibrant downtown that has served the community since the Gold Rush days.
Let’s take it a step back for a quick history lesson. Grass Valley used to be a thriving gold mining town. Mining for free gold in creeks and gravel was the norm here, until 1850 when gold was discovered in quartz. In a matter of a few months, the town’s growth exploded from just 20 cabins to 150 buildings!
The downtown that you see today isn’t all just historical and mining-related. A stroll down Main Street is a grand old time! You’ll find so many vintage shops and antique shops, as well as modern fashion boutiques and home decor stores. Don’t miss The Shops at the Nevada County Bank.
While you’re here, don’t miss Lazy Dog Chololateria, an adorable old-fashioned candy shop. Whenever we road trip, we always have this need to buy sour belts, so we were happy to have discovered this place!
Sadly, we were too preoccupied with all the cafes, hobby shops, fashion boutiques, thrift stores (Hospice Gift Thrift Store and Cancer Aid Thrift Store were great) and vintage shops (Sunchild’s Parlor) that we didn’t have the time to do some of the larger attractions Grass Valley has to offer!
This includes the Empire Mine State Historic Park, one of the oldest and richest hardrock gold mines in California. Operating from 1850 to 1956, it produced billions of dollars in gold by today’s standards. Here, visitors will find restored buildings, lushly landscaped areas, a Cotswold-style cottage, exhibits, an illuminated mine shaft, and a blacksmith shop. They also have some really cool special events like the Holiday Open House, Springtime at the Mine, or the Miners Picnic (which has been held for over 125 years)!
Before leaving, we stopped by Cake Bakery for some iced drinks before hopping back into the car for Nevada City. If you have the appetite for it, grab a cake or pastry–they looked absolutely delightful.
Looking to call it a night around here? The Holbrooke Hotel is a little gem of a place to stay.
NEVADA CITY, CA
7-minute drive from Grass Valley, CA
Founded in 1849, Nevada City quickly became a successful mining camp. Men commonly pulled a pound of gold a day from Deer Creek (a whole pound, can you believe it??). The camp quickly grew and miners had plenty of moolah to spend.
Saloons and gambling houses began to line the streets, but over time, families began to arrive and neighborhoods were established. After several names, the town eventually chose to call itself Nevada (and “City” was added after the state chose (or stole) “Nevada”.
Today, the town contains many charming structures and buildings that were constructed after a fire in 1863 destroyed the business district.
Some notable things to do in Nevada City include checking out the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, doing a wine tasting at a nearby winery, and strolling through some of the art galleries in town.
If the downtown area wasn’t enough and you want to get more of a feel for life in the 1870s, take a driving tour to view some of the best-preserved homes in the Gold Country! You will see tons of towering Victorians built for mine owners and lumber barons. A good place to start is around East Broad and Broad (past downtown). Then head to Nevada and Boulder Streets. Don’t forget the side streets!
Film buffs need to check out the summer Nevada City Film Festival or the winter Wild & Scenic Film Festival. There’s also the Sunday night film series at the Nevada Theatre and Movies Under The Pines at Pioneer Park.
One of our favorite things to do in Nevada City? Simply walking around downtown! There’s something to see or experience at every turn, from various shops to wineries, and museums to art galleries. We particularly enjoyed all the lifestyle shops, tea shops, and vintage shops. Yes, this area is flourishing with vintage treasures!
With all there is to see and do, it’s hard not to fall in love with this place!
After grabbing beers and a pizza at Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. we beelined straight to Reno as we would be running out of daylight upon arrival in Reno.
Looking to call it a night around here? Broad Street Inn is one of the best options in Nevada City, CA.
1 hour-drive from Nevada City, CA
Though we didn’t actually make it to Truckee, CA (due to lack of time), we had all intentions of hitting this quaint, outdoorsy town up!
Truckee, named after the nearby river, is the gateway to the Sierra Nevada. The town is known for its lumber and ice harvesting past. In the 1890s, an ice palace with a toboggan run and ice rink were built, and thus Truckee’s tourist industry was born.
Truckee makes a great base for year-round outdoor activities. With the Truckee River flowing in the warmer season and the snowcapped mountains in view in the colder season, this historic town is worth visiting at least once in your life.
Donner Lake is a great place to ski and snowshoe in the wintertime. It’s also a great place to camp, picnic, fish, and hike in the spring and summertime! Just a five-minute drive from Truckee sits Donner Memorial State Park, a National Historic Landmark (where the members of the tragic Donner Party set up camp in the winter of 1846-1847).
After you get your fill of nature and history, it’s time to head to Old Town! This place is probably super cool to wander around–while enjoying the shops and art galleries, you might even hear a few trains whistling in the background.
Truckee would be a great place to spend the night, especially if Lake Tahoe and Reno are out of your budget. These stylish hotels are well worth considering:
Pro Tip: We intended to visit Truckee, CA as a stop before making the drive to Reno, but we ran low on time. If you want to fit the awesome town of Truckee in on your itinerary, you may need to limit the time you spend at each of the preceding towns! We spent entirely way too much time at Grass Valley! But no regrets there.
30-minute drive from Truckee, CA
When we first drove into downtown Reno’s casino area, my first and honest thought was that it was a little rough around the edges. Perhaps this was a recent result of the pandemic, but we noticed a lot of boarded-up shops and buildings. This area was not our style at all, so with the majority of our time in Reno, we mostly spent it meandering around midtown and along the riverfront.
Midtown Reno sure has character and soul. This neighborhood, conveniently located between South Virginia Street and Holcomb Ave, features an eclectic range of businesses from one-of-a-kind restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. Some of Reno’s best-kept secrets are in Midtown! While you’re here, be sure to grab a tiki drink or two at Rum Sugar Lime (RSL). They have such eclectic tropical drinks! Next door is Melting Pot World Emporium, Reno’s coolest counter-culture store since 1996.
Back towards the downtown area, be sure to grab dinner at Liberty Food and Wine Exchange (we got a truffle oil mushroom pizza and a black seafood pasta, both completely delectable) followed by cocktail drinks at Blind Dog Tavern. Looking to grab a pint instead? Head to The Eddy, a super lively beer garden in downtown Reno.
And you definitely cannot leave the area without trying your luck at the midway games inside of Circus Circus! We won so many stuffed animals that we absolutely didn’t need or want (it’s a good thing we know of a toddler who would love our prizes).
After enjoying the carnival games, stroll on over to the Silver Legacy and the Eldorado to admire the bright lights and fountains. These hotels are all connected to one another, making it a breeze to see all of them in a short amount of time.
And if you’re an outdoor lover like myself, you’ll be happy to know that there’s also a Patagonia Outlet here. For art lovers, The Nevada Museum of Art is a must (it’s the only accredited art museum not just in Reno, but in the whole state).
While in Reno, we stayed at The Nugget Casino Resort. Ideally, we would have stayed at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino, but sadly they were fully booked that weekend. The Nugget was a decent experience nonetheless!
The Nugget is known for its awesome Bingo Nights and the restaurant Anthony’s Chophouse, offering a refined steakhouse experience with impeccable service. We didn’t make reservations in time for Anthony’s Chophouse, but we stated that the next time we were in town, this restaurant would be at the top of our list!
Pro Tip: Want to enjoy a buffet but want to avoid the overpriced buffets offered in the casino resorts? Get all-you-can-eat made-to-order sushi instead at Sushi Pier.
LAKE TAHOE: INCLINE VILLAGE + SECRET COVE
45-minute drive from Reno, NV
It’s a new day, which means we’re going for a new vibe today. Lake Tahoe, here we come! Today is all about hanging around Incline Village and exploring secret lake coves!
As our second night of lodging was in Reno, we had to concentrate our time around the northern portion of Lake Tahoe, to minimize the driving time back to Reno at the end of the day. That was no problem because there’s so much to do in Lake Tahoe around here.
Incline Village, NV
We started our morning off with breakfast at Sage Leaf. We got an order of the steak and eggs as well as the Incline Scramble. Both were good, but wow was the steak here delicious! We’d definitely eat here again the next time we’re in town!
After breakfast, we headed to a nearby thrift store tucked in a small plaza called Tahoe Forest Hospice Gift & Thrift. There were such good finds there, especially if you’re in the market for used outdoor brands! I found a pair of jeans and Papu found an aloha shirt to bring home.
After our treasure-hunting, we took a stroll through the residential area of Incline Village, stopping to admire the sheer size of the cabins in the neighborhood. After walking off some of the food we ate, the weather started to really warm up. Perfect timing. We then headed for a dip in the chilly lake!
Option 1: Sand Harbor
One option was to access the lake at Sand Harbor, one of the most popular spots to hang out at in Lake Tahoe. Sand Harbor Beach offers amazing views and the opportunity to photograph all of the natural beauty, crystal-clear water, and interesting rock formations. Most of the photos you’ve seen of Lake Tahoe that feature people paddle boarding or kayaking through crystal clear water with giant boulders were probably taken at Sand Harbor.
Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are available for rent at Sand Harbor during the summer from Sand Harbor Rentals. You can also pay for guided tours.
Pro Tip: If you choose to drive to Sand Harbor, head there early. I cannot emphasize that enough. Once the parking lot fills up, they won’t allow cars to enter. You’ll either have to find side-of-the-road parking, get dropped off, take a shuttle, or get there by some other non-motorized way. The parking lots are often full by 8:30 AM on summer weekends and even some weekdays during July and August. During these times there is a shuttle bus to Sand Harbor from Incline Village.
You can also take the East Shore Trail from Incline Village to Sand Harbor. This trail provides non-motorized access to the many public beaches, coves, and trails along the shoreline. Open as of June 2019, this 3-mile paved trail system connects Incline Village south to Sand Harbor State Park. Despite only being three miles long, this project has taken decades to accomplish, so you better take advantage of it if you can (it looks like a great lakeside strolling opportunity).
Option 2: Secret Cove
We didn’t visit Sand Harbor this time around, given that it was already pretty late by the time we decided to head to the lake. Instead, we headed for Secret Cove.
Secret Cove is one of those picturesque Lake Tahoe spots and you can easily see why. This photogenic little cove is surrounded by granite boulders, sandy shoreline, and crystal clear waters. Among the dressed sunbathers and swimmers here, you can oftentimes find nude sunbathers and swimmers! That’s right, Secret Cove is a nude beach. But who cares, we’re all there for the same thing– to enjoy the gorgeous lake!
One other thing to know about Secret Cove is that it takes some effort to access. We’re always up for an adventure, so a small hike in order to access a lake was a no-brainer for us. The 1-mile walk over was so worth it. Just take a look at the beauty of that view!
The water was also very cold (even in mid-June), but on a hot day, there’s nothing more refreshing.
How To Get There: There are multiple ways to get here. Secret Cove is accessible by parking at the Secret Harbor Parking area and walking down the access road until you reach the vault toilet. From here, take the trail to the lakeshore (0.5-mile walk from the toilet). We followed other hiking directions, parked at the Chimney Beach Trailhead parking lot and took the Chimney Beach access trail over to Secret Cove (this parking lot is across the street from the trailhead). This was a longer walk over to the cove, but the walk was easy and mostly flat.
CARSON CITY, NV
30-minute drive from Sand Harbor & Secret Cove, Lake Tahoe
After our lake adventure, we decided to begin the drive back to Reno. Guess what was on the way back? Carson City, the capital of Nevada! Yep, this was our next road trip stop.
With an average of 265 days of sunshine a year and mild weather year-round, Carson City is a great place for travelers to enjoy the outdoors, whether that be in the park or the mountains. “Charming” is often used when describing the adorable little downtown area. With boutique shops, a wide variety of dining options, and incredible mountain views, it’s a must-see when visiting.
Carson City is also home to numerous museums and galleries. If you’re traveling with children or are just a big history buff, there’s a ton of good stuff here for you. There’s the Nevada State Museum, the Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada, the Nevada State Railroad Museum, and the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum. And if you’re looking to combine adventure and history into one, there’s only one right option–the Carson Canyon Railbike Tours!
The Kit Carson Trail, a historic self-guided walking tour, is another one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Lastly, if you haven’t gotten your fill of water, head to Carson Hot Springs. With more natural hot springs than any other state, visitors and locals here love a good soak. If it’s history, convenience, and affordability you’re after, you’ll find your perfect soak at Carson Hot Springs.
Pro Tip: Before visiting Carson City, be sure to check out the events calendar— there are numerous events held downtown year-round.
30-minute drive from Carson City, NV
After a long day of outdoor play, we headed back to Reno to unwind and hit the sack for the night.
For dinner on our last night, we ate at Sushi Pier (made-to-order all-you-can-eat sushi!), walked along the riverfront, and grabbed drinks at Rum Sugar Lime. Everything we ate/drank was great!
Huge kudos to all the awesome Reno establishments we passed by, we were so impressed by the selection of modern restaurants and hip bars there.
To end the night, we hung out downstairs and gambled until the break of dawn. (Just kidding, we only lasted 2-3 hours, and most of that was Papu teaching me how to play bubble craps for the first time in my life.)
VIRGINIA CITY, NV
40-minute drive from Reno, NV
Alright, it’s a new day and also our last day! Today we’re kicking it off with Virginia City (but only after having spent a few hours playing bubble craps and video blackjack).
Virginia City is a town of under 1,000 people, known for its Victorian buildings that were built during the 19th-century mining boom. Home of the Comstock Lode, Virginia City is located just 40 minutes from Reno and apparently also filled with haunted spots that ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts will love. But we’re not going to focus on that scary stuff today (no thanks)!
The minute you step out of your car, you will immediately be transported back to the 1800s. There is probably nothing more iconic about Virginia City than its wood-planked sidewalks on C Street, the main road through town. C Street is where most of the historic buildings are located, today housing numerous businesses that offer drinks, food, kitschy shopping, and entertainment of all sorts.
During a stroll down C Street (and it’s a long street), you’ll find restaurants, saloons, casinos, antique shops, jewelry stores, mercantile shops, museums, and even an outdoor theater that hosts gunfight shows. So incredibly fun especially for the kids, and people like me!
If you plan on visiting Virginia City, definitely allocate at least a few hours exploring everything the town has to offer. There’s a lot of stuff to do here, such as taking a ride on the V&T Railroad steam train, enjoying the Way It Was Museum, exploring the Mackay Mansion, taking a mine tour or two, and even taking a ghost tour.
I was actually shocked when I witnessed with my own eyes how many activities this town offered. Virginia City itself could eat up 4-5 hours of your day just by itself!
If you wanted to partake in a few of these activities (which I highly recommend you do), you can actually save money by picking up a Comstock Adventure Pass at the Visitor Center. They have a few different passes to choose from, and each pass gives you a combo of mine tours, mansions tours, train rides, museums, and more!
As we left Reno a little later than anticipated (darn you bubble craps), we didn’t get the chance to take advantage of the Comstock Adventure Pass. However we did promise ourselves that the next time we head back to Virginia City, we were going to explore the Way It Was Museum, take the steam train, and catch the Virginia City Outlaws Outdoor Comedy Show!
We did, however, spend a great amount of time hanging out at the Bucket Of Blood Saloon, in existence since 1876! They have awesome live music events and make a mean guava daiquiri.
We could have stayed there all day listing to rag-time piano tunes by Squeak Steele (she holds the Guinness World Record for playing more pieces of music on the piano from memory than anyone else out there–over 1,900 songs! And she’s our new celebrity crush). She plays there every weekend, so be sure to catch her from 12-2pm before David John & The Comstock Cowboys come on to perform.
HISTORY: No other type of business dominates the landscape of VC as the saloons, where during the town’s heyday there once were as many as 115 bars and saloons! Many saloons have maintained their 19th-century appearance, and stepping through their doors is like stepping through a time machine.
Unless you want to be potentially living out a real-life episode of Ghost Adventures, I would avoid staying in Virginia City. You know, just in case!
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE
1 hour drive from Virginia City, NV
From Virginia City, we took the 1 hour drive over to South Lake Tahoe.
South Lake Tahoe provides a completely different experience compared to North Lake Tahoe and Incline Village. Along with access to the great outdoors and miles of beaches, this side of the lake offers casinos, late-night dining, and festive nightlife options. No matter the time of day, South Lake Tahoe is always buzzing with energy.
What you’ll find is that there are many more restaurants on the south shore than on the north (but both have plenty of options to ensure you’ll never have to eat at the same place twice). If you want to try the local brews, head to South Lake Brewing Company, Stateline Brewery, or the Brewery at Lake Tahoe.
In terms of hiking, one of the best options here is the Rubicon Trail (not to be confused with the other 22-mile long, four-wheel-drive Rubicon Trail west of the lake). The Rubicon Trail in South Lake Tahoe connects two of the most beautiful state parks in all of California, D.L. Bliss SP and Emerald Bay SP. This is a 6.5-mile one-way trail, and the best way to hike it is with 2 cars (one parked at each state park). This allows you to hike the trail as a 6.5-mile one-way instead of a 13-mile out and back.
Don’t feel like doing an intense 13-mile hike? Don’t worry, you can also shorten it by turning around at any time.
Another shorter but equally as great of a hike is the Cascade Falls Trail. This beautiful trail leads to a gorgeous waterfall within Emerald Lake State Park on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe.
Since we had been to South Lake Tahoe before and told ourselves we were going to be visiting this summer again, we didn’t spend nearly as enough time here as it deserves. We took a stroll around Stateline (where the resorts/casinos are located) and around Heavenly Village, checked out the many gift shops and retailers, then headed home back to the Bay Area!
Before you leave, don’t forget to pick up a “Keep Tahoe Blue” sticker! Only costs a $2 donation to the movement.
Fact: The League to Save Lake Tahoe is a team of Tahoe advocates who are focused on solving the challenges facing Tahoe (maintaining a balance between enjoyment/tourism of the lake today and its preservation for future generations). Not only do they spread awareness, but they also advocate for environmental protections and policies that ensure Tahoe stays resilient in the face of the climate crisis.
Pro Tip: If you’re able to extend your road trip further (and snag accommodations in South Lake Tahoe), we recommend spending at least two nights in South Lake Tahoe. It’s really poppin’ here! In addition to the many beaches and lake watersport opportunities, there are also extremely lively alpine towns to explore.
ALTERNATIVE STOPS ALONG THIS LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP
- VACAVILLE, CA – Vacaville Premium Outlets
- DAVIS, CA – UC Davis Arboretum, Downtown Davis, Davis Farmers Market (one of the best in the nation), Great Bear Vineyards
- SACRAMENTO, CA – The capital of California! Features Old Town Sacramento, The California State Railroad Museum, California State Indian Museum, Crocker Art Musem, and Sacramento Zoo.
- APPLE HILL AREA, CA – Featuring berry farms, u-pick apple ranches, and kid-friendly activities. Enjoy fruit picking during the summer season, pumpkin patch during the fall season.
- PLACERVILLE, CA – Charming California gold rush town, with an awesome Historic Main Street featuring unique shops, antiques, fine art galleries, and restaurants. Also great for wine tasting (more than 20 wineries are just minutes from the highway 50 corridor and downtown Placerville).
- TAHOE CITY, CA – Small mountain town with four-star dining, homegrown coffee shops, shopping, and galleries
WHERE TO STAY ON YOUR LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP
Either Tahoe City (north) and South Lake Tahoe (south) make for a great base of operations, but the towns and beaches there get very busy. A lot of the lodging options can also skew towards the pricier side.
If you aren’t traveling on a budget, these are some of the best hotels in the Lake Tahoe area.
- Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort (Incline Village, NV) – Featuring a 24-hour casino, various bars/restaurants, a year-round outdoor heated pool and 2 hot tubs
- Basecamp Tahoe South (South Lake Tahoe, CA) – modern rooms, stylish rustic furnishing, and a rooftop hot tub! S’mores are available to guests.
- Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel (South Lake Tahoe, CA) – features spacious guest rooms, a restaurant, indoor pool, hot tub, and fitness center. Guests also have access to the three garden atriums.
- Hotel Azure (South Lake Tahoe, CA) – features gorgeous, rustic rooms with a private balcony or patio featuring lake views in many of the rooms.
- Marriott Grand Residence Club, Lake Tahoe (South Lake Tahoe, CA) – Located in Heavenly Village just steps from Heavenly Resort’s ski gondola. All units offer well-equipped kitchens, separate living and dining areas, and a cozy fireplace! There is an on-site spa, heated outdoor pool, and wellness center on the property.
For budget travelers looking for the best value, consider booking the accommodations as early as possible (to catch rooms at the best prices) or consider camping. Camping will be the cheapest option. Fortunately, Lake Tahoe has loads of great campgrounds, some of which are right on the water! The Tahoe South site provides a pretty comprehensive list of campground options.
Another option is to stay in Reno, NV. You will often find more affordable accommodations here. We ended up staying in Reno when we did this road trip last month. Not because we were looking to save money, but because of how limited our lodging options were!
(We spontaneously decided to make the drive one day before we actually departed, which severely limited our hotel options. The only hotel options that didn’t cost an entire arm and a leg were located in Reno.)
Search for availability and prices for Reno hotels here.
Pro Tip: Learn from our mistake, book accommodations early! Lake Tahoe is a popular and rather touristy destination, so costs for accommodations can get pretty high. Save money by booking hotels/vacation homes as early as possible or by camping instead.
LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP ESSENTIAL TIPS
- While Tahoe and Reno are only a few hours from the Bay Area, you shouldn’t just plan a day trip. You’ll spend more time commuting instead of having fun. A better option is to plan at least a two-night stay. This will give you a chance to unwind from the journey and really get to experience the region to its fullest.
- The drive from Reno to the northern part of Lake Tahoe takes about 45 minutes and is hilly. You can expect a good amount of driving on an incline, so make sure your car is ready to handle it.
- The best time to do this road trip completely depends on what you want to do!
- February and March are best for skiing and other winter sports.
- July and August will provide the warmest weather for the beach and outdoor activities. Looking to avoid the throngs of summer tourists?
- September is recommended as it still has summery weather, but with the added perk of smaller crowds.
- Lake Tahoe is huge, spanning more than 70 miles of shoreline. Because of its size, the distance it takes to get to certain sides of the lake will be greater than with most other lakes.
- The towns around Tahoe get extremely crowded on summer weekends, especially in July and August and during three-day weekends. Try to avoid those periods unless you want to spend hours sitting in traffic.
- You will need to pay a day-use fee (or use a state park annual pass) for many of the beaches in Lake Tahoe. Most day-use fees in the area are $10 per car. This is a list of popular beaches and their respective government jurisdiction:
- California State Park beaches – D.L. Bliss, Sugar Pine, King Beach
- Nevada State Park beaches – Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park Beach
- US Forest Service beaches – Baldwin Beach, Tallac Historic Site and Kiva Beach, Camp Richardson/Pope Beach, Meeks Bay, William Kent Beach, Secret Cove, Zephyr Cove, Nevada Beach
- Make sure to check the road conditions before you go. Some of the local roads close during the winter months due to snow, so be aware of the current weather reports.
- In the wintertime, make sure you have chains and know how to use them if you’re driving a 2WD vehicle (in case of a snowstorm).
- Expect significant price swings at hotels based on seasonality. A room at a resort that typically ranges from $100-$160 per night can cost $600+ on a summer weekend. Visiting mid-week can definitely save you money on lodging.
- It gets hot here, so be sure to bring a cooler with you. Not only will be extremely convenient for the road trip (storing drinks, sandwiches, fruits, and other perishables), but it will also help with keeping your lakeside picnicking goods nice and cool!
- No matter which direction you are coming from, your road trip to Lake Tahoe will be very scenic. You’ll pass several points of interest along the way, so make sure to bring your camera!
- If you’re planning to ski in Tahoe, you’ll usually save 10-15 percent off the cost of the lift ticket if you buy it in advance online.
HOW MANY MILES IS IT AROUND LAKE TAHOE?
The distance around Lake Tahoe is 72 miles. The drive will take you about three hours to complete without any stops, but scenic drives are better when you actually take your time to stop to take in the views!
If you’re going to do the drive around the lake, be sure to visit popular spots around the lake including:
- King’s Beach
- Incline Village
- Crystal Bay
- Tahoe City
- Sugar Pine Point State Park
- D. L. Bliss State Park
- Emerald Bay State Park Lookout
- South Lake Tahoe
- Zephyr Cove
- Sand Harbor and/or Secret Cove
And don’t forget good ol’ Reno, located just 45 minutes away from the northern part of Lake Tahoe.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO DRIVE AROUND LAKE TAHOE?
If you drive it straight through, it will take approximately 2.5 to 3 hours. But of course, what kind of fun would that be? You should plan to take the full day driving and stopping at the various state parks, alpine towns, beaches, and vista points around the lake.
ROAD TRIP PREPARATION: RENTAL CARS
If you don’t have a car or don’t have a reliable car you trust to get you out of Portland and back in one piece, I suggest you pick up a rental car for your road trip.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. There’s a Hertz location at the PDX airport, as well as two other locations within the city. Book your rental car with them here.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees.
Regardless of which rental car company you decide to go with, make sure you have the appropriate car rental coverage. Our credit card benefits typically cover car rental insurance, so we usually stick with that as our primary insurance.
Lastly, if you’re from a state that offers AAA membership, you’re in luck! Though membership does not cover car rental insurance, there are some awesome, exclusive car rental perks.
- You get to take advantage of savings at Hertz, up to 20% off the base rate, when you include your designated AAA Discount code (CDP#) in your reservation.
- Perks include 24/7 roadside assistance including towing, fuel delivery, and lockout service,
- Other rental car benefits include free child safety seat, no additional driver fee, no young driver fee,
- You’ll also get great discounts on flights, hotels, and cruises
We absolutely love our AAA Auto Club membership. Not only is it a lifesaver when we actually do encounter car troubles, but it’s great to have (for peace of mind) even if we don’t.
LAKE TAHOE/RENO ROAD TRIP: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without for your Lake Tahoe road trip:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 crucial roadside emergency components.
- AAA Membership | If you’re really not one to do it yourself when you run into car problems, then you need a AAA Membership. Perks of the annual membership include 24/7 roadside assistance including battery replacement, gas delivery, towing, and lockout service. There are also a bunch of rental car perks too. If you don’t have AAA, then prepare some phone numbers for roadside assistance, just in case.
- Jumper Cables | Jumper cables are one of those things on your road trip list you hope to never use, but are so crucial to have just in case. If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road trip, but especially on California/Nevada summer road trips. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Roll-up Picnic Mat | Probably one of the best inventions since sliced bread, and one of my best investments for the summertime! Not only are these picnic mats super-portable because they roll up into themselves, but their water-resistance factor is a game-changer. No need to worry about wet-grass-butt anymore!
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Water Hiking Shoes (for men and women) | Some of the lake access points are rocky, so if you’d like a bit of foot protection, you’ll want these. Your feet will thank you later.
- Lots of water and snacks | Candy, gummy bears, Hot Cheetos! And for something a bit more sensible, Stinger Waffles are one of my favorite sources of quick and delicious energy.
- Lightweight Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. You’ll be in the mountains and the desert, so nights here can get cold. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Osprey Daylite Daypack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Sunscreen | Sunscreen is absolutely necessary for Lake Tahoe. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors. No matter where we go, we like a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that damage our environment. For the face, we are absolutely obsessed with Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any California destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Mini survival kit | Get one that’s pre-made like this one, or make your own. Be sure to carry this with you in your daypack. Don’t forget the bandaids!
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from being barefoot in the lake to regular shoes or simply need to dry your feet off. This one here is a great option.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike (or even after a walk outside on a scorching hot day) but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel so much better after wiping away the day. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Emergen-C packets or Liquid I.V. Hydration Packets | These are a great way to support your immune system and overall health on a road trip. They are light, take up no space, and are easy to pack.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness in darkness is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the funk roadside stops and eateries… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Travel Adapter | If you’re traveling from abroad, a universal travel adapter is a necessity. This 5-in-1 travel adapter is perfect for travel use with cell phones, laptops & other devices anywhere in the world.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. Hydroflasks can be heavy and can add to the weight of your bag, which is why I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads; painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
We hope your Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip is an experience you and your family will never forget! Get ready for a heavy dose of history, bright lights, pristine waters, gorgeous views, and exciting recreation!
Happy travels, and remember to do everything you can to KEEP TAHOE BLUE! What are some of your favorite stops around Lake Tahoe/Reno?