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A Weekend in the City: South Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe Nevada

Last weekend was a great time to get away to Lake Tahoe for a holiday weekend.  Whether it's hiking or gambling or relaxing by the lake-shore or sipping a beer by a fireplace, there's something for all tastes in the Tahoe shoulder-season.  Admittedly, early November probably isn't widely thought of as "a great time to get away to Lake Tahoe" by many people...but that was one of the benefits of the timing.  If you're a Phoenician, just grab your winter coat and gloves along with your backpack and hiking boots and get set for a weekend in the wild.

The Destination
Lake Tahoe is huge, crosses two states, and has numerous cities and towns along its border.  For purposes of this post, the city of South Lake Tahoe (home of Heavenly ski resort and straddling both California and Nevada) is the destination.  Reno is the closest airport at 54 miles and roughly an hour of driving.  If for some reason you want to come through California, Sacramento's airport is about a two hour drive. 
Lake Tahoe Blue Water

Obviously you're going to be flying.  From Phoenix, you can fly direct to Reno on Southwest or American; or take Delta for a layover in Salt Lake City.  Even with the SLC stop, the travel isn't awful--about 4 hours from airport to airport, then another hour driving; though for anyone not using Delta miles for a free flight you're certainly going to want the direct flight.

Driving from Reno to Tahoe was one of the most painless post-flight drives I've ever taken.  There were maybe 5 turns total, and 2 of those were to leave the airport.  The Reno airport is small so the walk from gate to rental garage was maybe 5 minutes.  Rental car cost will probably vary depending on when you visit, but for this trip it was one of the cheapest rentals I've ever had.  For a rental period of Saturday at noon to Monday at 3:00 it was only $92 for a full size car--a rental from Enterprise at Denver International cost over twice that for the same duration.  Also, there were several gas stations within a mile of the airport so decline their gas offers and fill up as you return.  Try to avoid getting gas in Lake Tahoe as it was over $1.50/gallon more expensive than Reno.

There are a lot of options ranging from quaint motel to casino hotel to luxury resort.  For the sake of convenience you'll want to be within whatever you consider walking distance from Harvey's, which is basically city center.  While driving around town is easy and parking is plentiful, I'd just as soon take a 10 minute walk in the mountain air.  Aside from that tip, choice of lodging is your preference.  For a unique option at a moderate price, check out Basecamp--a charming lodge that celebrates the forest setting and is adjacent to a brewery with a fantastic outdoor seating area.  It's about a 10 minute walk from the beach and from most anything downtown.

lake tahoe nevada california
Sunset from the public lake by town.
This was one area where Tahoe really disappointed. Finding good options for any meal, at least in the city center, was nearly impossible.  The choices seemed to be basic bar food or one of a few fine dining options.  And even some of the bar food was far below tolerable bar food standards (like the spinach and artichoke dip that had the consistency of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, had jicima (I hope...) as filler, and was served with a paltry portion of tortilla chips).

In town, The Naked Fish for sushi and Basecamp Pizza were the dining standouts.  Naked Fish, with it's fantastic sushi that has a penchant for taking already-delicious rolls and improving them with toppings of crab and tuna.  Who can argue with that?  And Basecamp for their sizeable and generously topped pizzas.  The other gold medal goes to the coffee and muffins at Black Cabin Coffee.  I wasn't a fan of their meals, but the drinks were out of this world and more than justified going out of the way to get coffee there before breakfast elsewhere.  If you like chocolate and spice, get the Fireside Mocha.

The food luck improved significantly away from town.  South of town on the way to Emerald Bay, there's Sprouts Cafe (not to be confused with the grocery store) which puts together a mean veggie burrito that'll easily refill your tank after a morning of hiking--unless you're 6'4"/220lbs and had an insufficient breakfast before hiking 8 miles, but that's on me.  If you're venturing north to Sand Harbor, poke on up to Incline Village to Mountain High Sandwich Co. for, well, sandwiches.  If they have fresh baked cookies you'll need one those too.

Lake Tahoe Lunch
The Classic Burrito at Sprouts Cafe
Lake Tahoe Sandwich
Tri tip sandwich at Mile High
While statistically the good meals eaten outnumber the bad meals eaten, it was a chore to find those good places in town; and even they were mostly just good and satisfying, not memorable or rave-worthy.  For most places, the food photos on Yelp/Google looked similar to "before" shots from Kitchen Nightmares.  Even the highly rated places looked quite lackluster.  Let's just say when Applebee's is one of the highest rated restaurants in town, you haven't found yourself in a good-eating place.  On any future return we'll be looking for a hotel room with a kitchenette,

Visiting Tahoe is all about the outdoors.  If you're there in the summer, it's lake activities; in the winter it's skiing.  In the fall, it's hiking and lounging.  A little earlier in the fall you'll be delighted by the golden colors of turning aspens.  The weather in early November was perfect for day hiking and exploring the lake.  There were backpackers, but with lows in the 30s (colder in the mountains), that's a little chilly for a casual outing.

When it comes to choosing a beautiful hike you can basically throw a dart at the map and you'll be set. If you want more guidance than that, stop by the Explore Lake Tahoe Visitor Center in town beside North Face.  The staff there are incredibly knowledgeable and can quickly create a to-do list of great activities, including the following.

Emerald Bay came highly recommended and did not disappoint.  The hike was an easy mile descent to the lake shore and its Scandinavian style castle.  Take a minute to soak in the views before continuing .25 miles further to lower Eagle Falls (which this late in the year is a little underwhelming, admittedly).  After that, head out the Rubicon trail as far as you care for a gentle lakeside hike.  Just remember that you'll have to backtrack and then hike back up.  While there are restrooms at the bottom, there's no fresh water so plan accordingly.  Grab this free roadside parking if you can, otherwise the Eagle Lake lot has limited spots and the Emerald Bay lot is plentiful but $10.
California State Park
Emerald Bay from the State Park lot
Eagle Lake is another hike accessible from the same general parking area.  It's about a mile hike from the parking area on a pretty well maintained trail that can easily be added onto the Emerald Bay excursion.  This is in the Desolation Wilderness so be a gem and be extra respectful of the environment and the other users--pack out your trash and turn off your music.  Route finding is a breeze to the lake...I didn't venture past there, though.

Here's the route with Gaia GPS, don't forget to subscribe here for a discount!

Lake Tahoe California
Eagle Lake, Desolation Wilderness
Parking for both Emerald Bay and Eagle Lake will be tricky later in the day.  An 8:00 AM arrival ensured a parking spot along the road in the designated, and free, parking area.  The Emerald Bay parking lot carries a $10 fee; the Eagle Lake area was quite limited but free.  There are aggressive no-parking signs along the road, but they went extremely so at your peril, though.  Seems like a miserable place from which to be towed.

Depending on how far you hike, those two can take most of your day.  Use Gaia GPS to find more activities in the area if you have the energy and daylight, though.  On your way back to town is the best opportunity to grab a bite at Sprouts Cafe.

For the next day, go north to Secret Harbor and Sand Harbor.

Secret Harbor is an easy excursion with a much shorter hike down to the shore than Emerald Bay.  There's no hiking required to soak in the incredible views, though.  The parking lot provides a great vantage of Lake Tahoe's iconic clear water.  Hiking down further, though, provides a more immersive experience and great angles for shoreline photos.  It's obvious that any ground that's not covered by a bush or a tree has been trampled over, but still be conscientious and respectful of the environment and try to stick to obvious paths to reduce erosion and vegetation loss.  Make your way over to Chimney Beach for a nice stretch of sand that includes a beautiful stream running to the lake.  If it's warm and you're bold, head the other direction to Secret Cove and enjoy the nude beach there.

Lake Tahoe Nevada
Stream flowing to the lake at Secret Harbor
Sand Harbor is another state park like Emerald Bay, and with that comes another $10 use fee before the parking lot.  But unlike Emerald Bay, this is a very relaxed park with an interpretative trail and a large sand beach.  Take your time to soak in the sun and scenery.  Depending on the time of year, you can rent bikes and kayaks to explore further.  Sand Harbor connects to a heavily used mixed-use trail along the shore to Incline Village that an enterprising biker can utilize to ride up to grab a bite of lunch if they didn't pack a picnic.  Whether you go by bike or car, head up to Mountain High Sandwich Co. for lunch.

Nevada State Park
Emerald water at Sand Harbor

Water rock garden at Sand Harbor
The theme of early arrival ensuring parking held here too.  At 8:30, there was one other car at Secret Harbor.  By 10:30, however, the lot was full and there was a line.  Then at Sand Harbor, entering was a breeze then an hour later the line was to the road.

Depending on your planning and flight time, you might head straight back to the Reno Airport from Sand Harbor, which will take a different route over the mountain than when you came in for an added scenic treat.

And that was your weekend in Lake Tahoe!

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