From the second you round the bend driving through the Sierra Nevada mountains, you will be utterly speechless at the stunning beauty and irresistible attraction that is Lake Tahoe. This insanely blue lake covers almost 200 square miles on the border between California and Nevada. Lake Tahoe is more than 1,600 feet deep and ice cold! The frozen water is supplied from melting snow and ice higher in the mountains, and the water stays cold all year round.
This was my first time traveling to Lake Tahoe, and I had long anticipated my chance to adventure around the valley, especially seeing all the pictures of its crystal clear water and influencer’s rave reviews.
THEY WERE TOTALLY RIGHT!
I only spent 48 hours physically at the Lake and I made sure to plan every hour to experience as much of the lake as possible. Here I share my itinerary including the sights and activities I was able to fit into 2 days of lake adventures. Follow the itinerary in order, driving around the lake, to ensure you see EVERYTHING!
What To Do at Lake Tahoe: Day 1*Driving around the lake from Incline Village, heading counter clockwise towards South Lake Tahoe.
Sunrise at Secret Cove
Get up early and get to secret cove for sunrise to have it all by yourself! This is the perfect way to start your Tahoe trip. The small cove is covered in large boulders that nude bathers sprawl out on during the day, and if you stay long enough you might just be lucky enough to see some . . .
The conditions are much better for photography in the morning because there is:
- less people
- less wind
- calmer water
Park at an obvious pullout at the top of the road near a trail marker sign, that leads to a path down to the water.
SUP at Sand Harbor
One of the BEST destinations at Lake Tahoe, and in my Top 3 Lake Tahoe Beaches!
Sand Harbor is the perfect family beach with complete facility amenities, restaurants, souvenir shops, water sport rentals, and plenty of room to spread out. The beach can get crowded, but there are alternative sections to the main beach that may offer more privacy.
Get here early! The parking is limited, first come first serve, and costs $15. I arrived from secret cove by 7am and had no problems finding a spot, but there were already people lining up and I am sure it is even crazier during peak travel seasons. You can rent paddle boards and spend a couple hours exploring down the coast, south of the harbor. Refer to my SUP Guide to Lake Tahoe < coming soon! Popular attractions to see at Sand Harbor include Bonsai Rock, Secret Cove, and even more secluded spots to pull over and explore.
Grab Sandwiches from Sierra Subs
By this point you have probably spent most of your day hanging out at Sand Harbor, secret cove, paddle boarding, or taking a beach nap. Next is the perfect time to grab a late lunch, cruise around the coast, and get ready for sunset. The drive from Sand Harbor to South Lake Tahoe offers amazing scenic lookouts and countless pullouts for lake photography.
Check out Sierra Subs for a quick bite or something to bring with you to sunset.
Sunset Hike to Castle Rock Lookout
This hike is an easy 15 minute hike, with one of the best sunset views of Lake Tahoe! The lookout is over a tunnel on the highway to South Lake, and sits directly in front of the sunset during the summer. You can park at the Tahoe Rim trailhead parking lot, but if the lot is closed there is some limited street parking. I recommend arriving earlier than you think because once parking fills up there is nowhere else to park.
After my first day of adventures at Lake Tahoe I decided to car camp in my U-Haul truck near the Nevada Beach campground. There is a long street leading into the park that allows 24 hour parking, and is within a 5 minute walk to campground bathrooms and shower facilities. You can reserve a slot at the actual park or check out another campground nearby.
What To Do at Lake Tahoe: Day 2*This day explore sights as far as you can past South Lake Tahoe, before returning for sunset.
Sunrise at Emerald Bay Lookout
Emerald Bay is a MUST SEE destination for anyone visiting Lake Tahoe! Even if you choose not to go down to the beach or enter the state park, enjoying the lookout was one of the most memorable parts of my short trip. Get here early like other destinations around the lake, because later in the afternoon the tranquil lookout transforms into a bustling traffic stop filled with tourists.
Park at the dirt pullout across from the lookout and take one of the many trails to the sheer cliff edges that precariously hang overlooking Fannette Island in the middle of the harbor. You can find another great photography opportunity along the wall of the highway, and because it is early you can set up your tripod in the street if you are feeling gutsy. There is a quick hike to Eagle Falls beneath the highway, get a birds eye view from the top of the falls, or hike down the vista’s rocky cliffs to the pool at its base.
Explore D.L. Bliss State Park’s Famous Beaches and Secret Coves!
Another dream destination on any Lake Tahoe bucket list travel itinerary is the D.L. Bliss State Park. This park offers pristine white sand beaches that will make you think you are in a tropical Caribbean paradise. The water clarity here is some of the best around the lake and is my favorite place to go free diving. You can explore Lester Beach and the sheltered Caywee Cove. Either destination offers plenty of room to set up towels, chairs, and floaties, even during peak season. Caywee Cove is framed by massive boulders and rocky cliffs that offer vantage points for bouldering, cliff jumping, and casual exploration. Many people dock their boats in the cove, so it seems like a great place to party!
There is a $10 entry fee, but you can reuse the permit for same day access into Emerald Bay State Park on the way back to South Lake, so it almost pays for itself.
Hike Down to Emerald Bay
Hiking down to Emerald Bay is another great option for hiking addicts, and if you want more intimate views of the magnificent harbor. The hike down to the water takes about 30 minutes from the dirt parking lot, but let me warn you, it is all uphill on the way back! I was feeling the burn coming back up from the shore and the return trip can take up to an hour if you take breaks.
Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks. There is a small beach at the base of the trail, but nothing as nice as D.L. Bliss or Sand Harbor. The main attraction is Fannette Island and surrounding historical sites. You can take a ferry to the island periodically throughout the day or explore the forested coastline.
Hike to Party Rock
Lake Tahoe has many quick hikes and Party Rock is another one of those that is easily accessible for any person. Hiking to Party Rock above South Lake Tahoe takes about 5 minutes and adds a quick adventure to any day trip around South Lake. Park in the street’s designated pullouts, do not block any driveways, and read all the signs. The hike offers awesome 180 degree views of South Lake, with a great view of sunset. The rocks are covered in many photographable graffiti art and murals, and you are likely to have the place all to yourself.
Nevada Beach Sunset
If you have not visited Nevada Beach yet, I recommend including it on your itinerary for sunset. The beach campground is sprawled across a half mile of Lake Tahoe’s coastline with benches, piers, and many places to relax and enjoy nature. Park outside the gates to avoid paying an entrance fee and take a short walk through the trees to get to the water. The sun sets in front of the beach during the summer, and it is a great place to camp or car camp.
How to get to Lake Tahoe?
The fastest way to get to Lake Tahoe is a 40 minute drive from Reno, Nevada. The short drive takes you over the Sierra Nevada range that borders California, and into the lake. You can also fly into Sacramento which is just over a 2 hour drive from the lake. You can rent cars from any provider or do the classic U-Haul rental like I did.
Where to Stay?
If you are only in Lake Tahoe for 48 hours I suggest saving your money and car camping, or using one of the many campgrounds available around the lake. I did both, but my favorite was car camping because it was FREE!
Top 5 Lake Tahoe Campgrounds
All campgrounds have full access to facilities, so just choose one close to where you will be after your day of exploring. Keep this as your end point, even if you have to drive there in the dark after dinner, you are just sleeping there.
There are A LOT of places to car camp around Tahoe. Some of the above campgrounds even have designated lots for car campers. I also found a lot of street spots along the highway that I saw people and camper vans using.
Check out the streets around the Nevada Beach Campground. This area is centrally located and a good place to split up your two day trip. It is only 10 minutes from South Lake Tahoe, so extremely close to restaurants and any last minute necessities you need.
Raley’s grocery store also offers a 24 hour parking lot you can sleep in if you want to be closer to people. The parking lot also has a Starbucks for free WIFI.
Where to Eat?
Pack food! That is going to be your best bet for seeing the most of Lake Tahoe. My go to travel snacks are granola bars, PB&Js, and some kind of crackers. They are exactly what you need for the hikes, and beach naps you take on the way.
TOP Lake Tahoe Restaurants
- Sierra Subs
- Ok this place was so freaking good! I would compare it to a subway, but with fresher ingredients, and a more authentic sandwich taste. It is the perfect place to grab a sub before heading up castle rock for sunset or anywhere else you go the first day, on the way to South Lake.
- Lake Tahoe’s peak tourist season is March to May, so expect crowds and get where you want to go early to get better photos, videos, and alone time with nature.
- There is another peak season from September to November for the fall leaves.
- Paddle boarding is definitely worth it, so budget $40-$80 per person.
- Bring a diving mask or goggles because the water clarity is INSANE!
- There is a lot more at Lake Tahoe than can be seen in two days, so if you want to relax on your trip I recommend planning a week long trip instead. You can devote at least an entire day to each side of the lake.
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