South Lake Tahoe’s winter playground lives at a crisp 6,200 feet, delivering one world class ski resort right in town and seven other ski areas within an hour. But what if you don’t ski, or don’t want to ski everyday? There are tons of things to do in South Lake Tahoe in the winter, even if you don’t want to ski and the following list will help you fill 2-3 days of winter weekend fun.
I spend a lot of time in these mountains. My husband is not only nice and devilishly handsome, but he came pre-packaged with a rustic cabin in the nearby El Dorado forest. So, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time breathing in these beautiful pine forests.
But I’m not the only one. The Washoe Native Americans used Lake Tahoe as a summer feeding ground for many generations. The area was a way-station in the 1860’s for a constellation of nearby gold mining activities. As a result, many people transited through the Lake Tahoe area rushing toward California’s gold, traveling over Donner Pass, the Pony Express trail or along the Mormon Immigrant trail.
Mark Twain himself spent some time in Lake Tahoe, while he bummed around the gold mines and learned how to become America’s best author. He was also a somewhat incompetent lumber baron, staking off a 300 acre parcel of prime Lake Tahoe forest…and then accidentally setting fire to it.
Fortunately, the forest survived and has since become a major winter destination for the western United States.
This article is a partnership with Hotels.com, Tahoe South tourism and the Hard Rock Casino (who hosted my stay). All opinions are my own, of course. This article also contains affiliate links, which means that if you chose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.
Where to Stay in South Lake Tahoe
The first thing you’ll want to do for your South Lake Tahoe winter getaway is to figure out where to stay. There are hotels, motels and vacation rentals strung all along highway 50. In fact, Hotels.com shows 1,800 listings for South Lake Tahoe, so you’ll definitely be able to find somewhere to stay within your budget.
On my most recent trip, I was hosted by the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The hotel is in a sweet location within walking distance to the gondola, shops and restaurants at Heavenly Village. Casino hotels are often a great deal, because you get the benefits of a full service hotel, but the room rates are competitive. The Hard Rock has a full casino with scheduled entertainment, three restaurants, three bars and a pool. Even better, the Hard Rock is dog-friendly. They very kindly accommodated my fluffy puppy and she gave two paws up to the the high thread count sheets. If you are doing a long day of skiing, the Hard Rock also has an on-site doggy day care facility called Hair of the Dog. They offer daycare, grooming and “pack hikes”.
10 Non-Skiing Things to Do in South Lake Tahoe in the Winter
Now that you’ve figured out where to stay, let’s help you figure out what to do. South Lake Tahoe’s winter activities encompass a wide range of indoor and outdoor activities and you can stay plenty busy, even if you aren’t skiing.
1. Go Hiking at Baldwin Beach
In the summer, this beach is bristling with sweaty swimmers, but in the winter, it’s a calm patch of nature. The beach sits on a mile-long stretch of Tahoe’s southwestern coastline. To access the beach, you’ll want to park in the lot across the street from Baldwin Beach road. The gate will be closed to cars but you can skirt it and walk in .5 mile on the access road.
The beach and park is managed by the forest service, which means that it’s dog-friendly. You’ll need to keep your dog on a leash (unless you are the only one on the beach and your dog gives you that look and you cave and take her off leash because you want her to be happy).
2. Hike the Lam Watah Nature Trail to Nevada Beach
This nature trail is also managed by the Forest Service. The ~4 mile round trip starts in a wetland meadow and meanders through peaceful pine forest before ending up at Nevada Beach. The trail head is easily walkable from the Hard Rock Hotel, but there’s also a small parking lot.
Either Baldwin Beach or Lam Watah can be done in normal hiking shoes or snow boots. However, if it’s been dumping, then you may want to turn the outing into a snow shoeing excursion.
You can rent snowshoes from any of the ski shops. It’s worth shopping around because the rates vary from $15 to $30 per day. There is a cluster of rental shops on Ski Run Blvd, which is the street that goes up to the Heavenly base.
If you don’t want to hike alone, then you can also schedule a snowshoeing tour. Tahoe Snow Shoe Tours and Tahoe Adventure Company both have regularly scheduled daytime and sunset tours. You could also look into a non snowshoe winter hike to the Kingsbury grade through this AirBnB experience.
3. Go Ice Skating in Heavenly Village
When I was a kid in Chicago, I have very cold but fond memories of winter ice skating. It’s a perfect Lake Tahoe winter activity, especially for kids. There is a rink at the base of Heavenly village. I wish they rented the skates by the hour, but alas they don’t. However, they do sell a pass for $20 for the full day.
4. Take the Gondola to the Top of Heavenly
Heavenly Ski resort has done an excellent job at developing wintery things to do in South Lake Tahoe for non-skiing guests. Simply get the non-skier gondola pass and head up to the top of the mountain.
About 2/3 of the way up, they’ve installed a viewing platform that has stunning 360′ views of South Shore, the lake and the surrounding mountains. When I was there, it was just the non-skiers getting off for the viewing platform. But, even if you are skiing that particular day, I would encourage you to get off and check out the views because they are amazeballs.
To visit viewing platform, get off at the way station on the way up, because it the gondola doesn’t stop there on the way down. There is also a small cafe on site that sells warm drinks (and adult add-ons).
A day pass for the gondola will cost $64 ($75 during holidays).
5. Go Tubing at Heavenly
Heavenly has installed a 500 foot tubing hill right near the Tamarack lodge. They have a covered escalator-type contraption that takes you up to the top of the hill and a large snow ramp on the bottom to keep you from flying all the way down the mountain.
They’ve also installed a parent corral on the bottom with Adirondack chairs.
You’ll need the gondola pass to get up there and then another $41 for the tubing pass.
6. Ride the Mountain Coaster at Heavenly
They also have a 21st century version of the Alpine slide at Heavenly…the Mountain Coaster. It’s sort of like an open air roller coaster, except that it doesn’t do loop-de-loops. The coaster car takes two people at a time up the hill and then releases them to zoom down the track.
It may not be open right after a snowstorm, because they have to dig out the tracks, but otherwise, it’s open most days.
In addition to the gondola pass, you’ll need to pay another $45 for a mountain coaster day pass. Age and weight restrictions apply.
7. Drive Around Lake Tahoe
Heavenly’s viewing platform isn’t the only place to get killer views of the lake. You can also find plenty more if you spend a day driving around the lake. The drive takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes without stops, lunch or snow.
But don’t be in a hurry. Take the time to stop at various viewpoints, such as the Memorial Point (east side) and Emerald Bay Viewpoint (west side). Check out the beaches on Zephyr Cove, Lakeside and Incline Village (east side) or Patton Beach, Tahoe City or Meeks Bay (west side).
Tahoe City, is roughly the halfway point and it’s a good pit stop for lunch. Try Jakes on the Lake, which offers soups/salad/sandwiches and a deck overlooking the harbor or Za’s Lakefront with pizza/pasta/salads and large windows overlooking the lake.
If it’s snowing heavily: Don’t do the drive, as the road is narrow and will become treacherous when icy.
If you are driving in from the Bay Area: Do a partial lake tour by taking I-80 to Tahoe City, then driving down the west side of the lake via hwy 89 to South Lake Tahoe.
If you are driving in from Reno: Drive to Incline Village via hwy 431 or I-80/hwy 269 and then go down the east side of the lake via hwy 28/hwy 50 to South Lake Tahoe.
8. Apres-ski, Without the Skiing Part
Just because you aren’t skiing during your South Lake Tahoe winter weekend wonderland, doesn’t mean that you can’t do the apres part. You’ve earned a cozy beverage, what with all of the hiking and snow shoeing and sightseeing.
If you are doing the Heavanly gondola, then stay up top until end of the ski day because the Tamarack lodge has a happy hour from 3-5pm. Just keep an eye on time because you don’t want to miss the last gondola off the mountain.
Heavenly village has several cool apres ski spots complete with happy hour specials, live music and a fire pit. Check out the Gun Barrel Tavern or the California Burger Company.
9. Drink Some Serious Beer
When I was trying to figure out what to do in South Lake Tahoe, I was astonished to find so many breweries. This town takes it’s beer seriously! South Shore has seven breweries, plus a dozen taverns and tap houses. Here are a few worth visiting:
South of North Brewing (At the Basecamp Hotel): This adorable little spot is walkable from Heavenly Village and a nice place for an apres ski beer. They have an outdoor playspace with chairs, fire pits and bocce ball. Their Blonde Ale and Motorcycle Mama are popular choices.
Sidellis: This brewery is like your cozy neighborhood bar. They are dog-friendly and they have good pub grub like taco salads, artichoke dip and french dip sandwiches. Their most popular beers are the Pop White and the Bureaucracy IPA. But they are always doing seasonal brews. And, if they have an open slot in the brewing schedule, they will try weird experiments, like the “milk beer” made with lactic acid. So, be sure to ask about the specials.
The Brewery at Lake Tahoe: These guys are the grand daddy of brewing in South Lake Tahoe. They built their business on hand-crafted ales, and while they now have a full roster of beers, their ales are still very popular. Try the Needle Peak Ale (which does indeed have piney notes) and the Alpine Amber. They also serve pub grub and their pizzas and fish and chips are popular. The bar is small but cozy and has friendly bar staff and customers.
10. Eat Some Serious Food
Breakfast at Bert’s Cafe. This is like your favorite greasy spoon, except without the grease. They make their food from scratch, plating up classics like eggs benedict, huevos rancheros and some seriously delicious omelettes. Their counter waitress actually called me “hon”, which was a delightful throwback, and a surprise considering that she’s under 30.
Dinner at Coldwater Brewing. Coldwater is actually a brewery, but I’m recommending them here because while their beer is good, their food is outstanding. I sat down at the bar and noticed that everyone was eating the exact same thing. I learned that Coldwater does a secret Wednesday special that includes dinner and a pint for only $10. They use the special to try out new menu items. I had the chicken masala and the Feel Good IPA, and didn’t break a sweat paying the bill.
Getting to Tahoe
From the Bay Area: Take your easiest route east (I-80 or I580/I-5) to Sacramento. Then take Highway 50 west. On a good day, it will take 3.5 hours. On a Friday it will take 5.5 hours. When it’s snowing, it could take up to 7 hours (more on that below).
From Los Angeles: Take either I-5 north to Sacramento and then hwy 50 or take hwy 395 up the eastern Sierras and then hwy 50 west into South Shore. On a good day, it will take 7 hours. On a Friday, it will take up to 9. If it’s snowing, add another two hours.
From Reno: It will take about 1:40 on any given day, but add an hour if it’s snowing.
If You Are Renting a Car
You will definitely want to rent a car with all wheel drive. When the roads are clear, you can take any passenger car. When the roads are snowy, the mountain passes into South Shore will usually require all wheel drive, snow tires, chains or some combination.
Renting an SUV can be pricey, so use Rentalcars.com to get a price comparison from nine different Reno car rental companies.
If You Are Driving Your Own Car
Whether or not you have all wheel drive, you should never drive up to South Lake Tahoe in the winter without carrying chains or snow cables. Buy your chains here, but be careful about choosing the right tire size.
If you’ve never used chains or cables, it’s a good idea to practice putting them on before you find yourself on a frozen roadside, covered in muddy slush, swearing mightily while your hands go numb with frustration. Not that it happened to me or anything.
If You Don’t Want to Drive at All
Having a car is best, but you can do everything on this Tahoe winter activities list (except the loop drive) without a car. If you stay centrally, you can walk to many of the suggestions above and you can taxi and Uber services to get to the rest.
If you are flying into Reno, you can take the South Tahoe Airporter to get to South Shore. It runs on a fixed schedule and costs $59 round trip. If you have a larger group, you can book a private van with Bell Limo.
What to Pack
Just because you aren’t skiing doesn’t mean that you can get away with civilian clothes on your winter weekend to Tahoe. Winter hiking, tubing, snow shoeing even hanging outside at the Tamarack lodge, all require cold weather gear and sensible footwear.
Check out my ski packing list for a full accounting of what you should bring on this trip. Everything on that list is relevant except for the ski gear. It also includes my must-have toiletry accessories and packing tips. For the quick version, here are a few suggestions:
- Bring proper snow boots or winter hiking boots. I don’t mean Uggs, which might be cozy but they don’t grip ice. I have both Merrill winter hiking boots and Sorels and both are warm and sturdy. If you don’t wear winter boots often enough to justify the investment, bring your waterproof hiking shoes and consider renting a pair of winter boots from a local ski shop.
- Bring a waterproof bottom layer. This could be ski pants (I like the North Face pants for their adjustable waist, which is necessary if you drink all that beer beer, and eat extra large breakfasts and chicken masala). But you could also bring some fleece pants and rain shell pants (I like Colombia brand because they have good prices). Either can be re-purposed for spring and fall hikes and rainy weather activities.
- Grippy Polartec gloves. I love my grippy glove liners. They are great on their own if it’s not too freezing and they are a good mitten liner. The grippy texture actually allows you to use your phone’s touch screen without removing the gloves.
There are so many fun things to do in South Lake Tahoe in the winter that you can fill a whole weekend getaway and not even miss the skiing. Use this guide, enjoy your trip and report back if you have any suggestions to add.
“The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be?–it is the same the angels breathe.”Mark Twain, Roughing It
True that Mark!
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