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Lake Tahoe is one of California’s outdoor gems, full of opportunities for escape year-round. While skiing and snowboarding are the predominant draws for the snowy months, there are plenty of other things to do in Lake Tahoe in the winter for those who aren’t as inclined to hit the slopes.
We visit Lake Tahoe almost every year, mostly day trips or long weekenders. But this year, we had the wonderful opportunity to experience a real Lake Tahoe winter — a full six weeks during ski season. Besides hitting the slopes, we had plenty of time to explore other Lake Tahoe winter activities as well.
Best part of Lake Tahoe to visit in winter
Before we get into Tahoe winter activities, let’s talk location for a sec.
Lake Tahoe is big! The lake itself measures 72 miles around, with plenty of lodging and activities all around it. Generally, folks divide it into North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe.
Where you choose to stay in Lake Tahoe depends on which types of activities suit you the best. North Lake Tahoe tends to be more wilderness and more outdoors activities, whereas South Lake Tahoe has more of a blend of outdoor escapades and nightlife.
But it’s ultimately also about where you can find lodging. Hotels and vacation rentals in Tahoe can book up way in advance, which also guides where people end up. I’ve found that South Lake Tahoe tends to have more availability and options.
Remember to book ahead of time to find the best options, especially if you want dog-friendly spots with hot tubs! Regardless of where you stay, you can get typically get to the other areas of Lake Tahoe within an hour or so.
Okay, now onto our favorite things to do in Lake Tahoe in the winter when you’re not on the slopes.
1. Explore Tahoe’s many bays and harbors
Lake Tahoe is a beaut. Take a walk along any part of the shore, and you’ll find yourself absorbed in its beauty.
While summertime is a more popular season to explore the lake, don’t let the weather deter you. You may not want to go boating or paddleboarding like you would in the summer, but you can still explore the many gorgeous bays and harbors in North America’s largest alpine lake in the winter.
Two can’t miss spots are Emerald Bay and Sand Harbor, which are coincidentally diagonal from each other, with the former in the SW area of the lake, and the latter in the NW section. Parking can be a pain at both locations though, so go early and with the expectation of having to wait a bit.
2. Try a different winter sport
Just because you don’t downhill ski or snowboard doesn’t mean you can’t get into winter sports in Tahoe!
Snowshoeing is just what it sounds like. You put a giant shoe on and you walk through the snow.
While that might sound silly (I know I thought so at first), it’s absolutely necessary if you want to walk through the gorgeous Tahoe backcountry. These snowshoes distribute your weight better so you don’t sink into the snow with every step. (That can definitely still happen though!)
Snowshoeing makes for an awesome, low-cost group activity. I first tried snowshoeing on a birthday trip to Tahoe, and we had a blast!
Sled down a hill
For another fun and low-cost activity, grab a sled and go down a hill!
I loved seeing kids and adults alike sledding in both official sledding areas and just random hills around Tahoe. This might sound quaint, but it reminded of when I was little and we played outside all the time, with very little equipment and no technology involved (unlike today).
Try cross-country skiing
Yes, yes, I know this is technically still skiing, but it’s not what most people think of when they think of skiing.
I first learned of cross-country skiing because it’s one part of biathlon (the other part being shooting), and was surprised to learn just how much physical strength it takes. After all, unlike downhill skiing, there’s no gravity to help you along. It’s all you pulling yourself through the snow.
There are specially groomed areas for cross-country skiing just like there are ski resorts for downhill skiing, along with tons of backcountry acreage for those who are more skilled. Three great options around the lake include North Tahoe Regional Park, Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area in Tahoe City (east Lake Tahoe), and Camp Richardson (south Lake Tahoe).
If you’re interested in a spot where you can do all of the above, go to Camp Richardson. It is always on everyone’s list of the best things to do in South Lake Tahoe in the winter for good cause — there’s a winter activity for everyone there!
Rediscover ice skating
I know you can ice skate basically anywhere these days, but there’s something magical about ice skating outdoors while surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
Lake Tahoe itself never actually freezes, but some of the smaller lakes and ponds nearby do during colder winters. While people do ice skate on them, forest rangers and other authorities generally caution against doing so since it’s impossible to know the condition of the ice.
Instead, there are ice skating rinks in South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City, and other towns around the lake where you can rent ice skates and have fun in a secure, controlled environment.
3. Explore Lake Tahoe’s winter hikes
Lake Tahoe is surrounded by so much forested land, there are amazing hikes to be found everywhere. During our extended stay in Tahoe, one of our favorite things was to take our pup into the vast expanses of wilderness by our cabin.
Kokomo is an absolute snow dog, and he LOVED running through the fresh powder.
Some fun winter hikes in north Tahoe include Sawtooth Loop Trail by Truckee, and Pine Drop Trail, which goes from Kings Beach to North Tahoe Regional Park.
On the east side, don’t miss the new Tahoe East Shore Trail near Incline Village. For years, this side of the lake was more difficult to explore thanks to the lack of parking near hot spots like Sand Harbor, but this new trail plus the parking lots created with it opens up the east side of the lake. On warmer winter days, this mostly flat trail can be completely free of snow.
Another great spot for a winter hike is the Flume Trail, which is right next to the Tahoe East Shore Trail. This one starts at the Tunnel Creek Café and goes uphill. It is a very popular hiking and mountain biking trail in the summer months, and much less crowded during the winter.
If you’re on the south side of the lake, consider Van Sickle Bi-State Park, which crisscrosses California and Nevada.
4. Visit Tahoe’s historical towns
If you’ve had enough of the outdoors for a moment, visit one of Tahoe’s cities instead.
Truckee, Tahoe City, and South Lake Tahoe all have plenty to offer in terms of food, shopping, and activities. Grab a delicious meal at the Old Town Tap in Truckee, take a historical walk around Tahoe City’s shoreline, or explore the many stores and restaurants of South Lake Tahoe.
The historical trail along Commons Beach in Tahoe City was one of most pleasant surprises for a history nerd like me. It was so cool to see and learn about Tahoe City’s past. My favorite was this beachside jail — talk about a view!
5. Go gambling
The casinos of Stateline are one of the main draws of South Lake Tahoe, and one of the reasons that Tahoe is so popular for folks with all types of interests. Spend the day on the slopes or out on the lake and then go out to the casinos at night? You can do that in Lake Tahoe.
Stateline, literally named because it starts at the California-Nevada stateline, has 4 casino resorts: Hard Rock, Harrah’s, Harvey’s, and MontBleu. They’re all more or less within walking distance of each other, so you can hop between them as you wish. The minimum gambling age is 21.
6. Take a day trip to Reno
If you’re on the north side of the lake, you can also head over to Reno for some casino action. Depending on where you are in north Tahoe, it takes 30-45 minutes to get to Reno (versus 1+ hour to Stateline).
Of course, there’s much more to “The Biggest Little City in the World” than just casinos.
If you love cars, Reno is home to the National Automobile Museum that’s decked out with classic cars. If nature and science are more your thing, check out the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, an interactive and educational celebration of the Silver State. There’s also a lovely riverwalk that reminded me of Chicago’s downtown area, albeit at a smaller scale and with mountains in the background.
7. Play in the snow!
Build a snowman. Make a snow angel. Have a snowball fight.
Need I say more?
8. Enjoy Tahoe’s food and booze
And of course, can I really talk about any place without talking about the food and drinks?
I’ll be the first to admit that Tahoe isn’t a culinary destination. (For a special occasion, though, Edgewood Restaurant in Stateline is a gem.)
Instead, the food and drink in Tahoe is all about the experience. Even if you don’t ski or snowboard, go to après-ski at a resort. My favorites for après-ski are Northstar and Heavenly, both of which offer tons of options (including the non-food and drink aspects!).
Hope this guide makes you more excited about a trip to experience Lake Tahoe in the winter, even if you don’t ski or snowboard!
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