Shimmering in myriad shades of blue and green, Lake Tahoe is the USA’s second-deepest lake and, at 6245ft high, it is also one of the highest-elevation lakes in the country. Driving around the spellbinding 72-mile scenic shoreline will give you quite a workout behind the wheel. Generally, the north shore is quiet and upscale; the west shore, rugged and old-timey; the east shore, undeveloped; the south shore, busy and tacky, with aging motels and flashy casinos; and nearby Reno, the biggest little city in the region.
The horned peaks surrounding the lake, which straddles the California–Nevada state line, are year-round destinations. The sun shines on Tahoe three out of every four days. Swimming, boating, kayaking, windsurfing, stand up paddle boarding (SUP) and boat cruises take over in summer, as do hiking, camping and wilderness backpacking adventures. Winter brings bundles of snow, perfect for hitting Tahoe’s top-tier ski and snowboard resorts.
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The largest, and arguably most luxurious of the state parks at Lake Tahoe, Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine State Park (formerly known as Sugar Pine State Park), sits on 2000 acres of gorgeous alpine greenery that rolls gently into two lovely miles of lakefront on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe. The impressive centerpiece of the park is a “rusticly elegant” 11,000 sq ft Pine Lodge mansion (also known as the Ehrman Mansion) that towers and awes alongside the pines and cedars. Summertime attractions include tours of the mansion, a nature center, nature preserve, picnicking, a tennis court, kayak and paddle board rentals, paved and dirt walking trails, General Creek, a pier, and swimming. Wintertime attractions include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing as well as winter tours. Nordic enthusiasts take note: this is the only Tahoe-area campground that remains open year-round. History Completed in 1902, the Pine Lodge mansion built by Isaias W. Hellman truly is an architectural and cultural wonder. Constructed almost entirely from locally sourced materials, its exterior design, the Shingle Style California Craftsman, was the creative work of architect Walter Danforth Bliss. Despite its three stories and stately covered front porch that stretches between two circular turrets, the structure complements and echoes its natural environs rather than imposing upon them. Leaving his native Bavaria at the age of 17, Mr. Hellman’s astute financial savvy and trustworthy nature contributed to his international success as a San Francisco -based banker. He built Pine Lodge as a summer getaway for family and friends, and guests were absolutely indulged. Their luggage was immediately whisked away and comfortable, tastefully decorated rooms were brightened with fresh vases of flowers. Call-buttons installed in each room even provided guests with direct access to anything they may need. Breakfast could be served in bed or by the living room fireplace, and then the day was open to visitors to fill as they desired: croquet, boating, fishing, or relaxing on the front porch. At 7 pm, cocktails were served on the porch where guests gathered in their finest formal attire before dinner. After Mr. Hellman’s death in 1920, the house was passed down to his daughter Florence (who by that time was Florence Ehrman), and it remained a summer home for the family until 1965. The State of California then bought it from Esther Lazard (Florence Ehrman’s daughter). Collaborative efforts between California State Parks, North Lake Tahoe Historical Society and Sierra State Parks Foundation slowly refurbished and restored the home to its 1902 splendor. Half-hour tours provided by volunteers from the Sierra State Parks Foundation are highly engaging and informational. From the ice that was cut and stored each winter to provide refrigeration to the specially crafted “birdcage-style” elevator that was installed for Mrs. Ehrman, sneaking a peek inside the details of the grand and gracious lifestyle of the Hellman-Ehrman family is a unique experience. Planning your day visit To maximize your visit, plan to arrive by 10 a.m. and pop into the Visitor’s Center to schedule a morning tour of the mansion. Your tour will begin on the front porch where your guide will invite you to imagine yourself as an honored guest hailing from San Francisco. Once you step through the spacious and opulent front foyer, it is easy to immerse yourself in the style and luxury of life on Lake Tahoe at the turn of the century. After the tour, explore the grounds while the morning air is still cool. The Lakefront Interpretive Trail is especially nice for a casual stroll. It is paved, flat and about a quarter of a mile long. Another scenic option is the 1.5 mile Dolder Nature Trail. It is a dirt path that loops around the Edwin L. Z’Berg Natural Preserve for views of subalpine meadows and a maritime navigational light that boasts the highest elevation of its kind in the world. Bring a blanket and picnic lunch – you’ll find many delightfully shady spots with views of the lake. For a refreshing dessert, grab an ice cream sandwich from the Visitor Center. The afternoon is a fine time to hit the beach. A wagon might be useful for transporting your beach items from the parking area to the shore since it’s about a quarter-mile walk. Families with small children might enjoy staking a spot in the sandy, shallow waters of General Creek that runs just north of the mansion. Then again, your crew may be content to dangle legs off the pier and soak in a little mountain sun and scenery. Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are also available for rent if you’re inclined to take your leisures out on the water. Sugar Pine Point Campground This campground consists of 175 sites located on the inland side of Highway 89. Though it is not on the lake, it does provide campers with walk-in access to the rest of Ed Z’Berg State Park (minus tours of the mansion). Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance and no less than 48 hours prior; expect the campground to be full during peak summer months and book your spot well in advance. Ten group sites accommodate a maximum of 25 people for $165/night. Otherwise, the remaining family sites can accommodate up to 8 people for $35/night. For the winter season, one loop of the campground remains open. Flush toilets, tap water and coin-operated hot showers (not available during winter) are also on-site. General Creek Trail (6.5-mile loop) and Lily Pond Trail (7-mile loop) start between campsites 147 and 149. Black bears are highly active in the area, and absolute precaution is necessary. It is adamantly stated by park officials that all food be stored and locked properly in bear-proof coolers and storage containers. Tickets and other practicalities The park is located on the West Lake Tahoe Shore, ten miles south of Tahoe City and 25 miles north of South Lake Tahoe. Parking fee is $10 during the summer and $5 during the winter. The park can also be accessed via the West Shore Bike Trail, but please pay attention to signs that advise where bikes are not allowed on the property.
Three 1920s-era estates – Baldwin, Pope and Valhalla – sprawl across this 150-acre site on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe. Free, self-guided tours wind visitors through paths in the arboretum, under giant sequoias and over garden pond bridges. A few short trails lead down to small, quiet beachfront areas where boats can dock on the pier for up to one hour. The rest of the paved walkways connect the three estates, now used to house history and art displays of fashion, toys and automotive travel throughout the 20th century, living history programs, guided tours for a fee and community events. Spend the whole day strolling and relaxing on the grounds, or couple your visit with other nearby South Lake Tahoe attractions. History There is an inherent magnetism to Lake Tahoe in summer, and people have been drawn to it for many centuries. For the Washoe, the Native Americans who originally inhabited the area, seasonal migration from Carson Valley afforded cooler temperatures and ample opportunity to fish and hunt. After the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s, wealthy white settlers who could afford to travel from big cities also began flocking to Tahoe for a summer retreat. Each house on the Tallac Historic Site has its own colorful backstory and designated modern use to help showcase the evolution of Tahoe as a summer resort. The Baldwin estate, which originally included an extravagant hotel with a saloon, casino, string orchestra and ballroom, was later torn down and replaced with a summer home for Dextra Baldwin. She was the granddaughter and heiress to the estate of California entrepreneur Elias “Lucky” Baldwin. The home she built in 1921 is modest compared to the others on-site. It now serves as a museum for Baldwin family and Washoe exhibits as well as a gift shop. The Pope estate, built in 1894, was sold, remodeled and expanded before George Pope purchased it in 1923. The Pope family elevated the home to new heights of esteem, employing ten gardeners to maintain their arboretum and hosting famed guests such as Rudolph Valentino, a cultural icon of American film in the 1920s. Today, the Pope estate offers tours, art exhibits, and living history programs. Valhalla was built in 1924 and owned by Walter Heller until the 1940s. South Tahoe Valhalla Corporation purchased the home in 1965 and attempted to turn it into a private club, but after that failed, the U.S. Forest Service acquired all three estates. There was a wedding at Valhalla on the day of our visit so it was closed to the public, but pictures of its Grand Hall reveal magnificent exposed-wood ceiling beams and a 20ft stone fireplace. In addition to private events, Valhalla also hosts summer concerts and is home to the Cultural Arts Gift Store. Planning your visit and other nearby attractions This historic site is accessible by the three-mile Pope-Baldwin Bike Path, making it an easy fit into a comprehensive bike ride tour of the southwest shoreline. Otherwise, a large wooden sign on the lakeside of Highway 89/Emerald Bay’s Road indicates the entrance to Tallac Historic Site. It is about three miles north of the City of South Lake Tahoe. There is no fee for parking or entrance to any outdoor features on the property. About a quarter-mile down the driveway, the entrance veers left toward Tallac Point and the Taylor Creek Visitor’s Center and right toward Kiva Beach picnic area and the historic site. A whole day could certainly be enjoyed at Tallac between touring or freely meandering the grounds, picnicking at nearby Kiva Beach, and relaxing on the shores, but carving out a couple of hours in the morning or afternoon for your visit would also suffice if you’re pressed for time. Another way to take full advantage of sightseeing is to split your time between Taylor Creek Visitor’s Center and Tallac Historic Site. Both are connected by a walking trail and adjacent parking lots. No doubt your knowledge of the ecological and cultural history of South Lake Tahoe would be quite refined after fully engaging with information provided along the interpretative trails and participating in guided tours at both. Rangers host free walks at Taylor Creek and an inside-the-creek viewing chamber along Rainbow Trail provides a glimpse of aquatic wildlife within it. A third - and rather compelling option - is to arrive at Tallac in time to catch the morning tour at 11, and then head over to nearby Historic Camp Richardson, which is its own rustic epicenter of Tahoe activity with a general store, ice cream parlor, coffee shop, campgrounds, cabins, and recreation. You might be hungry after wandering around the Estates at Tallac, so lunch at Beacon Bar & Grill could nourish and inspire afternoon adventures. Maybe after a slushy Rum Runner cocktail with lunch, you’ll be keen to pedal the Pope-Baldwin Bike Path, which connects some of the best beaches in South Lake Tahoe. If you fancy hopping astride a horse for a trail ride, Camp Richardson Corral has you covered. No judgment here if your mission at dusk is for an evening cocktail and breezy relaxation; climb aboard a Rum Runner Cruise and glide into Emerald Bay for waterfront views of yet another architectural wonder of 1920s Tahoe, Vikingsholm Castle. If you happen to be in town when the Tahoe Heritage Foundation is sponsoring one of its creative events, check its August calendar for the Gatsby Festival (with finger sandwiches, “dainty desserts,” jazz and a Vintage Fashion show), look at October for Tahoe Terror (when local drama clubs do a fantastically scary job haunting the grounds), and mark December dates for Winter Wanderland (for sleigh rides, cocoa and carols on a vintage piano). Tickets and other practicalities Address: 1 Heritage Way, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150 Fees: No fee for parking or entrance to the property; optional guided tour of Pope House $15 for adult, $10 for seniors, military and students, free for children 10 and under Tallac Museum and Gift Shop Hours: Thurs-Sun, though the grounds are open year-round to the public from dawn to dusk Tour Hours: Thurs - Sun Tallac Museum and Gift Shop: 530-541-5227
Sheer granite cliffs and a jagged shoreline hem in glacier-carved Emerald Bay, a teardrop cove that will have you digging for your camera. Its most captivating aspect is the water, which changes from cloverleaf green to light jade depending on the angle of the sun. Fannette Island, Tahoe's only island, is set perfectly in the park's center. You’ll spy panoramic pullouts all along Hwy 89, including at Inspiration Point.
Swoon-worthy views of Emerald Bay, as the camera-wielding crowds testify.
DL Bliss State Park has the western shore's nicest beaches at Lester Beach and Calawee Cove. A short nature trail leads to the Balancing Rock, a giant chunk of granite perched on a rocky pedestal. Pick up information from the visitor center by the park entrance.
Soar to the top of the world as you ride this gondola, which sweeps you from Heavenly Village to some 2.4 miles up the mountain in just 12 minutes. From the observation deck at 9123ft, get gobsmacking panoramic views of the entire Tahoe Basin, the Desolation Wilderness and Carson Valley, then jump back on for the final, short hop to the top.
In summer much of the action focuses on Kings Beach State Recreation Area, a 700ft-long beach that often gets deluged with sun-seekers and water rats. You’ll find picnic tables, barbecue grills and a fun kids’ play structure, while nearby concessionaires rent kayaks, jet skis, paddleboats, stand up paddling (SUP) gear and more. Adrift Tahoe is one of several local outfitters offering kayak, outrigger canoe and SUP rentals, lessons and tours.
Heiress Lora Knight's quirky mansion on the bay, Vikingsholm Castle is the focal point of Emerald Bay State Park, and a rare example of ancient Scandinavian-style architecture. Completed in 1929, it has trippy design elements aplenty, including sod-covered roofs that sprout wildflowers in late spring. The mansion is reached by a steep 1-mile trail, which also leads by a visitor center.
Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park is the east shore's biggest draw with beaches and hiking for all. Summer crowds splash in the turquoise waters of Sand Harbor. The Flume Trail, a mountain biker's holy grail, starts further south at Spooner Lake.