At a Glance: John’s Favorites
Winter is back and you probably have at least one friend who has suggested renting a house at South Lake Tahoe. If you’re thinking of going, here’s the lowdown on Tahoe’s most populous tourist center.
You’d never know you were by the shore of one of the world’s most pristine alpine lakes when you’re at South Lake. Dozens of motels, shopping malls, and wedding chapels line an ugly four-lane suburban strip, all built in total disregard for the breathtaking natural scenery.
Still, if you’re into partying and gambling all night, or you’re looking for a cheap motel to serve as base camp for jaunts into the surrounding wilderness, forego any high-minded critiques of bad urban planning, and rock on down to the south shore.
The city of South Lake Tahoe sprawls for miles before abruptly ending at the Nevada border, where it bleeds into Stateline, Nevada, a smaller, more vertical city of monolithic concrete casino-hotel towers. Traffic grinds to a halt weekends on both sides of the border, especially on Friday and Sunday afternoons, when revelers arrive and depart en masse: Carry snacks.
- Ride a gondola for picture-postcard views of Lake Tahoe.
- Party all night at thump-thump nightclubs.
- Ski some of Tahoe’s toughest terrain.
- Push your luck at the roulette wheel.
- Catch a show by a celebrity you thought was dead.
- Four hours from the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Crowds: South Lake gets overrun with hordes of tourists.
- Aesthetics: The built environment is u-g-l-y.
See & Do
Skiing is the major draw in winter.
Even if you’re not into skiing, plan to ride the Heavenly Gondola which whisks you 2.4 miles straight up the mountain for jaw-dropping views of the lake and beyond to the saw-toothed, craggy peaks of the Sierra Crest. Sit with your back to the mountain. To the west scope out Pyramid Peak, which you can see from Bay Area peaks on a crystal-clear day. Awesome. Parking at the gondola costs $20 for the day.
If you build it, will they come? Recent efforts by the city of South Lake Tahoe to improve its image and centralize tourism have resulted in the construction of the new Heavenly Village, a pedestrian mall with shops, restaurants, overpriced galleries, two giant Marriott hotels, and the landing pad for the Heavenly Gondola. There’s also a small outdoor ice-skating rink—a godsend for parents when the weather on the mountain isn’t cooperating. The Village seems hardly the huge urban-renewal success story that developers promised, but it’s a good start.
Lake Tahoe Cruises runs year-round lake tours aboard two Mississippi River-style paddlewheelers, the MS Dixie II and the Tahoe Queen. If you’re searching for something to do, it’s a good option, but more fun in warm weather when you can sprawl on deck in the sunshine. If you bore easily, note that the two-hour jaunt may long. Boats depart from the Ski Run Marina in South Lake Tahoe, and from Zephyr Cove, just north of Stateline, Nevada.
Skiers and boarders: Definitely consider the bus-and-boat ski shuttle to Squaw Valley. A bus takes you directly to the mountain in the morning; in the afternoon, you ride back across the lake aboard the Tahoe Queen while sipping cocktails in a giant floating après-ski party with a live band.
Sky-high granite cliffs rise from sparkling emerald-green waters in a glacially carved fjord-like bay at Emerald Bay State Park, one of the area’s most awesome natural sights. If you’ve never seen it, head to Inspiration Point for killer views. The water’s color changes throughout the day with the sun. The best time to visit is mid-to-late morning; by late afternoon, the bay is in shadow. (Shutterbugs: Crank up the pixels and max out your flash card. Once you see these images on screen, you’ll be glad you did).
Below the parking area, Vikingsholm is a 1929 mansion, open Memorial Day to Labor Day; I’ll tell you more about it once the weather warms back up. Just offshore, Fanette Island is Tahoe’s only island; you can kayak to it June through January; from February to June, the area is closed to protect nesting Canada geese. To reach Emerald Bay, take Hwy 89 north from ‘the Y’ (the intersection of Hwys 50 and 89).
Lake Tahoe lies just east of the Sierra Crest, the largest unbroken monolith of mountains in the world (the Alps are higher, but not as long, and the Rockies cover more area, but are separated by steppes and mesas). Just east of here, the vast Great Basin extends all the way across Nevada into Utah to the Wasatch Front, the westernmost edge of the Rocky Mountains. To get a visual sense of all this immensity, head to the Kingsbury Grade (Nevada Hwy 207) and drive up and out of the Tahoe Basin for stellar views. (It’s also a great shortcut if you’re heading for southbound US Hwy 395 toward Mammoth Lakes.) Don’t do this in a storm! Take US 50 east from Stateline, Nevada, to the traffic light marked Hwy 207/Kingsbury Grade.
South Lake Tahoe Restaurants: Eat Cheap
There’s no shortage of cheap eats in South Lake, but most are junk. Which accounts for the wild popularity of Freshies ($–$$$) and its big, crunchy salads, veggie dishes, free-range ribeyes, and finger-lickin’ Hawaiian spare ribs. Come early or expect to wait. Okay, so it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s still a good deal for what you get.
Local budgeteers flock to Blue Angel Café ($–$$) for a changing roster of earthy, home-style cooking like beef bourguignon or chicken curry, all under $15. Breakfasts are great. Note: there are only eight tables and service is slow, so don’t come if you’re in a rush.
Whether you’re a veg or just craving something green, check out Sprouts Natural Foods ($), a cash-only, order-at-the-counter joint that makes good breakfasts, wraps and sandwiches, and South Lake’s best smoothies. Carnivores beware: the only meats are turkey and tuna.
When the kids want Mexican but you want tequila, head to the Cantina ($–$$) for all the usual combinations with melted yellow cheese on top. The best part is the margaritas and the selection of 30 different beers. On busy weekends, when every restaurant has an hour wait, the pretty-good Orchids Thai ($–$$) is a reliable backup.
For breakfast, the fav is the itty-bitty Red Hut Café ($), all shiny with vintage-1959 chrome and red-plastic booths. Great waffles, too. Expect a long wait on weekends. The second location at Stateline lacks the chrome, but the food’s just as good and the waits aren’t as bad.
South Lake Tahoe Restaurants: Top End
Inside a former cottage on the edge of town, Evan’s ($$$$) has for years been the first choice in South Lake Tahoe for a romantic dinner. The meat-heavy Euro-Cal menu is surprisingly inventive for Tahoe; game and rack of lamb are the standouts. The tiny room is tight and the decor dated, but service is tops and you’ll feel a million miles away from the blinking lights of the casinos.
Better still in my opinion is Mirabelle ($$$–$$$$), in Stateline. The French-Alsatian-born chef-owner makes everything from scratch, including puff pastry and bread—no small feat at this elevation. The menu is très French. Start with the onion tart or lobster bisque; finish with a dessert soufflé. The room is a bit bright, but tables are well-spaced and service spot-on.
If you want to spend your blackjack winnings on a fancy-pants meal at one of the casinos, head directly to the Sage Room ($$$$) at Harveys. The steakhouse menu is fat-man heavy and about 30 years out of date, but there’s something fabulously retro about the tableside flambé service, a gimmick that excuses a multitude of culinary sins.
Other people like the Summit, especially for its view from the 16th floor of Harrah’s, but the food? The picture on their website—prawns atop a bed of fettucine on a parsley-dusted plate—says it all: t-i-r-e-d. Stick to the Sage Room.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
South Lake Tahoe Nightlife
The scene on the Nevada side is far more jacked up than in Cali, possibly because people are tense about having been suckered into betting the farm and losing it. Still, there are happening scenes, depending on what you’re into.
If you love R&B and old-school funk and soul, you gotta check out ‘Arty, the One-man Party‘ at Harrah’s Casino Center Stage, Tuesday through Saturday, from 9pm. Literally a one-man band, this dude plays all the classics and never fails to get the crowd hopping. He’s a friggin’ blast, and possibly the most authentic entertainer in South Tahoe. Wear your dancin’ shoes.
Coked-up clubbers favor VEX at Harrah’s, with its go-go dancers, trippy laser lights, and giant dance floor. Call ahead to book a VIP booth and gain some distance from self-important frat boys with their feet on the furniture, pretending they’re Justin Timberlake. If you’re over 35, you may feel old, but it’s a happening scene when your adrenaline—and hormones—are raging. As a backup, try Blu Nightclub in MontBleu Casino, a good spot for dancing when you’re with friends and want something (slightly) less agro.
Mellow types should stay on the California side of the border. Head to Mc P’s Irish Pub (aka the Pub), near the Heavenly Gondola, a good choice for the over-30 set, who come to chugalug and hear live bands play from 9pm to 1am, seven nights a week, 365 days a year.
Sorry gay boys: Faces has closed. There is no longer a ‘mo bar in South Lake. If you wanna hook up, you’ll have to cruise Craig’s List—starting the week before you get here.
South Lake Tahoe Casino Hotels
The recent advent of Indian gaming in California has decimated Nevada’s casino business, so you can often score good deals on room rates at casino-hotels in Stateline, but beware: many rooms face parking lots ablaze with stadium lighting.
Caesar’s Tahoe is now MontBleu Resort ($$–$$$$), which is trying hard to be the hot new luxury hotel in Stateline (a contradiction, if you really know luxury—and Stateline). The Roman look is gone and the lobby has been spruced up, but the rooms are essentially the same as before, with some small upgrades like Aveda bath products. The best amenity is the oversized bathtubs, which go a long way toward soothing tired muscles after a day on the trail.
Harveys ($$–$$$$) was for a long time the top casino-hotel, and it still has good-sized rooms and the best views of any tower hotel. But since it was acquired by corporate-giant Harrah’s, it has lost its cachet—and its service standards. Bathrooms still have fancy marble, but they’re starting to look dated. If you stay here, book one of the ‘premium rooms’ for maximum space and upgraded furniture.
As for Harrah’s ($$$–$$$$), the best thing going for it is that each room has two full bathrooms, a bonus if you’re traveling with a group. Other than that, it’s just another casino-hotel.
Surprise, surprise: the best deals are usually at the forgotten Lakeside Inn and Casino ($–$$$), which has motel-style rooms (with no view) in a building separate from the casino, a plus when you don’t want to haul your bags past miles of slot machines to find the elevator, which is the case everywhere else. Alas, rooms are small and dark, but if you get a good rate, who cares?
South Lake Tahoe Hotels and Motels
The first-choice Marriott Grand Residence ($$$$) and Timber Lodge ($$$$) are the two behemoth timeshare condo hotels flanking the Heavenly Village, and you can’t beat the location right at the base of the Heavenly Gondola, walkable to Stateline’s glittering lights. Built a few years ago, they still look fresh, and despite the rooms’ bland, business-class-generic furnishings, they’re definitely spacious and have extras like gas fireplaces and granite kitchen counters. Units vary in size from studios to multi-bedroom apartments. One annoying detail about all Marriotts: the bed linens are annoyingly scratchy, despite a recent company-wide upgrade. (Is there something in the Book of Mormon that prohibits the Misters Marriott from putting high-thread-count sheets on their beds?)
Next door, sharing the same excellent location, the Embassy Suites ($$$-$$$$) is a good choice for families, since every room is a suite with a bedroom and a living room with a pull-out sofa and dining table for four. There’s a full, made-to-order breakfast served daily in the hangar-like lobby, but the cafeteria service feels like a cattle call, and the passels of screaming kids echoing through the vast space may rattle your nerves before you’ve had your first cup of coffee. There are no views: like most other Embassy Suites, all rooms face an atrium with artificial lighting.
There are scores of motels in South Lake. The best of the lot, the serene, upmarket Inn by the Lake ($$–$$$) has some of South Lake’s nicest-looking mid-price rooms. Yes, the color scheme is girly and a touch dated, but every room has a balcony, big windows and lots of natural light; some rooms have views of the lake, which lies just across the road. Note: It’s a ten-minute drive to downtown.
At the other end of the spectrum, unless you’re an alcoholic teenager, I can not recommend The Block at Tahoe($–$$), a vintage-1960s motel that caters to snowboarders. So what if there’s free porn? The service is abysmal and partying drunks in adjacent rooms make it impossible to sleep.
If you’re traveling on the cheap, beware the budget properties off Park Avenue; some of them are creepy. The Best Western Station House is (by far) the best in that area, but service is hit or miss.
South Lake Tahoe Lodges and Cabins
By far the best place to stay in South Lake Tahoe, the Black Bear Inn ($$$$) looks and feels like a stately old Adirondack lodge, its great room decked out with trophy heads, Oriental rugs, and a giant rock fireplace. You’d never know it was built only a few years ago—everything has a gorgeous patina to it. The style-savvy owners hauled wood from several dilapidated, century-old share-croppers’ cabins in Texas all the way to Tahoe to panel some of the walls and give the place a lived-in, weathered look. Fabulous. Spring for one of the freestanding cabins (with kitchenettes), but even if you stay in one of the less-expensive rooms in the main lodge, every detail is just right, from the sumptuous beds to the grand multi-course breakfast.
The newest place in town is the Deerfield Lodge ($$$$), right across the street from the Black Bear. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t say much for sure, but I like that there’s finally another high-end place to stay, and that every room is a suite with two fireplaces.
Smack dab on the shore of Lake Tahoe, on 80 acres of land, summer-camp-like Camp Richardson ($–$$$) has rooms in a 1920s lodge building, freestanding cabins, and generic motel-style rooms, all surrounded by towering pines. The cabins are each different, but all generally have full kitchens, multiple bedrooms, and fireplaces. In winter the place feels like a deserted summer camp—which it essentially is—and the rates are amazingly low. It’s a 15-minute drive to downtown.
Further afield, about 30 minutes from town in Hope Valley, one of the Sierra’s prettiest Alpine valleys, Sorensen’s Resort ($$–$$$$) has oh-so-cute cabins (most with wood-burning fireplaces), including one from the now-defunct Santa’s Village in Santa Cruz. They’re not fancy (think futon sofas), but they sure are long on charm. And because they’re far from town, the night skies blaze with a zillion stars. Choose a cabin with a kitchen, or be dependent on the hit-or-miss dining room for dinner. Plan to snowshoe or cross-country at the affiliated Hope Valley Outdoor Center. It’s a short hop to Kirkwood.
With so many hotels on the South Shore, there are plenty of deals to be had. Check Dealbase for hotels deals in South Lake Tahoe, and throughout California.