People used to look down their noses at Truckee. Not anymore. Ever since the real-estate boom of the mid-1990s, Truckee is fast becoming the next Aspen—on a small scale, at least. Sure, it still feels red-necky—especially during the shoulder seasons, when the Mercedes set disappears—but all that new money is slowly transforming the place: every year it looks less like a 19th-century railroad town and more like a miniature Christmas-tree village. Some don’t approve. I’ve a friend who calls it Yuckee for all the yuppies that have lately shown up.
Still, there’s no denying the town’s charms. Amble past Old West storefronts along Commercial Row, and poke your head into brick-walled shops and galleries built during the boom years of the Transcontinental Railroad. And the food scene is surprisingly good: Truckee has some of the best eats at Tahoe.
The town straddles I-80 so it’s got easy freeway access to the Bay Area, but you’ll have to drive 30 minutes south to reach Lake Tahoe’s shore—longer in the snow or on a busy weekend.
- Window-shop a row of authentic Old West storefronts.
- Savor some of Tahoe’s best cooking.
- Ski near the route of the Donner Party, at Sugar Bowl.
- Indulge your train-spotting fetish at the original Sierra railroad town.
- Three-and-a-quarter hours from the Golden Gate Bridge
- Trains clatter through town all night long; bring earplugs.
- Limited nightlife; carry a deck of cards.
See & Do
Commercial Row in downtown Truckee is lined with stores in 19th-century brick buildings, ideal for window-shopping. Different People carries smart-looking casual clothes—think high-end jeans. Inside an old-fashioned drug store, The Pharmacy sells girly items like high-end lotions and lingerie. (NB: Downtown parking is limited to two hours during the day. Watch the clock, lest you get a ticket.)
Head west to Donner Lake and the Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Museum, where you can push buttons on light-up dioramas and learn about the ill-fated Donner Party, who got trapped here in the winter of 1846-47 and were forced to cannibalize the dead to survive. This is one of the greatest tragedies in American history, and it took place right here. Watch the short film in the museum’s theater. Afterward, pick up a copy of Ordeal by Hunger, by George R. Stuart from the gift shop; it tells the whole sad story. The pedestal of the statue outside the museum stands 22ft, marking the incredible snow depth that year. After you’ve gotten sufficiently spooked, head west along Donner Pass Rd and ascend the actual pass for awe-inspiring views over Donner Lake.
Skiing and boarding are the major draws through the end of April. The closest resorts to Truckee are Northstar and Sugar Bowl for downhill, and Royal Gorge for cross-country. If you need to rent gear, my favorite downhill ski and board shop is Tahoe Dave’s. For backcountry gear, including avalanche transponders, ice-climbing gear, and telemark skis, head to the aptly named Back Country.
Restaurants and Bars in Truckee
The hardest decision you make in Truckee may be where to eat. The sexiest supper club east of San Francisco, chef-owned Moody’s Bistro ($$$–$$$$) Truckee’s top spot for a swank dinner, with everything from earthy-rich short ribs to delicately elegant dishes like sautéed foie gras. I love the burgundy-colored velvet booths in the bar, especially if there’s a jazz combo playing, but if you prefer more quiet, book a table in the main dining room. The bar gets packed with over-40 bon vivants, and there’s a great menu of cocktail-hour snacks.
Down the block, Dragonfly ($$$–$$$$) stands out for its dynamic Cal-Asian menu and artful presentations. The sure-handed chef-owner’s recipes are bright and clean, never heavy, and offer a great alternative to Sierra-style meat-and-potatoes cooking. On a sunny day, the second-floor restaurant opens up to a large outdoor patio, where you can look out over Commercial Row.
For breakfast, the old-fashioned Formica-and-stainless-steel Truckee Diner ($) is okay in a pinch (and it serves beer and wine at dinner), but you’ll eat better at the Squeeze Inn ($), which makes a whopping 57 different omelets. It ain’t fancy—the 1970s decor needs freshening up—but the stick-to-your-ribs home-style cooking is perfect for carbo-loading before a day on the slopes.
At cocktail hour, the party kids and Bacchanalian revelers head straight for Bar of America. There’s a fun mix of locals and out-of-towners, and boy, oh boy, do they like to drink. Skip the food, unless you need something to soak up all that booze.
For something more staid, sip wine at Pianeta, a lovely restaurant-bar with century-old stone walls that give it the warm look of a Tuscan farmhouse. Alas, the cooking is erratic; stick to app’s and vino.
For another slant on the Truckee dining scene, check out what my friend the Tablehopper has to say.
Hotels in Truckee
The spiffy, new Cedar House Sport Hotel ($$$) is geared toward active travelers who want a bit of style at night. Think high-end Ikea meets mod-Italian–platform beds with chrome and leather details, and feather-light high-thread-count duvets. Rooms are in several small, satellite buildings designed with a nod to green: nearly the whole place was constructed of recycled materials. Ask about outdoor-sports packages. For a sexier perspective on the hotel, check out my review on our Top 10 Hotels for Two page.
Right downtown, the sweet and simple River Street Inn ($$) was built in 1885. Once a brothel, the stone house has been converted into a B&B, but without the typical froufrou decor. All eleven rooms have extras like flat-panel TVs and ultra-comfy beds; some overlook the roaring Truckee River, right out back. Never nosy, always friendly, the urbane innkeepers grant you all the privacy you want.
The 1873 Truckee Hotel ($–$$) is long on charm, but short on amenities. Rates are reasonable, especially for rooms with a shared bath, but the walls are thin, the furniture rickety, and some rooms the size of closets. Still, there’s a cool Old West aesthetic about the place, and it’s right downtown.
If you’re okay roughing it, book a dorm or family room by Donner Pass at the Sierra Club-owned, vintage-1930s Clair Tappan Lodge ($). The $50 rate includes breakfast and dinner and a brown-bag lunch. And there’s even a hot tub.
Or head four miles into the woods via snowmobile or cross-country skis to the ultra-rustic Lost Trail Lodge ($). I’ve yet to see the place, but friends tell me it’s the perfect lodge for a group of friends who want total privacy. Though you have to trek through the woods to get there, once you arrive you’ll warm up in your own Jacuzzi tub. No TVs, no phones, no electricity.
Too rustic? For a generic, modern motel, choose the cookie-cutter Best Western Truckee Tahoe Inn ($–$$), which has a complimentary ski shuttle.