Lake Tahoe is the perfect destination for your next winter vacation. Up in Northern California on the California-Nevada border, you’ll find a magical winter playground with plenty of activities for everyone. In this Lake Tahoe winter itinerary, you’ll spend 2 days playing in the snow, strolling through charming ski towns, trying your luck at the casinos, and – of course – skiing on some of the smoothest powder while overlooking the radiant blue waters of Lake Tahoe.
- Visiting Lake Tahoe in Winter
- Getting to Lake Tahoe
- Day 1 – Spend the day at Heavenly
- Day 2 – Explore South Lake Tahoe
- Frequently Asked Questions
Visiting Lake Tahoe in Winter
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and second deepest lake in the U.S., whose crystal clear waters were formed during the ice ages. Tahoe is not only famous for its surrounding natural beauty but also as the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. 15 million people visit each year to hike and explore around the lake as well as ski at any one of Tahoe’s 15 ski resorts.
During winter, temperatures range between 18°F to 48°F. Average winter temperatures in Tahoe are:
- December: 42 (high) / 20 (low)
- January: 42 /19
- February: 44 / 21
- March: 48 / 25
Getting to Lake Tahoe
Fly into Lake Tahoe
- The closest airport to Lake Tahoe is the Reno-Tahoe Airport (RNO), which is about an hour drive from South Lake Tahoe.
- The second closest is the Sacramento Airport (SMF), which is about 2-3 hours away.
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO) will have the most flight options but is the furthest of the 3 airports. From SFO, it’s about a 3.5 hour drive without traffic.
Regardless of which airport you fly into, you will need to rent a car in order to get around Lake Tahoe.
Drive from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe
Whether you’re a Bay Area local or newly arrived at SFO, here are a few things to know about driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe:
- How long does it take to drive from SF to Lake Tahoe? Lake Tahoe is a very popular winter weekend trip for locals. I’d recommend driving up before 3 PM or after 8 PM, if you plan on driving up on a Friday afternoon/evening. Otherwise, your 3.5 hour drive can easily turn into a 5 hour trip due to traffic.
- How do I get to Lake Tahoe from SF? There are two primary ways to get to Lake Tahoe, depending on whether you’re heading to North Lake Tahoe or South Lake Tahoe (unless there’s a snow storm that closes off one of the highway routes). Both routes start on Highway 80 and will take you through Sacramento (highly recommend stopping here). Once you leave Sacramento, you’ll either stay on Highway 80 to head to North Lake, or drive onto Highway 50 to get to South Lake.
- What do I need to prepare for a winter drive to Lake Tahoe? If you’re renting a car, I’d highly recommend renting a 4WD. 4WD with snow tires will best prepare you to drive in or out of Tahoe if there are moderate winter storms. While a 4WD car isn’t a requirement, snow chains are a must in case the roads get icy or layered with snow. Be sure to check the weather – winter storms can result in road closures and chain controls that can easily add +5 hours to your drive (true story!).
North Lake Tahoe vs. South Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is divided into the north and south side. You can visit both sides of the lake but driving from one side of Lake Tahoe to the other is about an hour drive, one-way. Because it’s not super convenient to explore on one side and stay on the other, people generally pick a side for the duration of their trip. The “better” side really depends on your personal preference: the North is generally quieter and more tranquil, while the South is more touristy. Both sides have popular ski resorts but South Lake Tahoe has more restaurants and nightlife. I personally prefer South Lake Tahoe because there’s more things to do, it’s easier to walk around, and it’s where you’ll find Heavenly Ski Resort & Village.
Day 1 – Spend the day at Heavenly
Ski at Heavenly Resort
After a good night’s rest, wake up bright and early to hit the slopes at Heavenly. While there’s no wrong choice, many will agree that Heavenly is the best ski resort with the most picturesque views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierras. What makes Heavenly so great? It’s because you’ll find immaculately groomed snow, plenty of runs for all levels of skiers, sweeping lake views, and a vibrant après-ski scene.
Heavenly Resort Costs
Skiing is not a cheap activity. Between paying for a lift ticket and buying food onsite, you’ll easily spend between $100 to $200 for the day. If you need to rent equipment, ski rentals start at $48 per day. I would highly encourage you to buy your tickets and reserve rental equipment ahead of time in order to save time and money.
Heavenly Lift Ticket Prices
Check the Heavenly website for the most updated information on available ticket types and prices. Below, you’ll find the prices of lift tickets assuming you’re booking 2-3 months in advance online for a trip in December. Treat these prices as guidelines because they are subject to change once the ski season starts and as you get closer to your target date:
- 1 Day Ticket – $127 (same day price is $159)
- 2 Day Ticket – $252 (same day is $318)
- 3 Day Ticket – $375 (same day is $429)
- 4 Day Ticket – $492 (same day is $80)
- 5 Day Ticket – $605 (same day is $715)
- 6 Day Ticket – $714 (same day is $858)
- 7 Day Ticket – $819 (same day is $1,001)
The multi-day tickets are for consecutive days only and will expire on your last day. For example, if you buy a 3 day ticket for December 1, your ticket will last until December 3.
There is also the option to purchase an Epic 1-day pass. An Epic Day Pass allows you to:
- Choose from 1 – 7 days and visit throughout the season
- Choose access to a group of 22, 32 or all 38 owned and operated North American and European resorts
- Unlocks Epic Mountain Rewards such as 20% off food, lodging, rentals & more
An Epic Day Pass is a great choice if you know you want to go on a ski trip this season but you’re not sure which resort you want to go to and how many days you want to ski. It allows you to ski at one or multiple ski resorts in the Epic network on days you can choose closer to the start of the season for a cheaper price. If you’re interested in multiple days of skiing or visiting multiple resorts, check out the Epic website to learn more about their other passes. I always buy an Epic Day Pass as there’s absolutely no downside – it’s the more flexible, cost-effective choice compared to a resort-specific ticket.
Take the Heavenly Gondola
You don’t have to ski in order to witness the panoramic views of Lake Tahoe. Instead, you can enjoy breathtaking views of South Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains during the 2.4 mile ride. You’ll be able to stop at the Observation Deck, where you can enjoy the views while drinking a warm cup of coffee from Cafe Blue. Gondola tickets are $63 for adults.
Ice Skate at Heavenly Village
Iceskating is another activity you can do at Heavenly that isn’t skiing. Every winter, Heavenly Village sets up an open rink in the heart of town. For just $20, you can skate on the ice while surrounded by the lovely winter ambiance of town.
Aprés Ski Scene
Heavenly Village is one of the most developed ski towns in Lake Tahoe and comes alive in the evening. You’ll find skiers fresh off the mountain indulging in food and drinks at the village after their last runs. You can find the complete list of events, restaurants, and bars here.
However, if you’re like me, nothing sounds better after a day of skiing than coming back to the hotel, eating hotpot, and relaxing in the hot tub.
Day 2 – Explore South Lake Tahoe
One option for your second day in Tahoe is to rinse and repeat Day 1. You can choose to spend another day at Heavenly or head over to another one of Tahoe’s ski resorts. Other local favorites are Kirkwood, Northstar, Palisades (formerly Squaw and the home of the 1960 Winter Olympics), and Sierra-at-Tahoe.
Visit Emerald Bay
Spend a day at Emerald Bay and visit Vikingsholm Castle, Emerald Bay Beach, and hike around the bay. There are a number of well-marked trails for all fitness levels, all of which come with gorgeous views of the lake. If you’re looking for a 3+ mile hike and want to spend a few hours in the area, the Emerald Bay Viewpoint Trail is perfect. Be sure to get there earlier in the morning (before 10:00 AM) to get a parking spot and avoid the crowds.
Go to the beach
Visit any one of Lake Tahoe’s beaches to get gorgeous views of the lake’s sapphire blue waters and the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas. If you’re going for the views, you can likely pick from any of Tahoe’s beaches. I’ve always defaulted to the beach that was closest to me and haven’t been disappointed.
Stop into a Casino
Head back towards Heavenly Village and cross over to the stateline, where you’ll find a row of casinos. On the Nevada side, you can take the slot machines for a spin or try your luck at the cards table.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is Lake Tahoe worth visiting in winter? 100%. As a native Californian, Tahoe is the closest thing I have to a winter wonderland. Plus, there’s few other places where you’ll get lots of snow, sunshine, and other views besides the mountain.
- What should you not miss in Lake Tahoe? There’s a reason people come to Tahoe for skiing or snowboarding and that’s because the resorts are fantastic. No matter which resort you pick, you’ll find smooth runs, tons of lifts, and ski town vibes.
- Is Lake Tahoe worth visiting for non-skiers? This may be controversial but I’d honestly say no. If you absolutely 100% don’t want to spend any time at the ski resort, then I think there are other places in the country or around the world where you have more options to do non-skiing/snowboarding things.
- Where is the best place to stay in Lake Tahoe? If you’re looking for maximum comfort, then staying near Heavenly Village is your best choice. Food, nightlife, and grocery stores will be within walking distance. If you’re fine with AirBnb, then I’d also recommend any place in Lake Valley. Lake Valley is close to Heavenly so you’re not too far from the Village but you’ll also be able close enough to the lake such that you can walk around and enjoy the winter scenery.
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