California is known worldwide for its sunshine and beaches. However, many people don’t realize the vast mountain terrain and snowfall that California has! South Lake Tahoe in winter time is a certainly a sight to behold. It looks like something out of Frozen!
Lake Tahoe is a massive lake that lies in both California and Nevada. The Southern portion of the lake is referred to as South Lake Tahoe and very popular for all of the skiing and snowboarding on Heavenly Mountain. It is about 190 miles northeast of San Francisco, CA sitting atop the Stanislaus National Forest. South Lake Tahoe in winter is probably just as busy as it is the rest of the year! It is truly a year-round destination.
Unless your vehicle is a 4-wheel drive, you definitely want to have tire chains in your car. The road conditions in South Lake Tahoe in winter can change quickly, and they may be required for you to be able to drive on the freeways. To get updated information about road conditions, you can visit the CalTrans website here and enter the number of the highway you are driving on. If you are in South Lake Tahoe, it will most likely be the 50 or the 89.
Day One: Heavenly Village, Gondola, Lakeside Beach, Harrah’s Casino
Heavenly Village is a popular area in South Lake Tahoe in winter time. The area is bustling with skiers, snowboarders and families who just want to sled and enjoy the snow! There are plenty of shops that people refer to as the Shops at Heavenly Village. There are many shops that sell clothing and gear for skiers and snowboarders, shops to rent your gear at, and regular boutiques and candy shops. It is a lot of fun to walk around and purchase a few things. There are also plenty of amazing restaurants in Heavenly Village to try! I will share a bit more about them below.
The Gondola in Heavenly Village
One of the things I read the most raving reviews about was the gondola ride up to Heavenly Mountain. It is the same cable car that the skiers and snowboarders take up, but it stops first at an observation deck, which is a lookout point that overlooks all of Lake Tahoe! I was prepared for it to be expensive from what I read, but apparently winter time prices are sky high. We ended up paying about $64.00 per person, which was higher than anything I read.
I agree that the view was amazing and so worth it if you love nature and great views (that is everyone….right?), but it was seriously overpriced. I would do it once, but I would not drop this kind of dough every visit. The good news is, it sounds like the prices drop significantly when it is not winter time in South Lake Tahoe!
It is also very cold up at the observation deck because of the altitude. Thankfully, there is little Blue Café to provide you hot chocolate and coffee, as well as plenty of tables and benches to sit at. We spent about a half hour up here and enjoyed some hot chocolate before moving on.
When you get back on to the gondola, you will get to the very top where all of the skiers and snowboarders get off to get to the trails. Unless you are going to ski or snowboard, it really isn’t necessary to get off here. We were curious though and walked around. Again, we were pretty cold, so we got back on the gondola and went down the mountain after about 10 minutes!
My sweet husband had left his thick jacket in the car, not realizing how cold the mountain would be so he was eager to go rest at our hotel for a little while where it was warm. I will write another post about our stay at Basecamp Hotel in South Lake Tahoe, but let me just say here that I really enjoyed it and recommend it!
After resting for about twenty minutes and warming up, we left to wander around by the lake, seeing if we could find any entrance to get to the water. Lucky us, there was an entrance to Lakeside Beach just half a mile from our hotel! This is a great free beach to access in South Lake Tahoe in winter time.
Normally this beach is very busy in the summer with all the lake activities. When we arrived, there was nearly no one there. The sand was completely covered in about three feet of snow until you get right to the edge of the water. The sand was probably visible because of the changes in tides throughout the day and night.
We hung out at Lakeside Beach taking pictures and playing in the snow for about an hour. It didn’t cost us anything to get in, so it makes for a great free activity!
So I know gambling isn’t for everyone and it is definitely not child appropriate, but Harrah’s is a pretty low-key, clean casino. My husband had not been to a casino in America yet (or any, ever), so he was pretty excited to see what all the hype was about. We walked around looking at all the “slot machines” that aren’t actually slots anymore, and the poker and blackjack players. I have to say it was a pretty calm Saturday night and we lost a solid forty dollars at the slot machines! My husband wanted to keep playing, but I said no we had wasted more than enough money already. They do serve free alcohol, so at least we both got to enjoy a free beer!
Check out this guide to Glamping in Washington State by DQ Travel!
Day Two: Snow Tubing, Sledding, or Skiing/Snowboarding, Emerald Bay
I am not a skier or snowboarder, both sports actually terrify me because I am afraid of heights and flying down a mountain very fast just doesn’t sound fun. BUT, I know many people do love these sports, so the best advice I can give is- start early! The Gondola opens around 8 AM and the lift tickets can cost about $125.00 or more.
If you still want to play in the snow, some great alternatives are sledding, snow tubing or even snow shoeing. We checked out Hansen’s Resort, where we saw families rent inflatable donuts to tube down the mountain for an hour. They charge 20$ for the hour and it looked like a great family activity. It seemed unnecessary though, so we decided to keep walking up Ski Run Rd. to see what else people were doing up there. At the end of the road, we saw a sign that read “Open House.” People were bringing their own sleds and sledding down the hill. Kids were playing in the snow. It was fun to watch and after walking around for a little while headed back to our car.
Sadly, the dates we were in South Lake Tahoe, the part of the 89 freeway that leads to Emerald Bay was closed. I was disappointed because this activity was very high on my list, but alas, this is just part of the travel experience. You can plan, and sometimes those plans just aren’t going to work out. I still want to add it to the list though, because we would have visited that day if the roads were open.
Leaving South Lake Tahoe
There is really only one way in and out of South Lake Tahoe, which is the 50 freeway. Because of the traffic lights, getting out can take a while, so add an extra hour or three to what your trip would usually be if you are planning to leave Tahoe on a Sunday afternoon/evening.
Restaurants in South Lake Tahoe
Gunbarrel Tavern & Eatery
Gunbarrel Tavern & Eatery is located within Heavenly Village right underneath the gondola. It has all the hipster and snowboarder vibes that the village has and the servers were all very kind. I opted for tacos and my husband got a burger! It was a great place for lunch and they had a pretty solid looking happy hour with 3$ beers and 5$ nachos! I’d go back here again. Check em out on Facebook!
Ten Crows BBQ
We had dinner here and boy, was this barbeque something else. They had live music playing and the restaurant was packed. I ordered trip-tip with a side of mac&cheese and coleslaw. My husband ordered ribs with a side of mashed potatoes and coleslaw. I think we both agreed that I need to learn how to make coleslaw! This barbeque was incredible and one of the best I have ever had. I am heading to Austin, TX next month so… yeah, I would say the bar has been set pretty high Texas. What you got? Check out Ten Crows on Facebook!
Overall, we had a dream of a weekend exploring South Lake Tahoe in winter time and I hope these tips were helpful! Have you ever been to Lake Tahoe? Tell me about your experience in the comments!
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