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Tour the Lake Tahoe Basin

Facts, Stats, and Lake Tahoe Driving Tour


Fannette Island in Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, USA
Stuart Dee/Photodisc/Getty Images

About Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is not an ancient volcanic caldera like Crater Lake. It was formed by the movement of fault blocks. In addition to fractures in the Earth's crust, today's Lake Tahoe Basin was shaped by glaciers and is enclosed by the Sierra Nevada to its west and the Carson Range to its east.

Politically speaking, Lake Tahoe is in both Nevada and California, with about one third being in Nevada (east shore and half the north shore). Washoe, Carson City, and Douglas Counties share the Nevada portion. From Reno and Sparks, access to the north shore at Incline Village is up the Mt. Rose Highway (Nevada 431).

Forests in the Lake Tahoe Basin were literally clear-cut during the Comstock mining boom. From its initial discovery in 1859 till things slowed down toward the end of the century, timber for shoring up the mines and for fuel was shipped to the Comstock as fast as it could be cut. Once the destruction was halted, the forest came back to what we see today.

Driving Around Lake Tahoe

Approach driving around the Lake (that's how locals refer to Tahoe, like San Francisco is the City) as a leisurely tour. We're talking narrow and twisty mountain roads, steep drop-offs, and lots of traffic during the summer tourist season. There are, however, plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view, take a hike, or have a picnic. Much of the shoreline is public (though not all), with parks, beaches, swimming areas, and other attractions. It's 72 miles around and takes three hours if you don't do anything but drive. Since no one can do that, I'd plan on a whole day to really enjoy a place like no other.

Getting to Lake Tahoe

There are five main roads up to the Lake. I will start our tour by taking the Mt. Rose Highway (Nevada 431) from its intersection with S. Virginia Street (by the Summit Sierra mall) up to Incline Village. It's about 35 miles from Reno.

Book Lake Tahoe Tours and Activities

Visiting the Lake Tahoe area is lots more fun if you do something special. Here are some tours and activities to make your Lake Tahoe sojourn a truly memorable experience.

Lake Tahoe Helicopter Tours

Lake Tahoe Water Sports Winter Fun at Lake Tahoe

Incline Village to Tahoe City

At the intersection in Incline Village, turn right onto highway 28. At Crystal Bay, you cross the state line and enter Kings Beach, CA, then motor through Tahoe Vista, Carnelian Bay and arrive at Tahoe City. The drive from Incline Village to Tahoe City is about 15 miles. This is a developed area with lots of private shoreline, though there is public access to the water at spots like Kings Beach Recreation Area. If you want to bail out, U.S. 89 at Tahoe City goes north to Squaw Valley, Truckee, and I80. California 267 from Kings Beach also goes to Truckee.

Tahoe City to Emerald Bay

Continue south from Tahoe City 18 miles to Emerald Bay. You will pass through Homewood, Tahoma, and Meeks Bay. As you approach Emerald Bay, the road becomes more twisty and hugs the mountainside above the Lake. Stop at one of several parking areas around Emerald Bay for one of the most spectacular vistas anywhere on this drive. The area around Emerald Bay is a state park with camping and hiking. You can walk down to lake level and tour Vikingsholm, a former private estate built as a reproduction of what rich Vikings would have had. I've done the tour and it's worth the time.

Emerald Bay to Stateline

The road around Emerald Bay is really steep and has a number of hairpin turns. Take it easy here and watch for wandering tourists looking at the views and not looking for traffic. Back down by the Lake you will come to a private campground/resort at Camp Richardson and shortly thereafter enter the city of South Lake Tahoe. At the intersection locals call the Y, turn left onto U.S. 50 (Lake Tahoe Blvd.). If you turn right, 50 will take you over the Sierra at Echo Summit and all the way to Sacramento. Head east on the long strip through town, eventually arriving at Stateline, NV. You will see the hotels and casinos long before you get there, beacons urging you back into Nevada. You have come 15 miles from Emerald Bay. If you want to leave the Lake Tahoe Basin at this point, turn right at the Kingsbury Grade (Nevada 207) about a mile past the casinos. This route hairpins up to the Sierra crest, then plunges down the east side to Minden and Gardnerville in the Carson Valley. It's steep on both sides and not recommended if you are pulling a trailer or driving a big motorhome.

Stateline to Spooner Junction

Stateline to Spooner Junction is a slow 13 miles. From the Y it's been a four-lane road, but traffic is heavy and you pass through the Lake's most populated and congested area. North of Stateline, Zephyr Cove is a busy resort area with camping, public lake access, and is home port to the M.S. Dixie II paddlewheeler. Further north at Glenbrook, U.S. 50 turns east away from the Lake and climbs to Spooner Junction, the intersection with Nevada 28.

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