5 best road trips in Lake Tahoe

In Lake Tahoe, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada rise above turquoise waters so clear you can peer more than 70 feet below the surface. In winter, skiers prize the Tahoe Basin’s 14 ski areas, while in summer, people flock to beaches, hiking and biking trails. Perhaps the best time to visit Lake Tahoe is the shoulder seasons in spring and fall when the region is less crowded and hotel rooms are more affordable. 

In addition to its natural beauty, Lake Tahoe’s location is within driving distance of many of the best destinations in California and Nevada. In other words, Lake Tahoe is the ideal base for scenic drives and road trips. To inspire you, we’ve rounded up our picks for the best road trips in Lake Tahoe.

1. The Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive

Best road trip for scenery

Start and end at whim; 72 miles, 3 hours 

The best road trip for scenery in Lake Tahoe circumnavigates the lake via US 50, NV 28, and US 89. Start in Stateline and dive into the surreal experience of driving through a strip of high-rise casinos glimmering against the backdrop of the wilderness. Next, follow the route clockwise to Taylor Creek Visitor Center, where you can stroll along the wheelchair-accessible Rainbow Trail and meander down to dog-friendly Kiva Beach.

Up next on your itinerary is D.L. Bliss State Park, home to the highest-elevation lighthouse in the United States; from there, continue uphill to Emerald Bay State Park. Even if you don’t hike down to Vikingsholm Castle, it’s worth stopping here for vistas of tiny Fannette Island, the only island on the lake. 

Wind along the shoreline past Homewood to Carnellian Bay, where you can stop for lunch with a view at Gar Woods Grill and Pier, one of only a few true waterfront restaurants on the lake (famous for a colorful frozen drink cheekily named the Wet Woody). Afterward, swing by Magic Carpet Golf and Arcade for a round of mini golf. Continue driving to Tahoe City to explore charming shops and boutiques before you make your way to Incline Village. 

Make a short detour in Incline Village to check out Bowl Incline, an entertainment center with bowling, axe throwing, billiards and an arcade. The attached Sam Choy’s Ohana Diner is the best place for poke bowls in Lake Tahoe. Continue to Sand Harbor State Park, famous for its golden sand beaches, turquoise water and smooth, mammoth boulders.

Before you return to Stateline, you’ll travel through the world-famous Cave Rock Tunnel, which passes through a mountainous volcanic rock formation long held sacred to the region’s Indigenous Washoe people.  On the other side, explore more beaches and hiking trails at Zephyr Cove. 

Expert tip: Although this route is gorgeous in winter, the drive is not advisable in snowy or icy conditions. Wait until the roads are clear. You’ll likely encounter heavy traffic around the lake in summer, especially on weekends.

Dawn in Reno, Nevada
The road to and from Reno makes for a gorgeous drive © 4kodiak / Getty Images

2. Incline Village to Reno 

Best short road trip

Mount Rose Highway; 37 miles, 45 minutes

No visit to Lake Tahoe would be complete without a stop in Reno. This Lake Tahoe road trip starts with a scenic driving route on the Mountain Rose Highway. At the summit, you’ll see Tahoe Meadows to your right, and you’ll find a long boardwalk that winds through a meadow that delivers views of seasonal wildflowers and alpine scenery. If you continue into the woods, follow the signs marked “Tahoe Rim Trail” up to breathtaking vistas of Lake Tahoe. This area is known as Chickadee Ridge, which earned it the moniker from a population of mountain chickadees who nibble birdseed from your hand. Parking is free along the side of the road.

When you reach Reno, park near the Riverwalk where you can stroll along the Truckee River. The area is home to casinos with cool, vintage signage and the famous Reno Arch, which proudly boasts that Reno is the biggest little city in the world. The sidewalks of downtown Reno are brimming with public art, from the murals of Midtown to large-scale Burning Man sculptures (the most famous, Space Whale, is particularly dazzling when it lights up at night). Other must-see attractions include the Nevada Museum of Art and the National Automobile Museum. 

Before you head back to Lake Tahoe, stop by the Peppermill Resort, Spa, and Casino to treat yourself to all-you-can-eat sushi at Oceano, followed by a cocktail in the plush, retro Fireside Lounge.

Passing through the Virginia City mines on top of a yellow steam locomotive
Learn all about the mining and railroad history of Virginia City © alexroch / Shutterstock

3. South Lake Tahoe to Virginia City 

Best road trip for quirky fun

US 50; 43 miles, 1 hour 

Dramatic orange hills flank the winding highway up to the historic mining town of Virginia City. Keep your eyes peeled for wild horses, which can almost always seen grazing alongside the road. Virginia City dates back to 1859, and it was a booming metropolis with a population of 25,000 after the discovery of the Comstock Lode. Today, Virginia City is a delightful combination of touristy and authentic experiences. Wood plank sidewalks, historic buildings and old-time saloons line the street, and locals frequently dress in vintage garb. You can spend an entire day wandering into watering holes and souvenir shops. Activities shedding light on Virginia City’s history include exploring Piper’s Opera House,  touring the Chollar Mine  and riding a steam locomotive on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad.  

Virginia City is one of the quirkiest small towns in the country, as evidenced by annual events like the World Championships Outhouse Races, the International Camel and Ostrich Races and the Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry. 

Experience stunning scenery and learn about the region’s history in Donner Memorial Park © Jared Alden / Getty Images

4. Truckee to El Dorado County

Best California road trip 

US  I-80 West; 94 miles, 2 hours  

Start your Lake Tahoe to El Dorado County road trip in Truckee. The historic railroad town is packed with restaurants, breweries, shops, and galleries. Be sure to stop by the Donner Memorial Park Visitor Center to learn more about the area’s history, which includes the Indigenous Washoe people, the plight of the infamous Donner Party and the laborers who built the transcontinental railroad.

Next, head to Placerville to immerse yourself in California’s fascinating gold rush history. Placerville’s historic Main Street is overflowing with beautifully preserved 19th-century architecture housing art galleries, antique shops, restaurants and museums. Next, drive five minutes to the El Dorado County Historical Museum to learn about the area’s Indigenous history, the early days of the gold rush and the El Dorado Western Railroad. After you’ve had your fill, make your way up Apple Hill, where you’ll find farm stands, orchards and vineyards like the lovely Boeger Winery. When you return to Truckee, head up the mountain to the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe to cap your evening with a drink next to the stunning 55-foot fireplace.

5. South Lake Tahoe to Genoa 

Best short road trip for history buffs

NV 207; 20 miles, 35 minutes

Genoa is Nevada’s oldest non-Native settlement, founded by Mormon pioneers as a trading station in 1850. Historic homes, Victorian bed and breakfasts and 19th-century buildings infuse this tiny town with oodles of charm. Top attractions include The Pink House, located in the town’s oldest building. The eatery hosts live music on the weekends and a Monday-Friday happy hour with drink specials and half-price pizzas.

You can also sidle up to the bar at Nevada’s oldest watering hole. Genoa Bar was established in 1853 and the saloon is everything you hope it would be, with a brick exterior and an antique counter and mirror dating back to the 1800s. History buffs should stop by the Genoa Courthouse Museum, the historic Genoa Cemetary and Mormon Station State Historic Park, which features artifacts from the pioneers and a replica of the original trading post.

Keep planning your Lake Tahoe trip:

Soak up some sun at the 5 best accessible beaches in Lake Tahoe
Figure out the best time to visit with Best time to visit Lake Tahoe
Experience Tahoe on a budget with Lake Tahoe’s can’t-miss experiences that cost next to nothing
Don’t miss a thing with Top things to do in Lake Tahoe

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