One of the biggest (12 miles wide, 22 miles long, and 72 miles of coastline) and deepest (over 1,000 feet in places) lakes in the country, straddling the Nevada/California border at 6,220 feet above sea level, Lake Tahoe is a beautiful sight from any angle—from the crest of the alpine peaks surrounding it, from a car or bicycle as you cruise along the shoreline roads, or from a boat out on the lake itself.
Sitting, as the name suggests, at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, the ungainly resort community of South Lake Tahoe is a place of multiple personalities. On the California side, low-rise motels line the US-50 frontage, and the atmosphere is that of a family-oriented summer resort, with bike-rental stands and T-shirt shops clogging the roadside. Across the Nevada border, glitzy 20-story casinos rise up in a sudden wall of concrete and glass, ignoring the surrounding beauty in favor of round-the-clock “adult fun”—gambling, fine dining, racy nightclub revues, and more gambling. A few strategically placed pine trees work hard to retain a semblance of the natural splendor, but in peak summer season it’s a very busy stretch of road, on both sides of the state line.
To get away from it all, head along Hwy-89 around the west side of the lake to the magnificent state parks around Emerald Bay. Acres of shoreline forest and numerous mansions built as summer resorts back around the turn of the 20th century, like the Tallac Historic Site (530/541-5227, $5-15), three miles west of US-50, have been preserved and are open for tours. In winter, the Tahoe area turns into an extremely popular ski resort—Heavenly (775/586-7000) on the south shore and Squaw Valley (530/583-6985) in the north are among the largest and busiest ski areas in the United States; both have sightseeing chair lifts in summer.
Despite the lake’s great popularity, year-round prices for Tahoe accommodations can be surprisingly low; with a Best Western Station House Inn (530/542-1101) and dozens of others to choose from, you shouldn’t have trouble finding something suitable. For a carb-loading breakfast, head to the circa-1959 Red Hut Waffle Shop (2723 Lake Tahoe Blvd., 530/541-9024) on US-50. Red Hut has three other locations along US-50 in South Lake Tahoe, but this is the original.