Here in Northern California there is an ongoing debate: What is the best season in Lake Tahoe: Summer or Winter? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll go to Tahoe any chance I can, but I just can’t get enough of it in the summer. We try to spend at least one week in Tahoe every summer and it’s really not enough time! Here are some of our favorite summer highlights!
Five Lakes Hike
Do you have any memories from your childhood that you look back on as a great moment or experience, but you wonder now, was it really that great or am I glorifying it? I hiked the Five Lakes Trail in Tahoe with my dad & sister when I was about 10 years old and I remembered it as “the best hike in Tahoe”. This is how I positioned it to my kids when I told them we were going to do it.
The trail is 4.7 miles roundtrip and we found it to be very family friendly and well-marked. The trailhead is on Alpine Meadows Road and there was plenty of parking along the road on a busy summer day. I downloaded the Alltrails app to my phone and we used that to direct us to the trailhead. We also found it useful later in the hike when we got a little turned around and the GPS directed us right back where we needed to be
The first mile is the hardest and it is all uphill, however the views are amazing and rewarding. Alpine Meadows Ski Resort is just a little dot in the background.
Once we reached Granite Chief Wilderness it was smooth sailing. The trail flattened out and provided more shade. Everyone we passed assured us we were “almost there”.
The kids loved the lake reward at the top! It was a hot day and they jumped right into the water which was refreshing, but surprisingly warm considering it’s fed by the snowmelt. We were not the only ones enjoying the lakes, but there was plenty of space to find a spot just for ourselves.
After the hike, we stopped at River Ranch for an early dinner and snagged a table on the deck overlooking the river. There were lots of people swimming around in the water so our kids finished their dinner quickly and then went swimming while Mike & I finished up (and maybe ordered another drink).
The hike to Five Lakes was as great as I had remembered – and the stop at River Ranch afterwards was the perfect ending to our day.
Kayaking on Lake Tahoe
We’ve really enjoyed kayaking recently because it’s something we can all do as a family. In Kauai, we kayaked on a nice easy river where we each got to paddle our own kayak, but out on Lake Tahoe where the water can be a bit more choppy we doubled up for extra strength. Although one of us gets stuck in a single and I’ve actually decided that I like it to be me because not everyone always pulls their own weight in a double!
We booked a guided tour, but this isn’t really necessary. I was initially intrigued by theThunderbird Lodge Kayak Tour run by Tahoe Adventure Company. A 1.5 mile kayak to the Lodge and then a tour of the Whittle Estate and then through a 600′ underground tunnel to a boathouse. It sounded fun, but then I learned the minimum age was 12 (the Lodge’s rule) so instead we went with a tour along the coastline to a beach for lunch, skipped rocks and swam, and then paddled back stopping for a swim in the middle of lake.
We could have easily rented kayaks and gone out on our own, but it’s always fun to learn some new facts about the area from a local guide AND they brought our lunch and set it up for us on the beach which was a nice win.
Shirley Canyon Trail
This trail was recommended to us because of the waterfalls. With all the snow Tahoe received last winter, the waterfalls were flowing in full force. Shirley Canyon Trail, located near the base of Squaw Valley, is 4 miles out & back (if you turn around at Shirley Lake) and is fairly challenging. Our plan was to take a leisurely hike, enjoy the waterfalls, and then turn around when we were ready. A little bit into our hike, we decided to hike all the way to the top and ride the Squaw Valley gondola back down to base camp.
One challenging part of this hike was staying on the trail. There were blue markings along the way that were fairly obvious, but a couple of times we strayed a bit from the marked trail. It was easy to make our way back – only once did I need to bring out the Alltrails app with GPS to make sure we were going in the right direction. Throughout the hike, there were rocks & boulders to climb up & over, but about an hour into our hike, we came across an enormous granite wall that we had to climb up. This was the second challenging part of the hike. It was strenuous – and my arms & legs were feeling it the next day. Although there were plenty of kids on the trail, the number of kids tapered off the farther we went. Once we got to this “wall”, I was convinced the only way to get back down was on the gondola as I think it could be dangerous to go back down (especially with kids). The gondola runs daily during the summer (last ride down around 4:45pm) and is free to hikers. The gondola schedule is posted at the trailhead.
About three-quarters of the way to the top, we finally came across Shirley Lake. To the left of the photo below is the bottom of the Shirley Lake Express chairlift at Squaw Valley. After all our hiking, we were happy to stop and play for a bit in this spot.
The final stretch to the top is a series of tough switchbacks following the Shirley Lake Express chairlift and we took a lot of breaks. It was hot and we were so tired. But when we got to the top and saw Lake Tahoe peaking through in the distance we were all amazed at how far we had hiked. We made our way over to High Camp and enjoyed a cookie and the view! Since we hiked past Shirley Lake all the way to High Camp, I’m not sure what our final mileage actually was – probably around 3 – 3.5 miles and an elevation gain of about 2,000′.
Gondola & Swimming at Squaw Valley
Instead of hiking to the top, the more popular option is to just ride the gondola. There’s a restaurant, a pool, an outdoor roller skating rink, some lawn games, and of course trails to hike at the top. We’ve taken the gondola up in the past when the kids were younger.
Just beware that the temperature at the top can be significantly cooler than at Base Camp. When we were there this summer it was warm and we didn’t need jackets, but back in 2011 it was chilly and the kids stuck mostly to the hot tub!
Tahoe Treetop has several ropes courses in Tahoe. We chose the location in Tahoe Vista for one big reason: they do not have a height requirement so all five of us could do the same courses together. Originally I was only familiar with their course in Tahoe City where they do have both a minimum age & height requirement. Our 7-year-old was not tall enough to go on the more advanced course and our 10 & 12-year-olds were too big to go on the smaller course. At Tahoe Vista, the minimum age is 5, but a 7-year-old can go on all courses, even the most advanced. This is because they have a constant belay system set up. So once clipped onto the course, there is no clipping & unclipping which makes it much safer for little ones. Since our 7-year-old is a daredevil this worked out great for us and our entire family did all 7 zip line courses which included over 30 zip lines and 40 events (like the hanging pyramids & swinging logs below).
There was only one obstacle that gave our 7-year-old pause – three hanging rock walls that he had to climb across and transfer from one wall to the next (this was on the most advanced course). He got about halfway through the first one and tried to turn around. Luckily there were plenty of instructors on the ground to walk him through the steps to get from one wall to the next. Our mistake was letting him go first (the one and only time we did this!) so he had no one to watch as an example. The rest of us benefitted from what the instructor told him. And we all made it through!
The hike to Sawmill Lake is a relatively easy 2.3 miles roundtrip. The trailhead is located at the top of the Big Springs Gondola at Northstar. We encountered a few other hikers, but mostly had the trail and the lake to ourselves. There are informational signs posted along the trail with fun facts about Lake Tahoe, like “How was Lake Tahoe formed?” and “How many pounds of food does a bear eat each day?”
There was nothing that said we couldn’t swim in the lake, but the water was a bit murky so the kids kept to dipping their toes in only. They spent a long time testing their jumping skills from rock to rock and then they each laid claim to particular “rock kingdoms” and kept themselves entertained.
This was the easiest of all the hikes we went on and very family friendly. We were staying at the Ritz Carlton at the base of this hike which made accessing the trail very easy for us.
Rafting on the Truckee
Unfortunately for us, the water level on the Truckee River was too low while we were there (not for lack of water, but because they were controlling the water flow) so none of the rafting companies were operating (although they started up again the day after we left). Rafting the Truckee is always on our summer list, but this year we had to skip it. Anyone with a personal raft or inner tube could obviously float down the river (and it was actually quite crowded!), but we didn’t have any and didn’t want to purchase anything so we skipped it this year. This is something I highly recommend though – the river is very calm and there are plenty of places to stop along the way to swim & picnic.
The Kids’ Favorite Things
They loved the ropes course; kayaking on Lake Tahoe; hiking to Five Lakes and swimming; and climbing around the rocks and waterfalls, and having stick races in the water on our Shirley Lake hike. They also really enjoyed eating dinner at Cottonwood and Sunnyside.
The Kids’ Least Favorite Things
While they liked each individual hike we did, they felt that we had packed too many hikes into our trip (which is probably a fair statement). They also wished we had spent more time on the actual lake and asked if we can go tubing next time.
We stayed at the Constellation Residences at The Ritz at Northstar. Normally we rent a cabin when we go to Tahoe, but we bid on a week at The Ritz at a charity auction which we needed to use this summer! We had stayed here once before during the winter for skiing, and we have used the spa & restaurants, but we had never stayed here during the summer and were excited to check it out.
The hotel property is extremely kid friendly with games (huge connect four, jenga, bocce ball, frisbee golf) set up on the lawns, noodles & floats at the pool, kid menus in all the restaurants, and a Kid’s Club. We used everything except for the Kid’s Club. And our kids’ favorite was the complementary s’mores by the fire pits every evening.
If you’re a hotel person, this is a great option. For summer stays in Tahoe we still prefer renting a cabin with a yard/deck so the kids have more freedom to run around and we can BBQ dinner. We were out & about every day and the only parking option at The Ritz was valet which made retrieving our car a hassle (and expensive). However, The Ritz will definitely be at the top of my list for our next winter stay. The ski concierge at the bottom of the building with ski-in/ski-out is worth it alone. I don’t like worrying about road conditions or lugging equipment back & forth to the ski resort daily.
There are so many amazing options for dining out in Lake Tahoe. Here are a few of our favorites!
Fire Sign – Tahoe City – usually a wait, go early.
Marty’s Cafe (Truckee) – The wait can be long, but the service was quick once we were seated. They had complementary coffee while we waited on the front porch.
Cottonwood – In summer, ask for a table out on the deck with views overlooking downtown Truckee.
Jax At The Tracks – A cute little diner car in downtown Truckee with surprisingly good food. We went because it was a cool looking diner, but it has been featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” with Guy Fieri. It’s also open for breakfast & lunch which I’m sure would also be good.
Sunnyside – The deck is very crowded during summer and is quite a scene, but the views of the lake are spectacular. The deck is first come first served, but at 2pm they begin shutting down part of the deck for dinner reservations beginning at 5:30. We tried the deck around 4pm one day and it was a 2 hour wait. So we came back another day with dinner reservations and got a great spot on the deck (without a hassle!). The kids walked down the stairs to the beach and skipped rocks while Mike & I enjoyed another cocktail.
Jake’s On The Lake – Great views right in Tahoe City
Little Truckee Ice Creamery – We searched for “the best ice cream” and found this place. It was a little out of our way near Donner Lake, but we all agreed it was worth the detour! Hand made and non-dairy options available. I had the Coconut Chip and it was delicious!
Do you have any favorites that I didn’t include? Let me know in the comments! We’re always looking for new things to check out!