Living in the California Bay Area means taking Lake Tahoe winter trips is somewhat of a regular requirement. Every year for the past 7 years, we’ve rounded up a group of our friends, piled them into 2 cars, and headed into the Sierra Nevadas for a weekend of snowy fun that typically involves snowboarding and hot tubbing.
It’s an annual tradition that we’ve come to enjoy so much we’ve begun to schedule Lake Tahoe trips 2-3 times per ski season instead of just one. And we’re not the only ones: some of our ski-bum friends go in on a seasonal vacation rental and head up to Tahoe nearly every single weekend, all winter long.
So are we all, like, millionaires? Not at all. Although Lake Tahoe has a reputation for being pricey, it absolutely does NOT have to be – if you know how to plan it, that is. But despite Lake Tahoe being super close by and totally affordable on a limited budget, we’re still always surprised by the number of people we meet here who have never been to Lake Tahoe. Y’all: it is TIME.
So we’ve created the guide we wished we could have read when we moved here almost 10 years ago, with ALL the things you need to know about planning a Lake Tahoe winter trip on a budget.
Looking for more awesome snowy getaways and winter sports wonderlands? Check out some of our other posts:
- The Best Salt Lake City Ski Resorts
- 12 Epic Things to Do in Banff, Canada in the Winter
- Weekend Getaway Guide to Park City, Utah
We also have a Podcast episode all about Tahoe! Towering pine trees, ancient granite cliffs, crystal clear water, cannibalistic pioneers… wait, what? Strap on your snow goggles and come along as we cover the macabre past and enchanting present of this alpine paradise with more ghosts than you can shake a ski pole at.
Listen above or just click here to launch your Podcast app! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes.
Things Nobody Tells You About Lake Tahoe in the Winter
Before we took our first trip to Lake Tahoe, the entire area felt like one big, mysterious question mark. People who visit Lake Tahoe do so often, and tend to assume everyone else does too. But it can feel incredibly confusing if you’ve never been!
So now that we’ve officially become Those People who visit Tahoe like 12 times per year in every season, we want to let you in on some of the things nobody told us before we started visiting.
Driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe is like a giant, communal road trip.
When Tahoe gets snow, the entire Bay Area hops in their cars and caravans out to Lake Tahoe like clockwork. The massive traffic jam out of the Bay Area starts at 3pm on Friday afternoon and lasts until about 7pm.
If you leave at any point during this time, you will arrive in Lake Tahoe at exactly the same time as a car full of Oaklanders leaving at 8pm. Facts. We’ve timed it. It’s the weirdest thing.
On Sunday, the traffic flows much more freely throughout the day… until about an hour outside of the city. Then it all piles up again.
Everyone stops at the In ‘N Out in Davis on the way to Lake Tahoe.
The entire Bay Area breaks up their drive at this one In ‘N Out. It is a Lake Tahoe road trip tradition.
And honestly, it’s kinda fun to walk into an In ‘N Out and see it filled with other Bay Area types wearing various levels of ski and snowboarding apparel and talking about the snow conditions (plus a bunch of irritated college kids judging all of us, because this is also the UC Davis In ‘N Out).
Lake Tahoe is never as cold as you’d think it would be.
It’s the weirdest thing: it never feels very cold in Tahoe. You can be standing knee-deep in the snow, catching snowflakes on your tongue, and it’ll still be like, 50 degrees out. You’ll see people snowboarding in ski pants and t-shirts.
So, no need to layer up like crazy if you’ll be spending the day outside! You’ll be just fine in like, the bare minimum winter clothes.
This is honestly great for us Bay Area dwellers for two reasons: 1) none of us own actual winter clothing and 2) we all usually hop in a car to head to Lake Tahoe right after work, and end up on our hands and knees in the snow putting chains on in our work-appropriate flats and flimsy cardigans.
Even though it’s not that cold, the weather can still change on a moment’s notice.
You’re still in the mountains, which means you need to expect mountain conditions. Snow can pile up in the blink of an eye. Driving conditions can change in a minute. You can be snowboarding on a bluebird day one minute and in white-out conditions the next (which Jeremy has experienced first hand).
Weather changes are far more likely after dark. We recommend staying pretty close to your cabin after about 5pm so that a freak snowstorm feels cozy and exciting rather than scary and nerve-wracking!
There’s always a high probability that you’ll get snowed in.
Overnight snow dumps happen all the time, and it’s pretty common to wake up to a winter wonderland … and road closures. It’s kinda like waking up to a snow day, except instead of excitement you’re thinking “oh god, how am I going to tell my boss I can’t come in on Monday morning because I’m too busy hitting the slopes in Lake Tahoe?”
The good news is that it usually takes just a few hours to clear the roads so you can be on your way again.
The bad news is that instead of allowing everyone to leave at different times, now everyone has to leave all at once, which means you’ll be enjoying a nice traffic jam alllllll the way back to the Bay Area.
Lake Tahoe doesn’t really have a downtown or cute, walkable area.
Having visited other ski resort towns like Banff, Canada or Park City, Utah or Whitefish, Montana or anywhere in Colorado, I can say that Lake Tahoe is unusual for its lack of a walkable downtown area.
Everything is hella spread out. There’s no strip of adorable little boutiques selling stuff with bears on it, or a picture-perfect postcard view of town with a mountain rising up in the center of the street a la Banff (although Truckee, near North Lake Tahoe, has a pretty cute little area.)
Instead, it’s like … a Safeway disguised as a cabin. A Walgreens disguised as a cabin. And a whole bunch of actual cabins.
So let me be the first one to set your expectations: you’ll be driving just about everywhere, and you’re going to spend most of your time holed up inside your cabin or outside playing in the snow.
Lake Tahoe is not known for its food.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have a few good food spots! We really like Himmel Haus, for example.
But … again, set your expectations: nobody visits Lake Tahoe for the food.
But that’s probably a good thing, because you’re on a budget, right? So do what we do: pick up groceries and cook a cozy meal in your cabin!
There’s almost always a winter storm warning.
This used to scare the heck out of me when I was a baby Bay Area resident! Every time we’d schedule a trip to Lake Tahoe, we’d get these horrifying messages on our phones like WINTER SNOW WARNING, 26 FEET OF SNOW EXPECTED, USE EXTREME CAUTION.
Y’all, it’s fine – the storm is usually concentrated to higher altitude spots, like ya know, mountaintops. In fact, that just means it’s gonna be a great powder weekend!
On the weekends we’ve gone to Lake Tahoe WITHOUT a winter snow warning, it was sad and snow-less and 50 degrees all weekend. Which was great for hiking, but terrible for skiing or snowboarding.
That said: in order to get down into town, first you have to go up & over the mountains. So you are actually driving through a higher altitude spot before you get to a lower altitude spot.
That’s typically the spot on the drive that takes a while to clear up during a winter storm, which can mean traffic backups for hours while everyone waits it out, or just snow & ice during about 30 minutes of your drive. Which is also why …
You need either chains or 4-wheel drive to enter Lake Tahoe in winter.
This is non-negotiable and, during most winter weekends, a legal requirement. And yes, there are checkpoints, and no, they won’t let you in without either chains on your tires, or a 4-wheel drive car.
I know, it’s inconvenient. But it’s also absolutely necessary. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s sunny and warm this week, there could be a winter storm tomorrow and then you’ll need them to get out of town. It doesn’t matter if you only have to wear them for a few feet on that one high-altitude spot on your way in: you still need them!
If you find yourself chain-less and you aren’t sure if your car has 4-wheel drive (tip: all Suburu’s do!), pick up a set and learn how to put them on.
Or, just rent some on your way in. Lots of places along the side of the road offer chain rentals. They’re not super cheap, but if you won’t be driving your car to Lake Tahoe 5x a season for the next 10 years, rentals are the way to go! Plus, they’ll usually put them on for you, which is WELL worth the price, in my opinion.
North Lake Tahoe or South Lake Tahoe?
First things first: Lake Tahoe spans the border between California & Nevada. And not to sound incredibly conceited, but … listen, we’re just gonna say it: the California side is the best side.
Sorry, Nevada (you have so many other great things to offer!) but it’s true: the minute you cross the border in Lake Tahoe, it’s all like, casinos and strip malls and it’s just not the same outdoorsy vibe. So for the purposes of this blog post, we’ll be focusing solely on the California side.
If you’ve never visited Lake Tahoe before, you may not realize that there are two different places to visit in Lake Tahoe on the California side: North & South Lake Tahoe. What’s the difference?
Honestly, not much. They’re both cute little towns with tons of cabins to stay in, a giant lake, plenty out opportunities for outdoor fun, and a few resorts. And that, my friends, is the difference: the resorts.
Whether you stay in North Lake Tahoe or South Lake Tahoe depends entirely on which resorts you’ll be visiting. We’ve got a complete breakdown of budget-friendly Lake Tahoe ski resort recommendations below.
If you’re really into skiing or snowboarding, each resort has its own pros and cons. We typically visit South Lake Tahoe because we like Sierra, which is the cheapest Lake Tahoe resort – more about that later!
South Lake Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe are about an hour’s drive away from one another down the western side of the lake (y’all, the lake is … ABSOLUTELY enormous). In the summer, it’s an absolutely beautiful drive and the best camping and hiking can be found here, in D.L. Bliss State Park and Desolation Wilderness.
In the winter, that drive is a little bit less doable. Sometimes the road is totally snowed or iced over, sometimes you need chains, and sometimes you can do it with no problems – but you’ll still want to do it well before dark!
How to Get to Lake Tahoe
Unlike some places where the slopes are less than an hour away (lookin’ at you, Salt Lake City and Boulder) Lake Tahoe isn’t exactly super easy to get to. But you wouldn’t know that considering how common it is for Bay Area residents to take day trips on good powder days.
Yes, y’all, Jeremy once drove 3.5 hours to Lake Tahoe, snowboarded all day, and then drove 3.5 hours back home again. He’s crazy.
But that’s … actually fairly common. So I guess in the Bay Area is crazy (but taking a day trip means you save money on lodging! Because your rent is already probably as expensive as a night at a hotel! So it does kinda make sense…)
For either North or South Lake Tahoe, the best and easiest way to get around is by car. Public transit in the area is limited – here’s a complete rundown – and activities tend to be fairly far apart. Plus, there’s not much in the way of a walkable town, like you’d find in Banff, for example.
But if you would rather just stick to the resort loop, you can use shuttles–see more on that below! Most of the major shuttles in Tahoe run shuttles around the resort and between resorts, including Heavenly, Sierra, Squaw, Northstar, Homewood and Diamond Peak.
South Lake Tahoe
You don’t have to drive to get to South Lake Tahoe, but it will require some maneuvering. You can get to South Lake by taking a train from Sacramento and then a bus ride, which totals $59 and will take you about 5 hours.
North Lake Tahoe
There are several options for getting to the Lake Tahoe region without driving. If you’re leaving from the Bay Area, there are both trains and buses. They take a while, but bring a good podcast to listen to you and you’ll be fine!
There’s a lovely train from the Emeryville Amtrak Station to Truckee called the California Zephyr. The prices vary, but are usually between $40 and $50. It takes about 5.5 hours but it’s scenic and beautiful! This is by far the most enjoyable way to get to Lake Tahoe by transit.
You can also take this 5-hour Greyhound Bus to Truckee for about $40.
Once you arrive in Truckee, there are several transit options to take you to your final destination, including plenty of free ski shuttles: here’s a complete list.
Sports Basement, our beloved local one-stop-shop for rental gear and even lift tickets, offers a bus directly from Sports Basement stores to Squaw Valley Resort!
The buses pick up at the multiple Sports Basement locations around the Bay Area, including in SF and Berkeley, and cost $75 including coffee, beer, wine, and some other perks. The buses don’t stop between the stores and the resort, so it’s a more direct option than the train.
If you rent a car in the Bay Area, it’s a pleasant 3.5 hour drive to either North or South Lake Tahoe.
That said: please, please please don’t do this drive late at night in the winter! You will be safer and happier if you go before dark.
HOWEVER, we have said it before and we will say it again: Don’t forget your chains! If you don’t have a 4-wheel drive car, you will need them for safety AND you will get turned away or stuck if you don’t have them.
Unfortunately, many rental car companies don’t allow chains because they can damage the car. Soooo … do your best to get a 4-wheel drive car (like any Suburu, which is what we have) or cross your fingers for luck.
When it’s super snowy, you can usually find a place to rent chains on the drive in – just look for entrepreneurial folks on the side of the road. They’ll usually put them on for you, too!
Once you arrive, the easiest way to get to your final destination is to rent a car from the airport. North Lake Tahoe is about an hour away from the airport by car.
If you are flying in and don’t want to rent a car, you can take the North Tahoe Express shuttle from Reno-Tahoe to the town of Truckee, which is considered the “gateway” to the north side of the lake. From there, you can take transit to your final destination.
Although the Reno-Tahoe airport is closer to North Lake Tahoe, it’s still doable to get to South Lake! You can fly into Reno and rent a car: it’s about an hour a half drive.
If you’re heading to South Lake and you’d rather take transit, many ski resorts have their own shuttles which will bring you from the airport. Or, you can book a ride on the South Tahoe Airporter for $60 round trip.
What to Do in Lake Tahoe if you Don’t Ski or Snowboard
I know, I know: thus far, we’ve focused a TON of skiing and snowboarding. But y’all: only one of us snowboards (Jeremy). Lia doesn’t. And we still go on a Lake Tahoe winter trip several times a year, and have for 6 years now! So rest assured: there is plenty to do in Lake Tahoe for non-skiiers.
Or like, you can just get cozy in your cabin, watch the snow fall and drink some hot cocoa while your friends get cold and wet on the slopes. Lia does a lot of that.
- Tubing or Sledding: Listen, there is really nothing better in the world than sliding down a big snowy hill in an inflatable donut. Or a dragon. Or a unicorn. (Ahem: you can buy the one pictured above online here – we love them!)
Tubing and sledding are super fun–just make sure you are dressed warm and you will have a fantastic time. There are a ton of places to visit, from snow parks at the ski resorts to random hills you’ll have to climb up on your own – here’s a great list!
You can buy a sled or snow innertube online, at stores around the lake and even at some supermarkets, or you can rent them at tubing hills. The photos above are from Spooner Summit, which is a great tubing hill.
- Go Snowshoeing or Hiking: Depending on the snow conditions, you can snowshoe and hike around the Lake Tahoe region year-round, but you should do some research before you embark on your adventure to see what conditions are like. A good rule of thumb: Look for lower-altitude hikes down in the valley rather than higher altitude hikes, which are better suited for summer visits.
Never snow-shoed before? We wouldn’t recommend going on your own – you might lose your way and that has, historically, not ended well. Instead, book a snow-shoeing tour like this one so you’re safely led by a guide.
- Cross-Country Skiing: Head to Truckee to check out Royal Gorge, the largest cross-country ski area in North America, and try out skiing on flat terrain! Or, just rent a pair of cross-country skiis and go to town – er, wintry forest – like a true Nordic explorer.
- Drive between North Lake to South Lake, if you can: driving from the North to South Lake is a beautiful drive with stunning views, but it’s important to check the snow report to make sure that it’s going to be passable.
- Snowmobiling: If you want to see the natural winter wonderland that Tahoe is famous for, but you’re not exactly athletically inclined, snowmobiling is a great (and similiar priced) option. Companies around the lake offer snowmobile tours (this one is highly rated). You can ride alongside someone else or pilot your own vehicle. See some options for snowmobile tours to check out here.
- Learn About the Donner Party: Listen. I’ve been casually mentioning this the entire post, but in case you haven’t gotten sucked into a research hole yet, HERE YOU GO.
The Donner Party was a large group of pioneers (about 80 total people, all families) who got trapped in the Sierra Nevadas in the late 1840s after a series of incredibly unfortunate events and bad decisions. They spent a horrific winter holed up at Truckee Lake – today known as Donner Lake – and, most notably, were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.
It’s not one of California’s happiest stories, but it is fascinating. The real story is not one of gruesome, hardy frontier-people-turned cannibals, as pop culture might have you believe, but a gut-wrenching tale of families forced to make unthinkable decisions to ensure the survival of their loved ones. I had never heard of the Donner Party before moving to California, and it GRIPPED ME in the way that only horrifying disaster/adventure stories do.
If you are interested in learning the Donner story, we HIGHLY recommend reading the well-researched and well written book The Indifferent Stars Above and/or listening to the Donner Party episode from Last Podcast on the Left, which is one of our favorite podcasts for research reasons (not because they often make annoyingly off-color jokes).
Once you’ve learned their story, you can head to Donner Lake to visit the memorial erected there for the Donner Party.
Relax in your cabin: You came to Tahoe to get away from it all, so why not hide in the cabin and get some serious hygge on? You can read, soak in the hot tub (they’re common in Lake Tahoe), maybe watch a Hallmark movie or two..hey, we don’t judge.
When is the Lake Tahoe Ski Season?
The season typically begins in early December and lasts through May. But that totally depends on the year’s Sierra Nevada snowpack. Some years, it starts snowing as early as October and can last as long as July.
Which is fantastic for skiing and snowboarding, but not so great if you happen to be a frontier group of 80+ adults and children attempting to push your wagons up the Sierra Nevada Mountains on one of the snowiest winters in recorded history. *Ahem*
Oh, you don’t know that famous disaster story? Well, you can’t visit Lake Tahoe without a morbid appreciation of the Donner Party. We HIGHLY recommend doing a little research about the ill-fated Donner Party before your trip, such as reading The Indifferent Stars Above. Fair warning: it’s … not a happy story.
Which Lake Tahoe Resorts to Visit?
When it comes to planning a Lake Tahoe winter trip, the big question is: which ski resort should you visit? Lake Tahoe ski resorts are world-famous for good reason – it’s some of the best terrains in the United States. And we’re super biased, but it’s also some of the most beautiful. And has the best weather. Just saying.
But not all Lake Tahoe resorts are created equally. Some are luxurious and expensive, like Northstar Resort, which is home to a Ritz Carlton on the mountain, like Lake Tahoe and Disneyland’s glamourous love child.
We don’t typically go to those kinds of resorts. Since you’re reading this post, we’re gonna assume you probably don’t, either.
Instead, let me tell you about the wonderful world of budget-friendly Lake Tahoe ski resorts! These are the ones that we – and all of our friends – typically go to. Cuz most of our friends, like me, are teachers. And Bay Area rent is absolutely insane. But I digress.
Budget Lake Tahoe Resorts
Sierra-at-Tahoe is Jeremy’s personal favorite forever and always, and he’s entering the 2019-20 season with his very first ever season pass (purchased on a steep discount on the last weekend of last season, score!).
Not only is Sierra one of the cheapest resorts in the Tahoe area, and one of the few remaining independently owned ski resorts, but it’s also usually the least busy!
The resort is mostly geared towards locals and beginners: the runs tend to lean to the easier side while offering some big challenges and unique routes too.
And, fun fact: Lia took her first-ever ski lesson here. At age 29!
Like Boreal, the discounted rates are tied to the location of the resort. Sierra-at-Tahoe is about a 30-minute drive away from South Lake Tahoe. If you’re driving to South Lake Tahoe from the Bay Area, it’s the first resort you’ll pass on your way in, and the last on the way out, which makes it perfect for a Sunday morning session before you head back home.
One of the cheapest options near Lake Tahoe, Boreal is one of the best budget-friendly ski resorts for beginning skiers and snowboarders. Their lift tickets are very reasonably priced at around $80 during in-season weekends (more details here).
They’ve got a small selection of runs and offer adult half-day beginner ski & snowboard lessons for very reasonable rates. Plus, every Friday, Boreal has lift tickets for only $15 for active-duty military and college students with I.D.
For more advanced folks, there’s also a freestyle terrain park designed for practicing tricks and flips and stuff. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, you can stay after hours and try night skiing until 9PM!
One thing to note about Boreal is the location: It’s about a 30-minute drive to North Lake Tahoe, and actually much closer to Truckee and Donner Lake, of Donner Party infamy. In fact, you’ll pass right by the Donner Party Memorial on your way from Boreal to North Lake Tahoe.
- Tahoe Travel Tip: If you don’t mind the distance from Lake Tahoe itself, there are a few more reasonably priced ski resort options in Truckee, including Sugarbowl Resort.
Homewood Mountain Resort
Located right on the west shore of the lake, Homewood Mountain Resort has the best view of the water of just about any ski resort in Lake Tahoe. If stunning lake and mountain views are your priority, Homewood is definitely the best choice!
Homewood has 67 runs, the majority of which are intermediate level, with some advanced/expert runs and a few beginners runs. Homewood is a fantastic budget-friendly choice for moderate to experienced skiers and snowboarders, or just anyone looking for absolutely jaw-dropping views on their runs.
Homewood is also one of the smallest resorts in Lake Tahoe, and as such, a lift ticket is dirt cheap. If you buy a lift ticket or lesson online in advance, you’ll find steep discounts. So be sure to check online before you go! As of October 2019, lift tickets were offered for $64 and lessons were offered for $79 – as long as you buy online.
Mid-Range Budget Lake Tahoe Resorts
Feeling a lil’ fancy? Looking to splurge a moderate and reasonable amount on your Lake Tahoe winter trip? Here are our recommendations for mid-range budget Lake Tahoe ski resorts. They’re more expensive than the budget options, but they’re definitely worth it for that once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Heavenly is a Vail resort and arguably the most famous Lake Tahoe Resort, and it’s also the largest. It’s got a cool base lodge area that’s located right near South Lake on the border with Nevada – so like, if you cross the street there are casinos.
Like many other Vail resorts, it offers plenty of runs for every level and has tons of great amenities for non-skiers (spa, UTV tours, mountain coaster, tubing, you name it).
Be sure to check online for lift ticket deals before you go – you can save quite a bit! That said, you’re probably never going to find lift tickets for Heavenly under $100. Heavenly is a big of a splurge, but it really is an amazing resort!
- Budget Tahoe Tip: The best deal we’ve found for Heavenly is a deeply discounted package lift ticket for all 3 Vail resorts in Lake Tahoe – Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Northstar – from Undercover Tourist.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows
In 1960, Squaw Valley was chosen to host the Winter Olympics thanks in part to its challenging terrain. Which explains those big Olympic rings you’ll see at the entrance to the resort.
The same terrain also makes the resort an excellent choice for more advanced skiers & snowboarders: a whopping 60% of its 230 runs are advanced. Dayum. The terrain is intimidatingly steep, but the views and the powder are excellent.
Squaw Valley is also a fantastic option for folks who spend as much time relaxing in a lodge as they do on the slopes: they have a great base lodge area.
The biggest downside to Squaw Valley is definitely the crowd; lines these days can run anywhere from 20-30 minutes on busy days.
Be sure to check for deals online before you go – and we mean WAY before you go! Squaw offers steep discounts for tickets purchased online in advance, as low as $85. Squaw Valley is also on the Ikon Pass.
How to Buy Discounted Lake Tahoe Lift Tickets
Listen, you can totally buy a ticket directly from the ski resort. That’s fine. No problem with that!
But if you’re really trying to pinch a few pennies, there are a few tips and tricks we’ve come across in our years as Bay Area residents who plan Lake Tahoe winter trips multiple times per year, and we’re going to. let you in on a few local’s-only secrets!
- Buy Lift Tickets from Undercover Tourist: This handy-dandy website sells discounted lift tickets, season passes, lodging, and even the Epic Pass – and it’s all totally legit! We actually discovered them because of our Disney obsession – they sell authorized discounted Disney tickets, too. They offer deals for Squaw Valley, but the best deal by far is a deeply discounted lift ticket for all 3 Vail resorts in Lake Tahoe: Heavenly, Kirkwood, and even luxurious Northstar, for as low as $100. That is an INSANELY GOOD DEAL, y’all.
- Hit Up Costco: If you or one of your friends has a Costco membership (or, like us, is still on your parent’s Costco membership … no shame) hit up one of the several Costco locations in the Bay Area or, if you flew into Reno, in Carson City on the eastern side of the lake. Around ski season, you’ll usually be able to find you’ll find at least one resort offering a deeply discounted lift ticket, only available at Costco. This deal isn’t advertised online, but we’ve found it reliably every year since we started skiing 6 years ago. Most years we’ve been able to find Sierra-At-Tahoe discounted tickets, but when we checked in December 2019 the only one we found was Homewood. If you’re not particular about your resorts, this is one of the best ways to get a discount lift ticket in Lake Tahoe!
- Sports Basement, which has a few locations throughout the Bay Area, sells lift tickets that are discounted compared to what you’d find buying from the resort directly. Stop by to rent your gear & pick one up!
- Find a friend with a season pass and use one of their guest passes: if you’re lucky enough to have a friend who has a season pass (this will be our first year with deeply discounted Sierra season passes!) you can use a guest pass from them and ski for much, much less. So find a friend who’s a ski bum!
Where to Rent Your Skiing & Snowboarding Gear
No skis? No problem. There are lots of ways to get the equipment you need for a great ski getaway! Here are the 3 best options:
- Rent in the Bay Area: Sports Basement, located in Berkeley, rents out high quality, well-taken care of equipment that will serve a variety of needs whether you are a hardcore winter sports junkie or more of a bunny slopes type. Sports Basement has generously long rental windows for equipment – Thursday and Monday are free if you rent for the full weekend. However, it’s not the cheapest option. That said, the convenience of picking up your rental gear on a Thursday night and returning it on a Sunday or Monday night is WELL worth the extra expense. This is always our pick for rentals.
- Rent at the Ski Resort: Renting at your resort saves space in your car so you have more room for important things like snacks, but it can also be pricey and the lines tend to be really long. What that means is that you’ll be standing in line during the best powder hours of the day! We recommend picking up your rental the night before rather than the morning of your snow day.
- Powder House: Powder House is an equipment rental company with a bunch of locations around Lake Tahoe. You can rent from Powder House the night before you actually want to ski, leaving more time for you to actually hit the slopes. Then, you can return your gear before you head back home so you don’t have to lug it around. It’s also the cheapest option, but you get what you pay for: Powder House equipment isn’t as nice as other rental options, and it takes a long time to get through the rental process.
Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe can be pricey, but it doesn’t have to be. If you want a more relaxed experience and to be able to cook, renting a cabin is a good call. But it’s cheapest with a group! Bring a large party and share the cost–and the experience–with friends. We usually go with about ten people, and it’s never more than $100 a night. Most cabin rentals in Tahoe are equipped for large groups.
We typically find cabins to rent a place on VRBO, but you should be aware that new laws have recently gone into effect regarding short-term cabin rentals, and many of them will be banned in the next few years as a result of large groups of millennials descending on Lake Tahoe every weekend and doing things like cooking large meals together and enjoying hot tubs after midnight (… seriously, those were some of the main complaints).
For now, you can still rent law-abiding rentals on VRBO, but you might find funky things like fees and minimum night requirements. For this reason, we recommend booking directly through VRBO because it has fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security.
Also, if you try to book too far in advance you’ll find many winter dates are totally blacked out – that’s because the owners are waiting until the snow predictions finalize to see how much to price their rentals for the season!
In any case, know that there is a little bit of tension between locals and visitors, and be mindful not to exacerbate the situation by being loud or rude.
Here are our top picks for cabin rentals:
- South Lake Tahoe: The Lake Tahoe Chalet in South Lake Tahoe is a perfect example of classic rust log cabin Tahoe style at budget-friendly pricing. Stuff made from wood and stone, leather couches, big windows, and sequoia trees are all part of the Tahoe charm. The only thing missing? A hot tub! Also, note that this cabin is about a 15-minute drive from town. But for that price, it’s still a fantastic option. This South Tahoe Lodge is spacious and bright, with a great outdoor space including a hot tub!
- North Lake Tahoe: This 4-bedroom cabin in Kings Beach has an open concept and is bright and beautiful, with a fabulous deck to spend time with friends. Or this peaceful cabin is cozy and surrounded by trees, and also has its own dry sauna!
- Truckee: If you’ll be skiing at Boreal or nearby Sugarbowl Resort, you might want to base yourself in Truckee rather than North Lake Tahoe. If that’s the case, this home is beautifully remodeled with huge windows and a great deck to sit and enjoy the natural scenery.
Where to Eat in Lake Tahoe
I’m gonna just be super honest with you: nobody goes to Lake Tahoe for the food. It’s not known for food and there’s nothing particularly special about the food there. We honestly tend to buy groceries and cook a meal in our cabin during Tahoe winter trips (which also saves us cash).
But if you’ll be hitting the slopes or doing anything even mildly active, you’ll need some fuel, so here’s what we can recommend.
- Himmel Haus is a cozy little spot in South Lake Tahoe located at the foot of a Heavenly ski run that serves delicious, authentic-enough German food. Plus, they’ve got a fantastic German and Belgian beer selection! This is our favorite post-hike or snowboarding spot to get an appropriately heavy, comforting meal.
- For dessert, pick up some fresh cobbler a la mode at Aloha Ice Cream and Dessert Spa, and then head across the street for an incredible view of the lake at sunset in South Lake Tahoe.
- For funky Americana charm (think old-timey portraits on the wall and the occasional moose head for good measure) check out Wagon Wheel Coffeeshop in Truckee, near North Lake Tahoe. It has killer breakfast! We recommend ordering a big stack of pancakes.
- Dine with a beautiful view of the lake at Sunnyside Restaurant and Lodge in Tahoe City, near North Lake Tahoe. They serve upscale American/California favorites, including yummy burgers. They open from 4pm through winter and from 11am through the warmer months.
What to Pack for Lake Tahoe
Ever heard that saying, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing?” In addition to keeping you warm as you explore, weatherproof clothing is especially important if you’re going to do outdoor activities like snowshoeing, skiing, or snowboarding.
That said: Lake Tahoe is nowhere near as cold as you’d expect. There are fresh powder days where it’s 55 degrees and sunny on the slopes. Or it will be snowing like crazy in the valley and feel like a balmy 50 degrees out. It’s very odd.
But the good news is that you don’t need much more than the basics for your Lake Tahoe winter trip.
Here are our tried and true travel essentials for winter travel.
- Winter Sports Gear: If you’re planning to go skiing or snowboarding on your trip, bringing a few things can easily be packed in your suitcase will save you cash on rentals. We recommend these goggles and these gloves for snowboarding, and these travel-friendly crampons for snowshoeing.
- Adorable Snow Tube: Because there is nothing funner (YES I SAID FUNNER) than careening down a snowy hill on a fire-breathing dragon.
- Chains: If you take nothing else away from this post, let it be that if you are planning to drive to Lake Tahoe, YOU NEED CHAINS. You may not need to buy them unless you’re planning to visit Lake Tahoe multiple times, or tacking on a winter visit to Yosemite too. You can usually rent them on the side of the road in your way in and out. But if you’ll be making several trips, it will be cheaper to buy.
- Warm Winter Boots: We recommend boots that can withstand ice or snow, are weatherproof and waterproof, and are comfortable enough to go snow-shoeing in. Sounds darn near impossible, right? Well, it’s not. We’ve found the best boots for winter, and we’re OBSESSED with them (and yes, we both have the same ones. Because we’re kinda gross like that). They’re cute, they’re insanely comfortable, they’re waterproof leather and insulated to keep your toes toasty warm, and they’re extremely lightweight and foldable so you can stuff them in your bag when you travel. Oh, and they have thin and flexible soles that let your feet function as if you were walking around in the cold completely barefoot! Note: you might find yourself in need of some calf strengthening if you’re not used to barefoot-style soles. We can’t recommend these boots enough, and they’re the only shoes we brought to Canada. They’re made to last and they’re worth every cent. Here are my boots and Jeremy’s boots. You can read more about them in our round-up of our favorite travel shoes for women or for men.
- Wool Socks: Make sure you don’t just have run-of-the-mill acrylic socks – they won’t keep your feet warm while you’re out in the snow! Instead, bring socks that are primarily made of soft, heat-regulating wool, like these or these. I recommend 2 layers of socks – no more, no less.
- Water-Resistant Pants: Our favorite pants for playing in the snow are also our favorite hiking pants – both made by prAna! Jeremy wears his Zion pants and I wear Halle pants or Briann pants. They’re water-resistant and dry incredibly quickly, and work just as well as heavy, bulky snow pants. We layer them over our merino leggings for extra warmth.
- Merino Wool Base Layer Shirt: We wear a merino wool base layer underneath our clothing on very cold trips – it stays warm when wet, it naturally regulates both heat and moisture, and it doesn’t get smelly even after a long day on the slopes. But since Lake Tahoe isn’t usually very cold, we can usually get away with just wearing our base layer with a jacket over it. This is mine and this is Jeremy’s.
- Merino Wool Base Layer Leggings: these comfy 100% wool leggings function just like long underwear. They’re made of soft, super-luxurious wool and make your legs feel like they’re being hugged by an extremely soft sheep. Jeremy has this pair.
- Warm Flannel Shirt: I’m in LOVE with the MerinoLux flannel button-down from Royal Robbins. It’s stretchy, it’s cozy, it’s blended with merino wool (yassss) and most importantly, it’s warm AF and super breathable. It’s also wrinkle-resistant, odor-resistant, and moisture-wicking, and has a hidden zip pocket – so basically everything you could ever ask for in a flannel shirt. I’ve been searching for the perfect flannel for YEARS (you know, like one that didn’t give me that annoying button-down boob gap and allowed me to actually cross my arms) and this is The One. I love it! Here’s mine and Jeremy’s.
- Sweatband Headphones: These amazing bluetooth headphones are sewn into a sweatband and lie totally flat, so you can listen to music without uncomfortably squishing earbuds into your ears or letting cold air into your helmet. The fabric is soft and warm, so your ears will stay toasty even when you take your helmet off! We were already obsessed with SleepPhones for long haul flights, but when we tried them out while snowboarding, everything changed! You can pick up a pair on the SleepPhones website – use code PW10 for $10 off your first purchase – or from Amazon.
- Lined Leggings: If you’ll be doing hiking or snow-shoeing, these are the perfect thing to wear for comfort and warmth! They’re also great for layering under water-resistant pants. I have two pairs of warm lined winter leggings, one lined with merino wool and one lined with fleece.
- Warm Hat: A warm hat is an absolute necessity. It also doubles as a super cute accessory! Did I just rhyme? You want a hat that will stay on your head when it’s windy wind and keep your ears nice and warm – bonus points if it’s lined. Personally I’m a fan of the ones with poofs on top, like this or this. Jeremy is more of a purist, and likes to wear beanies like this one, which is made from earth-friendly recycled wool and nylon.
- Packable Down Jacket: Packable down jackets are perfect for active days in cold weather! They’re warm but incredibly lightweight and easy to travel with. Lia has this down jacket and Jeremy has this down jacket.
- Gloves: Don’t play in the snow without gloves on! Jeremy and I both have these wool gloves that work with touchscreens, because let’s face it, I have a hard enough time using my phone without wearing gloves. Over those gloves we layer on a thicker pair that allows us to do things like throw snowballs at each other.
For more details, check out our detailed Cold Weather Packing Guide.
Ready to hit the slopes? What other questions do you have about planning your Lake Tahoe Winter trip Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Looking for places nearby to explore? Check out some of our other posts:
- Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park
- The 8 Best Day Hikes in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas
- The 10 Best Weekend Trips from the San Francisco Bay Area
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Disclaimer: On one of our many trips to Lake Tahoe, we were loaned a complimentary vehicle by Mazda USA. Thank you, Mazda!
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