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Lake Tahoe is the perfect destination for a road trip. New views, beaches, hiking trails, and historic sites are tucked away around each bend. From kayaking to scuba diving, to panoramic vistas and gorgeous beaches, Lake Tahoe has something to offer every traveler. And, you can take a detour away from the lakeshore to visit one of America's most notorious historic sites: Donner Memorial State Park. Don't feel like traveling to Nevada? No problem! All of the fun can be packed into just 76 adventure-filled miles.
When you picture the ideal lake-side summer retreat, Kings Beach State Park is exactly that. Located along the north shore of Lake Tahoe, this 900-foot stretch of scenic, tree-lined beach is perfect for both sun-bathers and swimmers. The park is only open during the day and features 18 picnic tables, multiple barbecues, a playground, and a basketball court (all of which are available on a first-come-first-serve basis). Or, if you prefer to be out on the water instead, there are plenty of fishing and boating spots nearby. You'll find parking for Kings Beach between Bear and Coon street. The lot is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and costs $10 per vehicle per day (no buses, RVs, or trailers are allowed).
Probably the most historic spot along our route, Donner Memorial State Park might sound a bit familiar... This park was actually built to commemorate the legendary Donner Party, which made the trek from the east coast to California in the mid-1800s. Before exploring the park, pay a visit to the visitor center located near the entrance. There you will learn all about the location's importance to Native Americans, the builders of the transcontinental railroad, and, of course, the Donner Party.
Once in the park, take advantage of all of its camping, hiking, fishing, and boating opportunities. As well as countless swimming spots and stunning vistas, there are over 150 campsites and eight miles of hiking trails within Donner Memorial State Park. Even in the winter season, visitors can cross-country ski and snowshoe across miles of white, snowy powder.
On the northwest side of the lake, you'll find the Watson Cabin Museum—the oldest building in Tahoe. This small cabin still stands exactly as it did when it was first constructed in 1909. The museum showcases what it was like for a family to live in the Tahoe region in the early 1900s. In particular, the museum has preserved down to the smallest detail the original eating, sleeping, and working spaces of the Watson family. You might even spot some indoor plumbing. In addition to the interesting household details, the cabin also offers some incredible views of the lake and plenty of great photo ops. The museum is open from June to September and is free of charge.
If you're looking for something a little quieter and less popular than Kings Beach, Sugar Pine Point is a great alternative. Located on the west side of Lake Tahoe, this stretch of golden sand is surrounded by some of the tallest pine trees in the world. At certain points, the water gets so clear and blue that it looks like pure turquoise. Whether you're looking to soak up some sun on the beach, or simply take a scenic stroll along the waterfront, this park is truly ideal. You can park at the Sugar Pine Point campground and take the lakefront trail down to the boat dock. From there, feel free to jump off the dock and take a dip in the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe.
While it may look like a mere wooden shack on the hillside, the Rubicon Point Light is actually quite impressive. This little lighthouse—which was first constructed in 1916 to act as a glorified lamp—has the highest elevation of any lighthouse in the country. Standing at 6,300 feet above sea level, Rubicon Point Light can be seen from almost any point around the lake. The best way to get to the lighthouse is through DL Bliss State Park. From the parking lot of the park, grab a map and follow the lighthouse trail up a steep hill. Rubicon Point Light is at the top of the hill, and visitors can access the structure by walking down a set of granite steps. Not only can you get up close to the structure and check it out, but you will be blown away by the surrounding views.
As you make your way down Highway 89, pay a visit to Emerald Bay State Park. Known for its stunning vistas and panoramic views, this is a great spot to see by car or on foot. There are plenty of turnouts along Highway 89 that offer drivers a chance to pull over and snap some incredible pictures of the lonely Fannette Island located right in the middle of Emerald Bay. Or, if you prefer to get up-close-and-personal with the bay itself, Lake Tahoe now offers scuba divers and snorkelers the chance to explore an underwater "trail" along the shoreline of Emerald Bay State Park. You can catch a glimpse of the bay at any time, but the park itself is only open from sunrise to sunset.
Looking like something out of a fantasy novel, Vikingsholm could pass for an enchanted castle. Located within Emerald Bay State Park, this former residence is now open to the public for tours. For $10, you can walk through the old mansion and see original paintings on the ceilings, two intricately carved dragon beams, and six fireplaces with very unusual screens. The house can be reached by parking in the Vikingshom parking lot by Highway 89 at Emerald Bay. From there, you'll have to walk about a mile down a pedestrian walkway that drops 400 feet in elevation. Tours take place every 30 minutes and are offered from mid-May through the end of September.
Like so many spots along Lake Tahoe, Mount Tallac offers something for everyone. All starting at the same point, there are three different trails you can choose to take: Floating Island Lake, Cathedral Lake, and Mount Tallac. Listed in order of difficulty, Mount Tallac is the most strenuous, measuring ten miles total. The steepest and most difficult of the three, it also happens to provide the best views, too. As you make your way up the face of Mount Tallac, you'll be rewarded with spectacular views of Fallen Leaf Lake, Lake Tahoe, and Desolation Wilderness. The climate can change pretty quickly on this hike, so be sure to bring a jacket and plenty of water. You can find access to all three trails right off Highway 89. Look for the Mt. Tallac Trailhead sign directly across from the entrance to Baldwin Beach.
Looking for a great place to stay near the end of our trip? Look no further than the Basecamp Hotel. This charming boutique hotel does a fantastic job of bringing the great outdoors inside. Each of the 50 rooms are decorated in authentic camping-style decor—one room in particular even has a tent inside. There is plenty to check out at the hotel, including two bars, multiple patios and fire pits, a pool, and an Airstream conference room. But if you want to venture out into town, Basecamp Hotel is conveniently located right in the heart of South Lake Tahoe and close to the Heavenly Ski Resort gondola, Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena, and Lakeside Beach. Basecamp is open year-round and offers plenty of midweek and winter specials.
This 76-mile stretch of stunning vistas and lakeside adventures covers a lot of ground, giving you a taste of the north, west, and south sides of Lake Tahoe. It's one of the few places that offers beach-side tanning, snow-capped mountains, isolated cabins, and upscale boutiques, all in the same short drive. All in all, Lake Tahoe's cobalt waters can really only be appreciated by physically being there. So, what are you waiting for?
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