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Stay Here - Eat Here - See This: Lake Tahoe, California

Since the Olympic Games were held there in 1960, Lake Tahoe has become legendary. At more than 1645 feet deep, with visibility in its ultra-clear waters down to more than 70 feet, Tahoe is one of the deepest freshwater bodies of water in the world. It also has a surface area of more than 191 square miles, more than the entire island of Manhattan. Sitting more than a mile above sea level, the lake also contains enough water to cover the entire state of California in about 14.5 inches of water. 

But enough of the history and geography lessons. Lake Tahoe is simply gorgeous and stunning in every way. 

For me, the lake has always had a sort of mysticism surrounding it. I grew up on small lakes in the Midwest and also grew up skiing in Colorado and Montana. My favorite things in the world are lake and snow activities.

Heavenly Ski Resort Overlooking the Lake


I'd always heard of this magical place in California that had both activities in such abundance that the seasons typically overlapped constantly, leaving no down time between them. This place was called Lake Tahoe. 

I finally visited Tahoe for the first time in 2022. We skied at Palisades (formerly Squaw Valley) and it was great. It's a big resort with a quaint feel that gets tons of snow. But I was a little surprised at how old-school the resort was and that there wasn't much nearby for restaurants or nightlife. It wasn't until we left Palisades that I realized most of what happens in Tahoe happens in South Lake Tahoe. 

We just returned from a week in South Lake Tahoe, and I have to say it's an incredible summer getaway spot. Here's what you need to know.

Stay Here:

We wanted to stay right on the water when we decided to visit Tahoe in the summer. If you've never stayed at or near a lake in the summer, it's just like going to the beach -- you want to be as close to the water as possible, or you won't get the same experience. 

Surprisingly, there weren't many choices for large houses available to rent right on the water. We had a group of 11 people and needed at least 5 bedrooms. 

View from the backyard of our VRBO


Luckily, we did find a gorgeous waterfront house that had newly been converted into a vacation rental. This place was mountain chic and sat directly on the Tahoe Keys, which is a small inlet area off the main lake but still has its own lakeshore. 

I'd recommend staying in the Keys for a few reasons. First, it's a lot calmer in the keys than it is on the main lake. The mornings and evenings are smooth on the water, but the wind picks up mid morning and blows steadily throughout the day. The lake is very large and the waves can get pretty big out on the main lake as a result. The Keys are a lot more protected and the water stays calmer. 

Second, the Keys tend to be quite a bit less expensive than any other waterfront areas on the lake. I think the general sentiment is, though you're on the water, you're not on the actual lake, and that must matter to some people. It didn't matter at all to us and the water frontage we had was really nice. We also saved quite a bit of money over some of the other waterfront homes we looked at. 

I do have to mention that, as a general rule, everything in Lake Tahoe is pretty expensive. A.) it's California and B.) it's a super popular destination. Those two things add up to $$. So when I say we saved money staying in the Keys, it was still a pretty spendy accommodation. 

Nonetheless, I'd recommend spending a little extra to be right on the water, whether that's the Tahoe Keys or the main lake. It's worth it. 

The Family Room looking out over the lake...


Now that that's settled...

Eat Here: 

We had a large group full of milestone birthdays and we wanted to do a nice dinner out for one of our evenings. We chose a place called The Chart House, which is locally renowned for inventive seafood as well as classic steaks and craft cocktails. Again, all of the words in the previous sentence tend to add up to $$.

The Chart House was a little expensive -- about $50-$100+/person, depending on what you order and how much you drink. However, if you've eaten dinner out at all in the last few months, you know how difficult it can be to find good food, good service, and good drinks -- even separately. The Chart House had them all under one roof. 

My wife and I shared two entrees. We ordered a blackened sea bass with mango sticky rice and habanero cream sauce and a 10oz. prime rib with mashed potatoes. We also had a cup of New England Clam Chowder. 

For the table, we all shared a shrimp cocktail, which arrived smoking with dry ice (cool presentation), a wonderful fried calamari with a kimchi glaze, and a very tasty and perfectly prepared seared ahi with soy and wasabi. 

Shrimp Cocktail and Calamari


I could go in depth into why each of the above items were good, but the thing you need to know is that they were all good. Really good. And they were perfectly cooked. Everything arrived hot and fresh. The server didn't make any mistakes (except for bringing me bleu cheese stuffed olives rather than regular olives in my cocktail...but I'll let it slide!).

Our evening at the Chart House was exemplary of pre-Covid fine dining service and was a great experience. Add to this the fact that the restaurant sits high atop a hill and looks down through the trees to the stunning sunset over Lake Tahoe and you've got yourself a true dining experience. Two enthusiastic thumbs up!

See This:

The last thing I'll say about Lake Tahoe is it is very large and it's difficult to see most of the lake unless you dedicate most of your daylight to traversing rough-ish waters in a rented speedboat. We chose not to rent a boat for the trip but didn't have any trouble staying entertained given that we were still waterfront. 

We did spend one day on the water, however, and it was pretty awesome. We chose to board the Dixie II Paddle Wheel cruise out of Zephyr Cove on the east side of the lake for a two hour lake tour. 

I'll be the first to say I typically hate touristy things involving big groups of people. I find that they're usually overly expensive and not very much fun. The Dixie II was pleasantly different.

Photo of Zephyr Cove Resort
The Dixie II


The Dixie II is an old school paddle wheel boat that made its way to Tahoe in 1948 from Mississippi. It is decidedly not a new boat, but it seemed to be in overall good condition and was perfectly acceptable. 

The real fun of the Dixie II is that no one in the group has to be responsible and drive, it's a very high boat so you can take in much more of the scenery than you otherwise would in a smaller vessel, and they serve booze!

We were some of the first in line to board the boat and went straight to the top deck and all the way to the back, overlooking the paddle wheel. At about $99/person to take the ride, the Dixie II isn't an inexpensive cruise, but it's well worth it to see the sights.

The paddle wheel of the Dixie II


The cruise took us to Emerald Bay on the southwest side of the lake (not far from where we stayed in the Keys). It's basically an hour there and back from the origin at Zephyr Cove. The bay has stunning Emerald water and a magical little island, making it a truly unique place to see. 

The main lake's pristine waters and gorgeous mountain vistas can fully be appreciated at the same time from the top deck of the Dixie. Even at the end of July, there were still some snow-speckled mountain peaks which made the 85 degree day feel somehow a little cooler. 

We took the Dixie cruise at the end of our week in Tahoe, and we were all pretty relaxed from the vacation. It was the perfect low energy, high reward activity for that stage in our trip. I'd recommend doing it towards the end of your trip if you want relaxation. If you want to get ideas on where to explore, go at the beginning of your trip and it will spark plenty of ideas. 

All together, Lake Tahoe truly is a one-of-a-kind American adventure. It's a beautiful place with rich history and still plenty of modern amenities. It certainly is a bucket list place to visit for anyone who loves the mountains and the water equally. 

Book about 5-7 days, stay on the water, and kick back and relax.