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4 ways to experience winter magic in Tahoe (besides skiing)

A lake view shows a spit of land covered in pine trees; in the background are mountains and pink clouds.
A view of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay at sunrise.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, fellow Escapists. As you probably know, there are a lot of informative articles out there about the incredible skiing and snowboarding offerings around Lake Tahoe.

This is not one of those stories.

If your heart is set on flying down the slopes this winter, you’ll want to do some research to find the best resort, which can vary depending on your preferences, skill level, and how much you’re willing to spend. But if you’re interested in taking things a little slower in Tahoe — or if you could use a break from the lift line — you’ll find some ideas for a magical Tahoe road trip here.

A quick reminder to travel responsibly and respectfully in Lake Tahoe and everywhere you roam. Rowdy house parties, heavy road congestion and other visitor-related headaches have become common in Tahoe. Plus, with the threat of winter weather, it pays to be mindful and cautious while enjoying the lake and surrounding mountains.

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As always, be sure to mask up.

What are your favorite things to do in Tahoe? Let me know, so I can pass them along to fellow readers in a future edition of Escapes.

Catch sunrise at Emerald Bay State Park

I first set eyes on Emerald Bay State Park, 12 miles from South Lake Tahoe, a few years back. It was around noon on a day in early September. A few friends and I were camping at Sugar Pine Point and decided we couldn’t miss the chance to see little Fannette Island surrounded by Tahoe’s legendary blue waters.

Off we went to Inspiration Point, a popular vista point situated 600 feet above the bay.

We expected to see some crowds, but nothing could’ve prepared us for the Hollywood Boulevard-level assemblage of fellow tourists.

The view still left us awed, but next time, I’ll plan to hit Inspiration Point earlier in the day. Much earlier.

My colleague Christopher Reynolds recently stopped to take in the view during an autumn road trip to Tahoe. His time of arrival? Just early enough to catch sunrise over Emerald Bay.

“The clouds burst and the sun appeared, peeking up from beyond the Nevada shore. Sunbeams and raindrops everywhere,” Reynolds writes. “Only a handful of families and individuals were there to see it. We shared smug smiles.”

There are no sure bets when it comes to travel, especially in Tahoe, where weather conditions and crowds can throw itineraries into disarray. But if you’d like to share a smug smile with fellow travelers while catching an exceptional view at Inspiration Point, it’s worth rising in time to greet the sun.

Four adults, two of them holding small children, stand at a railing with a view of mountains, ocean and a full rainbow.
The view from Inspiration Point sometimes includes billowing clouds and rainbows.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Take in the full moon on snowshoes

Skiing at one of Lake Tahoe’s premier resorts is a quintessential California experience, along with the Highway 1 road trip and gazing up at redwoods. But what about snowshoeing under the light of a full moon?

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This winter, the Tahoe Adventure Co. is offering several snowshoe experiences coinciding with the full snow moon in February, full worm moon in March and full pink moon in April.

The tours include a comprehensive lesson and a trek through the forest near North Lake Tahoe. During the hike, guides teach guests about the natural history of the High Sierra, allowing them to leave Tahoe with a deeper understanding of the region’s natural beauty.

Tours cost $85 per person, including snowshoes, trekking poles, hot drinks, trail snacks and permit fees. Like most activities in Tahoe, tours are weather-dependent.

An illustration shows snowshoes and a mug of cocoa with marshmallows on a colorful striped background.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Trek along the Truckee River

“Truckee (population: about 16,000) is a Sierra railroad town that got rich, lost momentum and now is increasingly rich again,” writes Reynolds. The community, now a darling among wealthier Bay Area travelers, also earned a spot on his list of the 40 best California experiences: Winter edition.

Just 12 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe, Truckee is well worth a visit during a road trip north. Reynolds suggests hiking the path that follows the Truckee River (weather permitting) and exploring Donner Pass Road’s many boutiques, restaurants and galleries. On my next visit to the Sierra, I’m especially keen to visit Word After Word Books and Rock Cellar Records, an independent shop in downtown Truckee, per Reynolds’ recommendation.

During a visit to Truckee, take time to reflect on the darker sides of its history. In the late 1800s, “Hundreds of Chinese railroad workers put down roots in town,” writes Reynolds, until they were expelled from Truckee through a racist and violent campaign of shootings, fires and boycotts led by a local Caucasian League. “From a Chinatown that once stretched for blocks, one building (built of brick) remains.”

The 1882 Foundation, dedicated to promoting awareness of the Chinese Exclusion Act, is planning an overnight heritage tour in the Truckee-Tahoe area in the fall, as well as some half-day tours in the summer. The foundation’s website will offer further information as the dates approach.

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For now, I recommend exploring the foundation’s free virtual tour.

A mountain stream flows over rocks, between bare trees and others with gold leaves.
Fall colors pop along the Truckee River.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

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Where to stay:

Looking for a deal? Try the Beach Retreat and Lodge in South Lake Tahoe: Steps away from the lake and less than 10 minutes to Heavenly Mountain Resort, this hotel is convenient and affordable. Rooms start around $95.

Looking for an old-school, not uber-commercialized experience? Try Camp Richardson: This resort, operated under a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, includes a beachside inn, hotel, cabins and seasonal camping. Rates vary, and I’m especially intrigued by the resort’s seasonal package deals (beginning at $200 for a two-night stay in the hotel or inn, plus cross-country ski or snowshoe rentals, trail passes and a $25 credit for the resort’s general store).

Looking for a comfy-cool place to relax after playing in the snow? Try the Cedar House Sport Hotel: This Truckee accommodation “is a remarkable piece of architecture — part cozy cabin, part industrial chic,” Reynolds writes. Rates begin at $195 per night.

A bit of news: Short-term rentals, such as homes listed on Airbnb, are a fraught topic in Tahoe communities amid a housing crisis. Last week, supervisors from Placer County, which includes half of the California side of the lake, decided to cap the number of short-term-rental permits effective the end of March. New vacation home rental permits are not allowed in residential areas in South Lake Tahoe.

An illustration of a cabin on a lake.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)
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📰 What I’m reading

  • “Traveling by train led me to learn about my family’s Black history,” writes Sojourner White in Travel + Leisure. She reports on the Pullman porters and their legacy of advancing labor and civil rights in the U.S.
  • A plant ecologist spends his days counting monarch butterflies in L.A. He could use your help, reports Times features writer Jeanette Marantos.
  • Channel Islands National Park is a staggering “conservation success story,” Theo Whitcomb writes in High Country News. He explains how formerly threatened species — including the island fox and peregrine falcon — are now thriving on the islands.
  • One of California’s oldest towns “has become an unlikely hotbed of live music,” writes Ruth Carlson. She describes what life is like for the musicians and artists who call this East Bay refinery town home in SFGate.
  • “Regret isn’t what you want to feel after traveling,” writes Cheryl Maguire. She explains how to avoid it in the Washington Post.
Closeup of monarch butterfly wings for story about monarch butterfly numbers rising
(Getty Images)

📸 Photo of the week

On a hillside, a car travels on a curving two-lane highway. On each side of the road are burned trees.
Fire is a recurring visitor to Lake Tahoe. The 2016 Emerald fire blackened these trees along Highway 89 near Emerald Bay. The 2021 Caldor fire also drew near Tahoe’s south shore.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “Nightflyer” by Allison Russell

Favorite lyric: “I’m the dove thrown into battle, I can roll and shake and rattle.”

Where to listen: While taking in the view from the beach at Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park.

Illustration that looks like a Polaroid photo of a view on a Lake Tahoe beach, with the word "Nightflyer"
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)
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