How to Enjoy Lake Tahoe on a Budget
We have all seen the images or videos of the picturesque scene with the bikini-clad paddleboarder gliding across the iconic crystal-clear water of Lake Tahoe and it looks like she is the only person on the lake. This is NOT REAL. Being one of the prettiest and largest freshwater lakes (that also happens to be surrounded by an immense tourism infrastructure from the winter season) makes Tahoe a destination for thousands as soon as the snow melts. This means that most everything will be expensive; however, we found a way to actually cut our weekly expenses in Tahoe and still enjoy most everything that the area had to offer.
Camp or Boondock to Save on Lodging
The Tahoe Basin is one of the most popular destinations for outdoor recreation in California and Nevada. That being said, during the summer, all of the beaches and campgrounds are extremely full. Even Forest Service Campgrounds with no water service will cost you $20 or more. We chose to park for FREE!
Everyone knows you are trying to park for FREE. Business owners that cater to the needs of millionaire tourists year-round know when you circle their empty parking lot that you are looking for free parking, keep that in mind when trying to park in Tahoe.
As with anywhere, keep your eyes open for stores, shops, and trailheads that will be empty or low-traffic in the evening. Don’t hang out all day and don’t be obnoxious. Avoid locations that have signage prohibiting overnight parking. We spoke with several shop employees that recommended spots all over the lake to park for free.
It’s Lake Tahoe, there is so much to do outside you can’t actually do it all without living there all summer. We’ve outlined a few of the activities that we did while in the basin and that we would recommend to travelers in the area.
SUP, Paddle, or Swim
There are a lot of day-use ($$) beaches to put in your paddleboard or kayak or to swim in Lake Tahoe, but there are also some free beaches to enjoy the water.
Thomas F. Regan Memorial Beach
South Lake Tahoe, CA
GPS: 38.944427, -119.985645
Regan was a great place to park for the day and enjoy the view, have lunch, and take a swim. The parking was more than adequate and flush toilets and water were available for FREE. There was a playground and a sand-beach for swimming.
Tahoe City, CA
GPS: 39.170372, -120.140866
We spent the afternoon on Commons Beach while taking a low-mile day on the Tahoe Rim Trail while we re-supplied for the rest of our hike. Thursdays at the beach boast a Farmer’s Market (talk about good luck, we walked in to TC on Thursday; more on that later in the article). The beach is beautiful and didn’t seem very crowded. There was water and flush toilets on site with kayak rentals available on the beach.
South Lake Tahoe, CA
GPS: 38.939583, -120.047892
Kiva Beach was a recommendation from a nice Forest Service Tech named Jennifer that we met while hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail. This beach is not as well signed as others in the area and requires a walk down a short trail from the Visitor’s Center. The walk is well worth it as this beach is pristine. This hard to find beach should be at the top of your list in Tahoe.
Hike the Tahoe Rim Trail (in sections or all at once)
The Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) is a 170-mile scenic trail that circumnavigates Lake Tahoe, mostly on the rim above the lake. This trail system can be broken down into day hikes or tackled all at once for a 10-14-day adventure.
We chose to thru-hike the rim trail all at once, starting at Kingsbury South Trailhead and re-supplying at Tahoe City, CA. Rachael and I finished the trail in 13-days and could have easily cut it to eleven or twelve. For tips and more information on thru-hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail, check out our post with tips and things that we wish we had known before we set off.
As accessible as most of the trails in Tahoe are, it is no wonder that mountain bikers flock to this area to ride some of the smoothest single-track in the country. From extreme downhill, to cross-country, to bikepacking, Tahoe has something for EVERYONE. Below is a list of recommended rides in the Tahoe Basin:
Zach’s Pick in Tahoe
Big shock that the guy that enjoyed the 170-mile hike around the rim would suggest riding around the lake on your mountain bike, but sure enough, my favorite ride in Tahoe is essentially riding the entire lake in 4-5 days.
Although most of the TRT is open to cyclists, some sections such as Desolation and Mt. Rose Wilderness are bike-free, so the route linked above starts in Reno, NV, takes you through the heart of Lake Tahoe, and back to Reno a week later. There are plenty of re-supply points and places to stop for food, coffee, and a dip in the lake, which makes this route very appealing for a beginner or seasoned bikepacker.
We met a group of guys at Tahoe Meadows that had just started this route and happened to run into them a few days later while we were camping outside of Reno (conveniently on the same route) and they had the same smiles on their faces 4 days later as they did on the second day of their trip.
We hiked up and past this trail on our way around the lake and it is knarly. It offers plenty of rugged downhill, berms, jumps, and obstacles for the most experienced riders. We advise renting a full-suspension, long travel bike for this trail as the old hardtail probably won’t make it out alive.
Enjoy the ride up the Forest Service road leading to Armstrong Pass and let it rip on Toad’s all the way back to lake-level.
The Flume Trail is as iconic of a mountain bike trail as you can find. With very little climbing and beautiful white sand single-track, it’s no wonder that thousands of mountain bikers flock to this trail every summer.
Get to the trailhead early and expect to see a bunch of riders, hikers, and potentially some equestrians as this trail is extremely popular.
Food, Groceries, and Amenities
GLUTEN FREE RATING: A+
We spent a total of about 15 days in Tahoe and 13 of them were on the Tahoe Rim Trail where we made our own food every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That being said, on our days before and after our hike and on our half-day in Tahoe City, we found Lake Tahoe to be incredibly Gluten Free Friendly.
Groceries were simple in South Lake Tahoe with a Safeway that had everything that we hadn’t picked up in Carson City, NV a few days prior. Speaking of, Carson is a great location to fill up on cheap gas, restock your groceries and supplies, and enjoy the dry heat before heading into the Tahoe Basin. We found gas in Nevada to be over $1/gal cheaper than buying in California.
Rachael’s Pick in Tahoe
As mentioned above, there is an excellent Farmer’s Market in Tahoe City on Thursdays that had a ton of fresh produce, gluten free pastries, fine wines and cheeses, and even live music. We highly recommend scheduling your time in TC to include the Common’s Beach Farmer’s Market. We picked up some gluten free goodies from Sugar Pine Cakery and pick up some raw white cheddar from Spring Hill Cheese, the cheese was unreal!
A quality of life indicator that we look for in our travels and observations of potential new homes is the abundance and quality of the outdoor stores in the area. Despite a moderate addiction to Amazon and REI (we are working on cutting back…) we would really prefer to live in a place that has a decent and affordable outdoor store for when our gear breaks or we feel the urge to upgrade. On day one of our 13-day trek, the shoulder strap on my cheap, 6-year old pack broke, snapped right off at the seam. We rigged it up and got into Tahoe City on a bum strap and shoulder from the maldistributed weight.
The folks at Alpenglow Sports saved the day! Not only did they carry Osprey packs, the brand that I have been eyeing for years, but they also had a knowledgeable sales person that had hiked most of the TRT and knew exactly what type of pack to suggest. She helped me pick out a really solid pack at the price point that we were comfortable paying. They even let me try it on, load it down with weight, and walk around the store with it to make sure it fit just right. Did I mention that we hadn’t showered in 7 days?
*A bonus perk of Alpenglow Sports is that if you are thru-hiking they will let you ship a resupply box to their PO Box and they will hold it for you until you hike into town, FOR FREE! Talk about great customer service!
This is an area that we really don’t get to comment on too often, because we live in our bus and don’t stay in hotels or even campgrounds very often. However, after wearing the same clothes for 13 days with no shower, we decided to splurge on a $50 hotel room in Reno, NV. Accommodations in Tahoe, even during the week, were over $100/night and we simply can’t afford that. The Harrah’s Casino in downtown Reno was cheap, clean, and a great value! We spent a full day relaxing, cleaning and sorting gear, and stuffing our face at the two-for-one buffet. For the money, you really can’t beat a casino hotel after a thru-hike!