How about a road trip that takes you across California from one of the world’s most fascinating cities to a world of mountains, pines, and pristine alpine lakes? Along the way, you’ll visit interesting museums and historic sights. And the entire trip involves only about 4 hours of driving. The San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip can take a weekend or as long as a week, depending on how often you stop.
This road trip is best enjoyed between May and October. In the winter or early spring months, you may encounter road closures due to heavy snowfall. If you want to take a winter ski trip to Lake Tahoe, check ahead to be sure you can safely drive there. Once the roads are cleared of snow, you can zip along without a care.
Here are some stops to consider on this stunning road trip.
Start on the West Coast of California, where you can spend a day or longer in San Francisco before hitting the road.
If it’s your first time in San Francisco, plan to see all the sights that make this city unique. The Golden Gate Bridge, the symbol of the city, is yours to walk across or gaze upon from a distance. You can also rent a bicycle and pedal over the bay and back on the bridge. Go to Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoy the fresh seafood. Ride the clanging cable cars. Shop at Union Square inside Coit Tower and see the 1930s frescoes on the curved walls. End your day with a hot fudge sundae at the original chocolate factory, Ghirardelli.
When you are ready to head out, take Interstate 80 over the Bay Bridge. There’s a small toll to cross this recently updated bridge. You can stay on Interstate 80 the entire drive to the Lake Tahoe area. This road trip will land you on the north end of the lake and covers several interesting stops along the way. The route to South Lake Tahoe starts out the same, then turns south in Sacramento. I’ve taken both, and I find the northern route more fun and scenic.
Davis is a great place to get out and stretch your legs after driving for a little over an hour. This university town on Interstate 80 has a vibrant, youthful feel. The University of California, Davis runs the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. It’s open to the public, and you’ll love the 100 acres of sunny gardens.
Another place to check out in downtown Davis is the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. Located in Central Park, this museum showcases bicycles from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Posters, photographs, and racing outfits are also on display. Davis won the bid for relocation of the hall of fame from the Eastern U.S. because it is known as a bicycle-friendly town.
This is the one major city on this road trip. So if you want to break up your trip with an overnight stay, Sacramento will provide the greatest variety of hotels and restaurants. It’s about 15 miles east of Davis. Here are some activities that will give you a sense of the city.
The California State Railroad Museum features restored locomotives and railroad cars. Some date to 1862! The First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the country’s East and West Coasts ran through Sacramento. The museum tells the story of this significant railroad. Exhibits cover the building of the tracks, the influence of the railroad on life in the U.S., and the stories of those who worked on the early trains. Railroads carry a certain romance, and it’s a treat to board these old cars and imagine days long ago when trains were a vital part of life.
Sacramento is also the state capital. You can enjoy the grounds of the California State Capitol Park, with its shade trees brought in from different countries. Look for the California Veterans Memorial here. If you book ahead, you can also tour the California State Capitol Museum.
At Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, you can tour a fort that was built in 1841. This adobe structure has been restored and in 1961 was named a National Historic Landmark.
This small town about 35 miles east of Sacramento is not well known but makes a charming stop.
In Auburn, you’ll be transported to the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s, and you can visit authentic shops and restaurants from those glory days. You’ll also find the old fire station and post office.
Donner Memorial State Park
You are entering mountain country as you drive the 80 miles along Interstate 80 to Donner. The terrain changes from dry hills to stands of pine. You are driving into the Sierra Nevada. When you reach Donner Memorial State Park, you are almost at Lake Tahoe. A stop here provides different activities and is worth a couple of hours or longer, depending on whether you want to hike.
History connects the name of this area to a tragic event. Pioneers came through the area in the mid-1800s as they were traveling west to Sacramento and San Francisco. In the winter of 1846, the Donner Party, delayed by a series of problems, waited a day too long to push west. Massive snowfall trapped the group for the entire winter. Many of them didn’t survive. You can see the sites of their makeshift homes and learn more about that winter at the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center. Plan to spend about an hour seeing the exhibits and walking around the cabin sites.
The Pioneer Monument is easily visible from the highway, since it’s 22 feet tall. The monument honors the pioneers who crossed the Sierra on their journey west in the 1800s. Turn off here to get to the visitor center.
Donner Lake is a short way through the trees from the visitor center. You can walk around this flat lake for a pleasant, easy hike. Donner Park has a system of more than 8 miles of hiking trails, and maps are available at the visitor center.
Squaw Valley Ski Resort In Olympic Village
Just past Donner Memorial State Park, turn south off Interstate 80 onto Highway 89. You’ll marvel at the granite mountains and catch glimpses through the majestic pines of the Truckee River. About 15 miles along Highway 89, look for signs for the turnoff to Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Olympic Village. Follow the turnoff for a few miles, and you’ll arrive at the village that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Among the activities offered in the area, one of my favorites is a ride on the Aerial Tram. Board the spacious car, and you’ll be whisked up 2,000 feet in 7 minutes. The views of the valley and Lake Tahoe below are breathtaking. Alight at High Camp, where you can ice skate or relax in the pool and hot tub. Grab lunch at the restaurant and sit outside to take in the panoramic views.
The Squaw Valley Adventure Center is a place for all kinds of outdoor activities in Squaw Valley. Whether you play miniature golf or challenge yourself on the ropes course, you’ll love being out in the fresh mountain air.
Drive back to Highway 89 from Squaw Valley, continue south for 8 miles, and you will reach the shores of Lake Tahoe in Tahoe City.
You can rent bicycles to ride on the paved path along the lake or rent a kayak and paddle into the water. Stand-up paddleboarding is also popular on the lake. The Truckee River is a great place for rafting when the water level is high enough, and you can rent a raft and take off from Tahoe City.
When you’re in Tahoe City, park and take a close-up look at the Lake Tahoe Dam in the center of town. This is the only outlet of the 70-mile-round lake. The dam opens to regulate the top 6 feet of Lake Tahoe by allowing water to flow into the Truckee River. A display of historic photos is on the back side of the dam, and a small museum is located on the shoreline. A visitor center next door to the dam is a good restroom stop and offers gifts and books related to the area.
Tahoe City, though small, is a great base for a day or two of exploring Lake Tahoe. The Sunnyside Lodge is right on the lake a few miles south of Tahoe City. If you want to stay in the center of downtown, try the Basecamp Hotel. And if you prefer to stay in nearby Squaw Valley, the Red Wolf Lodge is an elegant choice.
If you venture farther south along Highway 89, you will reach South Tahoe, with an altogether different sort of vibe. The lake is there, but you’ll also find high-rises and casinos. I recommend staying in the quieter areas on the north end of Lake Tahoe for a more peaceful visit. Venture south for an evening of good food, entertainment, and noisy slot machines, and then return to your cozy accommodation in the north.
You’ll have no problem finding places to eat, whether you’re craving seafood, Mexican food, deli sandwiches, or ice cream. And you can happily picnic anywhere along the shore -- on one of the benches, on a rock, or in your camp chairs.
A road trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe allows you to explore historic Gold Rush country, one-of-a-kind museums, mountain trails, and sky-blue lakes. You’re sure to enjoy this amazing road trip.