Travel

Follow Your Bliss to the Most Stunning Lake Paradise in America

For anyone who enjoys a view, a hike, a game of blackjack, or a zen-like dip.

Cavan Images/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Getty Images

Taken on its own, Lake Tahoe is a marvel. Isolated and expansive, its deep turquoise waters are flanked by the pine-cloaked Sierra Nevada mountain range in a loose bear hug. The area is marked by large boulders deposited by geologic faults and mountainous glaciers millions of years ago.

It’s the sum of those parts-and its unique location straddling the California/Nevada line-that makes Tahoe one America’s greatest lake destinations. An hour south of Reno and three east of San Francisco, it’s a land where hikers can explore the dense forests on the California side, blissfully unaware of the casino-based debauchery happening over in Stateline, Nevada… or feel free to join in after a dip in the lake.Although there are people lucky enough to live here year round, for the most part Lake Tahoe was built to host visitors. Towns like Stateline and Incline Village have populations of well under 10,000, but you’ll find high-rise casino hotels, block after block of restaurants, golf courses, hiking trails, and ski resorts among them. It’s no wonder the sidewalks buzz year-round with gamblers, nature lovers, and adventure seekers.

The region is a great equalizer, full of flip flops in summer and knit hats in winter, making it impossible to know whether you’re standing next to a weekending Silicon Valley millionaire or a local ski bum at any given moment. It’s a tossed salad of humanity where everyone is bound together by a shared love of the lake. Here are the best things to do once you heed its call.

Stephen Simpson/Stone/Getty Images
Stephen Simpson/Stone/Getty Images
Stephen Simpson/Stone/Getty Images

Dip in the crystal waters of Lake Tahoe

The water in Lake Tahoe is so clear, there are places where you can gaze 70 feet into its depths from the comfort of a kayak. The lake gets a lot deeper than that, though. Lake Tahoe is one of the deepest lakes in the world, plunging 1,600 feet in some places. It’s 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, which means despite being one of the most popular vacation destinations in the west, the water rarely seems overcrowded.

While it might not be entirely accurate to say that there are secret beaches in Lake Tahoe, there are plenty of less-populated spots off the beaten path, including incredible diving spots and traditionally nude beaches.

Whale Beach and Secret Cove in Carson City, Nevada are both a bit of a hike to get to, but the secluded views of the lake and the densely forested Sierra Nevada range are spectacular at both locations. These were traditionally nude beaches, but recently rangers have been enforcing a more PG-13 vibe… though it appears many didn’t get the memo.

Anjelika Gretskaia/Moment/Getty Images
Anjelika Gretskaia/Moment/Getty Images
Anjelika Gretskaia/Moment/Getty Images

Angora Lakes is another must-see while you’re in the area. You’ll have to hike a mile uphill to get there, but one of the lakes is noted for the sheer rock cliffs that frame the far side. Local divers swim or paddle their way across to jump off from ledges ranging from 20 feet to 60 feet high. Even if you’re not brave enough to make the leap yourself, it’s exciting to watch from the safety of the shore. Just be sure to get there early: the parking lot and the sandy area around the lake fill up fast.

Floating on the lake is an awe-inspiring experience since the water is so blue it seems to melt into the sky. If you don’t have a truck or roof rack, Lake Tahoe Kayak Rentals will deliver stand-up paddleboards or kayaks to the beach. For more adventurous types, Tahoe Sports will take you parasailing or rent out powerboats, jet skis, or party boats for an adrenaline-fueled experience.

Cavan Images/ Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/ Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/ Cavan/Getty Images

Tackle some of California’s most scenic trails

The best views in Lake Tahoe are found from the many hiking trails surrounding the lake, including the 2.6-mile out-and-back trail known as Monkey Rock. Named for a large primate-shaped boulder at the top, the stone formation is natural, but at some point an unknown local artist chiseled and enhanced it so they’ll be no mistaking its ape-like form. This trail is only moderately difficult, making it relatively easy to catch the impressive views at the top.

For more experienced hikers, the 10.5-mile trail at Mount Tallac can be punishing at times, but the vistas of Lake Tahoe from nearly 10,000 feet are worth it. If a simple stroll is more your speed, the 2.6-mile point-to-point Tahoe East Shore Trail in Nevada’s Incline Village is an easy hike with views of the water and walkways down to the beach. The trail is extremely accessible with pavement smooth enough for strollers or wheelchairs.

BX Photography/Moment/Getty Images
BX Photography/Moment/Getty Images
BX Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Rocket down the slopes around Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a beach town that blossoms into a ski town in winter (or the other way around depending on how you look at it), and there are many options for all skill levels.

Even if you don’t ski, the Scenic Gondola Ride at Heavenly Ski Resort offers incredible views of the lake, forest, and mountain peaks. Although you can ride the gondola year-round, it is especially breathtaking when the region is covered with snow in winter. For skiers, the resort is phenomenal, whether you just want to enjoy the views on the beginner slopes or challenge yourself with 4,800-acres of off-grid terrain.

Meanwhile, at Squaw Valley Ski Resort – whose name is soon to change to something less offensive – skiers can lose themselves on 30 chairlifts spread out over 3,600 acres, while Tahoe Donner is ideal for beginners and families looking to escape the bigger crowds.

Take your chance at the casinos

When people think about “downtown Lake Tahoe,” they’re usually thinking about an area called Tahoe South, where Stateline, Nevada joins South Lake Tahoe, California. The two towns share a bustling main street, but since gambling isn’t legal in California, all of the casinos are relegated to the Nevada side.

At first glance, these mega casinos might seem at odds with such a ruggedly beautiful place, but there are enough trees, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and bungalow-style motels in the area to make the high rises feel like they are just part of Lake Tahoe, as opposed to the thing that defines it.

On the whole, the casinos here aren’t as glitzy as you’ll find in Vegas, but you’ll still find plenty of neon lights, patterned carpet, live music, game tables, and slot machines to get your fix of gambling and nightlife. If you plan to hop from casino to casino, base yourself in Stateline where you can park your car and walk from the Hard Rock to Harrah’s, Montbleu and more.

Making your way between them is half the fun: The sidewalks are always busy but not in a pushy, hurried way. It’s almost as if everyone has decided to go out for a stroll at the same time. No one is in a rush – in Lake Tahoe, you’ll get there when you get there.

You don’t have to gamble to enjoy walking the sidewalks, though. There are plenty of places to eat, grab a drink, play mini golf, or just revel in the cross-section of people smiling and nodding hello as you pass by.

Lone Eagle Grille
Lone Eagle Grille
Lone Eagle Grille

Sample a big-city food scene with small-town vibes

It might seem that every other restaurant around Lake Tahoe is a sushi joint: The place simply punches above its weight in fresh Japanese cuisine. One of the best spots is Sushi Pier, which offers more than 40 different rolls and a wide selection of sake and sake cocktails. If you’re really hungry after a day in the wilderness, skip the traditional menu and ask for the all-you-can-eat option, which is hands down one of the best deals in all of Lake Tahoe.

Lone Eagle Grille in Incline Village is one of the spendier restaurants in the area. The steaks and craft cocktails are fantastic, but the real draw is its waterfront location. Be sure to make a reservation at sunset when stripes of purple and gold move across the mountains and melt across the sky.

If you want to get away from the tourist areas, Tahoe Tavern and Grill is a great local spot. There’s no view (it’s in a strip mall by a gas station… just go with it), but they serve excellent, reasonably priced pizzas, pasta, and burgers with big-screen TVs to attract sports fans.

adamkaz/E+/Getty Images
adamkaz/E+/Getty Images
adamkaz/E+/Getty Images

Where to stay around Lake Tahoe

If you’re staying in Lake Tahoe for a week or longer, private vacation homes and Airbnbs will usually offer the most flexibility since you’ll have access to practical amenities like a kitchen and laundry facilities. They tend to book quickly, though, so be sure to plan as soon as possible.

For shorter stays or visitors who prefer a hotel, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa, and Casino is located right on the water in Incline Village and offers traditional rooms, suites, and private cottages. Another fantastic, easier-on-the-wallet option is the Stardust Lodge, a refurbished retro motel with a swimming pool and a great location right in the middle of the action in South Lake Tahoe.

Since Lake Tahoe is all about the outdoors, there are also a number of campgrounds, including the primitive sites at the gorgeous waterfront D.L. Bliss State Park. Keep in mind that camping in Lake Tahoe is an extremely popular activity and in most locations reservations need to be made well in advance. That’s okay, it just gives you more time to daydream and plot your perfect Tahoe getaway, and no matter what you’re dreaming of, it’s likely you’ll find it in California and Nevada lake paradise.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Tamara Gane is a freelance writer specializing in food, drink, travel, family, and social justice stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find her work in The Washington Post, NPR, Fodor’s Travel, Reader’s Digest, HuffPost, and more. Follow her on Twitter @tamaragane.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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