3 Days Exploring Lake Tahoe and Road Tripping to Yosemite National Park
Updated: Sep 22
Spend a long weekend taking in the trails and dining of Lake Tahoe and add on a day trip that packs the best of Yosemite National Park into one day.
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Lake Tahoe Hiking
The hiking trail options below are assuming you are staying near South Lake Tahoe. See Lodging for more information. On your way to a trailhead, stop at Inspiration Point for panoramic views of Lake Tahoe and a photo. You can do one or multiple of these hikes in a day or hike in the morning and then relax at a beach in the afternoon.
1. Rubicon Trail- A 4.5-mile trail each way. You will start in D.L. Bliss Park and end in Emerald Bay State Park. You can add 2 miles to go to Vikingsholm (see #2 below). The trail wraps around the edge of the lake, with lake views most of the way. There is an elevation gain of 1,381 on the trail which is mainly in a couple of areas. Much of the trail is flat.
2. Emerald Bay/Vikingsholm- This hike can be added to the hike above or can be a stand alone hike down to Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm. Vikingholm is Scandinavian designed home that was one of the first homes built on the lake in 1929. Tours are offered of the home as well. The hike is one mile down into the bay, dropping 500 feet in elevation and then 1 steep mile back up.
3. Eagle Falls and Eagle Lake Trail- This hike is 2 miles each way, and has 383 feet in elevation gain with some carved stairs. It leads to upper views of Eagle Falls and then the trail continues on to Eagle Lake.
4. Rubicon Peak Trail- This trail is a 3.6 mile loop with 2,087 feet in elevation gain. It is a less popular trail (ie less crowded!) and you’ll earn 360 degrees of the lake from the top. To find the trail follow Highland Road to where it dead ends and park there. Then hike up Lonely Gulch for 1.6 miles until you are on Rubicon’s ridge. Follow the ridge for slightly under a mile to reach the peak.
5. Cascade Falls Trail- A 1.5 miles round trip hike. To access this trail park near the Bayview Campground across from Inspiration Point. The trail leads to the top portion of the Cascade Falls and gives panoramic views of the Lake on the way up.
See “Where to Eat” for dinner options in the evening.
One Day Road Trip to Yosemite National Park
*For this road trip day I recommend packing lunch and snacks. Then you can maximize your time hiking and seeing sites, rather than buying food.”
Wake up as early as possible to drive to Yosemite. It is a four hour drive from South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite. Once in Yosemite National Park there are two main roads that are each one ways. Southside Drive is a one way road heading east into the Valley. Northside Drive is a one way road that heads west out of the Valley. A useful map on the national park webpage is here.
I would recommend starting your Yosemite day at the Tunnel View viewpoint. It gives panoramic views of much of the park, including Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls in the distance. Next stop at Bridal Veil Falls and take the short 5 minute, .5 mile walk to view the falls up closer. Drive further into the park and then park your car as close as possible to whichever trail option(s) you chose. Traffic in the park is time consuming, so parking then biking or walking to sites is easiest.
There are a couple hike options you can accomplish in one day along with seeing the main sites. Which hike(s) options you choose will depend on how early you were able to arrive at the park and how late you want to stay.
Trail options to fit in a one day visit:
Mirror Lake - A 2 mile round trip hike to a lake with reflecting views of the surrounding rock formations and forest.
Vernal Fall- You can hike part of the trail to either of the below points. The trail continues on to Nevada Falls as well, but the long hike there would be hard to fit in a day with other stops.
Vernal Fall Footbridge- 1.6 miles round trip, 400 foot elevation gain, 1-1.5 hours. The first part is paved, but the trail gradually becomes steeper.
Top of Vernal Fall- 2.4 miles round trip, 1,000 foot elevation gain, 3 hours. This is a steeper, tougher hike.
After the hike(s) drive, walk or bike to see Yosemite Falls up close on the 1 mile lower Yosemite Fall trail. Yosemite Falls is the third tallest waterfall in the world. The walk around the lower park of the falls was the most crowded part of the park, but was still worth seeing. To hike to the top of the Falls is 7.2 miles round trip with a 1,000 foot elevation gain, so it is hard to fit in a day trip.
After seeing the lower falls, walk to the open area near Sentinel Bridge. In this area you’ will be able to take classic Yosemite pictures with all of Yosemite Falls in the background.
On your drive heading out of the park, pull over by El Capitan. Use binoculars and watch advanced rock climbers on the granite rock.
Fallen Leaf Lake Hiking and Lake Tahoe Paddle boarding
I would recommend spending the morning visiting a smaller glacial lake near Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake. Its waters are so clear you can see pebbles and tree roots below the surface.
A couple hike/walk options near Fallen Leaf Lake are:
1. Fallen Leaf Lake Road- A paved trail/road that wraps around half of the lake for 7.8 miles. Park near the Fallen Leaf Lake Campground and walk towards the lake to see it’s clear waters up close. There is also a waterfall near the start of the trail. As you follow the road you can cut in towards the lake at various campgrounds and beaches. We followed along the lake staying close to the lake and campgrounds instead of on the paved road. There’s no clear trail the whole way if you aren’t on the road, but it’s hard to get lost following the lake. You can turn around when you hit private property.
2. Lake Aloha- A 12.5 mile loop trail with 1,873 feet in elevation gain. The trail will wrap around 5 glacial lakes, including Echo Lake.
In the afternoon head back to Lake Tahoe and go paddle boarding or kayaking. I would rent a paddle board or kayak near Meeks Bay and then paddle through Rubicon Bay to see areas of the lake different from where you hiked on day one. The turquoise blue waters in Rubicon Bay are stunning. If you are an avid kayaker you could kayak all the way back down to Emerald Bay where you hiked on day one. West Shore Sports offers rentals in the Meeks Bay area. Rentals start at $20/hour.
For our last night we took a sunset boat cruise around the lake with Tahoe Cruises on their Safari Rose boat. The sunset views out on the water made the cruise worth the outing. Don’t expect a luxury experience though (their website is a bit deceiving). The boat decor is dated and they serve inexpensive beers, chips and salsa and cheese cubes. It’s a fun experience if you know what to anticipate though. The cruise was $90 per person with drinks and snacks included.
Build an Itinerary with a Lake Tahoe Stop
When planning a trip to Lake Tahoe, try to strategize your days according to the day of the week. Aim to visit Yosemite on a weekday to avoid crowds, even more ideally Monday through Thursday. Also avoid Yosemite around US summer Holidays.
This itinerary works well as a stand alone long weekend trip, but if you are doing a longer road trip out West you could add it on to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone as well.
Lodging Recommendations for Lake Tahoe
We stayed in a home rental for this trip to be able to make our own breakfasts, wash clothes, make packed lunches and afford better views and space to spread out within our budget. Check both Airbnb and VRBO for rental options in Lake Tahoe. We stayed closer to the South side of the lake. Booking a place near South Lake Tahoe will make the drive to and from Yosemite shorter. South Lake Tahoe is also known for having the better hiking options. It is a 72 mile drive to drive around the full lake, so be aware of where you do end up booking for driving distances to dinners, hikes and Yosemite.
What to Wear And Pack for a Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Trip
Read My Packing List for more recommendations on specific gear.
What to Wear
Hiking boots or shoes
What to Pack
A daypack for hiking and biking
A Water bladder or water bottle for hiking
Binoculars for animal sightings and rock climber viewing in Yosemite
A collapsible cooler for the National Park road trip days. You could also buy one at a grocery store once you arrive.
Where to Eat while in Lake Tahoe
Many of the restaurants around Lake Tahoe close early, so check a restaurant’s hours before making plans.
Riva Grill on the Lake- This restaurant is an option for after a sunset cruise or in lieu of a sunset cruise. It has lake and sunset views from its indoor seating and expansive patio. They offer a classic American menu including burgers, seafood and steak.
West Shore Cafe- A fine dining option with a dining room designed to show off its lake views.
Getting Around in Lake Tahoe
To follow this itinerary you will need to rent a car. Several of the roads around Lake Tahoe do wind around the edge of mountains, so be prepared for mountain driving.
When to go to Lake Tahoe This is a spring or summer based itinerary but Lake Tahoe is also known for its skiing. You can visit Lake Tahoe year round but your choice in activities will vary depending on the season. The waterfalls in Yosemite only have water flowing November through July. May is the best month to visit Yosemite to see the waterfalls at their peak.
Additional Reading: My Packing List Trip Dates: May 3rd-May 7th, 2019 Article Updated: June 2020.