There are few places in the world more magical than Lake Tahoe, California in the summertime. The unmistakable smell of hot pine needles, the enchantingly turquoise lakes and rivers, the rejuvenating effects of the cool mountain breeze—all give you the sense that you are away at summer camp without a damn care in the world. Except at this summer camp there’s more beer and less kumbaya.
If you’re a fan of the alpine lakes of the Sierras, then you are undoubtedly familiar with the quaint gold rush town of Truckee, California. Made famous by the chilling story of the Donner Party, Truckee is now more known for it’s high-end dining and shopping than its historic tales of cannibalism (If you have no idea what I’m talking about check out this Wikipedia page).
And even more famous is Truckee’s stunning natural beauty, incredible outdoor activities, and chill ass mountain vibes. With countless journeys over Donner Summit since I was a baby, and now with a permanent Truckee sanctuary (thanks to my amazing Mother), I have come to know the Truckee/North Lake area incredibly well and am very excited to share my top 12 favorite spots with you. These gems you won’t likely find in your average guidebook. These are the hard-earned crème de la crème foods, feels, and funs that are the result of tireless trial and error (poor me!) over the course of my entire life. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
12. The Back Deck of 1882 Bar and Grill – Best enjoyed in the late afternoon or early evening, this drinking establishment gives you a front row seat to the namesake river of this summer haven town. To be honest, I’ve neither gone inside nor ordered anything beyond a beer here, but who needs the indoors (or food!) when you’ve got a cold beverage and a golden hour view of the glorious Truckee River.
11. Bass Factory Outlet – This strip mall treasure has become an ongoing joke in my family. After years of my Mom gushing over the Bass Factory Outlet, I finally meandered in there on an unusual gloomy afternoon and over the course of a 30-minute super sale shopping spree, I quickly became Bass Outlet’s new #1 fan. I tell everyone who visits Truckee to pop in—whether you’re looking for hiking boots, a winter coat, or a sundress for dinner that evening—BASS OUTLET HAS IT ALL…and for discounts you really won’t believe.
10. Donner Lake Piers – While the West End Beach of Donner attracts the majority of the crowds, most visitors pass right by the most prime spots on the lake. As you drive westward on Donner Pass Road with the lake on your left, you will see numerous wooden piers jutting out into the pristine water. Little known fact—these piers are totally fair game for public use! Bring a few chairs and towels and you’ve got yourself a gorgeous (and more serene) site for your day in the sun. I’d recommend arriving before 11am to secure a pier of your own. All of them full? People are generally very easy going about sharing the long pier.
9. El Toro Bravo – The gang is hungry and the lines and price tags at the restaurants downtown Truckee are inducing pangs of hanger. Fear not! El Toro Bravo is the delicious no-brainer that took us way too long to discover. Now we indulge in this to-die-for Mexican food every single time we are up in Truckee. Around since the 80’s, the same family has been serving up the crispiest carnitas and freshest margaritas (go for the pitcher!) for four generations. You can’t miss here, but be warned, the portions are grande and the salsa, completely addicting. Not to mention their colorful back patio perfect for enjoying those summer evenings.
8. Unique Boutique – There’s no better way to get in the funky mountain spirit than with some groovy threads from Unique Boutique. Tucked away in an unassuming building along West River Road, Unique Boutique offers a wide selection of vintage clothing and curious trinkets. Need an outfit for Burning Man? Have a themed party on your calendar? Looking to spice up your wardrobe? The legendary shop owner Viviane is there to support you on your shopping journey.
7. Truckee River Bike Trail – If your ideal day involves getting your body moving, then this bike trail is a must do. The paved path runs right along the stunning, clear-as-can-be Truckee River and is suitable for all levels including children. Pack your bathing suit and snacks, because that river is most definitely going to be calling to you after you work up a sweat.
6. Sierra Hot Springs – Great for the rare chilly day, the Sierra Hot Springs are a great option for couples, groups, and families (children and babies are permitted). A gorgeous 35-minute drive northward, the hot springs have a strong hippie vibe. Swimsuits are optional so this is not the place for the easily offended. There are both indoor and outdoor sulfur pools, offering a beautiful setting for a meditative soak. Prices range from $20 – $35 depending on the day and amount of time you want to spend there.
5. Tacos Jalisco – Just a few minutes walk from Kings Beach’s main beach, Tacos Jalisco is THE place to go to for lunch. The dive-y Mexican joint offers all sorts of delicious street-style Mexican foods (as well as a tasty salsa bar), but I have never veered away from the ultimate lunch deal: two fish tacos and a Corona for $7.99. I mean…talk about the perfect summer combination. If you like good food for great prices, Tacos Jalisco will be your jam.
4. Old Abandoned Railroad Tunnel/China Wall – Part Indiana jones adventure, part art gallery, the graffiti filled tunnels atop Donner Pass Summit attract hikers, photographers, and hooligans alike. This historic railroad built by Chinese immigrants features colorful graffiti covering almost every surface of the rock and cement tunnel. After a short walk uphill (past some ancient Native American petroglyphs), hook a left atop China Wall and enter the caves walking eastward. I’d recommend a flashlight or at least the light on your phone to make your way through some of the darker stretches. But not to fear, it quickly transitions to a portion with large rectangular openings in the cement with light pouring in dramatically. Continue down the tunnel and you’ll come across a larger opening that provides access to the outside where you can take in a stunning view of Donner Lake and the surrounding mountains.
3. Shirley Lake Hike – Not for the faint of heart, this hike is a gorgeous athletic endeavor with so many rewards for your hard work. The trailhead is located at Squaw Valley and if you look straight up, that’s where you’re headed! The 4.4 mile trail takes you 2,000 feet up through stunning natural features: ginormous granite slabs, green meadows, quaint creeks, and jaw-dropping vistas. And the best part is, if you make it all the way to the summit, you can ride the Squaw Valley gondola down the mountain for free. Bring plenty of water and I’d highly recommend bringing along a sandwich to enjoy beside Shirley Lake near the top of the mountain. Which brings me to my next recommendation…
2. Full Belly Deli – OMGOMGOMG. Foodies listen up! No, anyone who has ever eaten, listen up! This place is the ultimate sandwich or burrito indulgence. Full Belly is absolutely perfect for the morning after too many drinks at Truckee’s high altitude, or to bring along for an adventurous day in the sun. With several of their bread options baked FRESH in house every day, there are so many winners on this menu, you cannot believe it. Call it cheat day, leave your vegetarian habits back home in the Bay Area, and just indulge. It will so be worth it. Heads up that they are weirdly closed on Sundays.
1. Secret Cove/Chimney Beach –Everyone loves a place with secret in the name! Not many people wander past the temptations of the easy parking that Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe has to offer. And while I’ve got nothing against Sand Harbor (except for, like, the masses of shoobies), the slightly more adventurous privacy seekers should mosey down the road just a little bit further. Yes, parking is limited along the highway so get there early, BUT once you leap over the guardrail and make your way down one of the many dirt trails, you will be rewarded infinitely as turquoise water beckons to you. Tiny private coves perfect for small groups, huge granite slabs calling for mermaid style sunbathing, a larger cove open to nudists (secret cove), and a slightly larger sand beach (Chimney Beach)—this area south of Sand Harbor is my absolute favorite place in the whole Lake Tahoe area!
I hope these recommendations enrich your next adventure up to the Truckee/Tahoe area! I would not steer your wrong. Feel free to comment with any questions or your favorite gems in the area that I might not know about yet! Happy adventuring!