North or South Lake Tahoe: What’s the Difference?

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Should you stay in North or South Lake Tahoe? In this post, we break down the main differences and which side might be right for you.

What’s the difference between North and South Lake Tahoe? This age-old question has been one that has stumped many travelers to this beautiful part of the Sierra Nevadas over the years. 

The answer isn’t always a straightforward one because, of course, it depends on what type of experience you’re looking for in Tahoe. 

Luckily, you can always visit both sides because it only takes about an hour to drive from South Lake Tahoe to North Lake Tahoe (one way).

But you’ll still probably want to base yourself near where you’ll be spending the most time since you don’t want to spend your whole trip in the car. 

So in this post, I’m going to break down North vs South Lake Tahoe, what to expect from each place, as well as the top things to do, nightlife, places to eat, and where to stay on either side of the lake.

By the end of this post, you’ll know the best area to stay in Lake Tahoe for you. 

lake tahoe region
Exploring secret coves in North Lake Tahoe.

South Lake Tahoe

What to Expect

These days, pretty much anywhere you go along the Tahoe coastline will be developed but South Shore is by far the most developed area of the lake. 

Since the south side is where the majority of people stay when visiting Lake Tahoe, it has all of your modern conveniences in bulk – from fast-food restaurants to gas stations and plenty of shopping.

The north side has these things too, just not at quite the same volume as South Lake Tahoe. 

South Lake Tahoe is also where people go for nightlife. Although there are casinos and bars on both sides, South Lake Tahoe is where you’ll find many of the shows (such as the magic show at The Loft), DJs, annual festivals, and big club events.

So if you’re wanting to explore more of Lake Tahoe at night, this is the place to be. 

But people don’t just stay in South Lake Tahoe for the nightlife and busier atmosphere, this side of the lake is also where you’ll find the best variety of both short and long day hikes, as well as backcountry hikes, especially in Desolation Wilderness. 

In the winter, there are three ski resorts that offer a variety of terrain for different levels of skiers and snowboarders.

North Lake Tahoe offers a lot more options for snow sports, but South Lake Tahoe can be nice if you’re not a serious skier and if you’re just looking for a laidback day or two on the slopes. 

In terms of food, both sides have hundreds of options and a unique foodie scene so I’d say it’s a pretty even mix when it comes to the culinary scene in North Tahoe vs South Tahoe.

One aspect to note though is that South Tahoe does have more options for inexpensive meals and fast food, if that’s your jam. 

Lastly, South Lake Tahoe has a wider range of accommodation options simply because there are more choices.

And if you’re looking for a budget stay for your Lake Tahoe vacation, you’ll find more affordable accommodation options along the south shore compared to the north shore (although there are still plenty of fancy places to stay too). 

So what should you expect with South Lake Tahoe?

A busier atmosphere with more to do at night, all the conveniences you’d find in a city, good hiking options, a wider range of accommodations options, and accessibility to plenty of sights around the lake.

north vs south lake tahoe - what to expect in south lake tahoe

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Towns/Cities in South Lake Tahoe: South Lake Tahoe, Stateline, Zephyr Cove, Glenbrook, Meyers, Emerald Bay, Kirkwood

Places to Eat: Base Camp Pizza Co., Cafe Fiore, Riva Grill on the Lake, Taqueries Jalisco, Artemis Lakefront Cafe, Freshies, Sprouts Cafe, Lake Tahoe AleWorX, The Loft, Sage Room, Ciera Steak + Chophouse, Samurai, Simple Bliss (vegan), Heavenly Donuts

Coffee: Alpina Coffee Cafe, Black Cabin Coffee, Clydes Coffee Roasting Company

Nightlife: Whiskey Dicks, Cabo Wabo, The Turn, Himmel Haus, Lucky Beaver, Sidellis Lake Tahoe, FirE & IcE, Peek Nightclub 

Ski Resorts: Heavenly, Kirkwood, Sierra-at-Tahoe

Beaches in South Lake Tahoe

  • Baldwin Beach
  • Cave Rock Beach
  • Pope Beach 
  • Lester Beach (at D.L. Bliss)
  • Sugar Pine Point State Park Beach
  • El Dorado Beach
  • Kiva Beach
  • Nevada Beach
  • Regan Beach
  • Round Hill Pines Beach
  • Emerald Bay Beach
  • Lakeside Beach
  • Meeks Bay
  • Zephyr Cove 

Hikes in South Lake Tahoe

  • Cascade Falls Trail (1.5 mi)
  • Eagle Falls to Eagle Lake Trail (2 mi)
  • Van Sickle Trail (2.5 mi)
  • Horsetail Falls Trail (3 mi)
  • Granite Lake and Maggie’s Peak (3.5 mi)
  • Echo Lakes Trail (5 mi)
  • Winnemucca Lake Trail (5 mi)
  • Floating Island and Cathedral Lakes Trail (5 mi)
  • Glen Alpine Falls Trail (5 mi)
  • Connector Trail (5 mi)
  • Middle Velma Lake Trail (8 mi)
  • Fallen Leaf Lake Hike (8.1 mi)
  • Rubicon Trail (9 mi)
  • Mt Tallac Trail (9.5 mi)
  • Backcountry hikes in Desolation Wilderness (varies)
south lake tahoe hiking, best part of lake tahoe to visit in summer
Hiking the Rubicon Trail to Emerald Bay in Southwest Lake Tahoe.

Where to Stay

Read our complete guide on where to stay in Lake Tahoe.

North Lake Tahoe

What to Expect

Although North Lake Tahoe is still developed and offers all of the modern conveniences as well, this is definitely the quieter side of the lake.

Things move a little slower here (locals call this “Tahoe Time”) and the general atmosphere is one that’s more laidback.  

Whereas South Lake Tahoe has resorts and big casinos, North Lake Tahoe has more of a mountain town feel to it.

In fact, there are a bunch of small mountain towns that make up the north side of the lake, such as Truckee, Incline Village, and Tahoe City, among others. 

North Lake Tahoe is a little less accessible to some of the top sights, although only by 15-20 minutes more driving time compared to South Lake Tahoe. 

With that said, I find the beaches to be more scenic in North Lake Tahoe (like Sand Harbor State Beach) and there are plenty of less popular hiking trails nearby that are beautiful for a day hike.

North Lake Tahoe is also located not far from the Truckee River if you’re looking to do a whitewater rafting trip in the summer. 

This side of the lake is probably where you’d want to stay in the winter for the best skiing and snowboarding options. It has the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America – 12 in total! 

And if downhill skiing or snowboarding isn’t your thing, North Lake Tahoe still takes the cake for snow sports with its top-notch snowmobiling tours and backcountry skiing options.

beaches in north lake tahoe - what to expect in north lake tahoe
Chimney Beach in Northeast Lake Tahoe.

Towns/Cities in North Lake Tahoe: Incline Village, Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Carnelian Bay, Crystal Bay, Truckee, and Tahoe Vista

Places to Eat: Pianeta, The Blue Agave, The Dam Cafe, Moody’s Bistro, Fire Sign Cafe, Christy Hill, Tahoe Tap Haus, FiftyFifty Brewing Company, Drunken Monkey Sushi, Gar Woods Grill & Pier, Jake’s on the Lake, Whitecaps Pizza, Tahoe House Bakery & Gourmet

Coffee: Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, Java Hut, Drink Coffee Do Stuff, Coffeebar Truckee

Bars & Live Music: Uncorked, Fat Cat Cafe, Pete N’ Peter’s, The Pioneer Cocktail Club, Crystal Bay Club Casino

Ski Resorts in North Lake Tahoe: Soda Springs, Boreal, Granlibakken, Mt. Rose, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Tahoe Donner, Donner Ski Ranch, Northstar, Diamond Peak, Sugar Bowl, Homewood

Beaches in North Lake Tahoe

  • Sand Harbor
  • Skunk Harbor
  • Chambers Landing
  • Kings Beach
  • Carnelian West Beach
  • Commons Beach
  • North Lake Tahoe Beach
  • Secret Cove
  • Chimney Beach
  • Moon Dunes Beach
  • Lake Forest Beach
  • Coon Street Beach
  • China Cove
  • Hurricane Bay Beach
  • Incline Beach

Hikes in North Lake Tahoe

  • Tahoe Meadows Interpretive Trail (1.2 mi)
  • Skunk Harbor Trail (1.5 mi)
  • Secret Cove and Chimney Beach Loop (2.6 mi) 
  • Shirley Canyon Trail (4.5 miles)
  • Five Lakes Trail (4.5 miles)
  • Tamarack Peak Loop (5.8 miles)
  • Incline Flume Trail (6.5 Miles)
  • Spooner to Marlette Lake Trail (9.5 miles) 
  • Mt Rose Trail (10 miles)
hiking in north lake tahoe, best part of lake tahoe
Hiking the Incline Flume Trail in North Lake Tahoe.

Where to Stay

Conclusion: Should You Stay in South or North Lake Tahoe? Which part of Lake Tahoe is the Best?

When you’re deciding between South Lake Tahoe or North Lake Tahoe, it really comes down to two things – what time of the year you’re visiting and what type of trip you’re looking for. 

Since there is so much to do in South Lake Tahoe on or near the water, this area can be the best part of Lake Tahoe to visit in the summer (think long sandy beaches, fantastic hiking trails, and water sports).

If you’re visiting in the winter, North Lake Tahoe is probably the better option if you’re looking to do snow sports.

Although both sides offer a plethora of snow activities, North Lake Tahoe has more options when it comes to skiing and snowboarding, and other snow sports such as cross-country skiing. 

With that said, I think the time of year is probably secondary to the type of trip you’re looking for. 

If you’re traveling with family, planning a romantic weekend away, looking for a relaxing and laidback experience, or simply a less busy atmosphere, I’d recommend staying in North Lake Tahoe. 

If you’re looking to be in the midst of the action, traveling with a group of friends, looking for good nightlife, backcountry hiking, budget options, or more accessibility to popular sights like Emerald Bay and Zephyr Cove, I’d recommend staying in South Lake Tahoe. 

In general, if it’s your first time to the lake, I recommend sticking to the South Shore because it’s a good introduction to Lake Tahoe and it’s close to so many of the most popular sights.

Then once you’re on your second or third visit, North Lake Tahoe can be a nice change of pace with its more laidback nature.

All up, if you’re trying to figure out the best side of Lake Tahoe to base yourself in, don’t stress too much. It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to the Lake Tahoe region.

No matter which side you choose, it’s such a beautiful and fun place to visit that it would be hard to not have a good time at the lake.

difference between north and south lake tahoe

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Mimi McFadden
Founder & Editor-In-Chief

Mimi McFadden initially started The Atlas Heart in 2013 to write about her adventures abroad. But since 2019, The Atlas Heart has become a love letter to the Golden State. Mimi enjoys sharing her first-hand knowledge and expertise with the places she knows so well and making the most comprehensive travel guides possible. When she’s not hiking and exploring new places in California, she loves to travel abroad, read in her cozy chaise lounge, play basketball, and connect with friends and family over board games. Over her 28 years in California, she has lived in Santa Cruz (18 years), San Diego (5 years), and the San Francisco Bay Area (5 years), where she currently resides.

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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.


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