San Francisco To Lake Tahoe: Getting There & The Best Stops on the Way

Driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe can be a fun adventure through fascinating California towns and landmarks. It can also be a traffic-filled slog! How you experience it depends on your choices before and during your journey.

The drive covers 200 miles and takes about 4 hours to drive directly from the city. But it’s worth taking your time and enjoying the sights along the way, especially if you are traveling through this part of California for the first time or are looking for fun ways to break up the drive.

My dad lives just past Tahoe in Reno, so our family makes this drive often. We have our favorite stops, but I’m always trying to find new gems between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe (surprise, surprise).

The following are my favorite San Francisco to Lake Tahoe finds and some tips for the drive.

Things are always changing! Make sure to double-check for schedule changes and closures before your next road trip.

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First things first: North Lake Tahoe or South Lake Tahoe?

If you’ve never been to Tahoe before, know that this is not your ordinary lake. Lake Tahoe is HUGE! It takes around two hours to drive around it, not including stops. 

The scenic route around the lake is a fun road trip extension, but you need to know if your main destination is on the North or South Shore.

North Lake Tahoe

Playing on the beach in Tahoe City
Playing on the shores of Commons Beach in Tahoe City

The northern side of the lake isn’t without its population centers, but it’s more laid back and family oriented than South Lake Tahoe. If you’re looking for a relaxing lakeside getaway near unforgettable outdoor adventures, this side of the lake is for you.

Popular attractions in North Lake Tahoe include Palisades Tahoe, Incline Village, Sand Harbor, King’s Beach, and Tahoe City. 

The most direct route to North Lake Tahoe is via Interstate-80.

South Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is one of the best places to visit in California in December - as seen from the Heavenly Gondola
Views of Lake Tahoe from the Heavenly Gondola

South Lake Tahoe is famous for the area near the California / Nevada Stateline. It features casinos, restaurants, shops, and the Heavenly Ski Resort. This area has the most nightlife, and I always had a great time here in my early twenties. Sigh.

Popular spots in South Lake Tahoe include Emerald Bay, Camp Richardson, Heavenly, Zephyr Cove, and the Mt. Tallac Trail. 

The most direct route to South Lake Tahoe is via Highway 50.

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe: Road Trip Stops Before Sacramento

Sacramento's Tower Bridge
Sacramento’s Tower Bridge

Whether you take US 50 or I-80, the drive will be the same until you pass Sacramento.

Some worthwhile stops along the way are:

Breakfast in Berkeley

Berkeley may be too early for you to stop. But if you want to kick off your getaway with a delicious breakfast, there are some great options here. 

Anyone who knows anyone from Berkeley probably knows that foodie culture runs deep here. Alfred Peet started Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley in the 1960s. Alice Waters invented “Californian cuisine” at Chez Panisse here in the 1970s. And today you can still find inventive and delicious eats from all over the world…sometimes at student-friendly prices. 

For a great breakfast option, especially on a day warm enough to enjoy the patio, head to Tomate Cafe. This neighborhood spot is on the route and has one of the best casual breakfasts in town.

The Jelly Belly Factory

Just a bit further up the road, the Jelly Belly Factory is a fun stop with kids. 

A highlight for many visitors is the self-guided factory tour. You can also ride the Jelly Belly Express Train to the Museum to learn how this candy empire began. 

Don’t forget to stop at the Candy Store on your way out!

The Nut Tree

The Nut Tree calls itself “California’s legendary road trip stop.” It officially turned 100 in 2021. I don’t know about “legendary,” but I always looked forward to coming here when I was a kid.

These days I see it as a large shopping plaza with several fast-casual restaurants and coffee shops. You can find anything from sushi to Five Guys here. 

Families still enjoy a spin on the carousel, a ride on the No.5 Train, and a Fenton’s Ice Cream sundae after lunch.

Winters, CA

Take a 20-minute detour from I-80 to visit the town of Winters, recently named one of the most charming small towns in California. 

As you walk downtown, you’ll notice historic buildings and beautiful trees. The town’s history is evident at every corner, from the train trestle bridge to the centuries-old brick storefronts that now house unique shops and boutiques.

Craft beer lovers appreciate Winters’ location in Yolo County’s “beer-muda” triangle. Located in a former fruit-packing facility, Berryessa Brewing Company fills its patio with food trucks and live music on the weekends. Downtown, family-owned Hooby’s Brewing is a fun stop for all ages with menu items like Pretzel Bratwurst and Churro Waffles. 

Pedrick Produce

Pedrick Produce - a great stop for fresh fruit and delicious tamales on the drive from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe
A sunny morning at Pedrick Produce in Dixon

This produce stand is a favorite of my good friend who is a Davis alum. Or rather, her parents. She told me they never made it to Davis for a visit without first stopping at Pedrick Produce on the way. 

If you need to stock up on fresh fruits and veggies before your Tahoe trip, add Pedrick’s Produce to your list. And grab some darn good tamales to your cart while you’re at it!


Learning about Bees at the Davis Honeybee Haven, a free outdoor museum just off I-80
The UC Davis Bee Haven

College towns are always a good bet for a fun road trip stop. 

UC Davis is located just west of Sacramento. The vibrant downtown area has come a long way over the years. When I used to visit friends here twenty years ago, Murder Burger was the go-to local restaurant! These days Sophia’s Thai Kitchen is everyone’s favorite stop. If you can find a parking spot, a stroll downtown is sure to grant you a delicious diversion or two. 

If you’re just curious to see the campus, a walk through the Arboretum makes a great stretch break. We’ve also enjoyed visiting the UC Davis Bee Haven. This unique little outdoor museum teaches visitors all about the importance of bees and pollinator plants. Admission is free.

Old Town Sacramento

Historic Buildings in Old Town Sacramento State Historic Park - a good stop on a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip.
Historic Old Town Sacramento

If you want to take a break right before the I-80 / US 50 split on your way from San Francisco to Tahoe, Historic Old Town Sacramento makes for an interesting wander. 

Sacramento as we know it today began as a gold rush boom town. Under Spain and Mexico, Monterey was California’s Capital. But after California became part of the United States in 1850, the capital was relocated to the gold rush hub and has been there ever since. 

What is now the Old Sacramento State Historic Park was once the western terminus of the Pony Express, the first transcontinental railroad, and the transcontinental telegraph. Today, this historic waterfront neighborhood is one of the best tourist areas in town. You’ll find museums, exhibitions, games, and interactive tours galore. 

Traveling with train lovers? Don’t skip the California State Railroad Museum. This family favorite has immersive displays that take you back to the heydays of rail travel. Enjoy a ride on the rocking sleeping car that lets you imagine being a part of an overnight journey. 

If you have time to stay awhile, join one of the History Museum’s Underground Tours. Led by costumed guides, you are invited to explore the hollow sidewalks and subterranean spaces left behind after Sacramento raised its street level 20 feet in the 1850s. 

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe via Interstate 80

If you’re heading to the north side of Lake Tahoe, follow I-80 past Sacramento. This route takes you over Donner Summit. The area is named for the infamous Donner Party. They were stranded here in 1846 and infamously forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. 

After Donner Summit, you’ll reach Truckee, an adventurous little mountain town, before continuing east to Tahoe.

I-80 is a well-maintained, 4-lane freeway. Of the two main routes to Tahoe, it’s the easier one to drive. If winding mountain roads make you nervous, you can take I-80 to Lake Tahoe and then drive the slower route around the lake once you get there. It’ll add time to your trip, but it’s a nice drive with plenty of Vista points along the way.  

Some favorite road trip stops along this stretch of I-80 are below.

Map of I-80 Stops in this Post

Places mapped by Wanderlog, a trip planner on iOS and Android

Rocklin Quarry Park Adventures

Playing at Rocklin's Quarry Park Adventures
Playing in the Quarry Kidz Kove

Rocklin Quarry Park Adventures is a fun road trip stop for the whole family.

This park offers adventures for everyone. A park built on top of a former rock quarry, they offer rock climbing, rappelling, zip-lining, and more. The Quarry Kidz Kove is a unique playground that features more than 30 elements, from climbing nets and balance beams to a maze for kids ages 3 to 13. 


As you continue north, you’ll find that you’re fully in California’s Gold Country. This is reflected in Auburn’s Old Town district, full of shops, restaurants, houses, and historic buildings constructed in the mid-1800s. Here you’ll meet a 45-ton statue of the miner who first struck gold here in 1848. The town would eventually be named by miners from Auburn, New York.

Today the rivers that cross through Auburn are a big draw for visitors looking to escape the Sacramento heat. The Auburn Confluence Swimming Hole and Lake Clementine, both within the Auburn State Recreation Area, are popular places to cool off nearby.

Ikeda’s Country Market & Pie Shop

At Ikeda’s you’ll be greeted by scores of visitors in Tahoe shirts and hats, also making the trek from the San Francisco Bay Area to Lake Tahoe. This hidden gem is not so hidden anymore. But it’s a good fast-food alternative if you’re feeling peckish just past the halfway point of your drive. 

If you’re staying in a cabin, it is a good spot to stock up on fresh fruit and veggies. And don’t skip the pie for dessert. Ikeda’s is known for their “orchard to fork” pies and offers over 20 delicious varieties of pies and cobblers.

Soda Springs Mountain Resort

Kiddos enjoying Soda Springs Mountain Adventure
Munchkins loving the tubing carousel at Soda Springs’ Mountain Adventure

If you’re traveling to Tahoe in the winter with young kids, Soda Springs’ Mountain Adventure is well worth your time! 

A Jeep-led “sleigh ride” takes you to a snow play area designed just for kids 7 and under. There are tubing carousels, snow volcanoes, and a start park that introduces kids to skiing and snowboarding. All rental equipment is included with your access pass, so kids can try out different sports depending on their ever-changing interests! 

Older kids can head over to Tube Town. Here you’ll find 10 tubing lanes and a magic carpet to make repeat runs easy. Tube Town also has a Family Fun Zone where littles can play and build snowmen while older family members take turns on the hills.

And, of course, skiing and snowboarding is always an option here too. 

Donner Memorial State Park

Exhibit at the Donner Memorial Museum, Donner Pass on I-80, a good stop on a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip
Exhibits at Donner Memorial State Park share stories beyond the Donner Party

As a kid growing up in the Bay Area, I was lucky to spend many summers traveling to Lake Tahoe. And without fail, I would get goosebumps when arriving at Donner Pass on I-80, recalling the little I knew about the ill-fated Donner Party. The group resorted to cannibalism when they were trapped in the Sierras by a winter of relentless snow. 

Recently, we made a stop in Donner Memorial State Park to learn more about the events that took place here. The Park features museum exhibits that provide insight and context into the horrors of the winter of 1846. It also tells the stories of the many thousands of people that made the trek before and after the Donner party, ourselves included. 

The Bay Curious Podcast has an episode on the Donner Party that makes for a fascinating listen when driving in this area. I’m a history nerd and love learning about events while in the landscapes where they happened. The podcast was perfect audio for this leg of the journey.


Shops and restaurants in historic downtown Truckee, a great stop on a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip
Looking for lunch in historic downtown Truckee

More than just a road-trip stop, Truckee is a year-round adventure town in its own right. It has the Tahoe National Forest, Donner Memorial State Park, and Lake Tahoe at its doorstep. 

Truckee boasts a historic downtown with cute restaurants and shops. The downtown depot serves as the main stop for visitors traveling to the area by train (see below). 

Stop here for a dip in Donner Lake or an extended stay filled with rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Traveling in winter? You’re just 10-15 minutes from some of the region’s best ski resorts. 

And while outdoor adventures are the town’s biggest draw, there’s more to this California Cultural District than adrenaline. Slow down and browse original art at Riverside Studios or put your imagination to work at family-friendly Truckee Roundhouse

Palisades Tahoe

Year-round Family fun in the Palisades Village
The Village at Palisades Tahoe offers fun year-round.

Before you get to Lake Tahoe, you’re likely to pass by one of the country’s best ski resorts: Palisades Tahoe. The host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, it’s known for amazing skiing and snowboarding with one of the region’s longest ski seasons. As I write this post in the spring of 2023, Palisades is expecting to extend its ski season into July after record-breaking snowfall!

Another reason I include it here is that this resort also has much to offer non-skiers (like my family). The long-anticipated Aerial Tram opened this year. It offers a 10-minute ride that takes you soaring over the mountains to stunning views of Lake Tahoe. You’ll land at High Camp, 8,200 feet above sea level, where you can hike, roller skate, and even disc golf in the summer. 

A few thousand feet closer to sea level, visitors can embark on Tahoe’s only Via Ferrata, browse the Olympic Museum, make memories on a family-friendly ropes course, or just relax and enjoy a gelato at EuroSweets in the Village.

If you’re ready to leave your car behind, the Truckee River Bike Path is an easy 7 miles into Tahoe City from here! 

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe via Highway 50

To get to South Lake Tahoe, follow US 50, known as “The El Dorado Freeway,” out of Sacramento. This route is narrower than I-80 and often has just one lane in each direction with regular passing lanes. Along this route, you’ll follow the South Fork of the American River and then climb out of the canyon to Echo Summit before descending into the Lake Tahoe Basin. 

If you like slow, scenic, mountain drives, you’ll likely prefer this route. Of course, which you take should be determined by which part of the lake you intend to make your home base. 

Some favorite road trip stops along this stretch of US 50 are below.

Map of US 50 Stops in this Post

Map created using Wanderlog, a road trip planner on iOS and Android


Placerville makes an interesting stop for those curious to learn more about the Gold Rush. It was once the third-largest town in California and a central supply and transportation hub in the region. By 1910, miners had extracted about $25 million in gold from the hills around here. 

Head to the El Dorado County Historical Society, now housed in the old Fountain and Tallman Soda Works building, to learn more. Or get a taste for gold rush-era Placerville at the Buttercup Pantry, the only place in town that still serves the Hangtown Fry. The omelet comes cooked in bacon fat and topped with fried oysters (yum!). Legend has it that a miner struck gold near here. Realizing he could order anything he wanted, he asked for the most expensive ingredients he could find. At the time eggs could cost up to $3 each. In 2023 dollars, that’s about $85 per egg!

For a more contemporary meal, stop at Hwy 50 Brewery. Enjoy craft brews on their big outdoor patio with brick oven pizza and lovely views. 

Apple Hill

Pine-O-Mine in Apple Hill, a great stop for craft beer and BBQ
Pine-O-Mine in Apple Hill offers some great BBQ and Brews

After the gold rush, agriculture became the region’s major industry. Enjoy the fruits of this movement on Apple Hill.

Here you’ll find a large community of family farms. The collective was founded in 1964 and has since expanded to 100 fruit and vegetable farms, bakeshops, wineries, flower gardens, and Christmas tree farms. 

This is a fun area to explore any time of the year, but it kicks into high gear in the fall. A year ago, we were lured by the promise of hot apple cider donuts at Rainbow Orchards. We tasted delicious apples, had a yummy BBQ lunch, and the kids had fun running around and making friends. But the wait time for donuts and pie on an October Sunday was over an hour long! If you want to check it out in the fall, a great time to visit Tahoe, get there early, and go during the week if you can!

Apple Hill is anchored by large farms like Larsen Apple Ranch and Barn and High Hill Ranch. But there are plenty of interesting smaller places to stop at too. Outside of the October crunch, this is a great area to wander agenda-free. 

Hope Valley

If you’re interested in experiencing the less-developed side of the Tahoe area, head to Hope Valley. This has long been a favorite getaway for artists, photographers, fly-fishermen, and day-hikers. 

Like Apple Hill, this area is most popular in the fall, given that it’s the best place in the area for leaf peeping. But, like Tahoe, the area’s unspoiled beauty makes it a draw for nature lovers year-round. 

Grover Hot Springs State Park

Note: This Park was severely damaged during the Tamarack Fire causing popular amenities, including the pools, to close temporarily. Check the park status on the official park page before you go. 

Between Hope Valley and the tiny town of Markleville, you’ll find Grover Hot Springs State Park hidden away in Hot Springs Valley.

Come here for mountain views, wildflower meadows, and large mineral pools fed from six local hot springs. In addition to the pool that is kept between 102 to 104˚ F, there’s a regular swimming pool for when you need a break from the heat. 

The park also offers hiking trails and fishing streams. One of the most popular trails leads to Burnside Lake. After 1.5 miles, you can follow a splinter trail to a waterfall, or continue to the lake. You’ll reach the lake at 5.5 miles, making the trail 11 miles round-trip.  

Tube Tahoe

Mugging for the camera at Tube Tahoe in Meyers, CA
All smiles at Tube Tahoe

As you enter the Lake Tahoe area, you might be itching for an outdoor adventure. If you’re traveling in the winter, Tube Tahoe in Meyers, CA is a fun place to kick things off.

If you can get past the price tag for a 1.5-hour session ($55 each for kids 6-12 and $65 each for everyone over 12), you’ll have a great time tubing here. The price includes all tube rentals as you’re not allowed to bring your own. 

As parents, we liked that tubing felt safe and organized here. They even rent helmets, though wearing them is optional. 

For little kids, there’s a smaller Tubing Hill and Snowplay area that they can play on at a discounted rate. Kids ages 3-5 can go down the big lanes with an adult. 

There’s no magic carpet here, meaning each run comes with a bit of a workout. We found 1.5 hours to be plenty of time for our family!

If there’s not enough snow on the ground, they make it. This allows the season to begin on Thanksgiving weekend no matter the weather.

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Detour: Sonoma and Napa Valley

Family fun at Larsen Family Winery in Sonoma
Plenty of room to explore at the friendly Larson Family Winery

Looking to experience the best of California on this road trip? Consider an overnight detour in wine country.  

For a quick trip, stay in downtown Napa at the southern end of the Valley. Treat yourself to a stay at Hotel Archer, within walking distance of the restaurants, shops, and river walk. Booking a tasting tour is the best and easiest way to explore. Just a 10-minute walk from Hotel Archer you can hop aboard the Napa Valley Wine Trolley at the popular Oxbow Market (note: Trolley ticket price does not include lunch and tasting fees). 

If you’re traveling with kids, a Sonoma detour might make more sense. The most direct route to Sonoma from San Francisco takes you over the Golden Gate Bridge and through Sausalito and Muir Woods. Each is a fun stop in its own right! Family-friendly wineries like Larson offer fun for the whole family with bocce, cornhole, friendly dogs, and even farm animals. Stop and play at Traintown, and book a room at the Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn. The hotel is just a five-minute walk to lively Sonoma Plaza. 

Read more about visiting my favorite wine-country town. 

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Detour: Gold Country Towns

Marshall Gold Discovery Site, California Gold Rush Towns
Discovering California History at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

History-buffs might be interested in taking a slower route through some of California’s gold rush towns. 

If you’re on I-80 heading to North Lake Tahoe, Nevada City is well worth a stop on your way. On the outskirts of town, visitors can experience the Malakoff Diggins Site. The overuse of hydraulic digging at mines like this devastated the landscape, leading to the nation’s first environmental laws. Today’s visitors enjoy swimming, fishing, and hiking, while also joining programs like historic tours, gold panning, and the annual Humbug Day. Enjoy a stroll downtown and a delicious meal at the Heartwood Eatery before continuing to Tahoe. 

The route to South Lake Tahoe passes near some of the gold rush’s most storied locations, including the site where it all began: the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. The park has a replica of the mill that was being constructed when Marshall glimpsed those first fateful nuggets. Walking the trail along the riverfront is both lovely and educational. Being there allows you to experience how the fate of California was forever changed by this discovery.

Read more about our California Gold Country favorites.

Renting a Car to Get from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe

Like most California travel, the routes above require a car. If you need to rent one, we highly recommend starting your search through Discover Cars. This car rental comparison site makes it easy to compare car rental deals from many companies so that you can find the best deal for your travel needs. 

I also like that they include all mandatory fees, taxes, and extras in the quoted price. There’s nothing worse than showing up at a car rental desk to find that the actual price is hundreds of dollars more than expected! 

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Options Without a Car

Tahoe by Train - Amtrak Stop in Truckee, CA
All aboard…head to Lake Tahoe without a car.

This site is all about California road trips, but sometimes finding alternative transportation is well worth the effort! If you’re planning on staying in a popular town center like Tahoe City or South Lake Tahoe, consider avoiding traffic and parking nightmares with one of the following options.

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe by Bus

The most affordable and direct way to get to Lake Tahoe without a car of your own is by bus. Popular services are:

Sports Basement Tahoe Ski Bus

The Sports Basement Palisades Tahoe Ski Bus leaves from downtown San Francisco, Sunnyvale, and Berkeley. You’ll leave early (departures are in the 5 AM zone), but being on a bus allows you to take a nap and wake up just in time for your Tahoe adventure. 

This option allows you to take a day trip with a return on the same afternoon. You can also book your return later that week depending on availability.

If you opt to stay, book a room at the ski-in, ski-out Palisades Tahoe Lodge for an amazing and convenient car-free Tahoe ski trip. 

Sports Basement also offers discounted lift tickets and ski and snowboard equipment rentals. They make a Tahoe ski day as easy as possible.

Greyhound to Truckee, then TART to Tahoe City

The most economical way to get to Tahoe from San Francisco is via good old Greyhound. Buses leave throughout the day and average $35 per ticket. Once you get to Truckee, you can explore the adventurous mountain town or head right into Tahoe City via the TART (Transit for the Tahoe Area) Public Transit System.

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe by Train

If you’re not in the mood to sit in traffic, hop aboard a train from San Francisco to Truckee. It’s not necessarily a faster route – though it may be on a holiday weekend! – but it’s a great option if you want to just relax and enjoy the ride. 

From Truckee, hop on a TART shuttle to Tahoe City. Make sure to check how the train and shuttle schedules align. You’ll want to leave San Francisco in the early morning to make sure you catch the last shuttle into Tahoe at 5:30 pm.

Then again, Truckee is a fun town. Relieve a little timing stress by overnighting here, and then head to Tahoe in the morning. The Truckee Spring Hill Suites is a comfortable stay just a 15-minute walk from the train station. 

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe by Plane

There are some small airports around Lake Tahoe and Truckee, but the most common way to fly to Tahoe from San Francisco is through Reno. Both United and Southwest offer regular flights along this route. 

Flights between San Francisco and Tahoe are usually a little over an hour long. But you have to add in the airport time and the time it takes to get to Tahoe itself.  

The South Tahoe Airporter and the North Lake Tahoe Express are the most popular transit options from the airport. 

How to Get Around Lake Tahoe without a Car

Public Transportation

Public Transportation in Tahoe not only relieves some of the headaches of driving, but most lines are free to use! Linking Tahoe is a great site that shares updated public transportation options around Lake Tahoe. If you’re considering leaving your car behind, this is a good place to start.

Know that traveling between the North and South sides of the lake through public transportation can be a challenge. Most bus services use the nearest city as a hub and travel only in the North or South regions. They usually don’t run the length of the lake.


If you enjoy biking, renting bikes or e-bikes may be all you need during your stay. The Lake Tahoe Bicycle Coalition offers an easy-to-use interactive bike map to help you navigate the region’s bike paths. 

Who needs a car with scenic trails like these anyway? Beautiful bike routes, like the East Shore Trail, are high on the list for our next visit. 

Scenic Tours

If you’re planning on visiting without a car, but want a day to explore other parts of the lake, book a scenic tour. You can sit back and enjoy the scenery without having to worry about keeping your focus on the road.

Ski Shuttles

Skiers should look into resorts with free shuttle options. At the time of writing Heavenly, North Star, Diamond Peak, and Palisades each offer shuttle service to relieve on-site parking pressures.

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe: What to Know Before You Go 

Road Conditions the day we were able to leave Tahoe on 50 after a two day delay - great reason for Road Trip Insurance when going to the mountains!
US 50 the day we were finally allowed to go home!

Lake Tahoe Weather

I love, love, love visiting Lake Tahoe. But one thing you always need to be prepared for is the ever-changing weather. I’ve canceled plenty of trips and tours because of fires in the fall and snowy road closures in the winter. 

I’ve had to extend pricey vacation rental stays when both US 50 and I-80 had weather closures and there was no way out of town. And when we were there for our anniversary this past May, it snowed. No spring waterfall hikes for us.

When you visit Lake Tahoe, bring plenty of layers and check the weather nonstop before your trip! And whatever the season, this is a California location where it’s worthwhile to invest in travel insurance. You can never quite predict what season you’re going to get.

Traffic…oh, the Traffic!

If you have a flexible schedule, avoid driving to Lake Tahoe on Friday and from Lake Tahoe on a Sunday (or Monday if it’s a holiday weekend). Traffic around here is no joke, whether you’re driving to the lake or just trying to get to your next activity. 

On a holiday weekend, the trip time from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe may be double that stated on your mapping platform. This has certainly happened to me more than once. Leave San Francisco for your Tahoe trip around 10 am if possible, ideally on a weekday. 

As with all of California’s hot spots, traveling in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) is much more enjoyable than trying to navigate crowded beaches and slopes in the middle of summer and ski seasons. 

Always be Prepared

So far, we’ve been lucky enough to avoid getting stuck on I-80 and US 50 just before the roads close due to snow. But I’ve seen lines of cars blocked from getting through, and am very aware that it’s possible.

Know that getting stuck going in and out of Tahoe is a real possibility when there’s heavy snow and pack your car accordingly. Carry chains that you know fit your tires if you don’t have 4WD (though we’ve seen them required with 4WD too!). 

Also, pack some blankets, water, and snacks for the car, just in case. I’m a bit superstitious. I always feel that the more prepared I am, the less necessary the items will turn out to be. 

Pack a Good Old Fashioned Map

When you travel through the Sierras, always try to have a paper street map handy. You can count on poor cell service in the mountains. Having a California Atlas with you never hurts. 

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe FAQs

Google Maps (or Apple Maps) will tell you that the drive is approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes. But unless you time it just right, this is rarely the case on these heavily trafficked routes. If you leave after work on a Friday, know that the time could be doubled. I once waited to leave until after the school day, and it took us 7 hours to get to Donner Pass. 

I always aim to leave around 10 am, trying to thread the needle between morning and evening traffic along the way. 

Because Lake Tahoe can get so crowded, visiting mid-week is preferable whenever possible. And even then, the shoulder seasons - spring and fall - offer a less crowded experience. 

Day trips from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe are technically possible, but not advised. It will likely take over 8 hours just driving on the highways between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, without counting the time spent driving to and from activities while you’re there. 

If you only have time for a one-day journey, try to catch a bus like the  Sports Basement Palisades Tahoe Ski Bus. This way you can at least sleep or relax on the road. 

Though all roads into Lake Tahoe take you through the forested Sierras and have lovely viewpoints along the way, in my opinion, the route to South Lake Tahoe along US 50 is the most scenic. Unlike I-80, the road isn’t a large interstate and it winds alongside the American River for much of the drive. 

This depends on where you are staying in Lake Tahoe. If you’re staying in South Lake Tahoe, US 50 is the most direct and fastest route. If you’re staying in North Lake Tahoe, I-80 is the most direct and fastest route.

If you’re leaving on a Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend, consider traveling by train or plane instead!


Road Trip Planning Basics

These are our go-to resources when planning a California road trip!

Rent a Car ↗

Compare car rental deals to find the best price with Discover Cars. All fees and taxes are included in your quote.

Book Your Stay ↗ is our first – and often last – stop for finding great deals throughout the Golden State.

Cover Your Trip ↗

Easily compare and buy travel insurance with, our go-to site for travel coverage.

Final thoughts on driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe

From UC Davis and Old Town Sacramento to quaint farm stands and craft breweries, a road trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe is full of unique sights and experiences. Whether you’re looking to learn something new or just want to take in some breathtaking views, a little creativity makes all the difference on this route! 

There are so many places worth visiting along the way that it can be hard to decide where to stop. No matter what you choose, one thing is certain: your drive through this part of Northern California will be an unforgettable adventure!

Enjoy your Lake Tahoe adventure! And check out more of our road trip favorites:

Not ready to make a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe trip just yet?

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