This weeklong excursion covers two of my favorite places on the planet: Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. I've visited both these mountain regions countless times, yet each time I'm nonetheless awestruck by their beauty. I'd go so far as to credit them for my choice of career: The opportunity to explore natural wonders such as these is what compelled me to be a travel writer.
The trip starts in North Lake Tahoe, winds its way to South Lake Tahoe, and then veers southeast along Hwy. 395 to Mono Lake. From there, it cuts westward on Hwy. 120 and heads up, up, up to the famed Tioga Pass and into Yosemite National Park. In winter months, the scenery is even more spectacular, but Tioga Pass is usually closed due to snow. The inland route, via Hwy. 49, will get you there in winter, but it adds about 4 hours' driving time.
The quickest way to cover this ground is to fly into Reno-Tahoe International Airport and rent a car; otherwise, take I-80 east from the San Francisco or Sacramento airports to Truckee. From there, it's a short drive southward on Hwy. 89 to the north shore of Lake Tahoe. From Yosemite National Park, it's about a 3 1/2-hour drive back to San Francisco.
Be sure to pack comfortable hiking shoes, a swimsuit, a small backpack, plenty of sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and spare cash for the casinos.
Day 1: Bike Ride & Slot Machines
From Tahoe City, head south on West Lake Boulevard for a few miles to Sunnyside Lodge. Check in for 2 nights, make dinner reservations at Gar Woods Grill & Pier tonight and Manzanita tomorrow night, and then have lunch on the deck at Sunnyside and soak in the view. Drive back to Tahoe City to the Olympic Bike Shop. Rent a bike for a few hours and take the scenic paved bike path that follows West Lake Boulevard and the Truckee River. Return the bikes and then drive to Gar Woods (leave time to arrive before sunset). After dinner, drive to the Cal-Neva Casino for some evening entertainment, and then head back to the hotel.
Day 2: Rafting & Lakeside Dining
Eat breakfast at the Fire Sign Café down the street, and then drive to Truckee River Raft Rental in Tahoe City. If you're not into rafting, go on a sailboat cruise instead with Tahoe Sailing Charters. After a leisurely raft trip down the mostly calm, always beautiful Truckee River, have a burger and beers on the riverside deck at the River Ranch Lodge & Restaurant while waiting for the return shuttle. Next, drive to Squaw Valley and ride the cable car to High Camp, where you can explore numerous hiking trails, ice-skate, or admire the view at the Poolside Café. Either walk or take the cable car back to the parking lot, and then walk over to Manzanita for dinner.
Day 3: Picnic Lunch, Beachside Mai Tais & More Gambling
Sleep in, grab breakfast at the hotel, and check out. Stock up on sandwiches and drinks at the deli, stuff them into a backpack, and head south on Hwy. 89 toward South Lake Tahoe. Park at Emerald Bay and walk to Vikingsholm for a lakeside picnic lunch. (I recommend the hike to Eagle Lake as well.) Back in the car to South Lake Tahoe, drive through town (heading east on Lake Tahoe Blvd./Hwy. 50) into Nevada, and check into a lakeside cabin at Zephyr Cove for 2 nights. Drink a mai tai at the beachside bar, and then take a shuttle or taxi back toward the casinos for great sushi and teriyaki chicken at the Naked Fish. Spend the evening at the casinos.
Day 4: Gondola Ride & Lobster
Sleep in, have breakfast at Zephyr Cove Restaurant, and then walk to the pier and board the MS Dixie II for a 2-hour cruise to Emerald Bay. Return to the beachside bar for another mai tai, and then relax at the gold-sand beach in front of your cabin. If you can water-ski or wakeboard, consider renting a boat or jet ski. Around 4pm, hop in the car and head to the Heavenly Resort for a gondola ride to the viewing platform before sunset (wow!). For dinner, drive to Fresh Ketch for oysters, steak, and lobster. Then win your money back at the casinos and/or see a show.
Day 5: Mono Lake & Yosemite
Today's itinerary entails lots of driving, so rise early, eat breakfast at Zephyr Cove Restaurant, gas up the car, and take the Kingsbury Grade to Hwy. 395 (it's a bit confusing to find, so bring a map). Head south to Mono Lake, spend an hour or so at the excellent visitor center, and then head east on Hwy. 120 into Yosemite National Park toward Yosemite Valley. Be sure to stretch your legs at Tuolumne Meadows and walk around a bit, admiring the view. If you can afford it, check into the legendary Ahwahnee Hotel for 2 nights; otherwise, stay either at the Wawona Hotel or at my favorite lodging in Yosemite, the Evergreen Lodge (it's a bit of a drive from Yosemite Valley but worth the trip). Dine at the hotel and call it a night.
Day 6: Tours, Biking & Alpenglow
Sleep in, eat breakfast at the hotel, and take the 2-hour Valley Floor Tour in an open-air tram. Better yet, purchase the Map and Guide to Yosemite Valley, rent bikes at Yosemite Lodge or Curry Village, and take your own tour along the paved trail that winds throughout the valley. When you return the bikes, use the Map and Guide to Yosemite Valley -- which lists an assortment of hikes and short nature walks -- to plan tomorrow's hike while you have lunch at one of the overpriced cafes in Curry Village. Save energy for the long hike on Day 7, and stroll eastward at a leisurely pace into the valley on the John Muir Trail, along the Merced River toward Vernal falls -- it's one of the most scenic trails in Yosemite. Make sure you have a clear view of the valley at sunset to witness the alpenglow. Return to the hotel for dinner. If it's a summer Saturday, mosey over to the Wawona Hotel for their old-fashioned barbecue dinner on the front lawn.
Day 7: Hiking & Drive Home
Rise early, catch a light breakfast, check out (but leave your luggage at the hotel), and unfold your Map and Guide to Yosemite Valley to see which hike best fits your schedule and endurance level. Some of my favorites are the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail (a real thigh-burner but very rewarding) and the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls. Alas, after your hike, it's time to head home. If you're heading to the Bay Area or Sacramento, take Hwy. 120 toward Groveland and follow the signs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.