Tips for YOUR Winter Family Adventure at Lake Tahoe

Earlier this month, I submitted a detailed review to TripAdvisor for the resort where my family and I kicked off 2018 at South Lake Tahoe. While I was writing it, I was inspired to write even more to share with friends who might be interested in visiting South Lake Tahoe soon and who would appreciate some recommendations. I know I sure appreciate others’ insights.  See, my hubby and I have been to various locations around Lake Tahoe, but it was years ago after college while I was in training with the Air Force and we NEVER looked for family activities. We were always there only to ski. So, right before heading up there on the last day of 2017,  realizing we’d be first-time visitors as a family unit, I got fantastic tips from my friend Molly via Facebook about great family hikes and excursions. This post is how I will pay it forward. Enjoy!

Since lodging is what moms and dads fret with the most when planning a vacation of any length, I will recommend Americana Village Resort for families who like to walk as much as possible (it’s a super walkable location near Heavenly Village), for families who enjoy outdoor heated pools and hot tubbing in winter (plus sauna time!) and for families who at least one day of the week, love to truly relax in their room after a series of outdoor excursions.  Read the detailed review here if you want to know more. This post will be about the fun we had AWAY from the resort.

Quick note: the week we were there was depressingly snowless. The mountains, usually bright white all the way around the lake with their snow loads, this week they looked like someone had dusted only the highest peaks with powdered sugar using a sifter. It was bad. Because of the lack-of-snow conditions, we chose NOT to spend the money skiing. Luckily, there are a ton of adventures to be had besides skiing!

WALKING, BOULDER SCAMPERING, and BEACH WALK at Sand Harbor State Beach on the Nevada side.

This location was a fabulous tip from Molly. One of her daughters uses a wheelchair so finding accessible paths in nature is a priority for her family as it is for mine.

We headed to the east side, the Nevada side, and up the highway to the Sand Harbor State Beach exit about 30 minutes up. From there, it’s a lovely drive descending to lake level. $6 parking fee applies (yes, there was a ranger enforcing/ticketing) and you’re greeted with a lovely crescent-shaped beach with a mountain behind it.

We all poured out of the car to the beach to get photos (and to see Heavenly Mountain behind our resort from across the lake.)

The accessible path is a boardwalk that first overlooks a stellar little bay that’s something out of a dreamscape, winds around a point that overlooks a climbable boulder field at lake edge, continues around for GREAT views of the crescent-shaped beach and returns to that beach.

It’s a ten-minute walk that took us an hour and a half because we HAD to climb the boulders (blind child included.) On that walk, we took many, many photos – the natural beauty here is just ridiculously breathtaking. There was also the time we spent breaking in the new sonar fish-finding gadget my hubby got from Santa for Christmas at a particularly pretty spot where you could see the lake bottom clearly.

After that, we walked the beach and once it was empty of people, my 11 year-old son spent 30 minutes doing target practice with his archery set as I acted as safety spotter in case others came to the beach (nobody did. Weird.)

It was a most lovely excursion to explore this place state park. We continued up the road to Kings Beach, grabbed Subway sandwiches, then decided to return along the east side of the lake instead of completing the drive around. That would have to wait for another day when it wasn’t already getting dark. 44 minutes later, we were back in our warm room and getting ready for our shabu shabu meal fun that we enjoyed preparing in our room.

CRUISE ON THE SAFARI ROSE: This was my favorite tip from my friend. Funny – in all those trips to Tahoe Genro and I took while studying at Berkeley and after graduation when I was doing my Air Force Undergraduate Navigator Training an an air base in the Sacramento area, we had NEVER taken a cruise on the lake. Following Molly’s tip, we walked down to the office and booked our family on a sunset cruise on the yacht called Safari Rose. It sails out of Ski Run Marina a 15 minute walk from our resort. On cruise day, they sent a shuttle to pick up my family. I decided to walk to the marina instead.

Snuggling under blankets as we cruise Lake Tahoe.

The 80-foot yacht is just beautiful in all ways – “fancy” my kids called it. The couches were comfy. The table is surrounded by huge windows to take in the unparalleled views. The wines flow freely. There’s a substantial layout of food to enjoy as you enjoy the views and meet your fellow travelers. There are heavy wool blankets for those who want to sit on the bow in front of the captain’s window, snuggle and feel the breeze.

The highlight for us was cruising into Emerald Bay and laying eyes on Fannette Island, the only island in the lake, up close…very close…as in we got to TOUCH the island because the water is 100 feet deep at the edge of the rocks. Captain Clark went right up to the rocks, we stood at the bow, and touched the island. That was right after he cruised as close as possible to the lakeside storybook-like castle called Vikingholm.

My daughter snapped this photo of my hubby and I – what a memory! We saw people walking around the castle on the beach, heard there was a waterfall behind the castle and decided we would do that walk this week.

On the way out of the bay, the captain pointed out a bald eagle on a dead tree top and its huge nest a few feet away on a nearby tree. What a treat to get a rare sighting of our national bird!

If you make it to Tahoe, take the cruise on THIS yacht. It’s THE best according to everyone. Tip my friend shared: get the Entertainment app for your phone. There’s a coupon for a FREE ticket if you buy one. So for our family of five, we paid for 3 people – $180 total instead of $300. SWEET. The $1.99 you pay month for the Entertainment app just paid for itself in a BIG way.


SLEDDING  This is nuts. First week of January and snow level was never lower than 7000 feet and higher than 7000 feet they barely had any snow.  It was so bad that the front desk told us “Even Adventure Mountain is closed.”

As you head for South Lake Tahoe, you pass Adventure Mountain on Highway 50 at Echo Summit. The base elevation is 7,350 feet, the highest sledding resort on the south side – CLOSED due to no snow.

We followed a tip from my friend to head for the Tahoe City Transit Center on the west side and find a sledding hill behind it. When we got there, there was NO SNOW on the hill. Sad. It had melted since Christmas week. 50 degree temps will do that. Boo.

I’d read about a “winter sports park” in Tahoe City but that proved to be a little set up on a golf course to make money from vacationing families desperate to find snow. You’d NEVER catch locals hanging around there. The sledding “hill” is more like a slush mound where only 18 month-old toddlers could possibly have fun on a sled. They charged $18 for ice skating (TINY TEMPORARY RINK) and $12 more to sled down for 3 seconds on slush. No thanks.

So doing what I do, I sought local intel. I talked to the guy renting ice skates, I said, “Come on, there’s GOT to be a BIGGER sledding hill around here for teenagers.” He whispered to me: “Granlibakken. Go to Granlibakken.” I went to the car, looked it up, called and was told to drive 2 minutes south on Hwy 89 and yes they had made snow that was still there and people were sledding. The Granlibakken guy told me that sledding tickets were normally $17 a person during a holiday week but since there was barely enough snow, they were charging $10 to sled until 4:30 p.m.. Sweet. We grabbed some kimchee hot dogs at the “winter sports” cafe and 10 minutes were at Granlibakken putting on our snow gear.

At the front desk, I asked the lady, “Do you honor veterans with a discount here?” and she responded with “Absolutely! 50% discount for your whole family!” We enjoyed 2 hours of sledding for $5 each, and that included use of their circular sleds (NO toboggan-shaped sleds allowed.) What a deal!

The hill was not HUGE but that’s fine since we had to walk up it before the sledding part. It was tall enough to make for a FUN ride down in the snow/slush mixture. At the bottom, getting off the slide, we typically stepped into slush puddles. Since I was sending a blind sledder down the hill, it was awesome that they had two staff members there to keep people safe and not running into each other.

As I wrote on my Facebook post: it was brown on top, slushy on the bottom, but LOTS of “Woohoo!” on the way down. It was sooooo worth it and I would return there again. There’s a great snack bar/cafe with soups, nachos, cocoa etc that we missed because it closed at 4 p.m. and we sledded until 4:15. We did enjoy the little firepit on the deck and the view of the snowy hill with drinks from the little snack shack outside the main “lodge.” Granlikbakken is a fun place to spend a few hours sledding with the kiddos.

The silly-crowded rink at Heavenly Village

ICE SKATING: Our Girl Scout troop had enjoyed an afternoon of ice skating the week after Christmas so this activity was foremost on our minds. Molly had recommended the South Tahoe Ice Arena because it was much larger than the rink at Heavenly Village. We scoped out both ice rinks the night before skating. I was in shock to see how OVERCROWDED the Heavenly rink was – yes, it was Wednesday night, first week of January, but I couldn’t believe they let so many people onto the ice at once. People were barely moving it was so crowded! AND many MORE people were putting on skates to join them! With a blind child in my family and two other kids who skate once or twice a year, this was NOT the place for us. At $20 for adults/$18 for kids I decided it would not be worth the effort there. Yes, there was a holiday ambiance to the place, strings of lights overhead…but NO.  Not for us. We came to skate, not bump into people and people watch.

We headed to the MUCH larger Ice Arena one late afternoon before dinner – the NHL-sized arena where local hockey teams practice – for $15 each, skates and helmets included, less if you have your skates and less for little kids.  See the arena website here.  We appreciated the super helpful and patient staff.  When I asked if they honor veterans with a discount, he subtracted $15 and told me my admission would be free. NICE! (For my fellow veterans, always ask: “Do you honor veterans with a discount here?” The answer tends to be overwhelmingly positive.)

My 13 year-old skated with a friend from middle school whose family also happened to be up there that week. After almost 2 fun-filled hours of teaching and guiding my blind child and my 11 year-old son who hadn’t ice skated in 2 year, while enjoying the music tracks that ranged from the 1970s to 1990s, I was done. We exited the ice rink and enjoyed hot cocoa and soft pretzels in the snack bar. It was a lovely, physically-exerting evening activity after a day when we had vegetated in the room and at the pool. We returned to our suite and cooked up a fondue feast with our induction surface “stove table” as my daughter calls it. What’s great also is this ice arena is open year-around so if you come in the summer and enjoy a day at the beach, you can still ice skate in the evening!

At Emerald Bay overlook on our way to Vikingholm adventure.

HIKING: Vikingsholm castle at Emerald Bay – This is the castle we first saw while cruising onboard the Safari Rose. You’ll find the parking lot and trailhead on the right side after driving just a couple minutes north of the very popular stop at Emerald Bay and after Eagle Falls too. We parked and were immediately drawn to the boulder field overlooking the lake. That happens to us – see boulders, must climb…At the top, not only was the lake view gorgeous, but we could hear and see Eagle Falls cascading down the mountain, into the stream. Don’t miss this! DO climb the boulders and see/hear Eagle Falls.

You start your walk down at 6630 feet elevation and experience a 450-foot elevation change as you descend one mile on the paved road that the matriarch had constructed. From the website: “Access to Vikingsholm is via a STEEP one mile trail from the parking lot located off of Highway 89 or a less steep 1 1/2 mile trail that leaves from the Eagle Point Campground campfire center. Please make sure you are physically able to make the climb back up the hill.” That last part if important. You really feel the strain on the way up because altitude.

The walk down is just gorgeous, Emerald Bay always in sight, little streams at your side, the sound of running water keeping you company through the splendid mountain landscape. My son, of course, tasted the water flowing down because why not. (Did I mention he also sipped water from the circular indentations we discovered on that boulder farm next to the parking lot. That’s my kid! )

Arriving at the castle, closed in winter, we admired the architectural details and with my blind child, touched the coat of arms and other wonderful shapes. While my husband stayed at the dock to explore his fishing gadget, we continued behind the castle to the stream where Eagle Falls dumps its waters.

The paved, accessible path goes all the way to the stream. From there, it was a rocky walk up to the wooden bridge over the stream to the other side where climbing.2 miles later, you’d reach Lower Eagle Falls. We didn’t go that far – I was thinking it’s quite cold now, the sun is behind the mountain and we still need to walk back up that hill. So instead, we enjoyed being on the bridge, looking and listening to the power below us, screaming to be louder than the water, throwing “snowballs” which were actually ice scraping from rocks (water freezes on rocks at streams edge and stays frozen since it was about 28 degrees at this point) and took many photos of the awesome beauty surrounding us.

Behind the stream, jagged, mountain peaks…just perfect. We returned to the castle and the picnic table at lake edge for a quick snack and water break. Hubby joined us and I told him he should go up to the stream real quick (he did.)  Yes, it was cold at this point and the kids were so happy for the three layers I always insist they wear.

the steep walk up

Then we began our brisk walk up that 450-foot elevation change, doing intervals of walking fast for a bit, then walking slow for a bit. I was actually running up for 30 second intervals but my daughter who is blind balked at my suggestion that it was a pretend treadmill with incline (that she loves to do as exercise.)


So we took it slow, stopped at a really wide tree stump for a photo and made it back to the boulder farm just in time for sunset.

So up we went for the must-get photo of the pink sky over the deep blue water, Fannette Island and Emerald Bay below – this was the perfect excursion to our last day at South Lake Tahoe as we kicked off 2018.

We already know we’re going back to Vikingsholm castle in summertime to take the tour. We look forward to learning more about the rich history, unique architecture and Ms. Knight’s personal story. And yes, that natural beauty…I need to be there again, and this time, cross the bridge and hike to Lower Eagle Falls…

For those interested in ADA ACCESSIBILITY, I found this at the bottom of the castle website here: “Call California State Parks at 530-525-7232 or email to inquiry about eligibility and availability.”

LASTLY a restaurant to AVOID: We thought we’d stop there because of the name: Sato Sushi in South Lake. Just…..NO. That’s all I’m going to say.

I hope you enjoyed these stories, tips and photos. Share with a family who will benefit from this post about our family excursions. Come back and tell me what YOU did that I might want to do next with my family!

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