If you’re looking for an incredible adventure on your next trip to Nevada that includes natural wonders, quirky ghost towns, and interesting cities, the incredible 145-mile Reno to Lake Tahoe Loop has all of this and more.
After visiting Nevada last year to uncover the best of the Great Basin Highway, we instantly had our eye on another road trip to discover more of this state.
It was only fitting that we finally explore Lake Tahoe, which is known globally for its beauty but it was really in the unexpected other stops that we found the magic of this itinerary.
Reno to Lake Tahoe Loop Road Trip Map
HOW TO USE THIS MAP: Above you’ll find a map of our highlights along the Reno to Lake Tahoe Loop. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking the route and points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places we mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version.
Day 1 – Arrival in Reno
Every great Nevada road trip to Lake Tahoe starts in Reno! At least this is how it was for us. While this city has the reputation of being the lesser sibling of Las Vegas, we found a city that emits an energy that sets it apart, instead of comparing it.
Coming from the Midwest, we arrived late to an entertaining display of partygoers hanging around in the airport to catch the infamous burner bus up to Burning Man. I was instantly relieved we would be heading south. It’s just not my scene.
Our Uber driver was elated in learning we were from Wisconsin, sharing stories of days gone by and friends from college who hailed from the cheese state. 10 minutes later we were on the doorstep of an airport hotel for some much-needed rest.
The next day we would start an exciting 7-day itinerary on the Reno to Lake Tahoe Loop to discover more of Nevada, a state we have grown to love.
Where to Stay: If you come in late as we did then the Aloft airport hotel is a really nice option. It’s part of the Marriott family and offers quirky designs.
Road Trip Tips – Before You Leave Reno
One of the main appeals of this Reno to Lake Tahoe loop road trip is the short distance between the main stops. This means that you’ll rarely be out of reach from fuel, food, and accommodation options.
That said, be sure to bring a refillable water bottle with you. It is going to be hot and you’ll be able to refill in many places along the way. The more you can avoid plastic, the better. All of the water along the route is potable.
We’d also recommend brushing up on the principles of Leave No Trace, to ensure your visit to Lake Tahoe and the surrounding natural areas leaves a minimal impact.
Lastly, make sure you have a full tank of gas. If you just picked up your car, you’ll be full, but if you’ve run around Reno at all, we’d recommend topping up before you head off toward Virginia City.
Travel Nevada also offers a detailed page for the Lake Tahoe Loop with additional tips for making the most of this amazing road trip route.
Day 2 – Reno to Virginia City
Distance from Reno: 26 miles (30-40 minute drive)
When the alarm started ringing, we woke up to a jet lag induced haze. Yes, a 2-hour time difference is enough to disrupt your normal sleep cycles! It took me a second to realize I was in a hotel, in Reno, Nevada.
We had a big day ahead of us, we would be leaving Reno and starting our Nevada road trip with a full day of fun in Virginia City, a small mining town that was hurled to fame due to the Comstock Lode.
Quickly packing, we checked out and headed to downtown Reno for breakfast at Pine Street Biscuits (200 S Center Street). This little restaurant is almost a rite of passage, and the line out the door let us know we made the right choice.
Leaving Reno was easy, and before we knew it we were winding our way from the freeway and onto the scenic byway that would lead us to the richest place on earth.
Getting to know Virginia City
In the 1800s, more than $400 million in gold and silver was mined from the hills that surround where Virginia City stands today. That is equal to over $20 billion in today’s prices. Take a minute to let that sink in. These riches would come to be known as the Comstock Lode.
Millionaires were made overnight and broken in similar time frames. All by what the earth giveth beneath their feet. With the natural wealth of the earth, it was no surprise that a town was soon erected to house the mine owners, mine workers, and various businesspeople who provided for them all.
Many of the original buildings from the boom still stand today, a testament to a bygone time. Wandering the streets and learning the history is an attraction on its own, but we couldn’t help digging in a little deeper.
Virginia City has a lot to do
The Virginia City attraction pass allows you to select and combine up to 4 attractions for a discounted price. This gives the perfect opportunity to dig into some of the stories that surround this town. It can be purchased at the tourist information office during your visit.
It also turns out that Virginia City is one of the most haunted places in America and ghost hunters flock here to take their chances of having an encounter. Famous shows, such as Ghost Adventures, have captured some impressive footage during visits to the Washoe Club and Mackay Mansion.
Visiting historical towns like Virginia City is one of the many reasons we love Nevada, and this little town was no exception. With the focus of this road trip being Lake Tahoe, it was so nice to throw this side of the state into the itinerary, too. Don’t miss it!
Virginia City Highlights:
- V&T Railroad Train Ride
- Washoe Club Ghost Tour
- Mackay Mansion Museum
- Chollar Mine tour
- Fourth Ward School
- Bucket of Blood Saloon
- Grandma’s Fudge Factory
Where to Eat:
- Café del Rio – southwest Mexican style kitchen
- The Roasting House – featuring waffle sandwiches
- Canvas Café – offers live music and tasty eats
- Red Dog Saloon – a great place for pizza and bloody mary’s
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Cobb Mansion Bed & Breakfast; an 1876 Victorian mansion that has been completely restored. Connie, the owner, cooked us an amazing breakfast and shared so many stories from her life as a Virginia City resident. Most people visit Virginia City on a day trip, but we loved staying overnight! It’s a completely different town when the day trippers leave, and we found ourselves wandering down the middle of Main Street with the company of only a blinking stoplight.
Day 3 – Virginia City to Carson City
Distance from Virginia City: 15 miles (30-minute drive)
We started our day early with breakfast and then headed to the Virginia City cemetery on our way out of town to pay our respects to those who followed the whispers of riches to this small town and gave their lives to uncover them.
Heading out of town towards Carson City, we came across a band of wild horses on the side of the road! Of course, we stopped for photos and to admire them. They are part of the few remaining true wild herds in the United States.
The rest of the short drive down to the capital from Virginia City was straightforward, leaving us the rest of the day free to explore what the city has to offer.
Taking on the Carson City Triathalon
We tend to like capital cities as most of them are smaller and more intimate compared to other big cities in each state. Carson City was no exception to this. The downtown area is walkable and offers a lot of charm.
Our main goal in the city would be to take on the appropriately branded Carson City Triathlon. But before you think you can’t do it, hear me out. If you can swim, eat, and drink, you got this!
The triathlon experience was built to include a visit to the historic Carson Hot Springs for a dip, a meal at Sassafras – an eclectic restaurant with an interesting menu, and a drink at the Shoe Tree Brewing Co. All three are accessible from the same parking lot on the outskirts of Carson City.
Our favorite of the three was the Carson Hot Springs, which offered both indoor and outdoor hot pools that are cleaned and replaced daily. The indoor private pools offer beautiful tiles while the outside features multiple large pools. Each with varying temperatures.
We came, we conquered, and it was a lot of fun!
Exploring Downtown Carson City
In the afternoon we headed to the downtown area for a self-guided walking tour on the Kit Carson Trail. This 2.5-mile route can be accessed through an online audio guide and is a nice way to see the city. It also showcases the historical buildings and tells you the stories of the people who lived there.
Be sure to stop by the Nevada State Capitol building during your visit. It’s free to enter and offers beautiful architecture to admire inside along with an interactive public museum space that we found quite interesting.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a little bit of nature, there is a nice hike that takes you to Kings Canyon waterfall just outside of downtown. It was a 10-minute drive and a 1-mile round-trip hike. We’d recommend going in the evening to avoid the high sun exposure.
Carson City Highlights:
- Nevada State Museum
- Historic Carson Hot Springs
- Shoe Tree Brewing Co
- Kit Carson Audio Tour
- Nevada State Capitol Building
Where to Eat:
- Sassafras – eclectic and different menu with a fun atmosphere
- Cucina Lupo – Mexican cuisine
- Great Basin Brewing Company – hopping brewery setting
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Gold Dust West, located just outside of the downtown area, and found the hotel to be comfortable with plenty of parking.
Day 4 – Carson City to the Carson Valley
Distance from Carson Valley: 15 miles (20-minute drive)
Our day started early to head for Carson Valley, although we could have easily spent another day digging more into Carson City. So, if you have the time, I’d recommend that.
The area of Carson Valley is located at the base of the Sierra Nevada and is made up of 4 distinct towns including Minden, Gardnerville, Genoa, and Topaz Lake. Each one of these communities offers something unique and worth checking out when driving the Reno to Lake Tahoe Loop.
The valley also offers some incredible scenery with sweeping fields that lead straight to the base of dramatic mountain ranges. The valley floor features grazing cattle herds, wild horses, and miles of trails to explore.
Minden Glider Ride
We’re always seeking out unique opportunities when we travel, especially activities with an adventure flare. So, when we were offered the opportunity to take a motorless glider flight with Soaring NV over the Sierra Nevada, we jumped at it!
Motorless gliding is done in Carson Valley by using small planes to tow an expertly piloted glider to an altitude for release. Rides are then conducted based on air and wind flow for each ride.
I’ll admit, it’s a bit humbling being at the mercy of nature, several thousand feet above the ground. But it was a ride we will not soon forget!
Due to weight, balance, and the sheer size of the gliders, David and I were each taken up on separate flights. Reaching altitude for my flight included a scenic overview of the valley before the tow plane navigated us over the mountains and offered an incredible aerial view of South Lake Tahoe!
I was not expecting this, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when the pilot of my glider released the clamp from the tow plane while Lake Tahoe was in view.
We spent the better part of 30 minutes circling above the mountains and admiring the shoreline before navigating the air and wind through a pass that led us back into the valley.
Once we were back valley side, it was another 30 minutes of observing the valley floor, including great aerial views of Genoa, Minden, and Gardnerville, before the pilot guided us to a lower altitude and landed us safely back on the runway at the airport.
After spending the morning embracing the adrenaline of a motorless glider flight, an afternoon in Gardnerville seemed like the perfect antidote.
It was in this small town that we were given some insight into the project of preserving the historic downtown. This passion project is called Mainstreet Gardnerville and our visit was brought to life by program director Jen Nadler.
We learned about the efforts to repurpose old buildings, bringing them to code, and breathing life into them to become useful spaces for the community.
We met the young entrepreneurs behind the local pop-up shop Eddy Street, who shared their inspiring story of repurposing a family building that was sitting empty.
We roamed the streets, browsed the antique shops, visited the garden, admired silver dollars laminated into the bar at the casino, and learned about the rich Basque history of the town. It was immersive, intimate, and proved to be the perfect way to connect with the identity of Carson Valley.
Then there was Genoa. Set at the base of the mountains, unlike the other towns that rest in the middle of the valley, this town holds the official designation of Nevada’s first settlement. How cool is that?
The main street resembles that of an old west town, featuring a saloon, post office, replica of an old pioneer fort, and several small businesses that sit within buildings that resemble the original facades one might see when they visited.
A plaque monument rests at the only intersection in town to commemorate the Pony Express that would come through the town.
Behind the walls of the old fort is Mormon Station State Historic Park, a place that breaks down and showcases the Mormon history and impact of this part of Nevada.
The Genoa Bar & Saloon has a few stories to tell, being the oldest continually operated bar in Nevada, and the walls feature old west memorabilia along with stories of the past.
We couldn’t resist grabbing a couple of drinks (G&T’s) and finishing out our day of exploration with some live music while the sun finished setting against the mountains.
Carson Valley Highlights:
- Genoa Bar & Saloon
- Mormon State Park
- Soaring NV Glider ride
- River Fork Ranch hiking trails
Where to Eat:
- JT Basque Restaurant – traditional basque dining in downtown Gardnerville
- Daniel’s Fine Dining – upscale supper club menu in a cozy setting in Genoa
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Carson Valley Inn which is located in Minden. Most of the valley is accessible from here with a very short drive, so we found it to be a good base.
Day 5 – Carson Valley to North Lake Tahoe
Distance from Carson Valley: 34 miles (50-minute drive)
It’s possible to access North Lake Tahoe in two ways from Carson Valley. You can either backtrack a bit before heading west (34 miles) or you can head south from Genoa and cross over the mountains alongside the original mule route (41 miles). We opted for the latter, despite it being a touch longer.
We wanted to familiarize ourselves with the various pull-offs and parks along the shoreline drive, so we had an idea of the best places to stop over the next few days. It turned out to be a lovely scenic drive up from the valley floor.
Of course, this only made us want to stop, but we had a full day of activities already planned for a full immersion introduction to one of the most beautiful places in the USA.
Biking the East Shore Trail
Arriving at North Lake Tahoe and Incline Village, we pulled off at the Tunnel Creek Café. Here you can park, visit the café, and access the East Shore Trail. There is also a bike rental shop located just behind and up the hill from the café.
The East Shore Trail is a 6-mile out-and-back trail that hugs the shoreline of the spectacularly scenic Lake Tahoe. It starts at the Tunnel Creek Cafe and ends at Sand Harbor State Park.
It’s paved and open to walkers, runners, and bikers. The trail gives you access to numerous hiking trails, scenic viewpoints, and hidden beach coves.
Not only do you get a bit of exercise, but we found it to be a brilliant way to explore the eastern shoreline. Each stopping point has a bike stand and marked signs so you know where you are.
The trail may be short but it does have some decent grades, so we’d recommend that you rent e-bikes to fully enjoy your experience. Also, make sure you plan enough time to enjoy the trail. It may only be 6 total miles, but you can spend hours on the trails and enjoying the various viewpoints.
Our favorite stop was at Emerald Cove, where you park your bikes at the top and then traverse down to a beautiful beach surrounded by the iconic huge boulders of Lake Tahoe.
We could have spent all day on the bikes, but we’re glad we didn’t because our afternoon on the water with kayaks was really special.
Kayaking North Lake Tahoe
After returning our bikes we grabbed a quick lunch at the Tunnel Creek Cafe before heading into Incline Village to pick up a kayak rental from Alpha One Watersports for the afternoon.
The whole premise behind this company is to make the outdoors more accessible in Lake Tahoe. Don’t have a vehicle with a kayak rack? No problem! They have a universal strap system that allows you to haul any kayak or paddleboard with your vehicle.
We can say from experience that it was easy to set up and before long we were on the road headed to Sand Harbor State Park. We planned to put in at the beach and then kayak south to explore the Bonsai Rock area.
As we paddled away from shore we quickly realized that the lake is as clear as they advertise. Even in the deep parts, we could see straight to the bottom.
We lucked out with barely any wind, so we were able to make good time up to Bonsai Rock, where we hauled our kayak onto a boulder and spent a couple of hours playing in the water.
Making the most of our day we then decided to take a long paddle north, past where we put in, to revisit Emerald Cove. It was easy to beach the kayak here and swim out past the big boulders.
We spent the better part of 5 hours on the water. I know that seems insane but we had a beautiful day and we just couldn’t get enough of the clear water. Plus we found it easy to enjoy the lake without crowds, which was a highlight.
North Lake Tahoe Highlights:
- Sand Harbor State Park
- Emerald Cove
- Incline Village
Where to Eat:
- Tunnel Creek Café – wide variety of wraps and sandwiches
- Cutthroat’s Saloon – located inside the Hyatt with a tasty menu
- Lone Eagle Grill – upscale dining right on Lake Tahoe
- Inclined Burgers & Brew – highly recommended by locals!
- Bite – American-style tapas
Where to Stay: We really enjoyed our stay at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort in Incline Village. The property is huge but has a rustic mountain lodge vibe. We also randomly bumped into the Dave Matthews Band in the parking lot!
Day 6 – South Lake Tahoe
It’s roughly 25 miles from Incline Village in North Lake Tahoe to Stateline in South Lake Tahoe. When in the north, it is very easy to discern that you’re in Nevada.
When you head south, the town of Stateline, Nevada blends seamlessly with Heavenly Village, California forming one lakeside town.
We found this gave South Lake Tahoe a much different feel from North Lake Tahoe. Mainly because it felt really commercial and there were a lot more people.
Van Sickle Bi-State Park
After spending the previous day on the water, we wanted to do some hiking and get some forest time in. So that had us heading for Van Sickle Bi-State Park in South Lake Tahoe.
This state park is unique in that it spans two states, both Nevada and California. So many of the trails weave through the park passing over the state line, which seemed to always be marked. We thought this was fun and stopped for several photos along the way.
It’s also a fantastic place to seek out and smell, yes you read that right, some Jeffery Pine trees. These massive trees are known for their sap, which just happens to smell like butterscotch.
I didn’t believe that when I first heard it but can attest, after much research around Lake Tahoe, that they do, in fact, smell like butterscotch!
Just be careful not to touch the trees when you’re smelling them. The sap production on them is heavy and even the slightest touch will have you covered in it. Trust me when I say it doesn’t wash off easily.
Lake Tahoe Cruise
In the afternoon we found ourselves boarding the M.S. Dixie, a historical paddle wheeler, for a scenic cruise of Lake Tahoe.
Leaving from the Zephyr Cove Resort dock, this cruise spends 3 hours sailing on Lake Tahoe. The trip is narrated with local stories, legends, and historical facts about the lake along with some spectacular views, of course.
The highlight of the trip is the arrival at Emerald Bay, where the water goes from a deep blue color to a bright turquoise as you enter the shallow bay. It literally feels like someone suddenly flipped a switch and the water changes color.
If you’re looking for a way to get out on the water and learn more about Lake Tahoe, we can solidly recommend this trip. There is plenty of parking at Zephyr Cove, although it is not free, and you can leave your car there all day.
We recommend that you bring your beach stuff and enjoy the massive Zephyr Cove beach after your cruise, too!
South Lake Tahoe Highlights:
- MS Dixie cruise
- Zephyr Cove Beach
- Van Sickle Bi-State Park
Where to Eat:
- Blue Lake Tavern – located near Zephyr Cove, try the fish n’ chips
- Azul Latin Kitchen – fun Mexican restaurant with outdoor seating
Where to Stay: We stayed at Harvey’s Lake Tahoe, located in Stateline and it’s a massive casino hotel property. It has plenty of parking and easy access to the downtown areas of Heavenly Village.
Day 7 – Lake Tahoe to Reno
Distance from Lake Tahoe: 57 miles (1.5-hour drive)
Rather than getting up and heading straight back to Reno, we opted to take the first part of the day and continue to enjoy what Lake Tahoe has to offer. For us, that meant driving back along the east side of the lake to the North, which was much more our vibe.
We stopped in at Cave Rock State Park and Logan Shoals Vista Point before utilizing one of the few pull-off parking areas near Chimney Beach to access a trail down to the lake for more swimming before heading back to the city.
Whitney Peak Climbing
Located directly behind the Reno Arch is Basecamps, a 7,000-square-foot indoor competition-level climbing park. On the outside is the impressive Whitney Peak Climb to the Top. An outdoor climbing wall that allows you to literally scale the side of the Whitney Peak Hotel.
After a week of road-tripping from Reno to Lake Tahoe and back again, we were ready for some urban adventure. So we headed straight to Basecamps and began warming up to take on the outdoor wall.
It’s been a while since either of us has been rock climbing. So to say it was an easy attempt would be a lie! We did have fun though, and if you like to climb we’d recommend putting this on your list for your next visit to Reno.
Discovering Downtown Reno
Following our climbing fun, we took advantage of a gorgeous night and decided to walk around the river walk area of downtown during golden hour. This was my first visit to Reno and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by how attractive the downtown is to visit.
There is plenty of street art to admire, fun shops to browse, music to be heard, and bridges to cross as you explore. I don’t know what I was expecting but it sure wasn’t that!
Reno is known as the biggest little city in the world and I have to agree. I’ve never been somewhere that packs so much vibe into such a small area. Our short time only left me wanting to discover more, so I know we will be back.
- The River Walk
- Live music
Where to Eat:
- Estella – Tacos y Mezcal, traditional Mexican-style food with a twist
- Louis’ Basque Corner – traditional family-style Basque food
- The Depot – craft brewery and distillery with a full menu
Where to Stay: We stayed at The Jesse in downtown Reno and loved the location! It was an easy walking distance to the river walk. Not to mention, the rooms are tastefully done and the historic building has a lot of character.
Day 8 – Departure from Reno
Depending on when your flight departs Reno, you may be able to spend some more time exploring the city. Our flight was in the early afternoon, so we opted for a nice breakfast at Cafe Whitney before heading to the airport.
This was a great spot and the portions were huge! Definitely recommend checking them out when you’re in Reno. Although, if you haven’t been to Pine State Biscuits yet, we’d encourage you to go there instead.
After a nice slow morning, it was back to the airport to drop off the rental car, board our flight back to the Midwest and get ready for our next adventure.
This story was made possible in partnership with Travel Nevada and their partners. However, our recommendations, experiences, opinions, and advice are 100% ours, as always.
You might also like:
- Essential Las Vegas to Valley of Fire Day Trip Itinerary
- What to Do in Laughlin, Nevada (15 Top Attractions, Day Trips, Food & More)
- 12 Best Hikes in Great Basin National Park