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Need a getaway? Don’t we all?! As I write this, we’re nearly a year into a global pandemic that’s made travel to far-flung destinations a distant dream. That’s why we all need to take advantage of nearby destinations for weekend getaways – and Nevada’s South Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley are great candidates for those of us based in California. If you’ve discovered the idea of visiting the South Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side and/or Carson Valley and are curious about things to do in Carson Valley, I’m here to help.
I visited both Nevada’s South Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley in November 2020. With support from the local tourism boards, I was able to experience a ton of what this destination has to offer – even while masking up and accommodating the “new normal” we want to travel in.
Read on for the best things to do in Carson Valley and Nevada’s South Lake Tahoe, and how to plan a trip here. It’s a bit further than most of the Bay Area weekend getaways I’ve written about in the past – but it’s a fantastic outdoor destination where you can escape the crowds and breathe the clean air of Nevada’s wide-open spaces.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Wašišiw Ɂítdeʔ (Washoe) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Carson Valley & Tahoe South Travel Tips
I always like to start these posts with some basics about the destination. I figure it helps to answer some common questions upfront and then give you everything you need to know for planning your trip. Let’s dive in!
Where is Carson Valley? Where is Tahoe South?
If you’re reading this post, you likely know where the Carson Valley is – or at least you’ve heard of it and wonder if it’s worth visiting. It still helps to explain the geography of the region so you’re oriented on a map.
To clarify, this post covers two destinations in Nevada: Carson Valley and Tahoe South.
“Tahoe South” is the name for the communities on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe: South Lake Tahoe, California, and Stateline, Nevada (and smaller, neighboring Zephyr Cove). This post only focuses on experiences you can have on the Nevada side of Tahoe South (Stateline and Zephyr Cove).
Carson Valley includes four major communities:
- Genoa, the oldest settlement in Nevada
- Gardnerville and Minden, neighboring communities in the center of Carson Valley
- Topaz Lake, located in the southern part of the region, near a reservoir of the same name
There are also a number of smaller/unincorporated communities and towns in Carson Valley, but these are the biggest ones. Carson Valley does not include Carson City to the direct north or Reno which is further north still.
How to Travel to Carson Valley, Nevada
Now that you know where Carson Valley, Nevada is, you might wonder how to get there. There are two main ways I’d recommend traveling to the area: by plane or by car.
- By plane, the easiest option is to fly into Reno, Nevada, which is north of Carson Valley. You could also fly into the regional airport at Lake Tahoe (on the California side) or Truckee. Both of these are further than Reno, but all require a rental car to reach the Carson Valley.
- By car, it’s a 3.5-to-4-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Tahoe South and the Carson Valley. It’s a nice drive across California’s Central Valley and into the Sierra Nevadas, so this may be a better option if you’re visiting the area and will already have a car.
In either case, you’ll need a car (rental or your own) to visit and explore Carson Valley.
Where to Stay in Tahoe South & Carson Valley
If you’re planning a trip to Carson Valley and want to sample as much of the area as possible, I recommend splitting your nights between the two main areas of the valley: Tahoe South and down in the Carson Valley itself.
On my trip in November 2020, I spent two nights at Lake Tahoe at Zephyr Cove Resort and another two nights near Genoa at David Walley’s Resort. These are both places I recommend:
- Zephyr Cove has studio, 1-bed, and 2-bed cabins right on the shores of Lake Tahoe. From $138 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- David Walley’s Resort has a variety of room options; we stayed in a one-bedroom with a wrap-around balcony and sauna. From $123 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
There are a number of other accommodation options to choose from too:
- If you want to splurge, spend a night or two at the Edgewood Resort in Stateline. It’s one of the nicest properties on all of Lake Tahoe (including the California side!). From $319 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Down in the Valley, there are a number of chain hotel options in the towns of Gardnerville and Minden, including the Best Western and Holiday Inn.
- There are also vacation rentals to choose from, including this privately owned/rented studio at David Walley’s Resort and this cabin in Zephyr Cove.
As I said – there are plenty of options depending on your budget and travel style!
What to Pack for Carson Valley & Tahoe South
Carson Valley and Tahoe South are four-season destinations; there are four distinct seasons depending on when you visit. As such, you should pack for the appropriate weather:
- In the spring (and autumn), you can expect warm days and cool nights, so plan ahead by packing layers.
- Summers can be quite warm during the day – and stay that way at night on the Carson Valley floor. It’ll be cooler at elevation near Lake Tahoe so layers won’t go wrong in the summer too.
- Winters have classic cool/cold temperatures both at Lake Tahoe and in the Carson Valley. Pack extra layers including hats, gloves, and wool socks to stay warm.
In terms of any extra gear you might want to pack for Carson Valley depending on the activities I recommend below, here are other items to consider bringing:
- Hiking boots. There are some great hikes at Lake Tahoe and in the Carson Valley; plan ahead with boots that can handle dirt trails, uneven terrain, and snow/ice if you plan to visit in the winter.
- Camera gear. The Carson Valley is beautifully photogenic, so bring your best camera gear. We shoot with a Nikon 7500 and our iPhone 11 Pros when we travel.
- Four-season layering jacket. I mentioned layers already, but my favorite layering jacket is the Apex Bionic from The North Face. I’ve had mine for 12 years and it’s still going strong; it’s the green jacket you’ll see me wearing throughout this post.
That’s a good starting place; let me know if you have other packing questions in the comments.
“Sierra Safely” in the COVID Pandemic
If you’re reading this shortly after I published, you might wonder if Carson Valley and Tahoe South are safe to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve added this section temporarily (as long as relevant) to highlight the Sierra Safely program which highlights safe travel in the Carson Valley and South Lake Tahoe region.
Here are the basics of the program:
- Wash your hands regularly, including after epic outdoor adventures.
- Keep physical distance, even when enjoying hiking trails and other outdoor activities.
- Wear a mask, indoors and outdoors.
- Respect signage for restaurants, bars, and businesses.
You can read more about how the area is welcoming visitors during the pandemic here.
The Best Things to Do in Carson Valley & Tahoe South
Now that you have all the details, let’s jump into what you can do during your visit to Tahoe South and Carson Valley. Below, I’ve detailed an itinerary that includes all of them in a weekend trip from the Bay Area, to help inspire you to finish planning your own.
Hiking or Skiing (Depending on the Season)
Both Tahoe South and Carson Valley include a section of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which make for some of California’s best hiking and skiing opportunities. Specifically, Heavenly Resort is located within the bounds of the Carson Valley; this is one of Lake Tahoe’s top resorts and popular with ski visitors.
During the summer and shoulder season months, or if you’re up for some snow hiking, many of the runs and areas surrounding the resort offer excellent hiking opportunities. Here are some trails I recommend:
- Trails in Van Sickle Bi-State Park, which offers epic views of Lake Tahoe.
- On the Lake Tahoe side, the Rabe Meadows trail is an easy, accessible hike that leads to the lakeshore.
- The Tahoe Rim Trail works its way along the mountains and you can hike sections of it within the Carson Valley.
- The Genoa Canyon and Sierra Canyon trails also connect up to the Genoa Loop Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail for an epic day of hiking on the Carson Valley side.
Cruising Lake Tahoe
If you’re planning a trip to include a visit to Tahoe South, make sure you enjoy all the activities the lake provides! I’ve been fortunate to explore many sides of Lake Tahoe, but this visit to this part of Nevada was my first opportunity to get out on the water from the southern shores.
You can arrange to rent a boat if you’re up for an adventure (Boatsetter is a great tool for this), or arrange a cruise such as one on the MS Dixie. The Dixie sails from Zephyr Cove and offers daytime and dinner/sunset sailings to Emerald Cove across the lake. In the winter months, these sunset sails include plenty of stargazing opportunities from the top deck thanks to early sunset times.
Visiting the Casinos
Casinos?, you ask. But you said Carson Valley doesn’t include Reno!
True, but you are in Nevada, so if you enjoy visiting casinos, Tahoe South is a place you can do that! There are a number of casinos in Stateline, Nevada, including the Hard Rock (above), Harrah’s, and Harvey’s.
I’m not a big casino traveler, but I did pop into check them out during my stay. It’s no Vegas or Reno, but you can certainly scratch the itch at the slots or card tables if you choose to spend your time that way during your trip.
Note: Casinos are open during the pandemic, so long as you wear your mask!
One of the most popular activities in the Carson Valley is photography – and I don’t just mean amateur photos like we shot to share with this story.
There are some great photography tour options in Carson Valley, including one that leads you to see one of the area’s top sights: wild horses!
- J.T. Humphrey is a famous photographer who knows all of the wild horses by name. Book a tour with him for the ultimate photography experience.
- If you prefer birding, there are some great opportunities for that too. Here’s a sample birding photography tour you can arrange.
- After dark, you can also try your hand at astrophotography on a tour with Dwayne from Carson Valley Tours. I’ve added more about that in the stargazing section below, so read on if you’re interested in that.
Soaking in Hot Springs
After visiting the Carson Valley, I began to research, and I was delighted to discover that hot springs are one of those great activities you can really enjoy on the Eastern Sierras. If you love the idea of visiting hot springs to relax and unwind during a trip, here are the two spots to add to your itinerary while visiting Carson Valley:
- David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort & Spa (where you can also stay overnight) was one of the first hot spring resorts in the west. Today, it has a heated pool, hot tubs, and a spa. (Note: most are not open during the pandemic, so check in advance.)
- Grover Hot Springs State Park is a modified (not primitive/natural) hot spring that’s part of a Nevada state park. You need to make reservations in advance but this one is good example of the modified non-resort hot springs you’ll find stretching through the rest of the Sierras.
If you’re visiting springs in the Carson Valley, be sure to pack a swimsuit! Other primitive and natural springs in Nevada might be clothing-optional but these ones require suiting up!
Go for a Glider Ride
Here’s another activity you might not have every considered trying – much less one of the best things to do in Carson Valley: going for a glider ride!
It turns out that Carson Valley is one of the best places in the world for gliding, thanks to the way wind moves through the valley and the surrounding mountain ranges. Gliders get excellent opportunities to soar above the mountains, beautiful Lake Tahoe, and the wide expanse of the Carson Valley thanks to these conditions – and several companies offer glider rides to the public.
Mr. V and I squeezed into the back of a glider and went for an incredible ride with SoaringNV. Our pilot, Dana, navigated us up behind the tow plane, then released us to soar on the wind like one of the many hawks we saw on the wing during our visit.
I didn’t have gliding on my bucket list, but I can absolutely say it should have been – and it’s an incredible adrenaline-inducing-ish activity for anyone willing to take flight.
Immerse Yourself in History
If your travel interests are more earthly-bound, there’s plenty for you in Carson Valley too. Specifically, history buffs will love exploring old town Genoa, Nevada.
Genoa is the oldest settlement in Nevada, dating back to 1851. This part of the Carson Valley was visited by emigrants headed west and also the Pony Express. There’s a long history of travelers passing through and locals settling in to enjoy the beauty of the town.
In particular, be sure to visit the Genoa Saloon, which is the oldest “thirst parlor” in Nevada (a state which has a good reputation for thirst parlors, if you think about it!), the Court House Museum, Mormon Station, and the Genoa Cemetery.
There are also some historic sights in Gardnerville and Minden, especially the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center. There are a number of great exhibits including one that highlights native people of the Carson Valley.
Last but certainly not least, you all know I always love to visit a place that has great stargazing opportunities. Carson Valley is one such place – both on the Lake Tahoe and in the Valley.
You can stargaze near Lake Tahoe from places like Zephyr Cove and Cave Rock. In Carson Valley, there are a number of great places, but true stargazing buffs will want to book a tour with Dwayne Hicks from Carson Valley Tours. He doesn’t have it listed on the website but does offer a private astrophotography tour that’s a must-do. (We had originally planned to do this but cloudy skies made us cancel – drat!)
How to Spend a Weekend in Tahoe South & Carson Valley, NV
Now that you know the best things to do in Carson Valley and Nevada’s South Lake Tahoe, it’s time to put it all together. Here’s how I recommend spending a weekend in Tahoe South and Carson Valley. I assume you’re driving up from the San Francisco Bay Area to make this trip; if you’re flying into Reno or another airport, your timing on the first and third days might vary.
Day 1: Arrive, Explore Stateline & Lake Tahoe
Set out in the mid-morning from the Bay Area; you’ll arrive at South Lake Tahoe by mid-afternoon. While most of the amenities are on the California side, you can stop for a drink or head straight to the waterfront to enjoy a beer and the view. Crossing into Nevada, I recommend heading straight to the luxurious lakefront Edgewood Resort for this afternoon’s happy hour window.
For sunset, book a table on the MS Dixie. You’ll enjoy dinner on the cruise and head over to picturesque Emerald Cove as the sun goes down. During the summer months, you’ll see this spot as the sun dips behind the mountains; during the winter you might see it under moonlight and starlight.
After dinner and your cruise, you can return to your accommodation. Staying at Zephyr Cove is ideal since that’s right where the boat loads and unloads; it’s also a great spot for some informal stargazing on the lakeshore before turning in.
Day 2: Hiking & Descend into Carson Valley
Rise and shine early – you’ve got one full day in Carson Valley on this weekend itinerary and want to make the most of it.
After breakfast, head out for a morning hike; it’s a great opportunity to climb the trails at Van Sickle Bi-State Park and get an epic view of Lake Tahoe sparkling under the morning sun. You could also opt for Rabe Meadows if you want an easier stroll this morning.
Make the 30-minute drive over the mountains to the Carson Valley floor and enjoy lunch in Genoa at The Pink House. This historic home has been converted into a boutique restaurant with a small but delightful menu.
After lunch, stroll around Genoa; you can head into the museum or walk around Mormon Station. Stop by Sierra Chef for an afternoon snack and be sure to enjoy a drink at the Genoa Saloon at some point too.
Next, it’s time to head to David Walley’s Resort to check-in for the night. You can then head to the hot springs to soak away the rest of the afternoon until dinner at the resort restaurant. (You may need to make a reservation depending on when you visit so inquire about this at check-in!)
End the night with an astrophotography tour; again, you’ll want to arrange this in advance and chat with Dwayne at Carson Valley Tours to make sure the weather and moon phases are ideal for stargazing.
Day 3: Gardnerville, Minden & Carson Valley from Above
For your final day in Carson Valley, you have a few choices. You could spend the day exploring the towns of Gardnerville and Minden; both have walkable historic downtowns and plenty of cute shops and restaurants to pass the day.
You can also spend time exploring more of the area’s history at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center. It would be easy to pass 2-3 hours here if the weather isn’t great for outdoor explorations.
Another option would be booking a photography tour to see the wild horses in the Carson Valley. You’ll want to arrange this in advance too.
Finally, depending on the weather and timing, you could also do a glider flight. Reach out to SoaringNV as you plan your trip to see whether they recommend this in the morning or afternoon and arrange the rest of your day’s itinerary following that.
From here you could then drive back to the Bay Area (4-to-4.5 hours’ drive) or stay another night in Carson Valley and drive back in the morning. It’s up to you based on how much time you have!
And with that you’re set – in fact, there are more things to do in Carson Valley and Tahoe South than you can fit into this weekend itinerary! Have any questions about visiting the best things to do in Carson Valley and Nevada’s South Lake Tahoe? Let me know in the comments!
This post was produced in partnership with Tahoe South and Visit Carson Valley.