When we told our family and friends that we were planning a trip to Nevada, the first reaction was “Awesome! So you’re going to Vegas?!” Nope! Las Vegas is definitely Nevada’s biggest name attraction, and while we love the occasional visit to Sin City, we were eager to see what else this beautiful state has to offer.
We chose Travel Nevada’s recommended road trip – the Lake Tahoe Loop. We were eager to do a Lake Tahoe road trip because we absolutely love the lake, but surprisingly had never visited the Nevada side. Besides the draw of the big blue, we were super excited to check out some of the old historical towns along the way. Genoa and Virginia City promised to be a step back in time and a glimpse into the wild west of the silver and gold rush.
During our 5 day road trip we saw an incredibly diverse landscape and did such a variety of sports you would think we’d visited all 50 states instead of just one. From kayaking in the sunshine, to pulling over on highway 431 to play in the snow, from mountain biking along the lake to climbing part way up a 14 story outdoor climbing wall, we never had a moment of boredom in Nevada. Here were our highlights from the Lake Tahoe loop:
- Zephyr Cove
- Virginia City
- Sand Harbor State Park
If you’re making your way to the Lake Tahoe Loop from California, you’ll probably schedule a trip to the lake for your first stop. Starting your road trip with a glimpse of the big blue will get you pumped for everything to come. We started the first leg of our journey at Zephyr Cove. This Lake Tahoe entry point is one of the first stops once you pass over the border into Nevada. Zephyr Cove has a marina, restaurant and camping resort. If you’re too bougie to sleep in a tent (no judgment, we’re van campers!), they also have cabins and airstreams for rent at the Zephyr Cove Resort.
Zephyr Cove is a popular spot with families, couples and groups who want a lively area to take in the lake with all the amenities they need around them. Zephyr Cove campground is just on the other side of the highway from the marina. And when I say highway, I mean a busy street. There is a stop light and crosswalk making it an easy place to stay to access the lake. You can rent stand up paddle boards, one and two person kayaks, jet skis and powerboats on the lake from Zephyr Cove Resort.
In the summer we definitely recommend renting some sort of watercraft (we loved the kayaks but thrill seekers may want to hop on a jet ski!) and cruise around the water. You can stop off at different beaches along the way to lounge on the sand or have a picnic. In winter, they do snowmobile tours which would be super fun, especially with the gorgeous surroundings! If you don’t feel like navigating your own vehicle (hey, you’re on vacation!), check out the M.S. Dixie, a sightseeing paddle wheeler boat that will make you feel like you’re in a Mark Twain novel.
We loved taking out a couple of kayaks and cruising around the lake, being able to stop off at the rock island and take photos of the water with the stunning snowy mountains in the background. It’s recommended to take water toys out in the morning while the wind is generally calmer. There’s a small bar and grill right by the water to grab a snack or drink while soaking up the sun for the rest of the afternoon. Parking in the Zephyr Cove Marina parking lot is $10 per vehicle.
Where to Stay in Zephyr Cove
We stayed at Zephyr Cove Resort and loved it! Obviously the location is perfect with its proximity to the lake, but it’s also just a super nice campground. The area is clean, well laid out and the bathrooms are really nice. Each site gets a bear box and a grill. It seemed like mostly families camping nearby, so it stayed quiet throughout the night.
Where to Eat in Zephyr Cove
Toast – Just a short drive (like literally 3 minutes) from Zephyr Cove Resort, Toast is an unassuming little restaurant on the highway. You can choose to eat in the bar or at the main restaurant, but for the latter you’ll want to make a reservation. We enjoyed eating the bar (it’s the same food), while watching a baseball game. The food is delicious. We especially loved their white fish and sun dried tomato polenta special. Yum! This would also be a great spot to bundle up with a frosty beer or a hot toddy as the snow falls outside.
Genoa is so small you could drive through the whole town in about 90 seconds. But considering this town is Nevada’s first non-native permanent settlement, it’s definitely worth stopping to check out. Have a walk of the streets and duck your head into some of the shops to chat with the locals. There are a couple antique shops, a few small restaurants and the Genoa country store if you need some snacks.
One of the main sights in town is Mormon Station State Park. This settlement was originally founded in 1850 by a few rogue Mormons who came over to Nevada to make some dough. It changed ownership in 1851 and became an official trading post for Carson Valley. The park has a museum that costs $1 to enter, which is definitely worth checking out to learn more about the local history and see some historical artifacts. The people who run the museum are very knowledgeable and have some fun local anecdotes. Make sure to ask them about the curse that blows wind through Genoa.
Another fun stop in the area is the Genoa Trail System. The system has 16 miles of trails on which you can hike, run, bike and ride horses. They also allow dogs! There are a number of different loops you can take, which range from flat beginner walks to more challenging narrow trails with switchbacks and steep drop offs. If you want to take it easy, you can drive just a few minutes out of Genoa to the River Fork Ranch trailhead, which has free parking. From there you can do a couple different loops that take you through flat, if not a little muddy, grassland. If you’re up for a more challenging hike, look for one of the mountain trails in the area. The Jobs Peak Ranch Trail and Fay-Luther Trail both come highly recommended with beautiful views of the area!
When you’re visiting Genoa, you HAVE to go to the Genoa Bar & Saloon. Not only is this spot straight out of the wild west, it’s actually the oldest “watering hole” in Nevada! This saloon is a piece of history, so it would be downright disrespectful not to go in for a beverage. While you’re there have a look at the pamphlet that documents the history of the bar. Reading this thing is like going on a scavenger hunt. It describes historical artefacts that are hidden all over the saloon. You can play a game of iSpy and look for all the secret objects, from the trap door near the pool table to Raquel Welch’s bra hanging on the antlers.
There are wooden tables out the front of the bar if you want a slice of sunshine, but we recommend sitting at the bar to get the full flavor of the place. The clientele is a really interesting mix of locals and tourists. But the biggest demographic we found was people from out of state and out of the country who somehow found themselves in the area and just never left.
We met a Brooklynite cowboy who travels all over the country chopping down trees and has been coming to the bar for over 30 years. We met a Kiwi who traveled around Nevada and somehow never left Genoa. We even met a German who lives part time in Bora Bora, but comes back every couple years to draw the bar in his sketchbook (and does an amazing job capturing the lively scene!). It may seem like I’m going on and on about a simple old school saloon, but once you visit you’ll see for yourself why this place is one of a kind!
Where to Stay in Genoa
Genoa is pretty tiny, so your best bet is to stay in nearby Minden or Gardnerville. We stayed at the Carson Valley Inn Casino in Minden. It has an indoor pool and two indoor jacuzzis, which would be a blast to chill in while it’s snowing outside. They also have two onsite restaurants and a 24 hour casino!
Where to Eat in Genoa
If you’re looking for a full meal, or just a drink, we definitely recommend visiting the historic Pink House. This restaurant and charcuterie is right off the main street and you can’t miss it (it’s pink!). They have cheese and charcuterie boards, as well as full meals and wine and beer. The house dates back to 1855 and you can eat in the main dining room, on the wrap around porch or in the back patio.
If Genoa feels like a step back to the turn of the century, with its quaint buildings and small town feel, then get ready to continue your time travel in Virginia City. This historic mining town is known as the Richest City in the World, and rumor has it that the streets were once paved with silver (hey, they couldn’t all be gold!). In 1854 the gold rush was in full swing in Virginia City. These days it’s a tourist town, but it’s been so well preserved you can almost feel like you’re back in the wild west.
The town itself is not very big, but it’s so jam packed with shops and saloons that it’s worth spending a whole day here. The main street is lined with two boardwalks on either side. The shops have a mix of old Daniel Boone hats and toy pistols, as well as kitschy t-shirts and your typical souvenir magnets and stickers.
Train Tours in Virginia City
Besides the shopping, there are a few tours you can do in the area. We recommend taking a train tour. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad is a historic part of the town and it’s a great way to see the beautiful Carson Valley. The Virginia City to Gold Hill loop only takes about 40 minutes and costs $12 per adult and $6 per child. We recommend getting there a bit early if you want to take photos on board, because you can’t stay on the train after the ride is finished. The conductor will give information about the history of the mining boom in the area, mixed in with a few zingers and jokes that will make sure you’re entertained. The tour can feel a little hokey sometimes, and it’s definitely not a rip roaring railroad, but it’s a fun trip to learn about an important part of American history.
Pro tip: Sit on the opposite side of the train from the side that you enter on for a better view of the Carson Valley.
Things to Do in Virginia City
If railroads aren’t really your thing, or if you have time for multiple tours, check out the Old Washoe ghost tour. Virginia City is somewhat of a paranormal hot spot. The show Ghost Adventures has visited this site three times and has officially declared it haunted, at least according to their poster standing in the bar, on which they wrote “The Old Washoe club is haunted.” (Can’t argue with that!)
Apparently the show hosts captured a full apparition on camera! We asked the bartender if the place was really haunted and she said that she’s heard voices and seen people walking in the back when she knows the place is empty. According to the staff 5 spirits live upstairs, including a young girl who likes to move around her toys. Creepy!
But the Old Washoe Club isn’t the only spooky spot in town. Just down the road is the Silver Queen hotel where they’ve seen plenty of ghosts (Ghost Adventures has also visited here 3 times, so I guess they’re equal?) While we were there, a camera crew was upstairs with the resident medium and apparently they had 3 spirits enter the room, one of which cut the medium’s finger, which started bleeding.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the Silver Queen is a fun spot to check out. The bar serves cheap drinks and while you drink you can peruse the ghost photo album with alleged photos of spirits caught on camera. The hotel is also home to the oldest wedding chapel in Nevada! Move over Vegas, Viriginia City may be the real place to get married in this state!
Where to Stay in Virginia City
If you want to soak up the Wild West for a bit longer you can choose to stay overnight in Virginia City. There are a handful of old school hotels in the small center, but you might as well go all in and stay at the haunted Silver Queen. It’s not fancy, but rooms are affordable and if you spot a ghost you can snap a pic and put it in the haunted photo album. We’ve heard room 11 is the most haunted!
Where to Eat in Virginia City
Virginia City isn’t really a foodie destination (unless we missed something, in which case, please correct us!) It seems like there’s just a handful of touristy restaurants on the main street. Word to the wise, most of the restaurants close at 3pm until dinner, so if you’re planning for a late lunch, make sure it’s not too late. We heard good things about Virginia Jerky Co. but sadly even though their sign said they closed “around 4ish,” they were done and locked up by 3pm.
The Palace – We had lunch at the Palace, because they were open till 4pm. It’s a busy restaurant that gets crowded with tourists, but still keeps up good service and serves decently tasty food, even if it is a little cold. Expect what you get at most touristy restaurants that pump people in and out, one and done!
Grandma’s Fudge Factory – Not exactly your go to for a full meal (although we won’t judge you if you do!), but it’s worth stopping in for a block of fudge to take as a road trip snack. This old timey shop will give you free samples that will definitely hook you into buying a box. We can personally vouch for the peanut butter chocolate swirl and the mint chocolate.
The drive to your next destination, Reno, is a little under an hour, so if you’re not super hungry you could wait until you get to the Biggest Little City in the World, or stop off at Carson City on the way.
If you’ve ever wanted to have a James Bond moment, scaling a building over a famous monument (that’s what he does right? I’ve never actually seen a Bond movie), Basecamp at the Whitney Peak Hotel is for you. Not only do they have the world’s tallest artificial outdoor climbing wall, but it’s right above the famous Reno arch. It stands at 164 feet or 14 hotel stories!
But don’t worry, you won’t fall down to the sidewalk on some poor tourist who just came to get her gamble on and see the Rat Pack variety show. The wall starts on the second floor of the hotel and you’re safely strapped into a belay/belays (are there more than one? I’m not a climber). In fact if you want to scale all the way to the top you have to pass a safety test to make sure you know what you’re doing.
If you want to get your feet wet on something a bit less intimidating, Basecamp has an artificial bouldering section inside. You can rent shoes and test your Spiderman skills on shorter walls that range from vertical to basically upside down. They range from easy, medium and expert paths that are denoted with tape. Remember though, you’re not strapped into anything, so any screw ups will have you falling a few feet down to the mat below. That means that even if you make it to the top, you’ll have to figure out how you’re gonna get down!
Memberships here are surprisingly affordable considering Basecamp’s awesome location in downtown Reno. Members also have access to the indoor gym that has weights and cardio machines. Adults pay $420 per year for climbing and gym access. If you just want to drop in you can pay $17 per day or $10 per day if you’re a guest at the Whitney Peak hotel!
There’s plenty to do in Reno in terms of gambling and kitschy entertainment, but there’s also a growing community of outdoor lovers, local artists and creators in the city. Besides Basecamp, check out Wyld Market if you’re interested in learning more about the cool local scene. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop while we were in town, but this pop up market looks awesome. They feature local makers, whether that be art, products, food and drink or even services that make a positive impact on the community. Check out their calendar to see when and where the next event is: Wyld Market
Where to Stay in Reno
There’s plenty of places to stay in Reno, but we loved our stay at the Peppermill Inn Resort Spa Casino. It’s probably the closest thing to Vegas you’ll get in Reno. This huge resort has 1,621 rooms! They have 15 bars and lounges, 10 restaurants and 82,000 square feet of casino! You could come to Reno, never leave this resort and still have the full Reno experience. We loved our suite in the Tuscany tower, overlooking the 2 pools and 3 hot tubs, which are sustainably heated by a geo-thermal wall. Our only regret was that we didn’t have more time to explore every part of this resort!
Where to Eat in Reno
Considering there are 10 restaurants at the Peppermill, we don’t think you’ll have trouble finding somewhere to eat! The restaurants range from cafe style to buffets to fancy fine dining. Take your pick!
Sand Harbor State Park
We had to spend one last day on the water to cap off our Lake Tahoe Loop road trip, and we’re glad we chose Sand Harbor State Park! This shoreline is absolutely stunning! It’s located in more of a protected part of the lake, so the water is usually still as glass. Unfortunately we visited during a windstorm, so no paddle boarding for us! But we were able to take a couple of kayaks to enjoy the area as the wind calmed down. This part of Lake Tahoe is known for its crystal clear water that shines bright turquoise when the sun comes out. It makes for some gorgeous photos if you climb up a tall boulder and shoot down into the water. You can also rent SUP paddle boards, one person and two person kayaks from Sand Harbor Rentals.
There’s also a couple beach areas in the park that are really popular with families. The sand is soft and it’s the perfect place to park yourself for the day while everyone can enjoy their different water activities or just bask in the sun.
Pro tip: Get there at 8am, just as its opening. On a nice day in the summer, the parking lot can fill up. If you can’t get a spot, park by Flume Trail Mountain Bikes and use the brand new East Shore Trail to walk or bike into the park. You cannot walk in to the park or get dropped off at the entrance. If the parking lot is full, the East Shore Trail is your only access point. This trail is a concrete path, so it’s easy to walk and bike on, and let me tell you, the views are stunning! The trail was just opened in June 2019 to cut down on people parking on the highway and dangerously walking to the lake. We loved our afternoon renting bikes from Flume Trail Mountain Bikes and cruising along the path to Sand Harbor.
The parking lot at Sand Harbor State Park costs $10 per vehicle, and if you choose to enter by the East Shore Trail entrance on bike it’s $2 per person. Please also note that flying a drone is prohibited and we had prior written permission in order to capture photos and video.
Where to Stay in Sand Harbor
There isn’t really much in the way of accommodation around Sand Harbor. Zephyr Cove is only a 25 minute drive, so their resort is a good option, especially if you’re heading back South. There are also plenty of lodges at Incline Village, which is just a 10 minute drive away. Here are some options in that area:
Parkside Inn – This mountain lodge is a great choice, whether you’re bundling up in the snow or playing all day in the sun. They have an indoor heated pool and sauna.
Hyatt Residence Club Lake Tahoe, High Sierra Lodge – If you want to class things up a bit, the Hyatt Residence Club at Lake Tahoe is a beautiful lodge with plenty of accommodation and an amazing location right by the lake. The views are stunning and they have great amenities like a pool, gym and water excursions.
Where to Eat in Sand Harbor
Fumo Cafe Pizzeria & Bar – We randomly wandered into this cafe on a chilly Tahoe morning and we’re so glad we did! With their delicious pancakes, eggs and breakfast potatoes, it totally hit the spot. The service is spot on; they kept the hot coffee coming! This also seems like a great place to stop in for a beer after a long day of skiing.
Overall, we loved our five day road trip on the Lake Tahoe Loop. Even as a neighboring California native, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea there is so much to do in this area! If you’re an adventure lover like us, you’ll be stoked with the choices available. Not only can you mountain bike, kayak, stand up paddle board and hike all in the same week (in the same day if you want!), but you’ll be doing all of those things in the most stunning location. Pair that with a couple days exploring the old school towns of Genoa and Virginia City, as well as taking in the hip adventure scene in Reno, and you’ll have yourself one epic road trip!
This post was created in collaboration with TravelNevada, who helped organize our Lake Tahoe Loop experience. As always, all opinions are our own!