The Great Tahoe Debate: North Lake or South Lake?

You’ve decided on a ski trip to Tahoe and while you may have heard that there are a few towns and ski areas on both the North and South ends of the lake, what sets one apart from the other? Which place(s) would be your best bet for a ski vacation? 

Generally speaking, the South Shore is more bustling when it comes to nightlife while the North Shore is quieter and more shrouded in wilderness, but you can’t really go wrong with either. Here’s everything you need to know to decide where to go in Tahoe.

The South

If you’re looking for a more glitzy scene, go to South Tahoe. © Vail Resorts

South Lake Tahoe is the largest town on the lake and, along with neighboring Stateline, home to the glitziest casinos and late night party scenes. Besides staying at one of the resorts right on the mountain, South Lake and Stateline both offer easy ski access. Heavenly Village even has a gondola that launches just a few blocks from the lakeshore between both towns, where it’s possible to stand with one foot in California and one in Nevada.

<<No matter which resort you decide to stay at in Tahoe, you can max your time on the mountain by renting ski/snowboard equipment. >>


There’s a broad range of lodging options in South Lake, with family-run bed and breakfasts, high-end boutiques, budget chain hotels, and towering casinos. Of the luxury options, The Landing Tahoe Resort & Spa is a standout, sitting on the edge of the lake with stunning views and fireplaces in every room. Situated next door to the Heavenly Gondola, Marriott’s Timber Lodge is another convenient luxury option, offering 1- and 2-bedroom villas, many with kitchenettes.

The most upscale casino in the area—which is also within walking distance of the Heavenly gondola—is Harrah’s. The casino is home to six restaurants and nightly entertainment, including live music, comedy and theater performances, and Peek Nightclub.

The South Shore is not all about lights and casinos, though. If skiing as much as possible is the first and foremost priority, there are a handful of ski-in, ski-out hotels and condos at Kirkwood, a local favorite in a remote area about an hour’s drive south of the lake.


qWctJasHQsYckuAS2aM2oThere are plenty of dining options at Lake Tahoe. © Vail Resorts

There’s also no shortage of dining options on the South Shore. Given its proximity to San Francisco, you’ll find fantastic seafood and other options ranging from Italian to Thai. Even the most discerning of foodies will find something spectacular.

On the lakefront, the Riva Grill is a popular choice for everything from scallops to filet mignon, while Base Camp Pizza serves up tasty pies and is a choice family spot. Up the road in Zephyr Cove, Toast Tahoe is worth a trip for wine lovers and My Thai is great for authentic Asian spice.


South Lake is home to a bounty of boutiques as well a handful of shopping malls, including the one smack in the middle of Heavenly Village.

Off-the-Hill Activities

Taking a day off of skiing or riding? Snowmobiling is another brand of adrenaline charge, breathing in views of the lake from trails and peaks surrounding the South Shore. While Lake Tahoe itself is not an option for ice fishing (the frozen status of such a large body of water is unpredictable), Silver Lake, Caples Lake, and Red Lake near Kirkwood are big winter stops for anglers.

Although the North Shore is more of the hot spot for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, Kirkwood offers a bounty of groomed Nordic trails.

Après and Nightlife

12Y0RQWQ9EGoOC26acwYIuUnbuckle is a daily Happy Hour at Heavenly, featuring live DJs and half-priced drinks. © Vail Resorts

Gambling. Go-Go dancers. Live music. Drink specials. Here’s where the South really shines. The party often starts on the mountain, specifically at Tamarack Lodge for Heavenly’s notorious Unbuckle Après Party, which includes late afternoon live music, food and drink specials, and of course, dancing on tables. The energy continues down in the village around the fire pits of the Fire & Ice Grill and Bar.

Naturally, craft beer is a big thing around here and breweries abound, the most popular in South Lake include Cold Water, Sidellis, and Stateline Brewery, the latter a convenient stop for casino goers. Speaking of casinos, the late-night crowd can be found in the Party Pit or around the stage at Montbleu Casino & Resort, which regularly hosts nationally acclaimed musicians, stand-up comedians, and dance groups.

The North

4XMtdpc6veSWCacCmaK44aNorthstar has 100 trails over 3,170 acres. © Vail Resorts

As mentioned, North Lake Tahoe unquestionably feels less developed and more shrouded in wilderness than the South. It’s home to the towns of Truckee, Tahoe City, Tahoe Vista, and Incline Village as well as the ski areas Northstar, Squaw Valley, and Alpine Meadows.

Although you will spot far more star constellations on this side of the lake thanks to fewer lights and buildings, there are plenty of exquisite dining options, lodging choices, shopping, and of course, ways to explore the wilderness.

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3VDBCvQPq0mE4uAQY2uSWaNorthstar is a great option for families. © Vail Resorts

If you’re not seeking ski-in, ski-out accommodation at the resorts, Truckee and Tahoe Vista are the most popular town destinations for lodging. Truckee is a good choice for those wanting the feel of an authentic ski town community (try Truckee Donner Lodge or Cedar Sport Hotel) and Tahoe Vista is ideal for visitors craving lakeside lodging (like the Tahoe Edgelake Beach Club or the rustic Cedar Glen Lodge).

For families that like the freedom of letting their kids wander safely, you can’t go wrong at Northstar. With its expansive network of ski-in, ski-out properties, self-contained village with plenty of restaurants, Northstar is also conveniently near the lake (15 minutes or less), as well as Truckee, Tahoe City, and Incline Village.


An iconic spot overlooking the town of Truckee about 20 minutes from the lake, Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar is an elegant steakhouse with luscious seafood dishes. Discerning palates flock to the small—but always seasonally fresh—menu at Jack Rabbit Moon in Incline Village, while foodies who like a lake view rave about Gar Woods in Carnelian Bay.

More casual local favorites include Truckee Tavern and Grill, T’s Mesquite Rotisserie in Incline Village, and Lanza’s Restaurant for Italian food.


Truckee is the epicenter of shopping in North Lake Tahoe, with everything from a Sears to rare gift shops, jewelry, and wine. Get a rundown of Truckee’s shopping options here.


Although the North Shore is generally quieter and more peaceful than the South Shore, there are certainly party spots for late nighters. Situated on a jutting peninsula off the lake, Crystal Bay Casino hosts a steady lineup of national rock, hip-hop, and pop music as well as DJs. The slots and tables are also hopping into the wee hours.

A local favorite to catch a game and a beer is Fat Cat in Tahoe City. Tucked into the otherwise serene woods of Incline Village, Rookie’s Sports Bar & Grillis another energetic locals’ haunt, equipped with slot machines and a live DJ on Saturdays.

Off-the-Hill Activities

3dcZjIZSlGsSomSOoaeYigThere are plenty of things to do at Northstar.© Vail Resorts

While South Lake is superior in nightlife options, North Lake has the market cornered on outdoor activities. Cross-country skiing trails abound as do snowmobile tours high above the lake with panoramic views of Northstar, Squaw Valley, and miles beyond.

For those truly wanting to get away from it all and take in mountain vistas at their finest, Donner Lake offers arguably the most breathtaking landscape in Tahoe as well as miles of Nordic ski and snowshoe trails, numerous ice fishing spots, sledding, and tubing hills.

The great North vs. South Lake Tahoe debate will likely continue through the ages. That’s what happens when both sides have this much to offer, but hopefully this guide has helped you narrow it down a bit. For more information about planning your Tahoe ski vacation visit

Featured image provided by © Vail Resorts

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  1. South lake! I skied Heavenly when it was $5. For a full day! Gas was around a dollar a gallon and share a motel room with three others for twenty or thirty bucks! My old wood skis actually had sectioned metal edges..;-))) then I upgraded to Head Masters!

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