Free Things to Do in Tahoe

10Best Free (and Fun) Things to do in Lake Tahoe

Because of its popularity, it can be a challenge to find some free things to do in Lake Tahoe. However, while some of the beaches are pay only and all the museums have a fee, you will be able to find some family-friendly and free spots around the Lake Tahoe area. The most popular is Emerald Bay State Park. Parking can be a challenge on this precarious part of the lake, and there is a pay parking area, but the park itself is free. Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee has a pay area at the West side of the lake, but there are about a dozen free fishing and swimming docks on the North side of the lake.

 Common's Beach in Tahoe City is not only free, but they also have free summer concerts and movie nights. For the kids, the Taylor Creek Visitor Center with its underwater viewing area and its parking is free. For the adults and older children, the two toughest hiking trails in the area are also free. Mount Rose, as well as portions of the Tahoe Rim Trail, are a challenge, but the views are worth a million bucks.


The Taylor Creek Visitor Center is located near Camp Richardson on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. It is free to enter and offers both adult and children an up-close view of the local flora and fauna. The paved trails and bridges throughout the marshlands are stroller friendly and there are both guided and self-guided interpretive trails, an underground "aquarium" area where you can see an actual part of Taylor Creek. During the fall the Kokanee Salmon are spawning and visitors can watch the process through glass windows. There is also a 180 degree curved diorama that illustrates life above and below the water. Be sure to look for the raccoon, crayfish, bats, frog, Stellar Jay, Bald Eagles, butterflies, and the slug. In winter, the Taylor Creek area becomes a cross-country ski area especially suited to beginners. Using the area is free, but you need to purchase a California SNO-PARK permit for your vehicle. It comes to about $5 a day or $25 for a season.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Both the outdoor hiking trails and the interpretive center with the dioramas are free.

Christina's expert tip: Both the parking and the park entrance fee are free.

Read more about Taylor Creek Visitor Center →

Echo Lake is located on Echo Summit south of Lake Tahoe near the town of Myers. Both Upper and Lower Echo Lake are wonderful for summertime swimming and fishing, but most people go here to enjoy the many trails and the trek into Desolation Wilderness. At Lower Echo Lake you can enjoy some food and drink at the Echo Chalet before taking off on a hike. The Echo Chalet is only open during the summer but also offers a boat taxi up to Upper Echo Lake for a small fee. The Chalet also rents fishing boats and kayaks during the summer.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Echo Lake is a great day trip if you want to see some of Tahoe's other lakes.

Christina's expert tip: Echo Lake has a large parking lot, but on holiday weekends it can fill up quickly.

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Somewhat widespread, this park on the Nevada side extends along the eastern shore of the lake, promising visitors everything from superb views to sunbathing to horseback riding. Perhaps the most well-attended spot is Sand Harbor, a beach only a few miles from Incline Village. If you're intent on having fewer crowds, consider Spooner Lake, which appeals to anglers, hikers, and bikers. It also provides access to the undeveloped area between the lake and Carson City. Cave Rock, farther south, is a haven for fishing and boating. It, like any of the other sites, is always popular for a picnic and taking in the area's magnificent natural vistas.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Keep an eye out for the tiny beaches along the East side of the lake along the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park.

Christina's expert tip: Sand Harbor is not free, but various locations along the park are.

Read more about Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park →


Because of its beauty and accessibility, Desolation Wilderness is per acre, the most heavily used wilderness area in the country. Desolation Wilderness is 12.5 miles long and 8 miles and is accessed by 15 named and numbered trailheads under a quota system. Day hikers fill out registration forms at the head, but overnighters must pay a fee and register ahead of time. Magnificent views are available from all over, specifically one atop a granite slope that overlooks Emerald Bay. Desolation contains 63,960 acres of subalpine forests, glacial lakes and valleys, and granite peaks. A portion of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail passes through the area.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: If you are hiking above the waterfall, you do need to fill out a wilderness permit.

Christina's expert tip: If you don't want to go all the way into the Wilderness, Eagle Lake (a mile in) is a good stop.

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Emerald Bay State Park on the southwest area of Lake Tahoe is home to park is home to Eagle Falls and Vikingsholm, a 38-room mansion that is one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the western hemisphere. The views from any part of the Bay are fantastic. The park contains the only island in Lake Tahoe, Fannette Island where a small teahouse was built by the owner of the Vikingsholm Castle. The park is accessible by State Route 89 near the southwest shore of the lake. Emerald Bay is one of Lake Tahoe's most photographed and popular locations. In 1969, Emerald Bay was recognized as a National Natural Landmark by the federal Department of the Interior. In 1994, California State Parks included the surrounding water of the bay as a part of the park, making Emerald Bay one of the first underwater parks of its type in the state, protecting the various wrecks and other items on the bay's bottom.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: You can hike along the Rubicon Trail to reach various parts of Emerald Bay.

Christina's expert tip: Plan to get to the park early in the morning to get parking. This is the most popular area of the lake.

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Commons Beach
Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann

This small and friendly beach is right in the middle of Tahoe City where you'll see both locals and visitors swimming during the summer. There is a grassy area with playgrounds and nice BBQ areas with picnic tables. Free special events are held all year long on Commons Beach including SnowFest! in the winter and the live Concerts at Commons Beach in the summer. The concerts are free and held every Sunday afternoon. On summer Wednesdays, the park shows films during their Movies at the Beach events. Commons Beach is just a few steps away from the restaurants, shops and hotels of Tahoe City.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Commons Beach has free concerts every Sunday afternoon in the summer.

Christina's expert tip: Commons Beach has a playground for children as well as quick access to restaurants and shopping for parents.

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This pleasant little beach is known for its great view of Mt. Tallac and dog-friendly area. Right by Camp Richardson, but away from the crowds. This beach is very lengthy and full of brightly-colored sand, and is located near South Lake Tahoe's "Y". The beach is dissected by Taylor Creek, a popular destination on its own. To get to Kiva Beach, turn right at the Forest Service Visitor Center turnoff near Camp Richardson and follow the road past the Visitor's Center (this is also the parking for the stream profile chamber) to the beach parking lot. The lot may be full on hot summer days.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Limited free parking can be found at Kiva Beach on the South Shore.

Christina's expert tip: Kiva Beach is known as one of the most dog-friendly on the lake.

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Mount Rose is the 3rd highest peak in Lake Tahoe at 10,778 feet. It is easy to drive to, but not so easy to climb. It is located next to the Mount Rose ski resort and from the trail and the top of the peak you will get amazing views Reno, Sparks, Carson City, Washoe Valley and Lake Tahoe. On a clear day, you can even see Mount Lassen in northern California. Mount Rose is a challenging hike that can be done in about 4-6 hours by an average hiker. The trail initially takes you through forest, scrubland, beautiful meadows full of wildflowers and a waterfall. After falls, the trail climbs steeply upward toward more stark terrain and shale.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Mount Rose is one of the best hikes in the area if you want to bag a "10-er".

Christina's expert tip: Start the hike early in the morning. The parking lot for the trailhead is free but can fill up by mid-morning.

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East Shore

Tahoe doesn't have just one place to ride a bike, but dozens of places where you can get a totally different biking experience. While the mountains around Tahoe are popular with mountain bikers, there are also plenty of bike paths in different areas around the lake. On the West Shore, you can ride from Tahoe City along the Truckee River and South Lake Tahoe offers a protected route from Stateline to Camp Richardson where you can stop at a few beaches or for ice cream. It will depend on your biking experience and where you are located, but the best way to learn about the variety of trails is to visit the Bike Tahoe website. They have excellent maps and links on where to rent bikes.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Bike Tahoe has a comprehensive list of all the biking trails in the Tahoe area.

Christina's expert tip: Tahoe has a wide range of places to mountain bike or take out a street cruiser. Check out Bike Tahoe first.

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Tahoe Rim Trail
Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann

The Tahoe Rim Trail follows the shore of Lake Tahoe and is one of the world's premier trails. It passes through two states (California and Nevada), six counties, one state park, three National Forests, and three Wilderness areas. This spectacular trail is 165 miles of single-track multiuse trail, winding peak to peak around Lake Tahoe. Hiking and horseback riding are allowed on all portions of the trail, while mountain biking is allowed on the trail with the exception of the wilderness areas, the section that is in the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, and on the sections of trail that overlap with the Pacific Crest Trail. Day hikes, backpacking and camping are also allowed on the trail and rules and permits may apply to certain areas.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: All the segments of the Tahoe Rim Trail are free. However, if you decide to overnight in Desolation Wilderness, permits are required.

Christina's expert tip: The 8 segments of the Tahoe Rim Trail can be hiked together or on a separate day or overnight trips.

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Meet Christina Nellemann

Christina has lived in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area since she was a baby. A first-generation Nevadan, her Danish parents instilled in her an intense love of travel and the wild, rugged outdoors...  More About Christina