Fact: The best time to visit Lake Tahoe is shoulder season — in other words, right about now.
This is a position unfortunately complicated by the new calculus involved in planning around fire season — it wasn’t that long ago that South Lake Tahoe was evacuated in advance of the Caldor Fire (which was officially declared contained just yesterday morning.) But when luck is with us, the summer crowds have departed, and the ski season has yet to start, there’s nowhere better than Tahoe. And for our money, at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, on Northstar.
Obviously, the main advantage to staying above the lake is ready access to its ski slopes, which is less of an advantage (a) before the snow starts and (b) if you don’t ski. Those mountainsides, though, are just as profitably explored on foot or by bike, and the hot tubs run all year round. Here’s how to make the most of a weekend splurge.
The lay of the land
The 117-room hotel is located mid-mountain on Northstar — so the ski center’s attractions (the ice skating rink, the pubs, the shopping and everything else) are in easy reach, if you feel like partaking in them. Festive mountain town Truckee is about 15 minutes down the mountain, while the lake (at Kings Beach) is also 15, in the opposite direction. Lodging varies from your “pure guest room” (with gas fireplace) to two-story, 3400-square-foot, four-bedroom residences with two soaking tubs, which sleep seven.
You’ll run out of time before you run out of options. The Sawmill Lake Trail goes basically from the back of the hotel to Sawmill Lake, a 10-acre private lake within Northstar that’s instant Instagram fodder; make a day of it by hiring a local guide for an afternoon of fly-fishing. For something slightly further flung, take advantage of the low(er) crowd level and hit the Tahoe Rim Trail — despite the name, the 170-mile path actually swings inward right around the hotel, so an enterprising hiker could skirt nearly Mount Watson or head north toward Mount Baldy. And if you wanted to get up close and personal with the lake itself, there’s always the iconic Rubicon Trail. Too much work? The hotel can help book a helicopter tour with Sierra Air.
What to eat
Manzanita does Sierras seasonal dining at its best, like venison with sweet potato mousseline and heirloom carrots or black Silkie chicken with swiss chard and celery root purée. (Also recommendable: the short rib pappardelle.) The Highlands Bar has killer views of the surrounding Sierras — make a point of getting there right at sunset. If you feel like venturing out, Uncorked’s Truckee location is a legitimately convivial wine bar, without the stuffiness/self-seriousness that sometimes ruins a spot like this.
Stay on site
The point of a splurge-y hotel stay is, obviously, to make the most of that hotel. Start here with a booking at the hotel’s spa. (If you’re a spa person, and you know if you are, either get there this weekend or hold off until after November 9, as it’ll be closed for 12 days in the middle.) The best way to do this: Get out into that fresh Sierras air first thing — and then repair to the spa, its 17 treatment rooms, the dry-heat lodge, and the eucalyptus steam room by 11 a.m. max. The low-key “Relaxation” treatment is a 50-minute light- to moderate-pressure aromatherapy massage; opt for the “Stress Relief” if you prefer something a little firmer. And if you just want to give your face a fighting chance, the facial has all the steps you’d expect (double cleanse, facial exfoliation, steam and extraction, facial massage, mask, scalp massage). There are also plenty of couple’s options, if your plus-one insists. Our top pick is inevitably the one making use of local elements — like the Journey Through the Forest, which uses native essential oils in a full-body exfoliation followed by massage. Elsewhere, the gym (open 24 hours) can satisfy your Peloton fix, and what would autumn in the Sierras be without drinks around the firepit?
This article was featured in the InsideHook SF newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Bay Area.