The drive from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe is a gorgeous ascent from the sparkling city in the Bay to the pine-covered mountains and sapphire lake beloved by Californians and international visitors alike. Less than four hours end-to-end, the San Francisco to Lake Tahoe drive is easy enough to do in one go.
But if you’re looking to enjoy Northern California and take your time on your San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip, there are plenty of stops worth making. Check out our favorite detours along the route—everything from stunning hiking trails to an outlet mall to the most delicious pie in the state—and find the perfect places to add to your road trip.
Planning a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip
The route from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco is a fairly easy drive. The freeway that connects the two is well-maintained and dotted with gas stations, dining options, and hotels the whole way up.
The best route from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe depends if your destination is North Lake Tahoe or South Lake Tahoe. Either way, you’ll take I-80 E from San Francisco to Sacramento. From there, you’ll either continue on I-80 E until you connect to CA 89-S, which will bring you to Tahoe City, or you’ll branch off on US-50 E to South Lake Tahoe.
This itinerary will cover the route to Tahoe City, sticking along I-80 E the entire time, but both routes are stunning drives with plenty to offer along the way.
Keep in mind that if you’re planning to visit Lake Tahoe in winter, you will need to make sure your car and tires are equipped and safe for driving in snow.
If you need to rent a car for this trip, you can browse Rentalcars.com which aggregates prices across a number of car rental companies. Alternatively, you can choose to rent an RV or campervan from Outdoorsy which can be a good choice if combining this road trip with other routes such as San Francisco to Yosemite.
How Far is San Francisco to Lake Tahoe?
The distance from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe via I-80 E is 200 miles. However, the San Francisco to Lake Tahoe drive time can vary greatly depending on the time of day and time of year.
In addition to traffic around San Francisco getting extremely congested around commute hour, the drive to Tahoe can take a lot longer if you’re driving up on a Friday evening or Saturday morning.
It gets especially busy if you’re spending a few days in Tahoe for a holiday weekend. It’s a popular destination for Bay Area locals, so if you can avoid the more popular times to go (steer clear of Labor Day, 4th of July, and the winter holidays), definitely do. On a low traffic day, the drive is 3.5 hours, but it can take up to 6 hours if the roads are busy.
Best San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip Stops
There are tons of stops between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe that are worth a visit. It’s filled with beautiful nature, cute towns, and delicious food.
Whether exploring the Berkley hills or shopping in historic downtown Truckee, there’s something for everyone on the San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip.
On your way out of San Francisco, you’ll pass over Treasure Island halfway across the bridge. Start your day off with an excursion of this small yet charming island in the Bay.
This oft-overlooked island off the coast of San Francisco is hardly even a detour as you pass right over it on your way out, and it is well worth a few hours of exploration.
Tilden Regional Park
Once you’ve made it over the bridge, your San Francisco to Lake Tahoe drive will take you past Berkeley, one of the Bay Area’s most popular cities. Depending on how long you have in the Bay Area, Berkeley is worth a visit of its own as you could easily spend multiple days exploring the thrift stores, bookshops, restaurants, and more.
However, it’s not just the city that makes Berkeley so popular. It’s also beloved for the nearby hiking trails.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stretch your legs on your way to Tahoe, the Tilden Regional Park is a stunning set of rolling hills that border the Berkeley Hills. Check out their massive variety of trails and find the route that’s perfect for your time and skill level.
Point Pinole Regional Shoreline
More of an ocean person than a hill lover? Keep going a few miles past Tilden Regional Park and you’ll hit the Point Pinole Regional Shoreline. There are tons of hikes and walking trails here as well, but they feature stunning vistas overlooking the ocean rather than winding trails through the hills.
Not interested in hiking? Head to the water instead and enjoy one last visit to the sandy shoreline before heading inland.
Vacaville Premium Outlets
In addition to the stunning natural environment that makes up Northern California, the region is well known for its shopping opportunities.
Shopping in San Francisco can be akin to burning a hole in your pocket, but if you’re looking for the same styles at half the price, make sure to stop at the Vacaville Premium Outlets on your way East. From Ralph Lauren to Under Armour, there are shops for just about everything out here.
Just under halfway through your San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip, you’ll drive past Sacramento, California’s capital city. As a major California city, there’s plenty to do here.
From shopping and eating in East Sacramento to visiting the Sacramento Zoo, to touring the California State Capitol Museum, you could easily spend a full week here. But even if you’re just stopping for lunch, it’s worth the visit.
It’s not a trip to Lake Tahoe without a stop at Ikeda’s California Country Market & Pie Shop. This local landmark is split in two: one half restaurant, the other half food market.
To be entirely honest, the restaurant is just okay. You can get a decent meal, but the true appeal is the pie. They sell it by the slice in the restaurant or you can buy a full-sized pie in the market (where they also sell delicious snacks and a massive selection of hot sauces).
With over a dozen flavors to choose from, you can find the perfect pick for your tastes. Each one tastes truly homemade as if just brought out from Grandma’s kitchen, and Northern California locals will jump to defend it as the best pie in the state.
Emigrant Gap Scenic Overlook
As you make it into the mountains, you will soon drive over Emigrant Gap. At this point, you’ve got less than an hour left before you hit Lake Tahoe. Make sure to pull off onto Emigrant Gap to get some stunning views of the towering mountains in the distance.
If your feet are itching at this point, there are some stunning hikes near the overlook, so you can start warming up your legs and adapt to the altitude before setting in Tahoe.
Historic Downtown Truckee
When you pull off I-80 E and turn onto CA-89 S, you’ll land smack dab in the middle of Truckee. Less than two miles away is Historic Downtown Truckee. Head straight down Donner Pass Road until you hit the main strip, then find street parking (it’s paid, but only $1.50 per hour).
This Old West-style downtown is filled with everything from modern boutiques and cocktail bars to old fashioned soda shops. Make sure to stop by the Visitor Center to learn a bit more about Truckee’s fascinating history!
Last but not least, as you drive down CA-89 S you’ll pass Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley. Once known as Squaw Valley, this resort was home to the winter Olympics in 1960.
During winter, Olympic Valley is a hotspot for skiing and snowboarding, but it’s a beautiful place to stop on your San Francisco to Lake Tahoe drive any time of the year. In addition to a huge selection of shops and restaurants, there’s golfing, rock climbing, biking, treetop adventure courses, and more.
From there, it’s just 10 more minutes until you hit Tahoe City and can start enjoying the beauty of Lake Tahoe!
Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe
The Jeffrey Hotel – If you’re after a mid-range option in South Lake Tahoe, then this hotel is a fantastic choice. They have a range of rooms that are great for both couples and families, some rooms are equipped with a fireplace and it is situated in a convenient location. Click here to check availability
Black Bear Lodge – If you’re after a comfortable and cosy self-catering option, then this comfortable hotel offers a range of rooms and cottages, which is perfect for those looking to cook some of their own meals. All rooms have a fireplace and some even have a hot tub! They can also accommodate larger families. Click here to check availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options near Lake Tahoe!
The San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip is a quick, easy, and beautiful drive. It’s easy enough to make it from one end to the other only stopping to fill up on gas, but make the most of your time in Northern California by enjoying some of the beautiful stops along the way.
Are you driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe? Have any questions about this route? Let us know in the comments!