10 Best Stops on a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip

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by Sarah Dittmore

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Taking a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip 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 drive is easy enough to do in one go.

But if you’re looking to enjoy Northern California and take your time, 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 San Francisco to Lake Tahoe drive is fairly easy to do. 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 depends on whether 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.

Lake Tahoe's Clear Waters
Lake Tahoe’s Clear Waters

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 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 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 this drive.

Treasure Island

On your way out of San Francisco, you’ll pass over Treasure Island halfway across the Bay Bridge. Start your day off with an excursion of this small yet charming island in the Bay.

A personal favorite is the croissant French toast at Aracely, but the more historic-minded will enjoy learning the history of the island at the Treasure Island Museum.

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.

San Francisco from Treasure Island
San Francisco from Treasure Island

Tilden Regional Park

Once you’ve made it over the bridge, your 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.

San Pablo Reservoir near Tilden Regional Park
San Pablo Reservoir near Tilden Regional Park

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.

Napa Valley

While visiting a winery may not be the first thing that jumps to mind when on a drive from San Francisco, the route to Lake Tahoe goes right through California’s most famous wine region – Napa Valley – and taking the time to visit a vineyard or two is never a bad idea.

Provided you’re not the designated driver, there are plenty of tasting rooms scattered around the area that you’re not going to be starved for choice! And those who aren’t drinking will still find that there are countless great restaurants to enjoy if you’re looking for a good area to stop for lunch.

Vineyards in Napa Valley
Vineyards in Napa Valley

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.

Downtown Sacramento

Just under halfway through your 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.

California State Capitol
California State Capitol


It’s not a trip to Lake Tahoe without a stop at Ikeda’s California Country Market & Pie Shop just past Auburn. 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.

Emigrant Gap in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
Emigrant Gap

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 from the Gold Rush in the mid-19th Century to present day! You can also make a brief stop at Donner Lake and enjoy some lake views!

Historic Hotel in Truckee
Historic Hotel in Truckee

Palisades Tahoe

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 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.

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!

Private Rental – There are plenty of options to suit different levels of budgets for private rentals in Lake Tahoe such as this stunning lakefront condo.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options near Lake Tahoe!

Beautiful Lake Tahoe
Beautiful Lake Tahoe

The road trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe 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 to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco? Have any questions about this route? Let us know in the comments!

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Sarah is a writer for The World Was Here First. A California native, she loves travelling around her home state as well as visiting places further afield. She has spent over a decade travelling the world and writing stories inspired by the people and places she encounters along the way.

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