Once the vacation home to big stars like Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, Lake Tahoe today continues to be a hot spot for vacationers seeking the transparent blue of the continent’s largest alpine lake. Whether visiting the variety of small communities around its shores for sunny days and cool splashing water, all summer long, or Olympic-class skiing when the snow falls, there are a variety of places to camp on both the Nevada and California side of this natural playground.
RV Camping on South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe, an actual town, not just a description of the austral side of the water, is home to the most, and most popular, places to camp in the area. Situated on the California side of things, you won’t find the full blown casinos which are legal on the Nevada portion of Tahoe’s shores, but you will find plenty of restaurants, breweries, boat chartering services, hiking and water sports galore. There’s a lakefront walkway, where you’re separated from the water by nothing but a sandy beach, and you can more or less walk the entire town, somewhat sprawled out amongst the pines which surround the entire lake, from anywhere you choose to be.
If exploring the town of South Lake Tahoe is your goal, Campground by the Lake (GPS: 38.943, -119.9728) is your best bet. Open from early April (they’ve recently renovated the place and reports are that they’ll remain open through New Years Eve going forward), it’s largely a summertime affair where campers aplenty pack into the 175 sites available, all just a short walk to the lake itself. Renovations made in 2019 include all new showers and bathrooms, always a bonus in any camping situation. Directly in the campground you’ll find a library, ice rink and hiking trails. The campground is actually a part of the larger El Dorado Recreation Area, and so many city services are conveniently placed throughout the green space. Reservations are recommended, and can be booked online via Reserve America.
While Campground by the Lake is the most centrally located for exploring South Lake, it’s definitely not your only option.
Five miles across the Nevada border, your two best bets for actual beach camping live within five minutes of one another. Zephyr Cove Resort (GPS: 39.0062, -119.9471) is a full hookups, free WiFi, restaurant and marina on-site affair, with regular activities ranging from horseback riding to snowmobile tours, lake cruises (to the tune of the Captain’s narration) to just lounging in the sand. Zephyr Cove’s RV sites are open year-round. You’ll find the cell service more reliable than at Campground by the Lake, laundry facilities on-site, and a generally more relaxed atmosphere than bustling South Lake Tahoe proper.
If your idea of camping is less geared toward resort living and more “get me into nature,” but you still want to be right on the water, head to Nevada Beach Campground, a national forest site offering dry camping spots, flush toilets and even cell service, many with a view of the water and all within a brief walk to the beach for which the campground is named. A highly popular camping destination, every weekend and throughout the entire summer, with only 54 sites, reservations are strongly recommended.
“Keep Tahoe Blue,” you’ll see the slogan on posters, coffee cups and bumper stickers galore while visiting Lake Tahoe. The locals are proud of the state of their pristine lake, and it’s certainly the reason most people visit the region. Still, should you be more interested in playing in the lake during the day, and finding real, forested camping solitude by night, you can scoot a few miles away from the shore, from the busier roads, and camp in the national forests which surround the southern shores of Lake Tahoe.
Fallen Leaf Campground (GPS: 38.926, -120.051) and Camp Shelly Campground (GPS: 38.9266, -120.0623) live within ten or fifteen minutes of most of South Lake Tahoe’s destinations, and both offer simple, no-frills dry camping amongst the pines. Fallen Leaf, part of Eldorado National Forest, will run you $35 per night, while Camp Shelly, owned by a local community, costs $50 – $55 for a night’s stay. Both have intermittent cell reception, showers and bathrooms, and offer hiking trails and easy access to fishing. Fallen Leaf’s proximity to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center makes it a particularly convenient and informative campground for those who like to know more about the nature they’re living within.
Reservations can be made for Camp Shelly by calling 925-373-5700.
A few miles closer to the stunning Emerald Bay, Tahoe National Forest’s Bayview Campground (GPS: 38.9458, -120.0985) has even fewer amenities–it’s strictly dry camping and vault toilets here–with smaller sites, but the price tag reflects this as well, at around $20 per night. This campground is first-come, first-served.
All three of these campgrounds are closed for the winter, so if you plan to arrive before mid-April or after September, call ahead to make sure they’re open.
Two state parks rest near the shores of Emerald Bay as well, the aptly named Emerald Bay State Park (GPS: 38.9513, -120.0858) and D.L. Bliss State Park (GPS: 38.9781, -120.1029). Note that you can’t drive down to the lake at Emerald Bay, as it’s surrounded on three sides by towering, steep cliffs, but there are plenty of places to take in the views of the shimmering water and the island in the middle of it all, and a hiking trail–with an over 400′ elevation drop over a short period–will get you down to the water, as well as Vikingsholm, a piece of astounding Scandinavian architecture which you can tour, for a fee.
Both of the state parks are closed to camping for the winter, though nearby Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park (GPS: 39.0577, -120.1224) remains open year-round, for $25 per night.
Emerald Bay State Park’s Eagle Point Campground will run you $35 per night, as will most sites at D.L. Bliss, though they also offer waterfront camping for an additional $10 per site. Showers, a dump station, trash service and flushing restrooms are part of the package.
If you brought (or want to rent) a kayak or canoe, you can also paddle out to Emerald Bay Boat Camp, where you can pitch a tent on the beach proper. And if you’re comfortable scuba diving or snorkeling, a rather unique experience awaits in the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail, an underwater “trail” highlighting natural and historic points.
All of the state parks and national forests campgrounds on this southwestern edge of Lake Tahoe place you in a prime location for exploring Desolation Wilderness, nearly 64,000 acres of truly wild space where you can experience nature sans the Jeeps and chainsaws that can break through the silence in the rest of the national forest lands.
More Great Camping Near South Lake Tahoe
- Meeks Bay Resort & Marina (GPS: 39.0386, -120.1241) offers full hookup camping, right near the beach. Extremely popular, so reservations are required. ~$50 per night.
- Meeks Bay Campground (GPS: 39.0359, -120.124), a Tahoe National Forest campground situated between D.L. Bliss and Sugar Pine Point State Parks, also near a beach. $31 – $34 per night. Reservations accepted.
- Tahoe Valley Campground (GPS: 38.9085, -119.9996), a full hookups private RV park owned by the Thousand Trails campground collective. Fishing, hiking, volleyball, basketball, pickleball, horseshoes, a playground, laundry facilities…and more. ~$65 per night if you’re not a Thousand Trails member.
- Camp Richardson (GPS: 38.9341, -120.0411), an historic site with a marina, water taxi and restaurant, which also offers RV camping. $60 – $70 per night.
RV Camping on Tahoe’s North Shore
Where South Lake Tahoe dominates that end of the lake, the North Shore is comprised of various communities like Carnelian Bay and Kings Beach, where you’ll have no trouble finding your share of waterfront dining and places to rent watercraft to explore the lake. The closest you’ll get to camping near these small town marinas resides largely in the Tahoe National Forest, at either William Kent Campground (GPS: 39.139, -120.158), Lake Forest Campground (GPS: 39.183, -120.1193) or Tahoe State Recreation Area (GPS: 39.175, -120.135). All are only open seasonally, typically opening sometime in April and then closing in September.
William Kent is a national forest site, so think dry camping, with spotty cell service beneath large pines. The campground is actually smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood, but still manages to feel like you’re “out there” even though you can walk to a breakfast joint from your spot. The lake is just across the highway, though beach access can be tricky without taking a short drive or walking through private property. William Kent costs $31 per night and reservations are recommended, though some first-come, first-served spots exist.
Tahoe State Recreation Area is more or less a state park, where many sites have direct views of the water, even if they’re through some modicum of trees. Cell service proliferates this campground, which is surrounded by the popular Tahoe City, where you’ll find dining options from around the globe and the entrance to the highway leading north to Truckee (more on that town, and it’s fabled river, below.) It’s a very small, coveted park, making reservations a requirement. $35 per night.
The final offering in this area, Lake Forest Campground, is a county park with a very different feel than anywhere else on Lake Tahoe. Instead of towering pines, expect more of a marshland vibe, with an abundance of sun–perfect for the solar power you’ll be relying on, as this campground doesn’t offer hookups. It’s the further place north where one can camp, though, and aside from an abundance of feathered friends, that’s the primary reason people choose this over the other two offerings. The twenty sites available here cost $20 per night, first-come, first-served.
RV Camping in Truckee, California
Twenty minutes north, on California Highway 89, the small, but ever-growing, town of Truckee rests on the shores of the river by the same name. Floating the river is a world-class chunk of fun, a relaxing but beautiful shimmy down a river nearly always surrounded by forest. Truckee offers much of the same opportunities for a decent bite to eat, hiking and playing in the water that Tahoe does, just in a smaller package.
Alpine Meadow Campground (GPS: 39.3206, -120.1224) is easily the most popular place to camp, despite being situated right next to a low-volume, small airport. Aircraft traffic dies down by night fall, and the handful of sites situated on Martis Creek Lake rarely disappoint. For $20 per night, you’ll be dry camping, but flushing toilets and decent cell service, all about ten minutes from the heart of Truckee, make it well worth the price.
Truckee is perhaps best known for being home to the Donner Party, pioneers who–in the mid-1800s–found themselves trapped in the area for the winter. Some of them resorted to cannibalism to survive. Donner Memorial State Park (GPS: 39.3236, -120.2328) commemorates those pioneers, as well as the railroad and Native American history of the place we now call Truckee, and offers year-round camping in some 150 sites. Where Alpine Meadows is more or less all about rest and relaxation, Donner Memorial is a bit more bustling, popular with families and full of activity all the day long. It’s still dry camping (within walking distance to some restaurants and a children’s museum), and more or less identical services to what Alpine Meadow offers, but will run you $35 per night.
If the nightly fee is your biggest concern, Granite Flat Campground (GPS: 39.2978, -120.2052), part of Tahoe National Forest, is only $22. You downgrade to vault toilets, but the campground nestles right up to the Truckee River. Despite a plentitude of shade, many of the sites are also wide out in the open, allowing for plenty of sunlight to drench your spot.
Two additional campgrounds, Goose Meadow (GPS: 39.259, -120.209) and Silver Creek (GPS: 39.2233, -120.2027), offer the same amenities at the same price, still on the Truckee River, with usable cell service but a little further out from town itself, in that you’ll be south on CA 89 (which also means you’ll be a little closer to Lake Tahoe, too.)
More RV Camping Near Truckee
- Coachland RV Park (GPS: 39.3402, -120.1753), a privately owned campground, is the only real offering for camping within easy walking distance of town. ~$60 per night, full hookups, WiFi, cell service and access to laundry included.
- Prosser Campground (GPS: 39.3776, -120.1625) and Lakeside Campground (GPS: 39.384, -120.171), two national forest campgrounds with minimal dry camping services, situated on the Prosser Creek Reservoir, are a fifteen minute drive from town. $22 per night.
Even More Camping Near Lake Tahoe
Situated at 9300′ on Mt. Rose herself, Mt. Rose Campground (GPS: 39.3123, -119.8973) is true forest camping, but still with a view of gorgeous Tahoe’s blue in the distance. Vault toilets, and a long drive in, for $22 per night. Situated on various trails, this campground is popular with mountain bikers and hikers alike, but despite only having 24 sites, is often the least busy place to find a last minute available spot in all of the Lake Tahoe Basin.
From hiking the solitude of Desolation Wilderness to taking a boat cruise on the crystal clear that is Lake Tahoe itself, knocking back a few cold ones as you float down the Truckee River to paddleboarding on Emerald Bay, Tahoe is full of things to do. One thing to note is, despite having over a thousand individual campsites, many of the campgrounds–especially in the national forests–can only accommodate shorter RVs, making both our Airstream and Winnebago Class B RV rentals ideal for exploring the area with a few limitations as possible.