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Driving to Lake Tahoe With Kids: Where to Stop, Eat and Play

Spring is almost upon us, but it’s still too cold to head to the beach. A quick family trip to the mountains could be the solution. It’s a 202 mile trip from San Francisco to lakeside. While you may have heard that the trip can be done in three hours, plan on your journey taking most of the day. Now that you’ve added the car seat, housing the passenger with the smallest bladder and the loudest voice, the trip will undoubtedly take a little longer. Ski families prepare! Tahoe is supposed to get snow this week, so it’ll be the perfect chance to hit the slopes and get the little ones skiing.

When to go:
This is a trick question. The best ski conditions will be after a snowstorm. Everyone knows this and everyone will get on the road after work on Friday. Traffic has been known to come to a standstill.

One option is to leave very early morning. A 4:00 am departure ensures a traffic free trip over the Bay Bridge and past Sacramento, plus your kiddo will usually fall back asleep for a few hours. Keeping the little ones asleep makes those long car trips all the smoother and less stressful.

A second option is the night drive, post rush hour. Feed them dinner, do the bedtime routine and throw them in the car with a pillow and a blanket around 7pm. The trip to North Shore can be knocked out  in less than three hours. The best part? No stops necessary since they will be snoozing away.

If you head to the mountains during a snowstorm, be prepared for possible road closures depending on ice and visibility conditions. During these times, chain control is enforced, so either take a four wheel drive car (All Wheel Drive works as well) or be prepared to put chains on your tires. There are usually people on the side of the road who will put chains on your car for a fee; it’s about $40 and they will take them off when you get to the other side of the summit.

So, try to go early on Friday or midweek and if it’s raining, when the snow levels are at 6000-7000 feet. The three big summits you need to get over are Donner Pass (7056ft)  via route 80 to Truckee, Brockway Summit (7179ft)  via route 267 to north Lake Tahoe or Echo summit (7382ft) via route 50 to south Lake Tahoe.

Tip: If this is your first time up take route 80, it has fewer curves and there is more to do along the North Shore.

Pit Stops:
Vallejo. Here, you’ll find a Starbucks, Chevron and a McDonalds all in the same space. The bathroom in the Starbucks is usually clean. There are a number of gas stations and restaurants along the way so try to Google your favorite one if you have a picky eater. The bathrooms can be hit or miss (Exit 30b).

Nut Tree, Vacaville. This iconic gem of a roadside stop offers everything, including a bit of California history. Restaurants galore, outlet shopping, big box stock up stores, and even a kiddie amusement park to boot. It’s a great place to stretch the legs, get some decent food with a scoop of Fenton’s Ice Cream for dessert, and even let the little ones take a train ride. (Exit 56 then Keep right at the fork, follow signs for Orange Dr/Nut Tree Rd)

Auburn. It’s a good point to take a break and there are a lot of food choices. Ikedas Market (Exit 120 for Lincon Way: Left on Lincon Way a little less than a mile up on the right hand side) is a favorite for pie and burgers and there is also a drive-thru Starbucks right off the exit (119b) for a caffeine boost. The serious two lane driving will start after Auburn as you keep going up the mountain.

Once you get over Donner Pass and into Truckee, stop at Jax Diner if anyone is still hungry, or just need to run around a little bit (Exit 186 to Central Truckee, Right on Donner Pass Rd, at the traffic circle take the second exit and stay on Donner Pass Rd, Turn right at the 76 Gas station onto Brockway Rd, Jax is on the next corner of W River St and Brockway Rd.)

If you are going to South Lake Tahoe, try stopping in Sacramento. There are more choices if you need to take a longer break or eat something other than fast food.

Tahoe with Kids: Skiing, Sledding and Tubing

Preparing for the journey:
The key to this road trip is not spending too much time packing the car and avoiding traffic. Pack your gear ahead of time or pack the car the night before. Separate the snowboarding gear from the winter weather gear in case you need to put on more clothing, as the temperature drops at higher elevations.

A steady supply of toys and distractions will avoid loud protesting if you get stuck in traffic with no place to pull over. Travel with a pre-loaded iPad or portable DVD player because streaming movies get a bit choppy when the signal gets weak. Have a stack of coloring books, crayons and stickers handy so that you will be able to entertain your kids in their seats. Keep in mind that when the snow does start to build up, it eliminates the ability to pull over to the side of the road in certain spots.

Tahoe with Kids: Where to Stay, Eat and Play

Potty breaks:
If you are still potty training, pull-ups are a good idea. There is a rest area 25 miles past Auburn, near Gold Run, in addition to the gas stations which are about 15 miles apart.

Bottom Line:
You will be able to drive up to Lake Tahoe with absolutely no problems 98% of the time. Check the weather and the road conditions before you go. You can make this a day trip, but it will be a very long day.

Don’t Miss: Red Tricycle’s Guide to Tahoe with Kids

Bon Voyage!

–Timothy Wang


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