If you are struggling to decide between the top Tahoe ski resorts for your next family snow day, we would love to suggest a write-in candidate: Truckee, just 20 minutes from Tahoe is the little town most people cruise right through on their way to the popular ski villages. But not only does it rival Tahoe on the big draws (slopes, snow play and even its very own lake) it takes the win on charming and affordable places to play, sleep and dine—especially with kids. Read on to find out why Truckee gets our vote for coolest snowy escape.
Photo: Loch Leven Lodge courtesy of the author
Traveling to Truckee looks pretty much identical to trekking to Tahoe—you just stop 20 minutes earlier. It’s a straight shot on the 80, and there are plenty of potty breaks and pit stops along the way. We suggest Vallejo (Exit 30b), which has the highway trifecta—Starbucks, Chevron and a McDonalds—all in the same space; the Nut Tree, Vacaville, (Exit 56 then Keep right at the fork, follow signs for Orange Dr/Nut Tree Rd) is an iconic gem of a roadside stop offers everything—restaurants galore, outlet shopping, big box stock up stores, and even a kiddie amusement park; Auburn (Exit 120), is a cute little highway-adjacent town that offers a lot of food choices, such as Ikedas Market, a favorite for pie and burgers.
This outdoor adventure wonderland is perfect for families who have more on their wish list than ski, ski, ski. While there are great options for downhill and cross-country here, we went nuts for the snow play area. Sledding (sleds provided!), tubing and even a snowball launch make this an all-in-one winter wonderland for kids (and grownups who may have forgotten the joy of coasting down a snow-covered hill on their butts). Ample parking, and one ticket lets you play all day. There are fire pits, picnic tables and a food truck serving up sandwiches, hot cocoa and more. This weekend, January 23, the snow play area will be the site of Winterpaloza with tube racing, snowman building and relay races. For skiing, snow shoeing and a gorgeous place to fuel up and warm up, keep driving up the mountain to the Alder Creek Lodge. Don’t miss the family friendly glow-stick parade and carnival on February 20!
11509 Northwoods Blvd.
If the weather is not cooperating (or you got too much snow and need a break from the chill), there are still tons of things to do with the kids. Hit up the KidZone Museum for indoor fun including art projects, climbing adventures and rotating exhibits. Tip: Your Bay Area Discovery Museum pass can get you in for free or discount (depending on your membership level).
11711 Donner Pass Rd.
Rec & Parks District Ice Rink
Located just 1/2 mile south of Downtown Truckee and nestled within the pine-filled Truckee River Regional Park, this outdoor ice rink (it’s a basketball court in the summer) features public skating, skate rentals, a snack bar, bonfire, overhead lights, and music to skate by. The price is just as charming: between $4-6 to skate, with $3 skate rentals. See the schedule here.
Old Brockway Rd.
Loch Leven Lodge
This place is a little slice of heaven all year round, but winter makes it feel extra magical. The 8-unit lodge is perched right on Donner Lake, and every room features a wall of windows and a balcony to take in the stunning view. Gas fireplaces, pull out sofas and petite kitchens and dining areas make this a home-away-from-home for families. And while the clapboard siding, steamy outdoor hot tub and twinkling candle-lights in the windows make this place undeniably romantic, the manager is a family man who makes sure kids and parents feel right at home. The communal lake-side deck and dock is turned into a mini sled run in winter, with at least half-a-dozen sleds left out for the guests. What’s even more jaw dropping than the view? The fact that room rates are about half what you would pay at the nearby Tahoe resorts, and the rooms are typically more spacious and have far more charm. Room-type options include studios (sleeps 2), suites (sleeps 4) and the townhouse, which is two levels and can sleep 8.
13855 Donner Pass Rd.
A historic hotel set in the center of downtown Truckee, this place is nearly 150 years old and will make your crew feel like gold-rush era explorers—with fine linens, heating, free wifi and daily continental breakfast, that is. The majority of the hotel’s rooms are “European style” meaning guests share restrooms and showers located in the hallway, but there are eight “American Rooms” with private baths featuring claw foot tubs. Families can book two adjoining American rooms for a suite-like spread. There’s also live music in the bistro and bar every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
10007 Bridge St.
Train Depot and Museum
Little train buffs will blow their tops at this tiny museum stashed inside an old Southern Pacific caboose. It’s a tiny little museum, but it’s stationed right next to the historic (and still running) rail road station, so chances are a real live chugga-chugga will roll into the station at some point during your visit. Plus, there is a collection of old, out of commission railroad cars stored there, so there’s plenty for tank heads to explore.
10075 Donner Pass Rd.
Truckee Variety Co.
A retro toy store stuffed to the gills with gifts, toys, tchotchkes and even candy, Variety Co. can entertain tots for hours. Wander its aisles and find everything from Thomas the Tank Engines to glittering ruby, fur-lined “slippers” to some of your favorite throw-back board games. Need some yarn for a knitting project or paint for a craft day? Check and check.
10088 Donner Pass Rd.
Forgot snow pants, boots or gloves for the kiddies? This charming kids clothing and toy store is filled with anything and everything you could need. They stock trusted brands like Melissa and Doug, Folkmanis, Le Top and Quicksilver Kids. They have an awesome book selection, too! Stick the kids at the play table, covered with Calico Critters and dozens of their acorn-sized furniture pieces, and they won’t ever want to leave.
10104 Donner Pass Rd.
Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center
After a 20-year process, the new $10 million visitor center just opened in June of this year. Stop by and learn more about the grizzly tale of the famous Donner party (maybe Google it before you go), and learn about other aspects of the area’s history, such as regional Native American history, construction of the transcontinental railroad through the Sierra by Chinese workers, and development of roadways over Donner Pass. The park is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
More info and directions: parks.ca.gov
Donner Lake Kitchen
For the best Frosty the Snowman pancakes in town, grab a table at this little gem. It’s tucked behind the Donner Pines Market and is walking distance from the Loch Leaven Lodge. The service is as sweet as the M&Ms used for Frosty’s buttons, and the menu is extensive. (We recommend the Bloody Marys for mom and dad) The portions are massive, but luckily they offer half sizes on the most monster-sized meals. They are only open for breakfast and lunch.
13720 Donner Pass Rd.
Wagon Train Coffee Shop
Located in the heart of downtown Truckee, right on the strip, this place is a must visit for a taste of local flavor and fun. A suspended model train runs on tracks suspended over the dining room, and dozens of license plates and taxidermy trophy heads line the walls. The family business has been going strong for decades and their baked goods are out of this world. Just don’t try and ask what is in the biscuit’s sweet sauce—that’s proprietary. This place is a haven for thoughtful parents who want to let their partner sleep in, as they open up at 5:30 am every morning and offer early bird pricing during those wee hours. There’s even an ice cream shop on site.
10080 Donner Pass Rd.
Jax on the Trax
What could be better than dining in an old train car? How about thick milkshakes, sweet potato fries and even whipped cream topped Irish coffees for mom and dad. This Truckee favorite is almost always bustling, but the incredibly freindly staff will make sure you feel well taken care of. The menu is multiple pages long, and even offers breakfast favorites served all day. Portions are large, so maybe pick a few favorites and go family style. Their chicken fingers are the real deal (as opposed to of the suspiciously shaped McNugget variety), so order em up.
10144 W River St.
Alder Creek Adventure Center and Cafe
After a morning of sledding, tubbing and skiing at Tahoe Donner, warm up inside the brand new Alder Creek Adventure Center. The stunning new building has everything you could dream of for apres snow, from a spacious kiddie playroom stocked with toys and crafts (and oversized sofas that you can sink your tires buns into while they play) to a spacious and cafe that offers everything from piled high salads (we loved the beet, goat cheese and butternut squash) to hot sandwiches, soups and more. A bar serves up beer and wine for the grown-ups, and the casual, order-at-the-counter service is perfect for weary families.
11509 Northwoods Blvd.
Do you have any favorite places in Truckee? Tell us in the comments below!