Tourist destinations like Lake Tahoe can seem unrealistic when you want to travel on a budget. There are ways, though, to make a trip to Lake Tahoe cheaper. Even though Lake Tahoe is typically a luxury destination, there is just enough wildness to allow for more laidback travel.
Camp for Free
I searched for hours for affordable campsites in the Lake Tahoe area. Everything I found ran from $35 on up. This is still cheaper than a hotel but we knew we could do better.
We did not pay for camping during our time in Lake Tahoe. It takes a little more time and effort than having a campsite reserved because some times you have to drive a little ways (around 30 minutes) to find something free. It also takes a good Plan A – Plan F of possible camping spots because your first few choices might be taken by someone else.
National Forest lands can be used for camping unless otherwise posted. The National Forest Service is very good at posting signs letting you know if it is a fee area or a camping prohibited area. If there are no signs saying otherwise, and you know that you are in a National Forest, you are good to camp. There is a lot of really beautiful National Forest land south toward Kirkwood, CA.
Really, though, the lake is basically surrounded by National Forest – the Humboldt-Toiyabe to the north and the El Dorado to the south. Forest Service campgrounds can range from $10 to $35 a night, which is not bad if you have 4 or 5 people sharing a campsite.
Free camping means no indoor plumbing, not even a pit toilet. But it can also be the best part of the trip!
Visit State Parks
State parks typically only cost $10 to park. They are open from dawn to dusk and are the most beautiful parts of Lake Tahoe. They have day use picnic areas, beaches, bathrooms, hiking trails, and plenty of swimming spots. Get there early because the parking fills up fast!
Or hike to quiet coves
Especially on the northeast side of the lake, there is a lot of roadside parking near trails that take you to the lake. Some of the trails take you to sandy beaches, some of them to rocky coves. Either way, you are going to end up in a fantastic spot to chill by the lake. If you drive the coast from Incline Village, south to Highway 50 you will see all the people parked on the road and easily be able to find the trailheads.
Paddle Board instead of Boat
In my humble opinion, paddleboarding is the best way to see Lake Tahoe. I believe this so strongly that I wrote a whole post about it! Visit it here.
Make your own food
It is not cheap to eat in the towns surrounding Lake Tahoe. We even tried stopping at burger stands that looked cheap but even these cost an exorbitant amount for a burger. People often ask us how we can travel so much. Part of our formula is that we eat A LOT of PB&J sandwiches or carrots and hummus for lunch. We do this because it is cheap but also because we can grab it really quick and we don’t have to slow down to eat. South Tahoe has a Safeway grocery store with affordable prices that make it easy to restock when necessary. And let’s be real – who doesn’t like a good hot dog roast when they are camping?