South Lake Tahoe road trip guide from Phoenix in the all-new Toyota 4Runner
This is an experiential guide chock full of details about doing a South Lake Tahoe road trip from Phoenix.
While working on an article on the best small city road trip destinations for 2018 (coming out in April 2018 on Travelocity), I took a South Lake Tahoe road trip. South Tahoe is one of the finalists in a top-10 public poll on which the article is based. During the planning stages for this road trip, Toyota reached out to see if I’d like to take their all-new 4Runner (Must have seen one of my social media mentions about the trip). With that offer, I didn’t have to think twice! My Ford F150 is really getting up there in age and miles, so the idea of traveling some 1500 miles (round trip) in a new SUV was very appealing.
I typically only like to drive 200-300 miles a day, as I tend to stop often to photograph and capture video footage of the journey. My travel schedule was really tight, which forced me to modify my desired daily driving distance. I took two days going from Phoenix to South Lake Tahoe and had to do the entire route in a single day on the drive back.
In this post I will provide a list of sights and stops as well as some highlights of the Toyota 4Runner, which I discovered is a fantastic vehicle for road tripping.
HIGHWAY 93 HIGHLIGHTS, INCLUDING A SEA OF JOSHUA TREES
From the Phoenix area I headed northwest through Wickenburg along Hwy 93. Many people are familiar with the Joshua Tree National Park in central southern California, but along Hwy 93, north of Congress, AZ, is a stunning stretch of highway known as the Joshua Tree Parkway. For miles the landscape is littered with these odd shaped Yucca plants in which the Irish band U2 made famous with their late 80s album bearing the same name. Among the sea of Joshua Trees you’ll notice an area where massive granite boulders are mixed into the scenery.
Continuing north you might see the small town of Nothing, AZ, but it’s not really worth stopping for Nothing. The population as of the last census was merely 4. Not much farther you’ll come across Wikieup where they have a trading post, a faux jail cell to snap a few photos, and then there is Luchia’s, which has become famous for its pies. There are a number of these small towns heading down Hwy 93. Over the years Hwy 93 has been greatly improved, with a good portion becoming a divided two-lane highway. Needless to say, this is now a safe and comfortable stretch of road.
Kingman, who’s claim-to-fame is getting your kicks on Route 66, is a good place to stop for fuel, food and a stretch & stroll around downtown. The Visitor’s Center has an interesting museum, and across the street is a nice railroad park.
An hour north of Kingman is the Lake Mead scenic overlook, which is worth a quick stop. If you have more time, head down to Willow Beach, which is a lovely recreational area located next to the Colorado River. This area dates back to 250 B.C. when the Basketmaker Indians used to camped at this area, which was a prehistoric trading spot.
If you have the time, exploring the Hoover Dam is quite fascinating and provides some unique and interesting views of Lake Mead as well as the dam itself.
Hwy 93 turns into the future Interstate 11 for a short distance, then into I-515 through Las Vegas, from there it is Hwy 95 nearly the rest of the way to South Lake Tahoe.
HIGHLIGHTS ALONG HIGHWAY 95
A couple hours north of Las Vegas I decided to call it a day and found an interesting place to camp for the night. About 10 miles east of Amargosa Valley, NV there are a number of dirt roads that lead up into the mountains (presumably to old mines). Each entrance is blocked by a gated fence with a sign that says “Please close behind you.” This was the first time I would get to test out the 4-wheel drive capabilities of the 4Runner. The hill was fairly gradual at first, but then become quite steep as it wound around a cliff face of the mountain. The 4Runner made it up without any strain at all.
I must have worked my way up some 500 feet in elevation before I found a flat area suitable for camping. The views were absolutely stupendous as the sun was starting to set.
Rather than setting up a tent, I decided to just fold down the back seat of the 4Runner (which lies completely flat) and inflate a mattress and lay out my sleeping bag. The space was just long enough for my 5’10” frame to fit comfortable. I ended up leaving the tailgate open all night so that I could enjoy the stars and moonlit views. If you are taller, having the tailgate open provides a few more inches. Or, if you are traveling solo, you could sleep diagonally and get even more room. The inside tailgate lights can be switched off even when the gate is open, which is a thoughtful feature.
The bumper area is very flat and wide, which makes a perfect place to sit without being uncomfortable. I was quickly falling for this Toyota 4Runner…it was showing itself to be a perfect road trip companion. Capable, spacious, thoughtful design, and curves in all the right places!
While I could see the highway below, the spot I picked to camp was high and far enough away to hardly notice any noise. As a matter of fact, it was quite peaceful.
During the night it had cooled off considerably and so I did not dillydally much in the morning, rather I quickly packed up and got the heat going in the 4Runner to warm my chilled hands and body.
I had waited long enough for the sun to begin to appear before heading down the mountain so I could safely navigate the rugged road. At the time, I did not realize how close I was to a town. Where I was positioned on the mountain I was unable to see to the west, but come to find out, Amargosa Valley was just a few miles down the road. Apparently they sell the largest firecracker in the world. They also have a nice rest area where I was able to freshen up for the continuation of my South Lake Tahoe road trip.
Northwest by an hour or so is Goldfield, Nevada, an old mining town with a quirky general store, some cool historic buildings and an old grave yard full of white wooden crosses.
While Highway 95 is pretty desolate, there are some interesting aspects. For example there are number of dirt roads that lead up into the mountains, probably to old abandoned mines. In Beatty, Nevada there are small streams of water periodically flowing through the landscape which must have very high levels of salt content because at first glance it looks like snow.
Continuing north on 95 you’ll drive through the infamous “Area 51,” however there isn’t anything to see. Hawthorne however is another matter. This is a place with some thirty-three hundred concrete bunkers spread out from the town across the desert over 147,000 acres. There are even 400 miles of underground railroads that connect the various bunkers. When I drove through I had no idea what this place was, it looks like a top-secret area, yet Hwy 95 runs right through. Apparently this is an old area for nuclear testing, missile silos, etc., but has since been decommissioned. If I’m ever in this area again, I will be sure to drive around to see if there is anything worth exploring.
Just outside of Hawthorne is Walker Lake, which is quite deserted-looking for such a beautiful body of water and near a town. The reason for this might be that the Navy apparently has a secret submarine-testing lab here.
Since Hwy 95 continues north, you need to veer off onto St. Rt. 208 for a bit heading west where you will see the landscape start to change with snowcapped peaks in the distance. You’ll eventually head north on Hwy 395, skirting the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas. Be sure to stop in Minden to fuel up as it is much less expensive than the other side of the mountain range in South Tahoe (more than $1/gal cheaper).
On Hwy 395 the landscape yields to cool canyons with a river running through to one side of the road. The Toyota 4Runner hugged the curvy road like the sporty SUV that it is. Snow speckled hillsides indicate the increase in elevation.
The drive up the mountain on St. Rt. 207 is steep and the views are quite stunning. Once you get to the top and start dropping down the other side, South Lake Tahoe begins to come into view. And what a view it is!
WINTER GUIDE TO SOUTH LAKE TAHOE
While I had driven past Lake Tahoe before, this was the first time I had ever visited. I arrived to cloudless blue skies with some remnants of snow from a storm a few days earlier. It wasn’t long before I checked into my accommodations for the first couple of nights at the newly opened Edgewood, a stupendous 5-star resort located right on the banks of South Lake Tahoe. The decor is a modern, without being over the top contemporary. With a lodge look, the interior has some hints of mid-century modern elements, an air of sophistication you would expect from a top-tier hotel.
Beautiful wood furniture in the rooms with a gas fireplace and deck looking out at the lake greeted me from my accommodations. Most of the cabinetry is off the floor and mounted to the walls giving the space a very clean look. Up-and-down lighting highlights the subtle accents throughout the space. The bathroom is just as beautiful with a separate soaking tub and a pair of large sliding doors open the bathroom up to the bedroom.
After having a lovely meal at the Edgewood Bistro, I called it a night.
The next day I drove down the street to the “Village,” the downtown area of South Lake Tahoe where I found the epicenter of the community. Front and center is the Heavenly gondola that takes sightseers and sport enthusiasts up the mountain for summer and winter activities. Donning my winter attire and with rental skis in tow, I headed up the mountain for a day of Heavenly skiing. While I have a fair amount of experience on the slopes, my experience does not include no lines at a chair lift! With high-speed lifts, including one that seats 6 people, I never waited in line a single time. I was up and down so frequently that in just a few hours I was nearly spent.
I left Heavenly early that afternoon and went back to the Edgewood where I had a therapeutic massage at the spa. This, too, was heavenly after working muscles that had not been worked in a while from skiing.
It had been a while since I had played in the snow, so I was really looking forward to doing some other winter activities, but, unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas. I had planned on going snowmobiling, snowshoeing and maybe some sledding, but since there was not enough snow at the lower elevations, I had to make other plans.
One thing I did was take the MS Dixie II paddlewheel cruise from Zepher Cove to Emerald Bay, which was both fun and informative. Toward the end of the cruise they show a video documentary entitled “ Underwater treasures of Lake Tahoe.” This film narrated some of the history of the lake as well as the underwater artifacts and geological wonders.
The next day I checked out of the Edgewood and into the Coachman Hotel, which is a hip and modern motel very near the Village. This is a historic property that has been completely renovated, offering simple, yet thoughtful, design in the rooms with many amenities you might not expect, from a heated toilet seat, Apple TV, luxurious linens and more. The lobby area is fantastic and is quite communal, inviting guests to relax and mingle over coffee or a cocktail. Outside of the lobby is a seating area with large gas fire pit, again, a great space to mingle and enjoy the surroundings.
The Village is just a short walk from the Coachman where you’ll find outdoor patios with live music emanating from the many bars and restaurants, which provides a lively atmosphere that really draws visitors. South Lake Tahoe straddles California and Nevada, so if you’re into gaming, they offer that too on the Nevada side.
South Lake Tahoe has a burgeoning craft beer scene with some really uncommon concepts. There is Sidellis offering very creative barrel-aged flavors. Then you have Tahoe AleWorX with 30 self-serve taps and a wood-fired oven producing some outstanding pizzas and other food. When you arrive you are given an RFID chip tied to your credit card. Place the chip next to each tap and pull as many ounces as you like, from a taste to a full pint. Then there is South Lake Brewing Company with their indoor beer garden and 15 craft brews on tap in the tasting room. Finally, Cold Water Brewery & Grill combines hand-crafted beer with some amazing California comfort casual cuisine.
A couple days earlier I had been to Emerald Bay by water and one of the locals told me the drive there was incredible, so that’s what I did. Many of the side roads were closed for the season, but there were still places to park, and with little snow I could walk or hike to historic sights, stunning lakes and stroll trails through the forest.
The drive up to Emerald Bay is not for the faint of heart as the road is curvy, steep and in many places, without guardrails. The views however from the observation decks are worth a few jittered nerves.
During my time in South Lake Tahoe, I had an opportunity to dine at many restaurants. Here is a list of my favorites that I highly recommend:
South Lake Tahoe Recommended Restaurants:
- Driftwood Café
- Bistro at the Edgewood
- Sage Room Steak House
- Cold Water Brewery & Grill
- Freshies Restaurant & Bar
- Azul Latin Kitchen
ROAD TRIP BACK TO PHOENIX
After four glorious days in South Lake Tahoe, it was time for me to head back to Phoenix to prepare for my next adventure. One thing I enjoy about road tripping is to have a destination in mind, but never a route. Because I have such a thirst for discovery, I try to look for different routes rather than driving back the way I came.
After filling up in Minden, I took Hwy 395 South toward Bishop, California for a change of scenery from Hwy 95. Driving through the mountain landscape was awesome, my only disappointment was that I was not able to make all the stops that I so enjoy on a road trip since I had to get back to Phoenix that evening. I have, however, driven this stretch before and so here are few stops not to miss.
- Mono Lake.
- Great gas station restaurant on the west side of 395 just down 120 (closed during winter months). Good view point of Mono Lake here too.
- Mammoth Lakes.
- Put the car in neutral to save some fuel at Mesa Camp. This incredibly long downhill stretch takes you right into Bishop.
- Stop by Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop; you’ll be amazed!
Just south of Bishop is St. Route 168 which heads northeast through a hilly range. This stretch of road has to be the twistiest, hilliest, bendiest road I’ve ever been on. It was like being on a roller coaster complete with dips and embankments. This stretch of road reminded me of a river snaking through a path of least resistance. This road truly tested the handling performance and agility of the Toyota 4Runner, which passed with flying colors. I was amazed at how well the 4Runner hugged the road with the ability to go beyond the suggested speed limit with ease. The V-6 270HP engine made driving this rollercoaster road a lot of fun.
It wasn’t long and I was back on Hwy 95 heading south toward Las Vegas and eventually back to Phoenix.
TOYOTA 4RUNNER HIGHLIGHTS
I found the Toyota 4Runner to be an extraordinary vehicle for road tripping. For me, I need a vehicle that is capable to keep up with my adventurous and exploratory spirit, which means being able to go off road and to carry a lot of gear for camping and other excursions. The 4Runner encompasses everything that I find essential for doing a road trip, while also being comfortable and fun to drive. While not lighting fast, the 4Runner has plenty of horsepower for passing at highway speeds. The rig also gets really decent gas mileage. Rated at 17 city/20 highway, I averaged 19.56 miles for the entire South Lake Tahoe road trip.
From a road trip perspective, here are the things I really liked and a few that I didn’t care for so much.
- Bluetooth works really well…from music to calls it seamlessly connects even when you turn off/get out of the car and back in, it connects quickly.
- Highway Speeds – I noticed at highway speed (and above) going around sharper turns that the 4Runner really hugged the road well, it leans into the curves nicely and it just feels stable, which was surprising given its high clearance.
- Suspension – The suspension feels tight almost like a sports car and while off road you hardly feel the bumps.
- Visibility – The visual ability to see out of all the windows is really nice I don’t feel like there were any blind spots.
- Dashboard – I love all the knobs on the dash, it matches the ruggedness of the vehicle and had rubber touch points for a tactile grip.
- Fuel economy – Rated at 17 city and 20 highway, the 4Runner actually gets mileage that is advertised. Better maybe. When I averaged my 6 fill-ups of city, off-road and highway driving, I averaged 19.56 MPG.
- Windows – On a road trip it is often nice to roll down the windows, however in the 4Runner, I found the amount of wind coming in to be overwhelming.
- Technology – One thing I was surprised by was the lack of autonomous technology, such as lane assist and other functions. I just sort of expected that by now most new cars have this stuff, but perhaps not.
- LCD Screen – I noticed that with direct sunlight, it was often difficult to see the display.
Not only does the Toyota 4Runner look good, but it handles and performs even better. If you have a chance to take a 4Runner on a road trip, I highly recommend it.
If you’ve ever been on a South Lake Tahoe road trip, please leave a comment below and share your experience and recommendations.