Aerial View of South Lake Tahoe.

South Lake Tahoe, California

South Lake Tahoe is a small city located in the northern part of the US state of California. As its name implies, the city is located close to Lake Tahoe. Inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years, visitors of European descent first arrived in the area in the mid-19th century. The city ultimately owes its existence to the California Gold Rush, which brought people into the state hoping to strike it rich. Today, South Lake Tahoe is primarily a resort town with an economy based heavily on tourism. It is very popular with visitors seeking an outdoor adventure. 

Geography Of South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe in winter
South Lake Tahoe after a winter storm.

South Lake Tahoe is located on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe, which is situated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. Fallen Leaf Lake lies to the west of the city. The border between California and Nevada is immediately to the east, adjacent to South Lake Tahoe’s city limits. Washoe Meadows State Park is located south of South Lake Tahoe. Flowing through South Lake Tahoe itself are two rivers: The Upper Truckee River and Heavenly Valley Creek to its east. The northwestern portion of the city has part of Lake Tahoe that contains a neighborhood known as the Tahoe Keys. The Tahoe Keys are a network of suburban streets that jut out into the lake like fingers. The total area of South Lake Tahoe is 43 sq. km, of which 26 sq. km is land, and 17 sq. km is water. 

Population Of South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe has a total population of 22,487. About 81% of the city’s population is white, of which 58.8% are non-Hispanic, and 22.1% are Hispanic. Other Hispanics make up the next most populous group in South Lake Tahoe, at 8% of the population, while Asians comprise 7.14% of residents. Multiracial and African American residents make up most of the rest. Almost 70% of people living in South Lake Tahoe speak only English. Spanish is the next most spoken language in the city, at 23.1%. Just over 79% of the city’s residents were born in the United States, with 52.57% born in the city itself. Most of the foreign-born population hails from Latin America.

Economy Of South Lake Tahoe

The average household income in South Lake Tahoe is $69,434, and the poverty rate is 13.04%. Poverty disproportionately affects the city’s African American population, as 40.72% of African American residents in South Lake Tahoe live in poverty, despite comprising just 1% of the city’s total population. South Lake Tahoe is primarily a resort town whose economy mainly revolves around tourism. It should be no surprise, then, that the largest industry in the city in terms of employment is accommodations & food services, followed by arts, entertainment & recreation, and retail trade. It is South Lake Tahoe’s eastern end, next to the border with Nevada, which is mainly geared towards tourism, featuring T-shirt shops, restaurants, hotels, and the Heavenly Mountain Resort. In contrast, the western end of the city is primarily residential.

History Of South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe
A plaque welcoming visitors to the city of South Lake Tahoe. Editorial credit: Sundry Photography /

The first people to inhabit the area of which South Lake Tahoe is now part were Native Americans of the Washoe Nation, whose ancestors had lived in the area for close to 10,000 years. The Washoe considered Lake Tahoe sacred as it provided everything they needed to sustain themselves. The name “Tahoe” itself is a Washoe word, or rather a mispronunciation of it. The original word was “Da ow a ga”, which translates as “edge of the lake”.

The first person of European origin to visit the Lake Tahoe area was John C. Fremont, who visited the area in 1844. In around 1859, more white explorers came to the area following the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. As a result of this discovery and the peak of the California Gold Rush during the mid-19th century, Tahoe became a bustling port of commerce between the silver mines of Virginia City and the Central Pacific Railroad. However, in addition to the jobs, people, and money that came to the Lake Tahoe area, also came large-scale deforestation, particularly during the 1860s. In fact, about 80% of the Lake Tahoe basin’s forests were cleared out.

In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad came to the Lake Tahoe area. At this point, the lake became a popular retreat for wealthy people from San Francisco, Sacramento, and Virginia City. Hotels and resorts were developed in the area to accommodate these visitors. One of the first resorts was the Tallac Resort, now known as the Tallac Historic Site. In 1880, an entrepreneur named Elias “Lucky” Baldwin purchased the area and built a one-of-a-kind resort, which included Lake Tahoe’s first casino.

However, it was not until the mid-20th century that South Lake Tahoe would become a city unto itself. In 1960, the Winter Olympics came to Squaw Valley, located northwest of present-day South Lake Tahoe. As a result, Lake Tahoe became the center of ski culture in the Western United States. Small motels were built on Lake Tahoe’s South Shore to accommodate the new ski tourists. South Lake Tahoe was incorporated in 1965 by combining the unincorporated communities of Al Tahoe, Bijou, Bijou Park, Stateline, Tahoe Valley, and Tallac Village.

Attractions In And Around South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe
People enjoying winter sports activities in South Lake Tahoe. Editorial credit: Sundry Photography /

South Lake Tahoe and the area surrounding it provide all kinds of fun and outdoor adventures no matter the season. For example, South Lake Tahoe becomes a winter sports paradise during the winter. Several of the area’s resorts, including Heavenly Mountain Resort, Kirkwood Mountain Resort, and Sierra-at-Tahoe, serve as world-class ski resorts during the winter. In fact, the Lake Tahoe area is home to the largest concentration of ski resorts in the entire United States within a 100-mile radius. The area boasts ski slopes for skiers and snowboarders of all levels. Sledding, snowmobiling, ice skating, and cross-country skiing are also popular in the area.

Lake Tahoe frozen
Frozen waters of Lake Tahoe in winter.

South Lake Tahoe also offers a wide variety of activities during the warmer months. Lake Tahoe itself is one of the clearest, largest, and deepest alpine lakes in the world. It makes an ideal place for watersports like swimming, boating, and waterskiing. Paddleboarding is particularly popular in Lake Tahoe. The lake also provides abundant fishing grounds for would-be anglers. South Lake Tahoe is a great place for hiking and mountain biking for those who prefer dry land. People who like to have their fun indoors might enjoy taking in one of the area’s casinos, of which there are more than a dozen.  

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. South Lake Tahoe, California

More in Places