The 5 Absolute Best Airports for Getting to Lake Tahoe

Written by Clemence-Maureen Feniou
Published: September 22, 2023
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Lake Tahoe, nestled high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, is a true natural gem of the United States. With its pristine waters, stunning alpine scenery, and rich history, Lake Tahoe is a destination that captivates the hearts of millions of visitors each year.

This iconic lake, straddling the border of California and Nevada, offers a wide array of outdoor activities and breathtaking vistas, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts, adventure seekers, and those simply looking to escape into the serene embrace of Mother Nature. Discover the five best airports to get to the jewel of Lake Tahoe.

1. Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO)

Aerial view of the South Reno landscape with Mt. Rose,Slide Mountain and the Reno Tahoe airport off in the distance.

RNO is a regional airport but still serves most major U.S. cities.

©Gchapel/Shutterstock.com

  • Distance to Lake Tahoe: 35 miles (56 kilometers)

Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO) is the primary gateway for travelers heading to Lake Tahoe. Located approximately 35 miles northeast of the lake, this airport is relatively close to the lake. Visitors and residents can reach Tahoe within a 30-minute to an hour drive, depending on their final destination.

Plus, the journey from Reno to Lake Tahoe is a scenic drive that takes you through picturesque landscapes and mountainous terrain. Travelers can enjoy breathtaking vistas and glimpses of the High Sierra region as they make their way to the lake, adding to the overall travel experience.

This well-connected airport offers several advantages for those seeking to explore the natural wonders and recreational opportunities that Lake Tahoe has to offer.

Advantages

  • Flight Options: Although a regional airport, RNO boasts a surprisingly extensive selection of domestic flights. Travelers can choose among 12 airlines serving this airport, over 20 nonstop domestic destinations, and one in Mexico. Some of these destinations remain only seasonal. This diversity in flight options often translates to competitive pricing and more convenient travel schedules.
  •  Amenities: Reno-Tahoe International Airport has modern amenities, including dining options, shopping, car rental services, and comfortable waiting areas. It provides travelers with a pleasant and convenient environment during their layovers or while waiting for ground transportation.

Disadvantages

  • Seasonal Variations: RNO serves as a year-round airport. But, during the winter months, snow and adverse weather conditions can impact the drive from the airport to Lake Tahoe. Travelers should be prepared for potential delays and hazardous road conditions during the snowy season.
  •  Limited International Flights: If traveling from an international destination, you may need to connect through a larger U.S. airport before reaching RNO. The only international flight available at RNO is to Guadalajara, Mexico.
  •  Peak Travel Times: During the peak vacation seasons, especially in the summer and around major holidays, RNO can experience higher demand and increased congestion. Travelers are advised to book their flights and accommodations in advance to secure the best options during these busy periods.

2. Sacramento International Airport (SMF)

inside of terminal B, Sacramento International Airport

An expansion project of $1.3 billion has been announced to cope with the continual resurgence in passenger traffic.

©Pedro Xing / CC0 – License

  • Distance to Lake Tahoe: 120 miles (193 kilometers)

Sacramento International Airport (SMF) is a popular choice for travelers heading to Lake Tahoe. It is the second closest airport to Lake Tahoe despite being approximately 120 miles southwest of the lake. It serves as a gateway to Lake Tahoe and the broader Northern California region.

With an extensive range of destinations, SMF is convenient for domestic and international travelers.

Advantages

  • Flight Options: Sacramento International Airport offers a wide range of domestic and international flights. Thirteen airlines fly in and out of SMF, with flights towards 43 nonstop destinations. This variety can lead to competitive airfare pricing and more flexible travel schedules.
  •  Accessibility: With efficient check-in and security processes, SMF is relatively easy to navigate. The airport is well-connected to major highways, making it accessible by car from various parts of Northern California.
  •  Rental Car Availability: Rental car agencies are readily available at SMF, allowing travelers to easily rent a vehicle for the scenic drive to Lake Tahoe. This flexibility can be particularly advantageous if you plan to explore the surrounding areas or visit multiple locations during your trip.

Disadvantages

  • Distance to Lake Tahoe: The primary drawback of using SMF to access Lake Tahoe is the distance. Depending on traffic and weather conditions, it’s approximately a 2 to 3-hour drive from the airport to the lake. It can be tiring after a long flight and may not be the most convenient option for those seeking a shorter travel time to their destination.
  •  Limited Public Transportation: While shuttle services are available, public transportation options from SMF to Lake Tahoe are limited compared to airports like Reno-Tahoe International Airport. This is less convenient for travelers who prefer to avoid renting a car.
  •  Traffic Congestion: During peak travel seasons, the highways leading to Lake Tahoe from SMF can experience heavy traffic congestion, especially on weekends and holidays. This congestion can extend travel times and may require careful planning to avoid delays.

3. San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

San Francisco International Airport aerial view

SFO is the 24th busiest airport in the world by traffic.

©vaalaa/Shutterstock.com

  • Distance to Lake Tahoe: 206 miles (332 kilometers)

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is one of the busiest airports in the United States and the world. It is a major gateway to the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California. SFO is highly convenient for international travelers, but U.S. residents might have better options.

SFO is far from Lake Tahoe, with over 200 miles, depending on the final destination. However, it can be a great starting point for visitors who want to go through California towards Lake Tahoe. The drive towards Tahoe is stunning, through picturesque landscapes, including the Sierra Nevada mountains and charming towns.

Advantages

  • Wide Range of Flights: SFO is well-connected to numerous domestic and international destinations. With 48 airlines, 138 nonstop domestic and international destinations, and 1,300 daily flights, SFO has an extensive network of options. This allows travelers to find convenient and cost-effective options.
  •  Ground Transportation Options: SFO has excellent ground transportation options. You can easily rent a car to drive to Lake Tahoe. Alternatively, there are shuttle services available that offer comfortable and hassle-free transportation to Lake Tahoe resorts.
  •  Amenities and Services: The airport boasts many amenities, including shopping, dining, lounges, and services to make your layovers or waiting time more comfortable. These facilities can be especially advantageous if you have to spend some time at the airport.

Disadvantages

  • Distance to Lake Tahoe: SFO is one of the farthest options from Lake Tahoe, being over 200 miles away from the lake. The drive to Lake Tahoe can take 3 to 4 hours, especially during peak traffic times.
  •  Traffic Congestion: The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its traffic congestion, which can affect your journey to Lake Tahoe. You might encounter highway delays, particularly if you travel during rush hours or peak tourist seasons.
  •  Weather Delays: Weather conditions, especially in winter, can sometimes lead to flight delays or cancellations at SFO. If you’re planning a trip to Lake Tahoe in the winter months, it’s essential to monitor weather forecasts and stay informed about possible flight disruptions.

4. Oakland International Airport (OAK)

Aerial view of Oakland International Airpot in Oakland, CA

OAK welcomed over 11 million passengers in 2022.

©Melpomenem/iStock via Getty Images

  • Distance to Lake Tahoe: 198 miles (319 kilometers)

Oakland International Airport (OAK) is another major Bay Area airport. Less busy than SFO, it helps spread visitors between the two airports, relieving SFO from air traffic too heavy.

Like San Francisco International Airport, it is far from Lake Tahoe, with a distance of almost 200 miles. However, it is also convenient if you want to drive and stop to visit places on your way to Tahoe. Similar to the drive from San Francisco, it will reward visitors with stunning views.

Advantages

  • Flight Options: OAK is a major airport with many flight options, including major carriers and budget airlines. OAK’s 11 airlines serve 44 destinations in the USA and a few other countries. Travelers have the flexibility to find flights that suit their preferences and budgets.
  •  Ground Transportation: Its location in the San Francisco Bay Area provides easy access to multiple highways, facilitating a smooth transition to Lake Tahoe. Visitors can rent cars from the airport, take shared shuttle services, or even arrange for private transportation.

Disadvantages

  • Distance: The primary disadvantage of using Oakland International Airport to get to Lake Tahoe is the distance. It’s about a 3 to 4-hour drive from the airport to the lake and can vary during inclement weather conditions or heavy traffic.
  •  Mountain Roads: The route from Oakland to Lake Tahoe involves mountainous terrain with winding roads. While this can be a scenic adventure, it may pose challenges for travelers not accustomed to driving in such conditions, particularly during the winter when snow and ice can be factors.

5. Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH)

Aircraft inbound to Palomar

MMH welcomes flights from McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad.

©Ryan Grothe/iStock via Getty Images

  • Distance to Lake Tahoe: 140 miles (225 kilometers)

Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH), located approximately 140 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe, serves as an alternative gateway for travelers looking to explore the beautiful Lake Tahoe region. Closer to the lake than airports like SFO and OAK, it is a regional airport and lacks an extensive range of destinations and airlines.

Mammoth Yosemite Airport might be the perfect choice for a California road trip. Visitors can land at the airport, visit the stunning Yosemite National Park, and drive up to Lake Tahoe through spectacular landscapes.

Advantages

  • Scenic Route: Flying into Mammoth Yosemite Airport allows passengers to enjoy a scenic flight over the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. The breathtaking views of snow-capped peaks and rugged terrain are a highlight of the journey.
  •  Proximity to Eastern Sierra: The airport is in the Eastern Sierra region. This area boasts stunning natural attractions, including alpine lakes, hot springs, and the iconic Mammoth Mountain.
  •  Less Crowded: Compared to major international airports like San Francisco or Sacramento, Mammoth Yosemite Airport tends to be less crowded. Fewer crowds can mean shorter lines at security and baggage claim.

Disadvantages

  • Limited Flight Options: MMH only has one airline, Advanced Air, which flies to only two destinations: Carlsbad and Hawthorne. These limited flights are seasonal and less convenient. Hower Hawthorne (HHR), located in Los Angeles, and Carlsbad (CLD), north of San Diego, might be good alternatives for some travelers.
  •  Distance: While MMH is closer to Lake Tahoe than some of the major airports in California, it’s still a significant drive to reach the lake, especially during winter when mountain passes may be snow-covered and slow to traverse.
  •  Ground Transportation: The options from Mammoth Yosemite Airport to Lake Tahoe are limited. Renting a car will be necessary to drive up to Lake Tahoe, and the route should take between 2 and 3 hours, depending on traffic and weather conditions.

Things to Do at Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe in a Snowy Winter

Lake Tahoe is often ranked as the lake with the bluest water in the United States.

©Exploring and Living/Shutterstock.com

Once your flight to Lake Tahoe is booked, it is time to plan for your vacation. Nestled amidst the breathtaking Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe offers outdoor and nature enthusiasts unparalleled beauty and many recreational opportunities. Whether you’re seeking adrenaline-pumping adventures, serene moments in nature, or a taste of the local culture, Lake Tahoe has something for everyone. 

Hiking

Lake Tahoe boasts an extensive network of hiking trails adapted to novice and experienced hikers. The Rubicon trail is a must-do on Lake Tahoe’s western shore. This hike, 8.2 miles (13.1 kilometers) one-way, lets hikers walk along the water’s edge and rewards them with a stunning beach upon arrival.

The Tahoe Rim Trail encircles the entire lake, offering stunning lake vistas and surrounding wilderness. This trail is a 165-mile loop (267 kilometers) and can be achieved in 10 to 15 days. Some hikers will take more time to complete it as there are plenty of side trails and some towns worth visiting. For a more challenging experience, consider backpacking trips into Desolation Wilderness or the Mount Rose Wilderness.

Water Activities

The crystal-clear waters of Lake Tahoe provide an ideal playground for water sports enthusiasts. Try your hand at kayaking, paddleboarding, or even parasailing. Take advantage of the opportunity to take a scenic boat tour to learn about the lake’s history and geology.

And, of course, take a dip into Tahoe’s incredible blue water! The lake has some of the most beautiful beaches in California, with soft sand and clear blue water. Spend a leisurely day sunbathing at Sand Harbor or enjoy a family picnic at Emerald Bay State Park, where you can also explore the historic Vikingsholm Castle. Some people say with those large white rocks, it almost looks like the Seychelles. 

Hot Springs

Soothe your muscles after a day of adventure by visiting one of Lake Tahoe’s natural hot springs. Locations like Grover Hot Springs State Park and the Sierra Hot Springs provide a relaxing and rejuvenating experience.

Winter Activities

During the winter months, Lake Tahoe transforms into a snowy wonderland. World-class ski resorts like Heavenly, Squaw Valley, and Northstar offer excellent skiing and snowboarding terrain for all levels. Palisades Tahoe even welcomes annually a stage in the FIS Ski World Cup. 

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are also popular options in the surrounding forests. And you can even try snowmobiling. 

Scenic Drives 

The drive around Lake Tahoe is a breathtaking experience, with numerous pullouts and viewpoints to soak in the panorama. The Lake Tahoe Scenic Byway, also known as Highway 89, offers picturesque vistas of the lake and its surroundings.

Arts and Culture

 Explore the artistic side of Lake Tahoe by visiting galleries and cultural centers. Don’t miss the Valhalla Tahoe Arts and Music Festival, featuring live performances, art exhibitions, and workshops. The Nevada side of Lake Tahoe is also home to several world-class casinos where you can try your luck at gaming tables, catch a live show, or enjoy fine dining.

Tahoe Adventure Parks

 For family fun, visit adventure parks like the Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park or the Heavenly Mountain Adventure Peak, offering zip lines, ropes courses, and other exciting activities.

Summary of the 5 Best Airports to Get to Lake Tahoe

RankNameDistance to Lake Tahoe (miles)No. of AirlinesState
1Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO)3512Nevada
2Sacramento International Airport (SMF)12013California
3San Francisco International Airport (SFO)20648California
4Oakland International Airport (OAK)19811California
5Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH)1401California

The photo featured at the top of this post is © IM_photo/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Clémence-Maureen is a writer at A-Z animals primarily covering geography, locations and travel. She holds a Master of Science in Journalism from the University of Southern California, which she earned in 2023. A resident of Hawai'i, Clémence-Maureen enjoys hiking, surfind and volunteering in taro farms.

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