Growing up in South Florida, snow isn’t something you ever see, unless of course you were alive one special day in 1977. The only time I ever got to play with snow in the Sunshine State was on one of those rare, magical days when my elementary school would rent a snow machine and let us beach babies frolic around in a few feet of slush. So when a few of my friends and I heard that Northern California was about to be hit with a wave of fresh powder this past weekend, we quickly pooled together a small (but manageable) budget, packed up two cars and headed north to South Lake Tahoe. Organizing a last-minute trip anywhere can easily become a bit of a headache, but if you’re willing to make a few compromises, split the cost with your buddies and go with the flow, it can feel like a vacation you’ve worked on for months.
Before setting out on our journey, however, we had to figure out where exactly our fairly large group of six planned on sleeping for the next couple of nights. I think for most people wanting to take a last-minute trip (especially college students), accommodations always seem to be the most difficult, and generally most expensive, aspect of planning. Without a sizeable budget and at least two weeks of planning, renting a house or an AirBnB can be difficult, as prices tend to shoot up the closer you are to your planned stay. In many cases, you must receive approval from the host before you can even confirm the reservation. So with those two options out of the question, I scoured the Internet for the most affordable hotel in South Lake Tahoe I could find. What I found — the Knights Inn, located near the lake and in the heart of downtown — actually turned out to be something of a hidden gem. The Wednesday before our Saturday departure, I managed to book a “suite” with two rooms, a king bed and two double beds for just $195. Split six ways, the cost turned out to be roughly $32 a person for an insanely large room (which, though clean, probably hadn’t been renovated since the 80s), hot tub and a small breakfast included.
The average drive to South Lake Tahoe takes just more than three hours. Once you get out of the Bay and into the real mountains just outside of Sacramento, the drive is especially scenic and beautiful. Coming into the last hour of our drive, the environment gradually changes from dreary and rainy to a snow-capped wonderland, complete with a rainbow over one of the mountains in the distance. I could not imagine a more surreal view. After checking into the Knights Inn and settling in, we all agreed that we were starving. For a quick, delicious bite the group decided to walk less than a block down the road to Goodfella’s Pizza, a small pizza joint serving up pies and other Italian staples such as meatball subs and lasagna. The six of us easily polished off two large pies — the Goodfella’s Special, packed with veggies, sausage and salami ($24), and Vinny’s BBQ Chicken ($20). Everyone seemed satisfied with four slices each, coming out to less than $8 a person for a hearty lunch. After making the short trek back to the hotel, I easily slipped into a food coma for a few hours before getting ready to cross the state line and hit the casinos.
By day, South Lake Tahoe is a bustling ski and snow resort town. But when night falls and the slopes close, the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe takes on a new form and comes to life with its own little strip of casinos and nightclubs. Having never been to Las Vegas, and by no means a card shark, I don’t have a ton of experience gambling on slots or the poker table. This is where the weekend could have potentially become very expensive, but just to get our feet wet we started our night at the Harrah’s Hotel and Casino (all of the casinos are just more than a mile away from where we were staying). I stayed conservative, set my budget for the night at about $50 and promised myself not to go over, a promise which I was surprisingly able to keep. My friend and I started out at the Texas Hold ‘Em table, where the minimum bet to get in on the hand is $10 — my money could run out sooner than I expected. But a combination of luck and a $5 chip donation from our hilariously friendly table neighbors allowed me to leave Harrah’s only $10 down, while my friend, Channing, wins a big hand that puts him $150 up. Though the investment to play at one of the poker tables may seem steep, my friend Niki made the important observation that those sitting at the tables or the slots get free drinks as long as they’re playing. So, if you’re on a really tight budget, take a seat at one of the penny slots and drink up. We finish our casino crawl at the Hard Rock just across the street, arguably the newest and nicest of all the casinos on the block. Unfortunately, the Hard Rock drains the remaining chips from most of our group, except for Channing, who managed to escape the night breaking even. After a few hours at the casino and with our allowances depleted, we skipped the increasingly crowded venues for a more local spot to finish off our night. After a few minutes of Yelp-ing, our designated driver for the night took us to Whiskey Dick’s Saloon, a dimly lit bar with a dive-y atmosphere and a live Johnny Cash tribute band. As we sipped our last drinks of the evening, we noticed that it had finally begun to snow, at which point we called it a night and headed back to the Knights Inn.
Waking up to almost 6 inches of fresh snow felt almost as exciting as Christmas morning. Every sidewalk, tree, building and car (including mine!) was covered in a thick blanket of glittering white powder. After grabbing the free hotel breakfast in my pajamas (a shameless Minion onesie), I broke out my warmest winter gear and the group made a quick stop at Safeway to grab provisions for later. Given our budget and time constraints, skiing or snowboarding didn’t really seem feasible. Instead, we were determined to have just as much fun sledding. There are tons of places to rent equipment, but we were advised to try Rainbow Mountain Ski and Snowboard Rentals, where large sleds are just $7 for the day and smaller saucers are only $5. The friendly staff recommended a secluded spot off the beaten path, Powerlinepot Trail, for sledding and incredible mountain views of the lake. We found the spot as per his directions and, after a 10 to 15 minute hike, we came upon a small peak that was perfect for sledding, complete with sweeping views of South Lake Tahoe. The next few hours were spent making sledding trails, competing in ruthless snowball fights, picnicking on a small cluster of rocks and building a few lopsided snowmen. A bit childish? Yes. Fun? Absolutely.
As 3 p.m. rolled around and the sun began to make its descent, we decided to pack up the car and head home. My clothes were wet, my back was a bit sore (sledding is more dangerous than it may appear) and I was thoroughly exhausted from the day. But a quick change of clothes and drive-thru Starbucks revitalized the team for the 3-hour drive back to Berkeley. Settling into the comfortable heat of the car, we reminisced on the weekend shenanigans and affirmed how glad we are to have gone on this spontaneous adventure. If you’re feeling inspired to make the trip, even if it’s at the last minute, don’t hesitate. A few friends, a bit of effort and willingness to compromise will make the experience one you’ll never forget.