By Matt Villano, on August 13, 2014

Summer family fun in Lake Tahoe

When you’re not a skier (guilty as charged!), you look into fun things to do at ski resorts in the off-season. This, above all else, is what first inspired me to explore Lake Tahoe in summer 10 years ago.

I’ve been going back to Lake Tahoe ever since, and in that time have explored just about every part of the largest freshwater lake in California in warm-weather months. I’ve hiked. I’ve biked. I’ve swum my little heart out. My favorite part of the area is the northwestern quadrant of the lake, the part between Truckee and Reno. Here, especially in and around Northstar California Resort, I could spend an eternity.

Earlier this summer, my wife and I visited the area with our two daughters—ages 5 and 2 (at the time). Along the way, we discovered a host of fun activities geared toward families. Here are some of our top picks.

Touring the stars

My older daughter still talks about the night she saw Saturn, thanks to an outfitter named Tahoe Star Tours. The experience, which unfolded in the corner of an empty Northstar parking lot, enabled us to see a whole host of planets and stars, including Jupiter, Vega, and others. We booked it through our hotel for the visit, The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

Our guide for the night was Tony Berendsen, who owns the outfitter and also is a past president of the Astronomical Society of Nevada. We met Berendsen in what he called a “Cosmoarium,” a tiny klatch of chairs around some fire pits. He welcomed us with s’mores and hot chocolate, then regaled us with a presentation that included original poetry, videos, songs, and images of the heavens.

Viewfinder Tip: For an affordable and family-friendly restaurant that serves kid favorites all day long, check out the Backyard Bar & BBQ at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

Next, he led us over to a part of the lot where his son, Ryan, had set up an array of telescopes and stepstools so my daughter could see. We gazed upon Jupiter first: a big white ball in the middle of the eyepiece. Then the Berendsens pointed out some stars—Vega and Polaris, to name a few. Finally, Ryan repositioned the telescope (with the push of a button), trained it on Saturn, and invited my daughter to climb the stepstool for a closer look.

We spent the next 15 minutes or so ogling the planet, learning about the rings, about light years and other stuff about space. The experience definitely changed my daughter’s life. All she wants for Christmas is a telescope.

Panning for gems

The No. 2 activity on our list for North Lake Tahoe would have to be the gem-panning attraction at Northstar Village.

Here, in a sluice of running water, the girls got to “pan” dirt for gems, crystals, arrowheads, shark teeth, fossils, and all sorts of other goodies. The dirt they had wasn’t any old dirt; we purchased bags of it from the Summer Fun Center in the heart of the village. Clearly, someone behind the scenes had stuffed each bag with these treasures. The kids, however, thought it all was totally legit (which made it more fun).

Panning for gems at Northstar

That would explain why we spent the better part of an hour leaning over that sluice, sifting for goodies and cheering with every find. Our Big Girl liked the fossils best, since we’ve taught her all about ammonites and other stuff in her bag. The little one liked the quartz. Because it was purple.

The best part of our gem-panning party was that the kids got to keep everything they found. Each of them still has gems from that day. The jewels remain some of their favorite souvenirs from the trip.

Sightseeing by lift

Finally, no summer family vacation to Northstar (or North Lake Tahoe in general, for that matter) would be complete without the experience of sightseeing by gondola or scenic lift. Technically, there are three options from which to choose: The Gondola, the Zephyr, and the Vista Chair. The first two options take about 10 minutes to reach their destinations; the third one lasts about seven minutes.

Of the three, we preferred the Zephyr—it’s enclosed, it stretches from mid-mountain to the summit, and it offers beautiful panoramas of Martis Valley, and the mountain itself. The Gondola was fun, too, but it only stretches from the Village to mid-mountain.

(In case you’re wondering, we did not try the Vista Chair because we felt our kids were too young.)

When we visited, we saw many families using the gondolas in particular as a method of transportation. They boarded at the bottom, switched at mid-mountain and traveled all the way to the top, where they disembarked to set out on hikes. We could have tried this strategy but did not—most of the hikes we did were easy tromps from the hotel or trailheads reached by car.

Instead we used the scenic lifts as rides and went on them just for fun. This was enough of an adventure for our kids. And the views were spectacular for us grown-ups, too.

What are your favorite activities at ski resorts in summer?