The most popular activities around Lake Tahoe depend greatly on the season: snow sports in winter, hiking and mountain biking in summer, and scenic driving tours when the weather’s clear. One top attraction in South Lake Tahoe that’s available all year around is the M.S. Dixie II, a 500-passenger paddlewheeler that tours the lake throughout all four seasons. It’s a fun, informative and unforgettable experience for all ages, and promises an unrivaled perspective of the glorious Lake Tahoe scenery.
Even through record snowfall and the coldest nights in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the lake itself – one of the world’s largest and deepest alpine lakes – never freezes over. You can bundle up and stand on the decks of the M.S. Dixie II, taking in the awesome beauty of a winter wonderland all around the shores. During warmer months, the same forested slopes and serene waters dazzle under blue skies and sunshine. In fact, the South Lake Tahoe region experiences more than 300 days of sunshine every year, so clear views during a boat tour are always very likely.
Lake Tahoe Cruise Options
Rain and shine, all year-round, M.S. Dixie II runs two tours per day: a daytime scenic cruises and sunset dinner cruise. Both depart from Zephyr Cove Resort and Marina, just north of Stateline on Highway 50 and 7 miles from the city of South Lake Tahoe. All tours take you into Emerald Bay, where you will have up-close views of the landmarks Vikingsholm and Fannette Island, and then back to Zephyr Cove. The cruises take just over two hours and include informative narration and countless photo opportunities.
There are indoor and outdoor seating options across three levels, plus a gift shop, full bar and sit-down restaurant inside. You can purchase snacks or a meal during daytime scenic cruises, while sunset cruises include a three-course meal followed by live music and dancing. In winter, you’ll board the evening cruise around sunset, so take your scenic photos early on and enjoy the entertainment after dark.
The M.S. Dixie II Cruise Experience
Guests of the M.S. Dixie II are asked to check in at the pier 30 minutes before departure. A shuttle service is available from select local hotels and landmarks, and parking is available at Zephyr Cove Resort. Consider arriving even earlier to explore the serene, scenic cove. A narrow sandy beach lines Zephyr Cove along with a forested green space with picnic tables. Whether it’s snowy or sunny, it’s a great place for kids to play and for taking a stroll.
Board the Lake Tahoe tour boat and choose from indoor or outdoor deck seating across three levels, all positioned to take advantage of the 360-degree views. If the weather is typically amenable, the waters will be glassy and smooth, unbelievably clear, and augmented by a backdrop of tall, forested mountains in every direction. Almost all of Lake Tahoe is surrounded by protected parklands, so very few signs of human habitation interrupt the panorama.
The paddlewheeler plies the waters at a slow, steady pace (this is no thrill ride!). As the largest vessel to ever cruise on Lake Tahoe, even a sold-out departure should feel uncrowded. You’ll want to check out all the different viewpoints around the boat, and adjust to shifting winds and temperatures by moving in or out of the climate-controlled indoor spaces. Dress in layers in winter and slather on sunscreen in summer. Binoculars are a good idea as well.
Emerald Bay, Vikingsholm and Fannette Island
The scenic highlight of a boat cruise on Lake Tahoe is Emerald Bay, widely considered the most beautiful place on the lake. It’s a state park and National Natural Landmark famous for its shallow, jewel-toned waters and especially impressive glacier-carved granite backdrop. From the decks of the boat, you can see all the way to the lakebed thanks to the bay’s exceptional clarity. This creates something of an optical illusion, as it seems impossible for such a large boat to paddle through waters that appear to be only inches deep.
The cruise gets as close as it can to Vikingsholm, a remarkable Scandinavian-style mansion built mostly by hand around 1928-29. Visiting Vikingsholm for a public tour requires a very steep 1-mile hike, so the boat cruise is a good alternative for anyone who is unable to complete the hike but wants to see the landmark. You’ll also cruise close by Fannette Island, a rugged, wooded granite lump representing the only island in Lake Tahoe. Listen to the narration to hear about Mrs. Knight, the owner of Vikingsholm, and her picnics in a custom-built stone “tea house” on the island. You’ll also hear a ghost story concerning an unfortunate boat captain lost to the lake.
Narration is provided intermittently throughout a Lake Tahoe cruise on M.S. Dixie II. It’s unobtrusive and informative, and likely to answer any questions that might come to mind about the lake. In addition to stories about Mrs. Knight and her adventures at Vikingsholm, a lot of the narration aims to express the almost unfathomable size and volume of Lake Tahoe. One example: Lake Tahoe contains some 40 trillion gallons of freshwater. Were the lake waters to be evenly distributed to every person in the United States, we’d all receive 50 gallons a day, every day, for 15 years.
Any passengers with a taste for trivia will come away with some great facts, such as Lake Tahoe being the second-largest alpine lake in the world (second only to Titicaca). A few more:
- The lake formed 10 to 25 million years ago with the violent explosion of Mount Pluto
- Lake Tahoe’s waters are 99% pure, and fed by more than 60 small streams plus direct rainfall
- The waters are exceptionally clear and clean, allowing up to 75 feet of visibility
- Lake Tahoe’s beautiful shade of blue is simply a reflection of the sky
- Lake Tahoe is home to trout and salmon.
Dining and Drinks
Lunch is not included in the ticket price for daytime cruises, but the-onboard restaurant has a full lunch menu with a kids’ menu as well. It features shared plates like grilled chicken nachos and chili cheese fries, along with soups, salads and sandwiches, which come with a side of fries, potato salad or fresh fruit. Options might include a cherrywood bacon and cheddar burger, fish and chips and a vegetarian black bean burger. Order at the bar and grab a table with a view. The bar has a full list of wines, beers and signature cocktails as well. How about Captain Dick’s Revenge – a heady, sailor-approved concoction of rum, amaretto, peach schnapps, and orange and cranberry juices.
Sunset dinner cruises all include a welcome glass of champagne, and later on a three-course prix-fixe meal. Choose from substantial entrees such as cowboy ribeye steak, Copper River salmon, seared bone-in chicken breast or wild mushroom ragout over creamy polenta. Live music and dancing start after dinner, and the bar is open throughout the cruise.
M.S. Dixie II at Zephyr Cove Resort
760 U.S. Highway 50, Zephyr Cove, NV 89448
Before heading to Lake Tahoe, check with Caltrans for up-to-date highway conditions.
Looking for lodging in South Lake Tahoe? Check out “There’s No Place Like South Lake Tahoe for an Extended Winter Stay”