Hostel life: Lake Tahoe region offers alternative travel options |

Hostel life: Lake Tahoe region offers alternative travel options

Jack Barnwell
Mellow Mountain Hostel opened in 2014 as South Lake Tahoe’s only lodging business of this type.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Mellow Mountain Hostel owners Wolfie Shapiro and Elias Small set up shop in South Lake Tahoe in June 2014 after they noticed a need for alternative lodging options.

With rates between $18 and $36 per night and a five-star rating on Yelp, Mellow Mountain offers a cheap alternative for those visiting the area.

“We definitely went from having zero people to a lot,” Shapiro said. “We saw the amount of traveling people coming through Tahoe, and we wanted to offer them a cheap and friendly alternative to staying in a hotel.”

Mellow Mountain Hostel became a place where travelers and repeat guests can connect, kick back or enjoy a beer. Colorful paintings line the walls of dorm rooms and carports. Guests and short-term residents chat about experiences on the trail or what brought them to South Lake Tahoe.

“We just like to keep the atmosphere weird,” Small said.

The owners shaped the hostel based on their backpacking experience in Europe and the Middle East a few years ago.

“We try to make it how we would like other hostels to be, and that’s honest and friendly,” Small said. “We try to treat [visitors] less like guests and more like friends by trying to find out what each person wants to do, where they come from and where they’re going.”

Mellow Mountain Hostel caters to people hiking up and down the Pacific Crest Trail. It offers 11 dorm-style rooms, seven private rooms, a large common room/kitchen, free wireless Internet, cheep beer and coin-operated laundry.

The hostel earned a lot of goodwill from travelers for its reputation as a laid back, clean place to rest for night or two, according to Pacific Crest Trail hiker Jessica Fleck.

“This has been one of the best hostels I’ve been to,” Fleck said in the common room Sept. 3. “They’ve been exceedingly kind and open-hearted, which is something you don’t normally see a lot.”

HOSTELS: A Growing trend

According to Shapiro and Small, they’ve noticed an increased interest in hostels over hotels, at least for groups, “because of cheap prices and good times.”

He added that travelers appreciate the fact that both South and North Tahoe feature hostels; Hostel Tahoe is located in Kings Beach, Calif.

Hostelling International is a United Kingdom-based nonprofit with the world’s largest hostel network. In a 2014 survey, it said there are 54 hostels in the U.S. — and that 40 percent of hostel guests were domestic people. Additionally, there’s been a transformation in hostel amenities offered, such as wireless Internet and computers. Mellow Mountain offers both.

Fleck, the hiker traveling on the Pacific Crest Trail with a large group, said a Truckee hostel would be great, especially for people traveling south on the trail from Washington and Oregon. Having a hostel there to stay for a day or two would allow people to rest while enjoying civilization.

“You hit Truckee first coming south and it’s like the first real town that you’ve been to in a while, with real shopping and real groceries,” Fleck said.

Truckee Hostel is under construction and hopes to open by mid-December, according to owner Zach Cowan.

“I thought building it made sense,” Cowan said. “There really weren’t a lot of alternatives for cheap lodging.”

Cowan said he spent a long time in hostels and knows friends who have run them, and he has also noticed a change in hostels. Twenty years ago, they were associated with cash-strapped young people looking for places to stay while traveling.

Now, hostels appeal to a wide range of people who can form new connections with fellow travelers.

“If you have a social atmosphere — like a shared kitchen or common room — that is conducive to sharing stories, you might find someone you can do an activity with,” Cowan said.

Cowan’s location in Truckee’s old downtown will afford its guests walking distance to train and bus stations, local activities and shopping options.

“You want to have a place that is easily accessible,” Cowan said.

Mellow Mountain Hostel in South Lake Tahoe shares the same philosophy. The hostel is within walking distance of Heavenly Village, beaches, local nightlife and several restaurants.

“Our guests like to walk to all these awesome places,” Small said.

Carol Chaplin, executive director of Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, said the rise in popularity of hostels makes sense.

“In a growing economy with phenomena like Airbnb and Uber, an increase in hostels wouldn’t surprise me,” Chaplin said. “People are looking to socialize when they are traveling.”

She added that modern amenities like wireless Internet also make sense.

“We are sophisticated travelers even if we don’t have money,” Chaplin said. “We expect that immediacy and some level of comfort.”

Future opportunity

Chaplin said there may be growth potential for hostels around Lake Tahoe, especially on the South Shore. With changes to how South Lake Tahoe regulates residential hotels, there also might be additional interest.

Many of the area’s older residential hotels were built to accommodate the 1960 Olympics and need improvements.

“It would be an opportunity for the hostel lodging model if someone was interested in it, and if older properties wanted to sell,” Chaplin said. “Diversity in lodging options is good thing.”

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