A better drive to Tahoe

Enjoy the journey with 7 great stops on I-80: treats, leg stretchers, and a great doggie hotel

1. DETOUR FOR FAMILY FUN: Vacaville

Don't bother fighting the kids on this one. Since the Nut Tree Family Park reopened in October with a scaled-down version of its old-time amusement park, the howling for a spin on the carousel has resumed. When the volume crescendos as you hit Vacaville, give in. A few rounds of Skee-Ball and a turn on the hobby horses will pay off when your kids sack out in the backseat for the rest of the drive. Info: In Vacaville, take the Nut Tree Pkwy. exit; closed Tue-Wed and on rainy days; free admission, games from 25 cents, rides from $1.70; 707/448-6411.

2. GRAB A CIVILIZED BITE: Davis

Davis's strollable downtown is lined with dinner spots that leave no reason to tolerate bad fast food. Chef's Market is a friendly European deli with freshly made salads, grilled panini ― and tapas on Saturday and Sunday nights. If you need a caffeine jolt, pop into Ciocolat Extraordinary Desserts for a double espresso and a truffle or two. Info: Chef's Market: 117 E St., Davis; take the Richards Blvd. exit and go west under the railroad tracks to E St.; $; 530/756-6888. Ciocolat Extraordinary Desserts: 301 B St.; take the same exit, veer left onto First St., turn right on B St., then go left at Third St.; 530/753-3088.

3. DROP OFF THE DOG ― GUILT-FREE: West Sacramento

Bring your buddy for part of the drive, but leave him in well-trained hands before the road gets twisty. The year-old Wag is the W of dog hotels: 34,000 squeaky-clean square feet filled with private, sliding-door suites, a swimming pool ― even a spa with soothing dim lights and a fountain. While you're on the slopes, your pup could be lounging on his leather couch, watching Lady and the Tramp on a flat-screen TV. Cats are welcome too. In separate rooms, of course. Info: 1759 Enterprise Blvd., West Sacramento; take the Enterprise Blvd. exit and turn right on Enterprise; from $30 per night (dogs and cats only); open 24 hours daily; 888/924-5463.

4. STOCK UP ON SNACKS FOR THE WEEKEND: Auburn

When you see the weathered red-and-white Ikedas sign, you think two things. First: Yay, we're (sort of) almost there! Closely followed by: Mmmm, pie. This roadside shop has been the go-to pit stop for the Bay Area's snow-seekers for more than 35 years. Load up on fresh veggies, peach salsa, and still-warm homemade pies. (Strawberry-rhubarb is our favorite.) Adjacent to the store is a counter that cooks up greasy burgers ― but hold out, if you can, for 13 miles, when you'll hit Colfax. Info: 13500 Lincoln Way, Auburn (also a location in Davis); exit at Bowman Rd., turn right, then turn right on Lincoln Way; 530/885-4243.

5. DOWN A BURGER WITH THE LOCALS: Colfax

It may be wedged in a strip mall between McDonald's and Taco Bell, but Colfax Max has plenty of local cred (Colfax High kids have been known to write odes to it on their MySpace pages). And it shows up just when your hankering for an honest and affordable Angus beef burger, curly fries, and super-thick milkshake intensifies to an urgent growl. Score a silvery booth with an I-80 view and ― if you're not driving the final hour ― a frosty Newcastle Brown Ale on tap. Info: 555 S. Auburn St., Colfax; take exit 135 toward Colfax/Grass Valley, turn right on S. Canyon Way, go right onto State 174, and take a left onto S. Auburn St.; $; 530/346-7404.

6. STRETCH YOUR LEGS BY SNOWSHOEING: Castle Peak

If you played hooky to head up during daylight, squeeze in a mini adventure before dinner. The popular Castle Peak trailhead, just before Donner Summit, is less than two minutes off I-80, yet once you start stomping, you feel worlds away. Trudge up through meadows and past evergreens for just a mile or so before turning back. (To beat Sunday's après-ski traffic, get an early start over Donner Pass, then snowshoe all the way up Castle Peak before continuing home. It's a hardy three to four hours to reach the 9,103-foot summit, but the 360° views of Donner and the Sierra Buttes are well worth the effort.) Info: Take the Boreal/Castle Peak exit, pop into the Boreal Inn to pick up a $5 Sno-Park permit, then follow signs to the Sno-Park, at the east end of the frontage road; to reach the trailhead, walk back under the freeway, up Castle Peak Rd.; 530/587-3558.

7. WINE AND DINE ― YOU DESERVE IT: Truckee

Once you reach Truckee, it's smooth sailing into Squaw Valley, Tahoe City, or wherever you're laying down your head. Instead of going straight to sleep, pull into Old Town to eat at local favorite Pianeta, reminiscent of a wine cellar and serving some of the finest food in the Sierra: rigatoni tossed with cremini and shiitake mushrooms, organic greens with gorgonzola, and grilled housemade salsiccia (sausages) that, back at home, you'll find yourself craving. Info: 10096 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee; take the Central Truckee exit, bear right on Donner Pass Rd., and stay to the right of the roundabout; $$$; 530/587-4694.

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