Author’s Note: This article “California’s Lake Tahoe” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebook/ebook with parallel content is my newest book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
Mark Twain, who was not given to easy superlatives, felt that an exception was appropriate when speaking of Lake Tahoe. He called the lake “the fairest picture the whole earth affords….”
Twain, who had a remarkable ability to turn a phrase, went on about Tahoe, noting, “The water is clearer than the air, and the air is the air that angels breathe.”
Clarity (97 percent pure), deep bluish color, elevation (at 6,229 feet), mountainous and wooded setting in the Sierra Nevada, and size (22 miles long and 8-12 miles wide) combine to make Lake Tahoe one of the most attractive freshwater lakes in North America. The extraordinary blue color occurs because of the lake’s remarkable depth, as much as 1,645 feet, with about 1,000 feet as the average. This third deepest lake in North America could cover a flat area equal to the size of California with 14 inches of water.
When John Fremont became one of the first white men to see the lake, in 1844, the area was sparsely populated by Washoe Indians. It is thought that Tahoe comes from a Washoe Indian word meaning “water in a high place” or “lake in the sky.” The lake is indeed in the sky, easily the largest alpine lake in North America.
Appreciated in the summer for its hiking opportunities and natural beauty, in autumn for the fall color of its aspen trees, and in winter for its ski areas, the Tahoe basin attracts year-around enthusiasts. If you visit in spring or autumn, you’ll find that the crowds have thinned.
The political struggle to achieve sensible, but restrained development of the Tahoe area is an ongoing challenge. Ruining the natural beauty, over-drawing the available fresh water supply, and polluting the water purity are major concerns. The political decisions must be agreed upon by the two states, six counties, and perhaps 20 agencies with various authorities. A third of the lake rests in Nevada, with the rest in California. The lake nestles between the main north-south Sierra Nevada and an eastern offshoot, the Carson Range.
Getting to Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe lies between the two main routes that immigrants took to California. Today these routes are Interstate 80 and Highway 50. Sacramento is the Central Valley metropolis from which both highways reach into the mountains. Lake Tahoe is about two hours from Sacramento and four hours from San Francisco, allowing for the mountain climb and depending on weather conditions. Another alternative is flying to Reno, Nevada, and renting a car for the drive west to Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe History
As early as 1870, Lake Tahoe flourished as a resort, where tycoon Lucky Baldwin built a sizable lodge and took guests around the lake in his 168-foot steamer. Early visitors caught legendary numbers of trout.
Several historic estates at the southwest edge of the lake can be visited to recall the early era. Overall, the area is called the Tallac Historic Site, interpreting the lifestyle of the “swells” roughly 1890-1920. One grand house, the Pope Estate, can be toured with a docent to see the way wealthy banking and lumber families lived with their many servants in rustic splendor during Tahoe’s summers. The Baldwin Estate is now a museum store and information center. Another structure, Valhalla, shows the nuances of high forest architecture that money and taste could create in this choice stand of virgin Jeffrey pines at the edge of the lake.
By the 1920s, skiing became popular in winter, especially when the federal government committed itself to keeping the major roads open over the high passes.
Lake Tahoe’s Main Attractions
The Forest Service is a major information source for all kinds of adventure travel in the Tahoe Region, summer and winter. Their summer headquarters is the Forest Service Visitor Center on Emerald Bay Road, not far from the year-around headquarters at 870 Emerald Bay Road. The summer Visitor Center opens typically on Memorial Day and stays open full time through September, then weekends in October. One interesting aspect of the Visitor Center is the Stream Profile Chamber, where you view trout swimming through a diverted section of the stream, Taylor Creek. This is especially intriguing in autumn as the Kokanee salmon in Lake Tahoe swim upstream to spawn, at which time they turn bright red before perishing. There is a quarter-mile loop trail, the Rainbow Trail, revealing a wetlands environment. At the Visitor Center or the all-year headquarters you can purchase maps of the region. The best map to begin with would be the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit map, showing the overall area. More specialized maps, such as one for hiking the Desolation Wilderness, can also be obtained.
In summer, you can tour the lake by car and enjoy the outdoor activities of camping, hiking, kayaking, and fishing. Bicycling is popular on paved trails and on rough mountain terrain. For example, a paved trail out of Tahoe City along the Truckee River allows secure biking on a path in a major scenic location. Nearby, at Alpine Meadows, mountain biking trails can be enjoyed. Every Tahoe community has its dedicated bike shop ready to rent bikes and provide maps. In Truckee, one dependable provider is The BackCountry shop. They can set you up with a bike in summer or snowshoes in winter.
The drive around the lake is a classic travel experience, comparable to the carriage-ride circuit set up in Yellowstone at its founding. The Nevada side of the lake has a special scenic tranquility, partly because the owners of the land eschewed development until the era of state parks took over. Stop at all the scenic turnouts on the Nevada side, and you can savor the lake. The boulders at Scenic Wayside, the beach at Sand Harbor, the vistas at Logan Shoals, and the tour de force known as Cave Rock will linger in memory.
Because the lake never freezes, fishing continues all winter. Snow skiing is excellent throughout the area. Cross-country skiing flourishes at some locations, especially Northstar and Kirkwood. Snow may fall in the region from October to June.
The most celebrated scenic area, found at the southwest corner of the Lake, is Emerald Bay. The contrast between the blue lake and the mountains rising 4,000 feet over the waterway has great appeal. Two attractive state parks, Bliss and Emerald Bay, stretch along the waterfront and offer excellent camping, hiking, and picnicking. D. L. Bliss State Park consists of 1,237 acres between Meeks Bay and Emerald Bay, with a sandy beach at Rubicon Point. The roadway along Emerald Bay often puts you high above the water with sweeping vistas. If you park at Inspiration Point, you can also hike to an intriguing Norse-style structure called Vikingsholm Castle, a 38-room re-creation of a Viking fortress. The Rubicon Trail in Bliss Park is also one of the loveliest hikes in the region. Another inspiring hiking and mountain biking area is the Flume Trail on the east side of the lake. A Lake Tahoe Rim Trail all the way around the lake could occupy a hiker with abundant leisure time.
Eagle Falls and Sugar Pine Point State Park are other good places near Emerald Bay to hike, picnic, or view the lake. Sugar Pine Point State Park is a dense 200-acre grove of large sugar pine trees, known for their long, slender cones. An historic Tahoe summer estate known as the Ehrman Mansion is worth a visit. The park is open all year and has become a favorite winter cross-country skiing site.
Boat cruising on Lake Tahoe is an exhilarating experience. Getting out on the water, summer or winter, provides a perspective of the lake and mountains that you can’t get from shore. The view from the lake, especially as the urban skyline of South Tahoe recedes, transports you back to a pristine era, as if you are viewing the lake through the eyes of John Fremont. Cruises sometimes add dinner and entertainment, but at other times the outing is for the cruise itself. The MS Dixie II (from Zephyr Cove) is a large excursion boat now operating on the lake.
Kayaks can be rented at the Camp Richardson Marina for a paddle up the shoreline to scenic Emerald Bay. Getting out on the water in a kayak is perhaps the most intimate way a traveler can get the full sense of the serenity and clarity of the lake, while gazing down at the rocky bottom.
The great indoor sport at Lake Tahoe is gambling, nurtured on the Nevada side at Reno and Carson City. On the lake itself, there is gambling at Crystal Bay on the North Shore and at Stateline on the South Shore. Nevada declared gambling legal in 1931. One-armed bandits or a variety of gaming tables, nightclub acts, and fabulous buffets, such as the one at Harrah’s, all entice the traveler. The gambling world flourishes around the clock, every day of the year, oblivious to mere diurnal or seasonal changes. The Fusion Magic Show and the Improv Club are popular entertainments at the south end of the lake.
South Shore has a denser population than the North Shore, including the major gambling establishments, such as Caesar’s, Harvey’s, Harrah’s, and Horizon.
Ever since the Winter Olympics were held at Squaw Valley in the Tahoe basin in 1960, skiing has been popular here. The dazzling winter sunshine is a major factor, with 80 percent of the winter days sunny. The average 350 inches of winter snow at this high elevation helps, of course, and the fact that the winter climate warms to 25-45 degrees on a typical day makes the snowy setting agreeable. The panoramic view of one of the world’s largest and clearest alpine lakes, as a backdrop to skiing, adds immensely to the aesthetic experience. Unfortunately, snowfall has not been so predictable in recent drought years.
Because of all these resources, the area has developed one of the main concentrations of ski resorts in the U.S. Nineteen ski resorts can be reached within a 45-minute drive of the lake. Several of them offer nordic or cross-country skiing, with groomed trails, as well as alpine or downhill skiing. Some ski resorts also function as popular summer destinations. Apres ski activities, both at the resorts and in the border towns, add a dimension of nightlife and culinary adventure in the region. Northstar, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Sierra at Tahoe are among the main ski areas.
Squaw Valley and Heavenly have gondolas for the non-skier to take to the top of the mountains to enjoy the view. Alexander’s is the Squaw Valley fine dining restaurant at the top of the gondola. The Heavenly gondola at South Shore transformed the transportation issue for travelers. A skier or non-skier can walk from lodging to the gondola and be whisked up the mountain. The non-skier can get off the gondola, year around, at the Observation Deck, circa 9,100 feet, and enjoy food and drink while savoring a majestic and unimpaired view of the lake to the north, plus the Carson Valley to the east. The Heavenly gondola continues for a full 2.5 mile circuit and places a skier at 10,067 feet at its end.
The North Tahoe area also has one major historic site, just west of Truckee. Only a few miles north of Lake Tahoe lies Donner Summit and Donner Lake. Here the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846-1847 passed a severe winter. Nearly half of the 89 persons in the immigrant group perished. Those who survived did so partly by eating those who perished. A monument at Donner Memorial State Park stands on the site of the Breen family shack. A stone base of the monument stretches up 22 feet, the height of the snow that winter. The Emigrant Trail Museum in the park displays Native American, Donner Party, and railroad-building memorabilia, an excellent introduction to the early history of the area.
The surprise season at Lake Tahoe is autumn, especially October. Aspen trees turn yellow and maple trees flame red in a lavish display of color. The choice area to drive is south of the lake along Highways 89-88. If you have time, continue along 89 down through Monitor Pass and perhaps back across the Sierra on steep Highway 108 over the Sonora Pass. Anyone who asserts “California doesn’t really have fall color” will revise that opinion if given the opportunity to travel this route in October.
A particularly talented team of local photographers has been documenting the beauty of Lake Tahoe for years. They are Elizabeth and Olof Carmel, who show their work at their Carmel Gallery in Truckee.
Lodging and Dining at Lake Tahoe
One substantial lodging on the California side of the border in South Lake Tahoe is the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel, formerly the Embassy Suites, whose rooms include a separate living room besides the bedroom, plus a cocktail hour in the evening and a full buffet breakfast in the morning. Echo Restaurant at the hotel serves innovative fusion cuisine. Try the mushroom quesadillas followed by the fillet mignon, all artfully presented.
The four major casinos (Harrah’s, Harveys, Caesars, and Horizon) have the bulk of the rooms at Stateline, the Nevada side of the south part of the lake. Each also has its own fine dining restaurant, such as Friday’s Station in Harrah’s, where a steak entrée can be enjoyed while watching the sun set over the mountains and lake.
A contrasting lodging option would be Sorensen’s Resort in the Hope Valley, south of the lake. Comfortable cabins at Sorensen’s will appeal to those who want a lodging with all amenities, yet approximating the rustic feel of the Tahoe region. Sorensen’s has its own restaurant for outdoorsy travelers who wants to totally cocoon. Sorensen’s is a good location for fall color in October and cross-country skiing in winter. Huge cross-country snowfields extend out from near the cabins.
Evan’s American Gourmet Cafe on Emerald Bay Road, a mile from the Highway 50 turnoff, is a fine dining leader of the South Tahoe region. For a special treat at this Tahoe cabin setting, start with the mushroom bisque streaked with spinach and proceed to the roast venison.
At the north end of the lake, Granlibakken Resort in Tahoe City would be a good choice if you want to reside in the forest in total quiet. The word is Norwegian for “hills shaded by fir trees.” Busy in the ski season, the resort is calm in the shoulder periods.
Lake Tahoe attracts visitors during every season. Snow skiers delight in Tahoe in winter. Hikers, kayakers, and mountain bikers flock here in summer. A drive around the lake with scenic stops will appeal to anyone. Appreciators of fall foliage have their special month, October. Few mountain regions offer such a diverse range of appeals.
Lake Tahoe: If You Go
Many entities, official and unofficial, compete to get a share of visitor attention when looking for information. Some providers to start with are