View from Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe in California
View from Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe in California
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By Lee Foster

The massive snows of January 2010 prompted me to take a fresh look at the winter sports scene around Lake Tahoe, which is one of the great winter sports areas anywhere in the world. After looking first at North Tahoe (see my post North Lake Tahoe Winter Sports Adventures), I drove around the east side of the lake, with a stop at scenic Sand Harbor State Park, before arriving at the south end of the lake. I drove down Highway 50, back to the San Francisco Bay Area, after my stay in South Lake Tahoe.

350-heli-cataho101208Getting to and from the south end of the lake and San Francisco along Highway 50 is more challenging that driving Interstate 80 on the north side of the lake. Interstate 80 suffers from a pockmarked roadbed, but is at least fairly level and straight. Highway 50 is a twister with steep grades, definitely more treacherous in inclement weather. Try to hit a window between the storms. Be sure to carry chains when traveling in the Sierra in winter.

Harveys and Harrah’s (www.harrahslaketahoe.com), casinos in the same corporate family, continue to deliver well on elegant rooms and fine dining. From a room on the 18th floor at Harveys, it was pleasing to look out over the lake and the mountains. When the 19th-floor restaurant, 19 Kitchen Bar, is open, it provides a stunning view of the lake and the mountains. In winter you can walk a tunnel underneath the street to Harrah’s, which I did to enjoy a meal at Harrah’s Friday’s Station Steak and Seafood Grill.

Among independent restaurants in the area, my favorite in the past has been Evans American Gourmet Cafe, and it was good to hear that Evans is still flourishing. My new discovery was Mirabelle (www.mirabelletahoe.com), a French restaurant run by chef Camille Schwartz, born and raised in the Alsace-Lorraine. I savored an exquisite dinner of lobster bisque, mixed greens with seared prawns, and grilled lamb chops. This is a good place to put yourself in the hands of an expert and let him suggest wine pairings with his courses.

Not far away, at 169 Shady Lane, off Kingsbury Grade, is the photo selling shop cleverly named A Frame of Mind (www.aframeofmind.com/), run by John Thomas and Linde Ravize. There you can see their images of the Lake Tahoe region and get their lovely coffee table book of images and poetry, titled “Hearts of Light: Impressions of Lake Tahoe.” This is a good volume to curl up with in front of the fireplace and meditate on the beauty of the Lake Tahoe region.

Preserving the beauty of Lake Tahoe and making the vision sustainable is on the minds of many local residents. I went to a breakfast at the Embassy Suites Hotel (www.embassytahoe.com/ ) and listened in to a conversation on a sustainability and green theme, led by some local luminaries, such as Dennis Oliver, head of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, and Dave Hansen, chief engineer at Embassy Suites, which has received a coveted California green lodging award.

So much is happening in this area that is truly exciting for the future of the region. The clarity and purity of Lake Tahoe is an ongoing benchmark of the struggle. Much of the conflict involves mitigating the sins of the past. In the lumber era the hills were stripped, leaving erosion residues that remain. During the excessive building at the time of the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, misguided projects occurred, such as the Tahoe Keys residential area on the region’s primary marshland. These are difficult trends to reverse.

View from Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe in California
View from Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe in California

Today, however, at a site such as the Embassy Suites, extreme measures are taken to filter the runoff water to keep the lake pure. Efforts to wash bedding in a new ozone technology, rather than in hot water, have taken hold. All disposable food containers on the property are truly biodegradable. Even the straws are made of plant material. All food wastes and paper food container wastes are composted and sold as soil amendment. Such green circular thinking in Tahoe suggests a path into the future where planning is carefully controlled. Planning is needed for an area with only 65,000 residents and 3 million annual visitors, with 80 percent of the economy depending on tourism. Much of the pleasure of tourism is involved in savoring the resource, meaning Tahoe must remain a relatively pristine place worth returning to.

Winter sports were my quest on this trip, so in South Tahoe I devoted a day each to perusing Heavenly Mountain Resort (www.skiheavenly.com) and to snowshoeing at Camp Richardson Historic Resort & Marina (www.camprichardson.com).

I rode up the Heavenly gondola and paused midway at the Observation Deck, at 9,123 feet, to get the most glorious elevated view of the lake that is easily accessible to everyone. Clouds and fog drifted about, giving a drama to the scene, revealing the entire lake with clarity and then obscuring its beauty in a teasing manner. I then continued on the gondola to the top, called Adventure Peak, to acquaint myself with the range of winter sports possible here. For the entire gondola ride, which takes 12 minutes, you move from the 6,255-foot lake level to 9,126 feet above sea level.

Snowshoers are welcome here and can bring their own snowshoes, the only personal winter sports gear, beyond skis and snowboards, allowed on the Heavenly mountains. Circular plastic sleds can be rented and used for very young children in a special sled area. Tubing on Tubing Hill is an interesting intergenerational sport for all people 42 inches high and higher. A motorized conveyor belt carries the tubers and their tubes up a hill, allowing them to then come circling down. This proved to be an enticing parent-and-child activity. From this Adventure Peak area, lifts take skiers and snowboarders to all areas of the Heavenly terrain, which can take days to ski thoroughly.

Hearty food is available with outdoor seating. I enjoyed a pulled pork sandwich at the Smokehouse Grill. Chilled beer at the Umbrella Bar was welcome because Tahoe typically enjoys a sun-washed afternoon. It was important to keep myself well hydrated in the dry alpine air.

Another enjoyable treat involves a day of snowshoeing at historic Camp Richardson Resort, a lakefront setting on the southwest side of the lake. I stopped for lunch at their Beacon Bar and Grill restaurant, where the shrimp tacos are a good choice. At the Beacon Bar you can dine with a direct view of the lake and then snowshoe right out the front door along the lake shoreline. Camp Richardson is especially inviting because I could snowshoe along the blue lake, making a trek to the north and back, affording the full aesthetic combination of snow, forest, lake, and mountains. There are also groomed cross-country and snowshoe trails in the woods at Camp Richardson, going all the way back to Fallen Leaf Lake. Snowshoers walk on the outside of the cut cross-country tracks, leaving the cut tracks for the cross-country gliders and the interior part for the “skaters” moving quickly. However, in truth, Camp Richardson’s trails are not that busy or congested, so there isn’t that much traffic. I came back later that evening for a snowshoe walk along the lake with a full moon overhead, which was a bewitching outing. Camp Richardson is popular in summer for camping and offers cozy cabins year round.

When leaving Camp Richardson, I allowed time for a short ride north to the lovely overlook at Emerald Bay. This is my favorite lake-level view accessible to everyone in the entire Lake Tahoe region. You can park right alongside the road and look out at Fanning Island, the bay, and the Nevada mountains in the distance. On the north side of the bay there are turnouts to park at Eagle Falls, which lends a water element to this lovely landscape. Emerald Bay and Eagle Falls are favorite places to make stunning photos of Lake Tahoe. The light parades in a beguiling manner at dawn, during the day, and at sunset.

I finished my Tahoe winter adventure with a helicopter ride around the south side of the basin. This activity is organized by Claudio Bellotto, whose copters at HeliTahoe fly out of the South Lake Tahoe airport. My 20-minute ride (available for $129) swung up the east side of the turquoise and teal-blue lake, then back around the south and west side up past Emerald Bay, then inland over the mountains. From a helicopter you can get a good sense of the forested alpine grandeur of the Lake Tahoe region, a 500-square-mile basin, with several smaller alpine lakes tucked into the mountains, besides Lake Tahoe itself. The full aesthetic of the region–meaning forests, mountains, lakes, and snow—coalesced in the helicopter flight. One of my favorite photos from the day shows iced-over Cascade Lake in the hills behind Emerald Bay. Lake Tahoe never freezes because of the huge volume of water in the lake.

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When planning your own winter sports outing to South Lake Tahoe, the main tourism information source is www.tahoesouth.com.

See Lee Foster’s 200 worldwide travel writing/photography coverages at www.fostertravel.com.

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