The Fairest Picture the Whole Earth Affords: Mark Twain on California’s Lake Tahoe
By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: Mark Twain’s comment on California’s Lake Tahoe ranks as one of the more felicitous remarks that a writer has ever uttered about the Golden State. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)
California’s Lake Tahoe was originally sparsely populated by Washoe Indians. Pioneer John Fremont was the first white man to see the lake in 1844. Firstly, he learned that the Washoe word Tahoe meant “water in a high place” or “lake in the sky.” To clarify, Tahoe is indeed in the sky, easily the largest alpine lake in North America.
When speaking about California’s Lake Tahoe, another pioneering literary interloper, Mark Twain, called Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole earth affords….”
In the same vein, Twain, who had a remarkable ability to turn a phrase, went on about Tahoe: “The water is purer than the air, and the air is the air that angels breathe.”
The Historic Story
As early as 1870, Lake Tahoe flourished as a resort. Tycoon Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin built a sizable lodge here and took guests around the lake in his steamer. Early visitors caught legendary numbers of trout.
You can see the remaining foundations of Baldwin’s Tallac Resort (1880-1920). The Baldwin Estate (1921), home of Lucky’s granddaughter, is now the Baldwin Museum. It features exhibits of Tahoe history. Likewise, adjacent to the estate is a Washoe Demonstration Garden. The garden displays the plants and the bark structures that Washoe Native Americans used when passing the summer at Lake Tahoe.
One of the early homes, the Pope Estate (1894), has been restored and is used for historic interpretive programs.
The Heller Estate (1923) serves as an events center. A Great Gatsby Festival in August brings alive this era and is a particularly congenial time for a visit. Each year the restoration of these homes becomes more complete as local volunteers advance historic interpretation.
Beauty of Emerald Bay
After looking at these historic homes, all at the southeast area of the lake, tour the lake by car to enjoy the outdoor activities. 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 3,000 feet over the waterway has great appeal.
You can glimpse this early history at the Tallac Historic Site along the southwest edge of the lake. The Forest Service maintains a Visitor Center at Taylor Creek, a half mile from the Tallac Site. A small museum interprets the human history of the region, circa 1890-1920. Details: http://www.tahoeheritage.org/events-and-programs-2/tallac-historic-site.
Across the lake, the nearby Nevada mining towns, where silver was the prize, are also interesting to explore. The main destination is Virginia City and the Comstock Lode, the silver bonanza discovered in 1859. After an intense decade of mining, the economic prosperity in the Tahoe region centered on lumber from 1870 to 1920.
Tourism is the current major industry for Virginia City and the city of Reno, with its gambling and entertainment. Carson City, the Nevada capital, is worth a stop to visit its elegant statehouse, history museum, and Victorian mansions.
Preservation of Lake Tahoe’s Purity
The main historic story about Tahoe concerns preservation of this remarkable treasure. This includes the tale of its earlier users and the ongoing major development of the recent period.
The freshwater lake is incredibly clear (97 percent pure). It reflects a deep bluish color. Tahoe sits at 6,229 feet in a wooded setting of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It measures 22 miles long and 8-12 miles wide. Lake Tahoe adds up to be one of the most attractive lakes in North America.
The extraordinary blue color occurs because of the lake’s remarkable depth. Tahoe’s deepest point is 1,636 feet. The average depth is 1,000 feet. It is the third deepest lake in North America. If released, its waters could cover California with 14 inches.
The political struggle to achieve sensible, but restrained development of the Tahoe area is an ongoing challenge. There is always a threat of ruining the lake’s natural beauty. Many want to overdraw the available freshwater supply. Polluting the water purity is a major concern.
Lake Tahoe nestles in the Sierra Nevada in an eastern offshoot, the Carson Range. A third of the lake rests in Nevada, with the rest in California. Consequently, political decisions must be agreed upon by two states, six counties, and perhaps 20 agencies with various authorities.
Lake Tahoe is about 200 miles (3-1/2 hours) northeast of San Francisco. To approach the north side of the lake, take Interstate 80, a somewhat easier drive on a divided highway with measured grades. However, you arrive at the north end, quite a drive from the historic homes and scenery at the south end.
To approach from the south, take Highway 50, a more demanding and curvier road, narrow in places. You arrive close to Emerald Bay and the Tallac Historic Site homes.
Be Sure to See
The historic homes at the Tallac Historic Site at the southwest end of the lake should be your first stop. Scenic Emerald Bay is a short drive north of them. The Rubicon Trail in D. L. Bliss State Park would be one of the most pleasant walks in the Tahoe region, along a ridge above the lake.
Beyond a car, excursion boats are a satisfying way to encounter the lake. The two main options are the 500-passenger paddle wheeler M.S Dixie II and the two-story yacht Tahoe Paradise. Details: 800/238-2463 or https://www.zephyrcove.com/cruises/our-fleet.
Tahoe is appreciated in the summer for its hiking opportunities and natural beauty. In winter it’s a skier’s paradise. The Tahoe basin finds year-round enthusiasts. If you visit in spring or autumn, you’ll find that the crowds have thinned.
Best Time of Year
Summer is the classic time to enjoy the cool mountain environment when lowland areas are hot. The historic homes are open in summer and the interpretive program is alive, peaking at The Great Gatsby Festival in August.
Lakeland Village at Heavenly provides comfortable, lakefront condos at the south end of Lake Tahoe. The accommodations are at 3535 Lake Tahoe Blvd, South Lake Tahoe; 530/544-1685.
In North Lake Tahoe, the Pepper Tree Inn is a good place to stay in Tahoe City (530/583-3711; https://peppertreetahoe.com/.
Evans is a fine dining leader of the Tahoe region. For instance, try the scallop quenelles as an appetizer and the roast venison loin chop as an entree. Evans is at 536 Emerald Bay Rd, South Lake Tahoe (530/542-1990; https://evanstahoe.com).
For white-table-cloth dining in North Lake Tahoe, try Christy Hill (530/583-8551; http://www.christyhill.com/). On the other hand, for California/Hawaiian cuisine go to Jake’s on the Lake (530/583-0188; https://www.jakestahoe.com/).
For Further Information
Further info on the north end of the lake comes from North Lake Tahoe Resort Association (800/824-6348, https://www.gotahoenorth.com/).
Meanwhile, for the same information at the south end, contact Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority (775/588-4591; https://tahoesouth.com).
The Forest Service is a major information source for historic interpretation and hiking in the Tahoe Region, summer and winter. Most importantly, summer headquarters is the Forest Service Visitor Center on Emerald Bay Road, 530/543-2674. Their all-year headquarters is at 35 College Dr, 530/543-2600. Further information is available from Tahoe National Forest Headquarters in Nevada City (530/265-4531; https://www.fs.usda.gov/tahoe).