Mark Twain nailed it.
“I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole Earth affords,” Twain wrote in his 1862 novel “Roughing It.” Lake Tahoe is still one of the most exquisite gems in nature’s jewelry box about 150 years later.
Straddling the California-Nevada border in the pine-smothered Sierra Nevada range, Tahoe is one of America’s premier playgrounds. Snow can last until early May, but once the melt begins, hiking, biking, horseback riding, boating and river rafting become a free-for-all.
Sculpted by a glacier, “Big Blue,” North America’s highest alpine lake, lies at an elevation of 6,225 feet. It is 22 miles long, 12 miles wide and requires a drive of several hours to traverse its 72-mile shoreline. The translucent waters range in blues from aqua to sapphire, from cerulean to cobalt. Jagged granite mountains, some snowcapped even at summer’s height, soar all around.
Descending 1,645 feet, Lake Tahoe is second only to Oregon’s Crater Lake as the deepest in the U. S. The surface shoreline temperatures can warm to the upper 60s by Labor Day. Its bone-chilling depths have been a rumored graveyard for everyone from Chinese railroad workers to Vegas mobsters.
In the quiet of early morning, the lake can be seen as if through the eyes of the Washoe Indians, who lived peacefully on its shores for centuries and still consider the lake a sacred place. My wife Jane and I caught our first up-close view of Big Blue on a sundrenched, late-June morning on a horseback ride where we soaked in its serenity and beauty.
Opened in the summer of 1934 by Allen Ross, the Camp Richardson Corral is now in the good hands of Ross’ grandson, Quint. We climbed aboard our horses, Cloud and Blackie, as Rebecca Givens led the way on her pretty mare, Riley. Givens balances her life as a wrangler during the summer with a stint on the ski patrol in winter. Her history of the lake matches her superb horsemanship skills.
Our route took us through the National Forest up to and around Fallen Leaf Lake (6,400 feet), where the sun shines 75 percent of the year. We rode through some great old cedar trees, very tall ponderosa pines and the cheerful rustlings of aspen groves. We caught a glimpse of either chipmunks or marmots scurrying across boulders and mule deer slipping between the trees.
At this time of year the wildflowers are abundant and gorgeous. The air is perfumed with sage and evergreen. Our first glimpse of the shimmering, clear waters of Fallen Leaf Lake, with the wind whipping off the water, was overpowering.
Givens settled Riley, and turned philosophical:
“It’s all about the quality of life here,” she remarked. “I get to ride and ski and live where everyone else wants to come and vacation.” After a two-hour ride, we pulled into The Beacon Bar & Grille on the lake’s edge at Camp Richardson, a family camp ground/resort, which was originally a dance hall dating back to the late 1930s. We started with a cup of their tasty homemade clam chowder followed by a zesty lobster and shrimp po-boy. Located on the beach, the Beacon has a signature drink, the Rum Runner, which is poured generously all day long.
Driving back on Highway 50, we traveled past the hustle and bustle of the casino strip at the California/Nevada border. Harveys was the very first casino hotel built on the South Shore in 1944. For the past two decades, it has presented an outstanding outdoor concert series that has featured Phish, Tim McGraw and the Steve Miller Band, among others.
A couple of miles down the road you come to Zephyr Cove, where stand-up paddle boarding is now the rage. The notion of shared history is the fabric of the lake experience. You sense it in the V-shaped wake of a kayak’s journey or the concentric circles that form when a fishing lure plops through the water’s glassy surface.
We booked a cruise on the Mississippi paddle wheeler M.S. Dixie II, a serene two-and-a-half hour trip with gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe. As we approached the lake’s west side, the mountains seemed to rise straight up out of the water where the colors changed from deep forest green to sky blue.
Everything got bigger once the boat slowed inside Emerald Bay on the far western edge. At one end of the bay is Vikingsholm, a giant Scandinavian-style house built in 1929 by Lora Josephine Knight. We also traveled around Tahoe’s only island, Fannette Island, on top of which Knight occasionally would entertain visitors in another one of her buildings, “Tea House.”
Hiking is one of Tahoe’s heavenly pursuits. So step aboard the Heavenly Mountain Resort’s iconic high-speed gondola that offers eagle-eye views from enclosed cabins that whisk you 2,800 vertical feet over 2.4 miles to reach aptly named Adventure Peak (elevation 9,156 feet). The lift stops on the way up at a 14,000-square-foot observation platform, which wraps around a granite outcrop to offer spectacular views of the lake. Up top, you can dine at Tamarack Lodge, test your skills at outdoor wall climbing or try out a 500-foot-long tubing hill resurfaced for summer gliding. Hikers can purchase a summit ticket and ride the Tamarack Express chair to access ridge-top climbs on a variety of trails.
Having worked up an appetite on our hike, we stopped in for lunch at Base Camp Pizza in lower Heavenly village, where we savored small portions of the apple and walnut salad topped with gorgonzola cheese, four-cheese ravioli and a slice of the Thai chicken curry pizza. Executive Chef Marc Vacarro delivers an adventurous culinary spirit that gives this restaurant a flavor all its own. Iced tea and libations such as the shaken Rosemary vodka lemonade are served in their signature mason jars.
Lake Tahoe has a range of accommodation options from campsites to casino resorts. If you want an affordable place to kick back and be close to lakeside activities, there are a hodge-podge of B&Bs, inns, cabins and old-timey motels just off Highway 50. We opted for Marriott’s Timber Lodge, located within Heavenly Village. The hotel is modeled after the quintessential ski lodge, with a cabin-like exterior and an on-site sauna, steam room, outdoor pool and steamy hot tub to help you ease out some of those hiking kinks. The outer rim of the village plays host to a patchwork of 75 vintage Austin Healeys.
A mile away is the Edgewood restaurant looking out onto emerald golf greens that border Lake Tahoe. Boasting a striking interior with gray rock walls, its vaulted ceilings give the restaurant an open and spacious feeling. Our starter was a trio of perfectly seared diver scallops tinged with nectarine sauce and fresh artichoke hearts with roasted pistachios and gruyere. The beet salad dazzled with spring greens, roasted peaches, goat cheese fritter and prickly pear vinaigrette, and the smoked trout salad with heirloom spinach, fingerlings, peas and ricotta, prosecco vinaigrette was also a winner.
Each July, more than 80 sports and entertainment celebrities turn up for the Celebrity Players at the American Century Championship at Edgewood. The editors of Golf Digest named Edgewood’s casual Brooks Bar one of the “Best 19th Holes in America.” Located right off Edgewood Tahoe’s picturesque 18th hole, its expansive deck offers cozy seating and fire pits. The bar is home to one of the best shows on the lake: the vibrant Sierra sunset and its signature drink is a refreshing mojito.
Ridge Tahoe put an exclamation point on our five-day stay. Nestled on a spectacular Sierra Nevada ridge some 7,400 feet high, the resort overlooks the striking Carson Valley. Created as a timeshare property in 1983, the Ridge has quietly acquired a cult following among Tahoe visitors, but nowadays you don’t have to be a timeshare owner. Many of the condos are
rented just like hotel rooms; they offer 302 fully appointed accommodations at its multiple properties, which are about a 10-minute drive to the south shore casinos. Amenities include multiple pools, hot tubs, tennis courts, a full-service spa, deli, marketplace, movie theater and an arcade room for the kids.
Just beyond the tennis courts you discover the Tahoe Rim Trail, which runs for 165 miles along the ridge’s top crossings and showcases panoramic views of the Lake Tahoe Basin and Carson Valley. This trail segment weaves between the huge trunks of ancient red firs, over sun-splashed granite outcrops into open meadows brimming with wildflowers. The Tahoe Trail Rim information, interpretation of the trail and associated resources can be found at the trailheads.
On our final night we enjoyed a drink in the cozy Bear Trap lounge before heading into the casually gourmet Hungry Bear on the second floor of the clubhouse, which has a warm and welcoming feel. Tyson, the acoustic guitar player, added a nice touch. Our server David drew the two masterful chalk portraits of a wolf and bear that hang on the wall behind the bar.
Executive Chef Stephen Moise, a former corporate chef to Tommy Hilfiger, hails from Santa Cruz, and his passion is attention to detail. Moise learned how to make a great matzo ball soup from his grandmother. I started off with semolina-crusted calamari with lemon-caper remoulade, followed by grilled Idaho trout served with shrimp and sweet potato hash.
Sitting in a rocker on our balcony that final evening, we marveled at the magnificently beautiful clouds at dusk that reflected a full spectrum of colors across the shimmering water. Nothing else seemed to matter.
All Photos by Jane Conway.