Tahoe - the trip of choice.
Travel stories: too many superlatives, adjectives, and cliches. Too many lists, too many directions, too many inspiring restaurants, all with identical menus. Sometimes it seems as if you could simply switch the name of the town and the story would be the same.
Then There's Lake Tahoe.
Tahoe is to city dwellers a piece of the Alps; to flatlanders of the South and Midwest, the heart of Mark Twain; to environmentalists, a place that has almost been saved; to hardcore wanderers, always refreshing.
Tahoe is more than a lake. It is a fringe of mountains, a slice of the Sierra Nevada that protects an enormously deep 193-square-mile bowl of blue, chill water.
Mark Twain was so taken by Tahoe's particular beauty that he and a friend staked a claim close to the beach. He wrote about the lake in Roughing It, first published in 1872:
"The forest about us was dense and cool, the sky above us was cloudless and brilliant with sunshine, the broad lake before us was glassy and clear, or rippled and breezy, or black and storm-tossed, according to Nature's mood; and its circling border of mountain domes, clothed with forests, scarred with landslides, cloven by canyons and valleys, and helmeted with glittering snow, fitly framed and finished the noble picture. The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing. The eye was never tired of gazing, night and day, in calm or storm; it suffered but one grief, and that was that it could not look always, but must close sometimes in sleep."
Tahoe, the largest alpine lake on the North American continent, is 12 miles wide, 22 miles long; its average depth is 989 feet, its deepest point 1,645 feet. Because of its frigid temperatures and depth--39 degrees Fahrenheit below 700 feet--bodies lost in the lake never rise to the surface. The lake could cover the entire state of California with 14-1/2 inches of water. Enough of the lake evaporates daily--1.4 million tons--to supply the needs of more than 2 million people.
The only complaint against the lake is that it offers too much. It entertains with gusto. It soothes too easily. Mark Twain walked to the lake from Carson City with a friend in the 1860s and rowed about her. Today it's easier, with powerboats, paddle wheelers, cruisers, and jet skis. It is sailing on Tahoe's trades, which can be dangerous and inspiring. It is hiking the Rim Trail; backpacking into Desolation Wilderness; and possibly seeing eagles, bears, porcupines, and mountain lions. And in winter it is trying one of a dozen-plus nearby ski resorts; Squaw Valley, Heavenly, Alpine Meadows, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Kirkwood, Diamond Peak, and more.
To enjoy Lake Tahoe, you don't have to be fit. You can be indolent, much like Twain, and appreciate it his way:
"At the first break of dawn we were always up and running foot races to tone down excess of physical vigor and exuberance of spirits. That is, Johnny was--but I held his hat."
"...then to 'business.' That is, drifting around in the boat.... We usually pushed out a hundred yards or so from shore, and then lay down on the thwarts in the sun, and let the boat drift by the hour whither it would. We seldom talked. It interrupted the Sabbath stillness, and marred the dreams the luxurious rest and indolence brought...."
The lake water is 99.7 percent pure, so pure that a dinner plate can be visible 75 feet below the surface. The sun shines about 274 days a year, but snow can fall at any time. The highest mountain in the Tahoe Basin is Freel Peak at 10,881 feet.
"Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor and give him an appetite like an alligator.... The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn't it be?--it is the same the angeles breathe."
If waterskiing is too strenuous, see the lake from the docks of Tahoe's magnificent paddle wheelers, the MS Dixie from Zephyr Cove on the Nevada side or the Tahoe Queen from Ski Run Marina at South Lake Tahoe, California. Take a dinner cruise, where there's music for dancing. Or a breakfast cruise to exquisite Emerald Bay.
If you stay at Harvey's, use their shuttle to take you to Nevada Beach. Or take the tram to the top of Heavenly and have lunch with the view that Mark Twain called "the fairest picture the whole earth affords."
Take an afternoon drive around the rim of the lake (go clockwise so you won't have to cross traffic to get to the lake). Stop and look at Emerald Bay, take the hike to Vikingsholm at the edge of the water, and see what a Scandinavian castle is doing in the High Sierra. Pick up some giant sugar pine cones and impress your friends back home. Enjoy the music festival in the pines at Valhalla in summer and early fall, a beverage on the docks at Chambers Landing or Sunnyside, where you can watch the sailboats and often listen to jazz during brunch on sunny Sundays.
Feed the fish from Fanny Bridge in Tahoe City. Rent a rubber raft or innertube to float the Truckee down to the River Ranch; then lunch on the terrace or fish for trout. (The rental companies will take you back to your car.) Ride the Squaw Valley Cable Car, and get what one local calls a "gutsucking experience" when you seem to be hanging by a thread between two mountains.
Check the architecture at Incline Village, where the homes blend expensively with the mountains. Then stop at Ponderosa Ranch and visit the set of the famous "Bonanza" series. eat a hossburger. Pet the pygmy goats. Have your photo taken as a desperado or a dancehall girl. Ride on the haywagon through the tall fragrant pines.
Then head south and stop at Sand Harbor, a Nevada state park with a broad sandy beach. Make it at sunset when the orange glow warms everything in sight. Watch Shakespeare's plays on the beach during the summer.
Then head south again to the nightlife on the south shore. To Harvey's, High Sierra, or Harrah's and Caesar's for headliner entertainment, or to the multitude of restaurants and clubs that sit close to the water.
Lake Tahoe is a beauty, and even with growth, substantially increased travel, and too many cars on the rim tour, Tahoe remains an American classic. She can also be fickle. Winds have hit the lake and capsized boats. Waves have wiped out docks at Incline Village. Mark Twain once set fire to the forests at Tahoe when his camp fire got out of control. He homesteaded one piece but was too lazy to build a proper cabin, or to "prove-up."
"We decided to build a substantial log house and excite the envy of the brigade boys; but by the time we had cut and trimmed the first log it seemed unnecessary to be so elaborate, and so we concluded to build it of saplings. However, two saplings, duly cut and trimmed, compelled recognition of the fact that a still modester architecture would satisfy the law, and so we concluded to build a 'brush' house. We devoted the next day to this work, but we did so much 'sitting around' and discussing that by the middle of the afternoon we had achieved only a halfway sort of affair which one of us had to watch while the other cut brush, lest if both turned our backs we might not be able to find it again, it had such a strong family resemblance to the surrounding vegetation. But we were satisfied with it."
Tahoe is a delight for the sedentary and a challenge for the fit.
"We made many trips to the lake after that," Twain wrote, "and had many a hairbreath escape and blood-curdling adventure which will never be recorded in any history."
At Tahoe, make your own history.