There is a reason Lake Tahoe is known as “America’s Playground.”
The pristine blue lake is the largest alpine lake in North America. At 1,645 feet, it is the second deepest lake in the United States after Oregon’s 1.945-foot deep Crater Lake. Its 191 square feet of surface area makes it the crown jewel of lakes for water sports — sailing, jet skiing, paddle boards, water skiing or just for cruising.
But for most people, Lake Tahoe is just the backdrop. It is what you can access — both manmade and nature’s creations from the 72 miles of highway that loops it.
That runs the gamut from world class skiing at Squaw Valley that hosted the 1964 Winter Olympics to the Nevada casinos in South Lake Tahoe that offer world class entertainment. It is what is found in between that draws me to Lake Tahoe. It’s almost impossible not to be inspired by spending a day — or a weekend — at Lake Tahoe.
This is the ideal time to start thinking about heading up to Lake Tahoe. Labor Day marks the end of the summer but the crowds are starting to drop off due to school starting earlier in August. The days will soon start cooling off setting the stage for a blaze of autumn colors. It also marks the start of off-season rates and the ability to enjoy Lake Tahoe with a lot less traffic.
With 41 percent of the lake in Placer County, it was only natural growing up that it was a routine summer destination for my family.
But it wasn’t until my early 30s when I started bicycling extensively that I feel in love with the place. Until Yosemite and the eastern Sierra stole my heart, it called me for day trips every other weekend from spring to early fall. I even spent every Wednesday for two summers driving up for a quick 36-mile loop ride starting in Truckee over Brockway Summit to North Lake Tahoe and then back to Truckee past Squaw Valley. I then headed back down the hill. It was one of the advantages of working on an afternoon paper and having a split shift.
I’ve bicycled around the lake dozens of times more than I’ve driven. The preferred route was up Geiger Grade to Virginia City through Carson City up Spooner Summit and then over Mt. Rose. The descent down the Mt. Rose Highway with wind to my back allowed me to enjoy the thrill of topping 60 mph more than a few times.
As summers crowds started thinning is when I’d mix other activities with cycling.
RAFTING THE TRUCKEE RIVER: OK, so the trip out of Tahoe City to River Ranch on a five-mile stretch of the Truckee River isn’t as much rafting as floating as Labor Day nears, but it still flowing fairly well. There are ripples, pools, quiet stretches and slight rapids that are mellower than what you will experience on the Stanislaus River below Knights Ferry. The best is Truckee River Rafting st the “Y” in Tahoe City near the aptly named “Fanny Bridge”. The trip takes between two to four hours with transportation back to the start. The last day of the rafting season is Labor Day. Go to truckeerafting.com for more information
VIKINGSHOLM, TAHOE’S HIDDEN CASTLE: It is indeed a hidden gem with Nordic architectural touches and billion — not million — dollar views. It is part of Lake Tahoe’s most photographed spot — Emerald Bay. A stop along the road just to gaze at the bay is worth the trip alone. Tours are conducted from May until the end of September. For more information go to vikingsholm.com
HIKING CASCADE LAKE: If you’ve taken the hairpin turn just south of Emerald Bay where even at 15 mph makes it tough to stay in your lane, you’ll see a small lake called Cascade below you as you look west. If you keep going you’re come to at the turnoff for the Bayview Campground across from Inspiration Point where you will find a trailhead to Cascade Falls. It is a moderate 40 minute hike surprisingly without a lot of elevation gain. At the end you are awarded with spectacular scenery — the 200-foot Cascade Falls and Cascade Lake. How impressive is it? Let’s put it this way, in my younger days it was the perfect location for a date picnic as it was far from a killer hike, the scenery was great along the trail and once you get there.
SAND HARBOR: I’m not a beach person but I’ll lay in the soft sand found along much of the southeast side of Lake Tahoe any day. There is no comparison to ocean beaches. The sand really is soft, there’s no muck, and it smells a heck of a lot nicer. Think of Ocean Beach in San Francisco with finishing sand, much bluer water, and a fresh alpine smells with a bit of shade tossed into the mix. Sand Harbor is a Nevada State Park.
TAHOE RIM TRAIL: I’ve done a short section that heads north from Brockway Summit toward Mt. Rose. The views were impressive but from what I’ve been told they are nothing compared to what can be found along the western rim. The 165-mile loop trail can be broken down into manageable day trips. The elevation ranges from 6,240 feet at the Truckee River to 10,338 feet at Relay Peak. For information go to tahoerimtrail.org.
HEAVENLY VALLEY SCENIC GONDOLA: The 2.4 mile ride to the top of Heavenly Mountain is arguably the most stunning panoramic view of Lake Tahoe you can get without working up a sweat. For more information go to skiheavenly.com
HARVEY’S CASINO: Casino’s aren’t my thing but Harvey’s appeals to me for several reasons. Their outdoor concert venue near the south shore rocks. The19th Kitchen & Bar — located aptly on the 19th floor — does a Herculean job matching its food with the spectacular view of Lake Tahoe. It is also the last place where I actually gambled when visiting a casino. It was several weeks after a 1,000-pound bomb an extortionist left that the FBI detonated on Aug. 27, 1980 blew a three-story hole in the hotel tower. Structural engineers deemed the building safe enough to allow the casino to reopen with plywood where the mirror ceilings had been. It was probably that fact plus Harvey’s first day back in business that got me to hit the 21 tables. It was my biggest win netting $500 in an hour but that’s another story.
SHAKESPEARE AT SAND HARBOR: I love Shakespeare — go figure. I’ve taken two trips to Ashland, Oregon and was able to score seats in the replica Elizabethan Theatre but there is something extremely special about watching Macbeth on an outdoor stage as the sun starts setting over the Sierra and Lake Tahoe turning a deeper blue that makes the Bard’s morality lessons even more impressive. The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival is in its 45th year and is staging productions through Labor Day. After that there are weekend concerts such as jazz festivals planned. Go tolakoetahoeshakespeare.com for details.
Lake Tahoe has a host of other things to do from golfing among the pines to dining at some of the best restaurants around, especially the California side on the North Shore. And to be honest, the 72-mile drive around the lake itself is well worth the time.
And don’t turn your nose at the older motels you’ll find on North Shore. There are several places I’ve stayed over the years at the base of Brockway Summit where we have had rooms 30 or so feet from the water’s edge allowing you to be serenaded to the gently lapping of the lake’s waves as you fall asleep. (Development rules adopted since the 1950s makes that possible to replicate today.) I’m not a hot tub kind of guy but I make an exception when I can stay anywhere around Lake Tahoe and soak up the warmth and views.