Spotlight: Lake Tahoe

Courtesy of Travel California

Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list essential. Where else can you get a chance to inhale air that is “very pure and fine…it is the same the angels breathe,” as celebrated author Mark Twain put it. One look around, especially from drop-dead-gorgeous overlooks like the one above Emerald Bay State Park, and it’s easy to see why Twain was so smitten. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with their own appeal. Winter and springtime snow lets you carve it up at world-class alpine resorts. Summer brings out the water toys—sailboats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and almost anything that floats. Fall paints the hills with golden aspen leaves. But no matter what the season, this is the kind of place that makes you plan the next trip back before you even leave.

Winter Fun at Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe lays claim to some of the country’s top alpine resorts, where pint-size skiers and boarders grow up to be gold-medal winners. But it’s not all steeps and bumps here. On the north shore, Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Games, has legendary expert runs, but it also has wide groomers and an outstanding ski and board school, plus a mid-mountain ice-skating rink and supersize hot tubs. Further north around the lake is Northstar California, a family favorite known for outstanding terrain parks for all abilities, including a massive halfpipe designed as a training site for superstar boarder Shaun White. Après-ski doesn’t get much classier than at Northstar’s Ritz-Carlton at Lake Tahoe, where you can sip craft cocktails in front of soaring windows with views of the snowy runs. Alpine, the sister mountain to Squaw (you can buy lift passes that access both mountains) is a local favorite, especially on powder days.

On Tahoe’s south shore, Heavenly—one of the world’s biggest ski resorts—offers jaw-dropper lake views from runs as wide and bump free as freeways. Heavenly has also bumped up the fun even if you don’t ski or board, with on-mountain zip lines, tube runs, scenic gondola rides, and a party-like atmosphere on and off the mountain. Kirkwood, south of the lake, is another local secret, with serious steeps and backcountry clinics.

Lower key resorts—Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood, Sierra at Tahoe, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl, Tahoe Donner—offer even more choices for snow play. If you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer in the snow, head for groomed cross-country and snowshoe trails at Royal Gorge or Kirkwood, or take a guided trek with Tahoe Adventure Company. For a real treat, get your mush on with a sled dog ride near Squaw Valley, Kirkwood, or in Hope Valley, just south of Lake Tahoe.

Tahoe City
With a heritage dating back to the Gold Rush, when fortune hunters passed through on their way to for silver in the Comstock Lode, Tahoe City has a rich history. The town is home to museums and historical landmarks managed by the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, and a visit to any one of them adds insights into how this town has evolved from frontier outpost to an appealing enclave of shops, boutiques, lakefront restaurants, and private estates. Lakefront Commons Beach provides acres of room to spread out and relax, hear a concert in summer, and let the kids clamber on a mini-climbing wall. At the north end, the park blends into Tahoe State Recreation Area, with right-on-the-lake campsites. The adjacent public pier makes a great place to cannonball into Lake Tahoe.

At Fanny Bridge, spanning the point where lake waters outflow into the Truckee River, go ahead and support the name by peering over the edge to see the lake’s resident trout swirling in the clear water below. Take a short stroll downriver to rent inflatable rafts to float an ultra-mellow stretch of the Truckee River (perfect for kids and first-time rafters). Just east of Fanny Bridge, Gatekeeper’s Museum (a reconstruction of the original historic cabin that was destroyed by fire) houses an outstanding collection of Native American basketry, as well as early photographs and relics from the region. In winter, the town hosts Snowfest, North Lake Tahoe’s version of Mardi Gras, with parades, live music, and snow play.

Hiking in Lake Tahoe
Hikers will find it easy to indulge their inner naturalist in Lake Tahoe. Glacier-carved granite slopes, snowmelt waterfalls, and wildflower-painted meadows are just a taste of what’s in store. Whether you choose to bag a 10,000-foot/3,000-meter peak or take a leisurely stroll along the shores of Emerald Bay, you’ll find stellar alpine vistas that will have you Instragramming nonstop.

If you’re serious about your hiking, or want to backpack into spectacular high country, explore routes into Desolation Wilderness, with miniature lakes dotting a huge expanse of glacially scoured granite. The 165-mile (266-kilometer) Tahoe Rim Trail connects the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe; some stretches still follow original routes used by Washoe Indians, early pioneers, and Basque shepherds. The trail, which overlaps with the Pacific Crest Trail for about 50 miles/80 kilometers, encompasses the ridge tops of the Lake Tahoe Basin and crosses six counties and two states. In the summertime, it’s open for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.

And here’s a tip if you love to hike but might not have the time or oomph to get way up high: gondolas and chair lifts at Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Northstar California, and Kirkwood provide summertime access to high country trails.