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Deep Blue: Lake Tahoe is a Destination for Anyone, Anytime

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Lake Tahoe, Sierra Nevada, California, USA
Lake Tahoe, Sierra Nevada, California, USA

A state border dividing its nearly 200 square miles, Lake Tahoe serves an easily accessible year round playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Tahoe may bring to mind both beaches and skiing, but there is also the chance to enjoy activities as varied as scenic mountain gondola rides, peaceful hot air ballooning, and lake cruises that range from intimate to festive. Lake Tahoe was formed two million years ago and the iconic blue waters are often compared to cobalt or topaz. Situated close to Donner Pass and the route of the country’s first transcontinental railroad, early highways brought San Francisco vacation seekers to the area and the first inn opened its doors in 1887.  Silver was discovered at Nevada’s Comstock Lode in in 1859, setting off a ‘rush to Washoe’ that impacted the area for two decades. By 1938, the Southern Pacific Railroad brought skiers to discover Tahoe’s slopes and in 1960, the North Shore’s Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics, putting the area firmly on the winter destination map. Tahoe is sometimes called a ‘lake in the sky’ due to its elevation at 6,225 feet (1.2 miles), but the Washoe name ‘da ow a ga’ means ‘edge of the lake’. Lake Tahoe is easily visited from San Francisco (3 hours) or Reno (45 minutes) and makes a great base to explore the surrounding Sierra Nevada range. 

Described by Mark Twain as ‘the fairest picture the whole earth affords’ and regularly titled the jewel of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Lake Tahoe can claim many impressive statistics; it’s the largest alpine lake in North America, the second deepest lake in the United States, the 6th largest lake in the country by volume, and the tenth deepest lake in the world (over 1,600 feet). Tahoe is also known for its purity which is comparable to distilled water- 99.99%. The blue hue is credited to that depth and the purity is said to result from fresh mountain snowfall throughout the lake basin. Lake Tahoe is big- 22 miles long and 12 miles wide. It would take three hours by car to travel the 70-some miles of shoreline and the lake surface is so large that it’s noticeable convex as a result of the earth’s curvature. Tahoe enjoys over 270 days of annual sunshine and some ski elevations can receive 300-500 inches of seasonal snowfall.

The Lake Tahoe basin is a tangle of steep and rugged granite peaks dotted with postcard worthy pine forests- eleven types of pine to be exact, with the most common being the smooth coned Jeffrey Pine. Sixty-three tributaries feed the lake providing half its water (the other half coming directly from snowmelt), yet only the Truckee River drains the lake- not towards the Pacific Ocean, but into Nevada’s Pyramid Lake- though much of it evaporates before reaching that destination, with enough lost daily to supply a city the size of Los Angeles. Water temperature in the winter is a chilly 40 degrees but summer warms to a swimmable 65-70. The lake holds 39 trillion gallons of water and objects seventy feet below the surface can be seen through its remarkably clear waters. 

Among the unique attractions Lake Tahoe boasts is the 38-room 1929 mansion Vikingsholm, an early Nordic-style summer mansion inspired by the lake’s resemblance to the fjords of Scandanavia. The mansion sits within Emerald Bay State Park, beloved for hiking, swimming, boating, and watersports. The western shore park is the state of California’s premier glacial park, being carved and shaped by those processes 11,500 – 1,800,800 years ago. Emerald Bay is also as of 1994 a designated underwater state park, serving as a resting place for many boats and barges of the late 1800’s. The park’s renowed Inspiration Point overlooks Tahoe’s only island, Fanette Island (accessible by boat), a knob of granite that once housed a rustic stone teahouse.

Once titled the ‘grandest resort in the world’, South Tahoe’s Tallac Historic Site contains two historic grand estates and the Tallac Museum, affording chances to learn about the heydey of the wealthy residents of the early 20th century as well as the native Washoe people. Another nearby park, Ed Z’berg Super Pine Point, houses amongst the dense pines the 1903 Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, rustic yet equipped with all the modern conveniences of the day. The lake has its own legendary creature, sixty feel long ‘Tahoe Tessie’, first mentioned by the Washoe people but also rumored to have been sighted by Jacques Cousteau.

Summer is Tahoe’s busiest season abounding with popular activities such as hikes and nature walks, cycling, and many manner of watersports including sailing, water skiing, stand-up paddleboading, windsurfing, parasailing, fishing, and kayaking. Bikers can enjoy a 72 mile scenic lake circuit with rentals available from many starting points and hikers can select from over a hundred choices, with distances for every fitness level. For those with time and stamina, the 170 mile Tahoe Rim Trail is regarded as both scenic and challenging. Summer is also wildflower season and temps rarely pass 80 degrees. Beach lovers congregate at locales such as the north shores’s sandy expanse of Kings Beach and in the south, D L Bliss State Park, which is also is home to the Rubicon Point Light, the highest elevation lighthouse in the United States.

Winter at Lake Tahoe is all about powdery snow, with over a dozen alpine ski resorts opening in November and in some years, staying open until June- the highest concentration of skiing opportunities in North America. Non-skiers can partake of zip lines, inner tubing,  gondola rides, outdoor ice skating, snowshoe and snowmobiling trails, sledding, snowbiking, cross country skiing, and sleigh rides. Year round, the old gold rush towns that surround the lake offer a quaint glimpse into the area’s past. The north shore is known for high end shopping and dining opportunities while the south shore in Nevada has its own casino strip and associated entertainments.

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