Lake Tahoe: Jewel of the Sierras
The sky was so blue it almost hurt my eyes as it framed snowcapped peaks across the mirror surface of Lake Tahoe, located along the border between California and Nevada. I brushed a little powder off the step of our RV and shuffled through the squeaky snow to disconnect our electrical cords and start the diesel, nice and warm from being plugged in all night. We were camped in a postcard setting and this was a day to play, but what to do first?
The Lake Tahoe basin, the Jewel of the Sierras, is undeniably one of the most spectacular places in the world. Superlatives cannot do it justice in any season, but in winter? What’s there to do if you don’t ski? We came to find out. I used to live on the South Shore, so I knew my way around, but exploring with a motorhome in the winter presents its rewards and challenges.
Our first stop was Zephyr Cove’s award-winning RV park and campground, just a few miles north of South Lake Tahoe and the fabulous casinos of Stateline, Nev., with their world-famous dining, big-name entertainment and nightlife.
The wooded setting of Zephyr Cove Park is right across the street from all the services and activities offered at this historic resort on the lake. With a dock, a private beach and direct access to 25 groomed acres of terrain, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing were at our doorstep, and world-class downhill skiing on the groomed slopes of Heavenly Mountain Resort was only minutes away.
Driving into town, the bigger casinos had ample parking for RVs. Heavenly Valley Village just across Stateline is the base for the eight-passenger Heavenly Mountain Gondola that whisked us 2.4 miles up the mountain in just 12 minutes. When it seemed it couldn’t get any better, we arrived at The Deck, a 14,000-square-foot mid-station where the views were breathtaking. At the very top, 9,150 feet, the new Tamarack Lodge’s 40-foot panoramic windows put us right at the slopes for an après-ski snack.
Back at lake level, the village was teeming with shoppers and skiers. Others sat around blazing fire pits while kids of all ages enjoyed the ice-skating rink and the bungee-cord trampoline. Keeping an eye on the sunset, we walked across the street to Harvey’s hotel and the 19 Kitchen Bar and restaurant, appropriately located on the 19th floor of the casino. Every table has a lake view, and aside from the famous cuisine off the hardwood grill, this is the place to watch the sun slip behind the mountains of Desolation Wilderness.
The huge Heavenly Valley ski area is one of my favorites, but after a day on the slopes we needed to travel. The roads around the lake are kept clear unless there is big storm. That said, come prepared to deal with Mother Nature. These are the Sierra Nevada, and as one old ski instructor told me, there are two types of people who predict weather: damn tourists and damn fools.
Heading around the lake, we stopped briefly at Camp Richardson just out of town on Highway 89 toward Emerald Bay. This is also a great place to cross-country ski or snowshoe along the lake, with rentals available. Soon we came to the parking area overlooking Emerald Bay, always a must-stop place to take pictures. A cup of coffee gave us time to soak in the view.
It was a little early to look for a nest, but we couldn’t pass up Sugar Pine Campground. It is open in the winter, and a few spots were cleared. The bathroom was open and there was water but no hookups. We had the whole park to ourselves. It’s the advantage of being self-contained.
Continuing around the 72-mile shoreline drive, we stopped at the Homewood Ski Area. We have seen motorhomes parked here, but much depends on the weather and the snow plows. In any case, right next door is the Tahoe Maritime Museum with some fascinating history even if you’re not a boat buff.
A little farther along we came to the turnoff for the Norwegian-built Granlibakken Resort and Ski Area. This is a great place for beginners and kids to hone their skills on an intimate ski hill. They also have a machine-groomed saucer and snow play area perfect for families and children. Ten bucks gets you a saucer and a full day of fun. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing starts right from the lodge. While there is no real RV parking, they do have a couple of sites where guests can park large rigs and plug in. The fabulous morning breakfast buffet is worth a stop. There is a shuttle bus to Homewood and Squaw Valley.
Arriving at the entrance to Tahoe City, there is a large parking area just before Fanny Bridge. It serves the new transit center, and while overnight camping is not officially condoned, it is also not actively prohibited. The nice thing about overnighting here is that you can walk to town for dinner and visit the Gatekeeper’s Museum.
It was starting to snow lightly, so we hurried on to Alpine Meadows ski area, now officially part of the larger Squaw Valley Village and Ski Area with shuttle buses running back and forth all day.
We loved the Alpine Meadows atmosphere. Great skiing but still with a family-style personal feel. Just down the road, Squaw Valley and Squaw Valley Village is big, though at this writing, they no longer allow overnight RV parking. Of course, it never hurts to ask.
Out of curiosity, on our way into Squaw Valley we turned off to see the Resort at Squaw Creek. This five star location tucked into the mountainside next to a beautiful meadow has everything the larger resorts have and more, all in one gorgeous setting. There are great restaurants and cafés, ice skating, cross-country skiing and walking trails, a heated swimming pool and a spa, dog sledding, snow shoeing and even fly-fishing.
We parked at the Resort at Squaw Creek and skied all day at Squaw Valley, coming back in time for a late tasty lunch at Sandy’s Pub before returning to Alpine Meadows for the night. Two or three other motorhomes were already parked there.
Taking the free shuttle over to Squaw Valley Village in the morning, we boarded the scenic Aerial Tram for a spectacular and leisurely ride 2,000 vertical feet to the High Camp, elevation 8,200 feet. The Aerial Tram is one of Squaw Valley’s most popular year-round attractions and is open to all guests, skiers, snowboarders and walkers. At the top, there is a heated pool, a Jacuzzi, an ice-skating rink and an interesting museum covering the 1960 Winter Olympics that took place at Squaw Valley. Admission is free with your Aerial Tram ride. There is also a cafe and a restaurant overlooking Lake Tahoe.
Not that we were tired of skiing, (there are 11 ski areas around the lake), but there are many other adventures waiting for the winter visitor. Continuing around the lake brought us back to South Shore where we found comfortable camping at the Tahoe Valley Campground with hookups and a dump station. (Tip: there is a great pizza restaurant just across Highway 50 from the entrance.) No need to drive. South Lake Tahoe has an excellent transit system.
For a different view of this jewel of the Sierras, we booked an evening cruise on the MS Dixie stern-wheel paddleboat. There was live music, dancing, a sit-down dinner and dramatic views of the lake and Emerald Bay.
The next morning found us back on the dock, fishing tackle in hand. Some of the best angling for Mackinaw (lake trout), rainbow, brown trout and Kokanee salmon is in the winter. As the Hopper IV from the Tahoe Sport Fishing fleet skimmed across the glassy surface of the lake, our guide and captain knew exactly where he was going. Using modern fish finder equipment, we were soon reaching our limit and threw a few small ones back. The thrill of being out on the second deepest lake in the United States (1,645 feet), while fighting a big Mackinaw, all surrounded by awesome snowcapped mountains; can we use the word spectacular again?
We did find one other exciting way to experience the magnificence of Lake Tahoe. Climbing into one of the Robinson R44 Ravens operated by Reno Tahoe Helicopters at the Lake Tahoe Airport, owner Claudio Bellotto took us on a thrilling tour over Emerald Bay, Fallen Leaf Lake, Desolation Wilderness and the South Shore for a real birds-eye perspective. When you go, be sure and ask to have the doors taken off, but with a maximum cruise speed of 135 mph, keep your hands and arms inside!
We hadn’t seen or done everything, but we had discovered many of the secrets to winter RVing around Lake Tahoe. What was missing were the summer crowds and traffic. Turns out, winter may be the best time to visit the Jewel of the Sierras, America’s All-Year Playground.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Camp Richardson Mountain Sports Center
Granlibakken Lodge and Ski Area
Reno Tahoe Helicopters
Resort at Squaw Creek
Sugar Pine Point State Park
Tahoe Maritime Museum
Tahoe Sport Fishing Co.
Tahoe Valley Campground
Zephyr Cove Resort