Crystal-clear waters, stunning natural beauty and plenty of recreational opportunities highlight this shared treasure on the Nevada-California border
In 1970, my wife, Gayle, our two kids, and German shepherd, gave up tent camping for good and piled into our first RV for a road trip. Fast-forward 45 years and Gayle and I are loading up our third motorhome for another of many hundreds of adventures. We had been to Lake Tahoe before, but it had been at least 25 years since our last visit. The plan this time was to meet up with our daughter and son-in-law, and spend a week at Lake Tahoe, straddling the border between Nevada and California. If you have a bucket list, visiting this amazing resource should at least be close to the top.
More than 6,000 years ago, Lake Tahoe — and some 10,000 square miles of land surrounding the lake — was home to Native Americans known as the Washoe. They protected and revered the land, but with the gold rush in 1848, a large number of nonindigenous people arrived in the area. The Washoe tried to resist encroachment for years. Their last armed conflict was known as the Potato War (of 1857). The end result was that a large number of starving natives were killed just for taking potatoes from an area farm.
During many years of traveling by motorhome, Gayle and I have been able to find something we liked about virtually every place we’ve visited, but rarely have we encountered a setting that moved us like Lake Tahoe. With 191.6 square miles of beautiful azure water, at an elevation of 6,225 feet, Tahoe is not only the largest Alpine lake in North America, but is the second deepest. This wonder of nature is exciting to behold. It is probably best described as awe-inspiring. For us, that certainly was the case. From our first sighting while descending into the Tahoe Basin, we wondered why it had taken us so long to return.
If you seek quiet and peaceful serenity, there is a wide variety of settings to choose from. But if you’re looking for action and recreational opportunities, you certainly won’t be disappointed either. One important thing we have learned is that there is just so much to see and do that most people will want to take at least two trips: one to the southern part, and one to the North Shore area; or one during summer and one during winter. Year-round, there are more than enough attractions to sustain the interest of virtually anyone, for a weekend, or even several weeks.
This trip we decided to focus on the southern area, which for our purposes included Emerald Bay on the California side, Zephyr Cove on the Nevada side and all of the area in between. The least complicated way I can think of to explain how to reach that particular part is: Get on Highway 50 somewhere between Sacramento, California, and Fallon, Nevada, then follow it to South Lake Tahoe. We chose to visit during the summer season (which generally runs May through September). However, winter affords at least as many venues, attractions and vistas in that same area of the lake. But most are of a completely different type due to weather conditions.
The first thing we did was to settle on a base camp. Our plan was to do daytrips in our dinghy and on bicycles. We had heard that Tahoe Valley RV Resort and Campground is located within an easy bike ride of the lake. It is also just off U.S. Highway 50, within walking distance of where state Route 89 heads north, around the western shoreline, from what the locals refer to as “the Y.” Furthermore, Tahoe Valley RV Resort is open all year, which isn’t always the case for RV parks at higher altitudes. Nestled in the pines, with areas for walking and biking, and a relatively flat campground, it certainly met our needs. It has plenty of sites that would accommodate any size rig, so our 35-foot motorhome and dinghy were an easy fit. It is centrally located to all the places we wanted to go, situated about halfway between Emerald Bay and Zephyr Cove. Though we didn’t spend a lot of time hanging out in the park, the expected amenities kept us entertained while there. Included among those were pickleball and tennis courts, volleyball, basketball, horseshoes and more. For the kids, there is a bicycle challenge hill, arcade and nice play area. There is even a heated outdoor pool. Wi-Fi can be accessed throughout the campground. Pets are welcome and there is a dog run. Everything was clean and well-maintained. There is even a trolley to the casinos.
First on our to-do list was a visit to Emerald Bay State Park. This glacier-carved bay includes much more than just crystal-clear water surrounded by beautiful forest. One of the most interesting attractions for many is known as Vikingsholm. In 1928, Lora Knight purchased the site at the head of Emerald Bay. She and her nephew by marriage, who was a Swedish-born architect, decided to create a splendid home using elements found in Norwegian farmsteads and wooden stave churches. Without disturbing any of the magnificent trees, and using construction methods and materials like those in ancient Scandinavia, they completed the task in 1929. This “home,” with its towers, intricate carvings, hand-hewn timbers, sod roof planted with grasses and flowers, and internal courtyard, looks more like a castle. Authentic Norwegian and Swedish furnishings were created in detail, down to the exact measurements, colors and aging of wood. For a nominal fee you can take a tour of the inside.
The state park also includes Fannette Island, which is the only island in the lake. Sparsely covered with timber and brush, this granite hill rises up 150 feet. In 1929, Knight had a stone teahouse built on the top. She and her guests would take a motorboat to have tea. Originally there was a corner fireplace, large oak table and four chairs. Erosion and vandalism have taken a toll; only the stone shell remains, but you can walk to it and see virtually the same vista that those early visitors enjoyed. It is a fairly steep climb to the top after kayaking to the island.
All of Emerald Bay, and along much of the western shoreline to the north of the bay, is an underwater park. The cold, protected waters help preserve six shipwrecks, plus prehistoric sites where bedrock mortars and other artifacts can be seen. Officially opened in 1994, the underwater state park includes marked sites where sunken vessels constructed of massive ponderosa pine can be explored. Lake Tahoe’s only boat-in camping, at the historic former location of Kirby’s Emerald Bay Resort, provides another option for experiencing this unusual diving opportunity.
A very long time ago we visited Emerald Bay, both by ski boat and a paddle-wheeled vessel named the Tahoe Queen. This time we chose to walk from the scenic overlook parking lot on SR 89, down a mile-long trail that descends about 400 feet to the lake level. When driving there from the South Shore, this lot is approximately a mile beyond the Emerald Bay scenic overlook. Watch for a sign that includes the name Vikingsholm. There is a $10 fee for parking; get there early because it fills up fast. For those with limited mobility, special arrangements can be made for shuttle service down to Vikingsholm.
We figured to take in anything we missed during two previous arrivals via the lake. It came as no surprise that we had missed quite a bit. Views on the way down are impressive — babbling brooks, waterfalls, ponderosa pines, incense cedar, Sierra juniper, quaking aspen, alder and willow provide spectacular cover. Wildflowers include columbine, leopard lily, bleeding heart, and yellow monkey flower. You can walk in year-round, but seeing the wildflowers, touring Vikingsholm, scuba diving at the underwater park, and some other sightseeing opportunities are limited to summer months. Whatever the season, this place is definitely worth seeing.
In addition to appreciating the beauty of the environment, our next project was to get out on the water. Kayak Tahoe seemed to be our best option. There are five conveniently located beachside stations along the southern shore. We had a wonderful experience. The water is so blue and the views are so impressive, that we could have easily spent all day doing just this one activity! Of course we looked above and below the surface for the elusive Tahoe Tessie (the dragon-dinosaur rumored to lurk in Tahoe’s depths), but unfortunately for us, Tessie didn’t want to be seen.
Next on the list was biking. South Lake Tahoe has been designated as a “bike-friendly community,” so bike paths and rental shops are plentiful. Experienced bikers might want to try the impressive downhill track nicknamed Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (aka Saxon Creek Trail) or the Flume Trail. For hard-core bikers, there’s a 71.5-mile loop around the lake, but that is well beyond our skill level. Less-than-superhuman specimens (like us) still have miles of beautiful and easier trails to explore throughout the area.
When it comes to hiking, I am more interested than Gayle, although she often comes along to be a good sport. I just want to see what is on the other side of things. The southern part of Lake Tahoe offers many well-maintained trails, from easy to really difficult. Granite slopes, hidden waterfalls and beautiful alpine meadows are among the attractions. For a real challenge, consider the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail.
Next on our list of things to do was the Heavenly Mountain Blue Streak Zip Line. To get there, take the 2.4-mile scenic gondola ride up Heavenly Mountain. Both are a bit pricey, but well worth it. After taking in the spectacular views from the gondola ride, the zip line affords an adrenaline rush while descending toward the lake at up to 50 mph. Up to 150 feet above the ground, you travel 3,300 feet toward the lake, passing high above rope courses and the Tamarack Lodge, covering that distance in about one minute! We’ve done other zip lines (including Costa Rica and Labadee), and the Blue Streak ranks right up there with the best, not only offering a fun and exhilarating ride but spectacular scenery as well. It is open year-round. Nearby, you can zip down a 500-foot hill, with a 65-foot vertical drop, on a large inner tube, without snow or water. It is pretty neat, but only available during summer.
Horseback riding was also on our agenda for this trip. Though Camp Richardson Corral was much closer to our base camp, we chose the Zephyr Cove Stables. They offer many choices, from a one-hour trail ride to package deals — including breakfast, lunch and dinner rides. Located about 4 miles east of the casinos on Highway 50, it is a very laid-back operation. Everyone working there who we encountered was friendly and helpful. We’ve owned horses in the past, and taken trail rides in plenty of other locations. Compared to those, it seems these folks have their act together better than most, and their stock looked better. We very much enjoyed all of the sights, sounds and smells while riding through the forest. But the outstanding views of the lake from above were even more impressive.
The nightlife at Tahoe’s South Shore is also worthy of a visit. Beginning with the often-spellbinding sunsets (from shore and cruises) followed by gourmet dining, through the totally awesome shows in the casinos, this place truly rocks. You might even have to take a vacation from your vacation!
After experiencing the southern part of Lake Tahoe, there are all of the attractions at North Shore to check out too. And if that isn’t enough to garner your interest, consider the diverse activities that can be experienced only in winter. Don’t pass up Lake Tahoe. It is, for sure, a treasure worth sharing.
For More Information
Heavenly Lake Tahoe
Tahoe Valley RV Resort
Zephyr Cove Stables