Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole world affords.” He might well have been right.
by Cuyler Gibbons
When you see Lake Tahoe, it may come as no surprise that, at more than 2 million years old, you’re looking at one of the oldest lakes in the world. The grandeur is so spectacular that it’s entirely believable that it took Mother Nature that long to craft such a singular location. And in another nod to time’s inevitable turn, you’ll no doubt be wondering why you’ve never visited before, or why you took so long to return and didn’t plan to stay longer.
The lake itself, the second deepest in North America and the 11th deepest in the world, covers 191 square miles, with about 72 miles of shoreline, circumnavigable by highway. Called da ow a ga in the native Washoe language, Lake Tahoe is one of the purest lakes in the world, with crystalline waters that glisten in the nearly 300 sunny days each year like a bowl of diamonds beneath the high surrounding peaks.
Lake Tahoe is rightly famous for its numerous world-class ski hills, from former Olympic host venue Squaw Valley to the 4,800 acres of Heavenly Mountain, the nation’s fifth-largest ski resort. The area’s real charms, however, might be even more apparent throughout the rest of the year. Whether on the lake, in the surrounding wilderness, or at one of the many fabulous attractions, bars, restaurants, and casinos, spring, summer, and fall sparkle brightly on Lake Tahoe.
We recently spent a few splendid summer days in South Lake Tahoe and the nearby Carson Valley. No more than eight hours by car from Pasadena, it’s a convenient world-class getaway.
There is something for everyone, from the height of elegance to the casually comfortable, in and around South Lake Tahoe. The Carson Valley Inn in lake-adjacent Minden, Nevada, parks you right where you want to be: at the intersection of yesterday and today. Minden, one of the oldest ranching towns in Nevada, retains its Old West charm. Along with a full casino, the Carson Valley Inn, remodeled in 2011, has 149 guest rooms, including 10 suites and 38 deluxe rooms. The Holiday Inn Express Suites also in Minden provides casual comfort and easy access to the lake, surrounding wilderness, and myriad activities available nearby. If true rustic elegance is more your style, look to The Lodge at Edgewood. Nestled directly on the shore of Lake Tahoe, The Lodge, offering a five-star experience, is one of the West’s great resorts. Each of the 154 luxury rooms and suites boasts its own fireplace and private deck or terrace.
With special nightly cuisine themes like Italian, Tex-Mex, and Seafood and Steak, the Forest Buffet at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe is regularly voted South Lake Tahoe’s best buffet by readers of the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Located on the 18th floor of Harrah’s Casino, the restaurant also affords stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Edgewood Restaurant, selected one of America’s 100 most scenic restaurants by OpenTable, offers elegant dining in a most refined setting. Reserve your table just before dark and have a lakeside seat for Tahoe’s spectacular sunset. Basque cuisine may not yet be on your radar, but if you visit J.T. Basque in nearby Gardnerville, it forever will be. For more than 50 years, the restaurant has been serving family-style Basque fare to visitors and locals alike, consistently earning recognition as “The Best Restaurant in Carson Valley.”
Scenic highways surround the lake, making it possible to completely circumnavigate the approximately 72 miles of shoreline. If you do nothing but drive it should take about three hours, but plan on taking a lot more than that. The roads are narrow and winding, and afford not only breathtaking views but plenty of opportunities to stop for a lakeside picnic, a hike, or a stop to breathe the air (“the same the angels breathe,” according to Mark Twain). One place you will certainly want to stop and stay awhile is Emerald Bay. Shallower than the larger body of the greater lake, Emerald Bay earns its name with its striking blue-green hue. The bay contains Lake Tahoe’s only islet, Fannette Island. Tour Vikingsholm, a 38-room Scandinavian castle, hike the Rubicon Trail, and take a cruise on the Tahoe Queen paddle-wheeler. If you need a little break from nature, check out the Bently Heritage Distillery, built in a 100-year-old former flour mill in Minden. Owner Christopher Bently hopes to set a new standard of sustainable production for Nevada and the world, and his LEED-certified remodel of the historic mill is emblematic of his commitment.