This grand lake has been captivating outsiders—pioneers, prospectors and American icons—for well over a century. “As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains…I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords,” an enamored local reporter named Samuel Clemens once wrote before turning to fiction and taking on the pen name Mark Twain. Pivotal moments in history tend to occur around Tahoe’s shores-—moments that have shaped our country and yet never quite managed to upstage the natural beauty of this striking expanse of sapphire.
A grand bronze monument rises among the sugar pines near Truckee, California, not far from Lake Tahoe’s northwestern shore. A family gazes westward with determination. The statue commemorates the 1846 Donner Party, the group of ill-fated settlers whose wagon train became trapped in Sierra snows.
The Donner Memorial State Park visitors’ center tells the story of the Donners (about half the party of 83 perished; the others allegedly resorted to cannibalism to survive) and the wave of western migration that would continue for decades.
Donner Pass Road roughly follows their westward trail, snaking upward through slabs of granite. At Vista Point, you can spot the tracks of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.
Six miles west of the state park, the byway crests 7,056-foot Donner Pass. California’s nascent ski industry took hold here when Hollywood investors such as Walt Disney financed the state’s first chairlift, in 1939, at the Sugar Bowl resort. Twenty years later, nearby Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Games. Today more than a dozen ski areas ring the lake. Larger ones, including Squaw and Heavenly, offer mid-mountain activities, from dining to zip lining, in summer.
Riches of the East Shore
On the heels of the pioneers came the miners. In 1859, prospectors tapped into a three-mile-long vein of silver and gold just east of Lake Tahoe. Over the next couple of decades, precious metals worth more than $400 million—that’s $11.3 billion in today’s dollars—were found in the
Comstock Lode, making Virginia City, Nevada, one of the richest places on earth. Just 40 miles east of Lake Tahoe, Virginia City was the center of it all. Saloons and dance halls lined wagon roads smooth with blue mud pulled from the mines. One day someone decided to assay the mud—and discovered the streets were paved with silver.
The asphalt Geiger Grade (Nevada Highway 341) climbs up to today’s Virginia City through pine-filled high desert frequented by wild mustangs. Look beyond the trinket shops to discover the town’s mining heritage, including underground tours into the Chollar Mine. The 1876 Territorial Enterprise Building, where Sam Clemens wrote for Nevada’s first newspaper, is on C Street. By the time Clemens moved on from Virginia City, he had coined the pen name that would become known around the world.
The miners brought the loggers, who leveled the grand pine forests along Tahoe’s East Shore for wooden mine shafts and flumes. In the 1930s, a reclusive banking heir named George Whittell Jr. purchased 40,000 acres of that “wasteland,” including more than 25 miles of lakeshore. Now largely protected as national forest and Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, it’s once again resplendent with pine forest and pristine shores.
At the lake’s northeast corner, Sand Harbor—a broad curve of sand beyond which rise white boulders—beckons. Farther south, a trail leads 1.5 miles downhill to Skunk Harbor’s aquamarine cove. Miles of trails etch the east slope above the lake; you can’t go wrong with a segment of the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Whittell picked the finest parcel for his estate. A 75-minute tour gets you behind the gates of the Thunderbird Lodge compound and gives you a sense of his personality and home—replete with an opium den, a 600-foot tunnel and tales of Rat Pack–era stars.
The Good Life
Even before Whittell, rail and steamship service ushered in an era of genteel Tahoe living. On Tahoe’s South Shore, a community of early lakefront estates hide among the pines at the Tallac Historic Site.
This swath of land along the lake remains a peaceful retreat, best explored on foot or by bike (rentals are available nearby). Trails connect with U.S. Forest Service lands and wander along the beach and wildflower meadows.
More estates lie along Tahoe’s West Shore, none more famous than the Scandinavian-inspired Vikingsholm, a 1928 mansion along Emerald Bay. Yet some of Emerald Bay’s most impressive views come before you reach the mansion—where California Highway 89 threads along a narrow knife-edged ridge. Stop at Inspiration Point, which rises 600 feet above the bay, with rocky Fannette Island reflected in its still blue waters. It’s surely one of the fairest pictures the whole earth affords.
Weekenders Guide: Lake Tahoe
Chollar Mine : 615 S. F St., Virginia City, NV; 775-847-0155; adults, $10; children 5–12, $2 http://visitvirginiacitynv.com
Donner Memorial State Park : 12593 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, CA; 530-582-7892; day passes, $10 a vehicle http://parks.ca.gov/
Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park : 2005 Nevada Hwy. 28, Incline Village, NV; 775-831-0494; day passes, $10 a vehicle http://parks.nv.gov/
Tahoe Rim Trail : Multiple trailheads in California and Nevada; 775-298-4485 http://tahoerimtrail.org/
Tallac Historic Site : 1 Heritage Way, South Lake Tahoe, CA; 530-541-5227 http://tahoeheritage.org/
Thunderbird Lodge : 5000 Nevada Hwy. 28, Incline Village, NV; 800-468-2463; tours, $39; children 6–12, $19 http://thunderbirdtahoe.org/
Vikingsholm : Access is via a steep one-mile trail from the parking lot off California Hwy. 89 or a gentler 1.5-mile trail from Eagle Point Campground; 530-525-9530; admission, $10 http://vikingsholm.com/
Heavenly : 775-586-7000; mountain activities, from $58 http://skiheavenly.com/
Squaw Valley : 800-403-0206; mountain activities, $55 a day; children 5–17, $30 a day; children 4 and under, free http://squawalpine.com/
Bite American Tapas : The Spanish small plate gets an American twist. 907 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village, NV; 775-831-1000; dinner for two, $60* http://bitetahoe.com/
Riva Grill : Dungeness crab sandwiches and a view of Lake Tahoe. 900 Ski Run Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA: 530-542-2600; dinner for two, $100 http://rivagrill.com/
Truckee Tavern and Grill : Fresh cuts of beef, lamb and pork expertly prepared without fanfare. 10118 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, CA; 530-587-3766; dinner for two, $80 http://truckeetavern.com/
*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.