Oh, we get it—America’s largest mountain lake can be quite a temptress: the way the dragonfly-blue water shimmers, reflecting the serrated Sierras; those bewitching beaches and smooth granite boulders that rim the shores; the waterfront restaurants with their rowdy piers and cocktail hours. But really, there’s more. Look up from Lake Tahoe and its well-traveled waterfront to discover a host of new temptations up above the lake.
North Side: Recreation All Around
Many visitors to Tahoe arrive from the north via Interstate 80 from Reno (40 miles northeast) or Sacramento (100 miles southwest). The thriving town of Truckee marks the gateway to the Tahoe basin, where the Truckee River flows north from the lake through a pine-scented canyon. A paved bike path parallels the burbling waters for a pleasant 5.5-mile ride from the Squaw Valley ski resort to the lakefront at Tahoe City. Locals favor traveling the same stretch of river by raft or inner tube, gliding over gravel bars in an impromptu party. (Rentals are available at Truckee River Rafting in Tahoe City.) Take out at the River Ranch Lodge, which conveniently serves craft beer and the region’s best nachos.
Several designer golf courses hide among the Tahoe pines, but none can match the charms of Old Brockway, in Kings Beach. Bing Crosby, Dwight Eisenhower and the Rat Pack used to tee off at this tree-lined course, which manages to celebrate both nostalgia and the game, having long drives and tight, sloping greens. Nearby Coyote Moon Golf Course also brings unique appeal, rolling through quintessential Sierra scenery.
Memorable views abound along the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile route that encircles the lake. Hikers can reach many segments for out-and-back day trips. At Brockway Summit on California Highway 267, sample a 5-mile stretch of the trail (or drive up a nearby dirt road) to the Martis Peak Lookout, a Forest Service fire tower perched high atop a granite slab. All of Lake Tahoe’s 21-mile length spills out to the south, hemmed in by a horizon of mountain peaks. Pack a lunch and soak it all in for a while.
West Side: High Sierra Hikes
Tahoe’s mountain scenery is at its most majestic above the lake’s western shore, where the Sierras rise to nearly 10,000 feet. You’ll need to lace up some hiking boots to enjoy it, since much of the area is roadless federal wilderness. It’s worth every step to reach high alpine lakes, looming granite pinnacles and meadows that may still be sprouting wildflowers. Plus, late summer and autumn is the only time you get the keys to this kingdom: It’s usually buried in snow from November into July.
Near Sunnyside, Ward Creek Boulevard leads west from California Highway 89 to a trailhead 2 miles inland. The trail north into Page Meadow puts on one of Tahoe’s best wildflower shows in late summer. In autumn, follow the Tahoe Rim Trail west, a 3.3-mile route that climbs alongside Ward Creek through meadows and aspens to 30-foot McCloud Falls. Turn around here, or continue another 2.5 miles up a steep, switchbacking route toward Twin Peaks and the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a well-earned panorama of deep canyons, broad fields and the scissored peaks of the wild Sierras.
For another adventure, head to Emerald Bay, on Tahoe’s southwest shore. Hike west from the Eagle Falls picnic area. This popular route leads to Eagle Lake, tucked among the talus slopes. It’s lovely, and just a taste of the trio of lakes that awaits under the imposing face of 9,974-foot Dick’s Peak, in Desolation Wilderness, another 4 miles along the trail.
South Side: Cowboy Country
From South Lake Tahoe, 89 follows one of the few natural routes out of the lake basin, exchanging the bold blue of Tahoe for the bright gold of aspens as it climbs and dips through high passes and saddles. At Hope Valley, fluorescent aspen groves border California Highway 88, which bends south and skyward toward 8,573-foot Carson Pass.
All sorts of activities line this scenic road: horseback riding, mountain biking, paddling or fishing small alpine lakes, and ziplining at Kirkwood Mountain Resort. The same is true of California Highways 89 and 4 east of Hope Valley. The area draws fly fishermen to the famed East Fork of the Carson, visitors to the sweet 19th-century silver-rush town of Markleeville, and anyone who loves cruising among sublime mountain scenery.
If you head north instead of south from Hope Valley, 88 eventually descends into Nevada’s gaping Carson Valley. The Old West still echoes loudly here, where Kit Carson forged new routes up into the Sierras, where the Pony Express galloped across the high desert, and where everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Mark Twain made their way to David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort. You can still soak in those same natural mineral springs, seeping and steaming out of the Earth’s crust into six outdoor pools, all with views of the cowboy countryside.
East Side: Historic Riches
The Gold Rush never really ended in Virginia City, perched high on a ridge atop the Comstock Lode, one of the richest ore deposits ever found. Some $300 million in silver and gold was pulled from these mountainsides in the 1860s, making Virginia City one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, credited with spurring the growth of Nevada and the city of San Francisco. A young reporter at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper arrived here as one Samuel Clemens and left a few years later as Mark Twain.
Look beyond Virginia City’s trinket shops to find some gems, from old saloons to mine tours and the little basement museum displaying Twain’s desk. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad fires up its steam locomotive for open-air narrated train tours to Gold Hill or Carson City, showcasing old mining routes and the occasional herd of wild horses. Virginia City also delights in hosting kooky events, including the International Camel and Ostrich Races (first weekend in September) and the World Championship Outhouse Races (first weekend in October).
Driving north toward Reno, the high desert climate of the Washoe Valley seems a world away from the pine forests and mountain streams around Lake Tahoe. Yet it lies just over the Carson Range. Circle back via the Mount Rose Scenic Byway (Nevada Highway 431), a wonderfully snaky route that twists through an impressionistic swirl of autumn colors. Suddenly, a striking view appears around a hairpin turn: the oh-so-blue beauty of Lake Tahoe, welcoming you back.