Autumn in many places is about raking leaves and readying for winter. But high in the Sierras, it’s a carefree, kick-back season. Summer crowds have dissipated, deep snows are still a month or two away, and both the sunshine and the aspens beam bright yellow, the perfect complement to the brilliant blue of Lake Tahoe.
It’s also an excellent time for a road trip around America’s most glorious alpine lake. You can navigate the 72-mile loop in a few hours. Or you could spend several days, taking time to loll at the water’s edge, picnic under statuesque sugar pines, hike or relax on a pier. But this we know: Once you see that blue water, those leaves in your gutters back home won’t matter a whit.
EXPLORING TRUCKEE AND THE NORTH SHORE
Even the route to the lake is lovely—you exit Interstate 80 at Truckee, a once bawdy railroad outpost whose wooden sidewalks are now lined by wine bars and small restaurants. Then follow California Highway 89 South, which slaloms along the Truckee River. Those crystalline waters are a glimpse of what’s to come: They flow right out of Lake Tahoe, 13 miles upstream.
You’ll get your first glimpse of the lake at Tahoe City, on the northwest shore. It’s just a tease, really; you have to stroll the waterfront walkways for a better view. While you do so, consider these stats: Tahoe sits at 6,225 feet and has an average depth of nearly 1,000 feet. It’s one of the largest alpine lakes in the world: 22 miles long and 13 miles wide. Driving around the lake clockwise puts you closest to it, giving you unobstructed views.
Private homes occupy much of Tahoe’s north shore, but you can sit beside the water at a restaurant, like Gar Woods Grill & Pier in Carnelian Bay. Its convivial pier is one of four stops for the North Lake Tahoe Water Shuttle, new in 2012.
A couple of miles past Kings Beach, you’ll cross into Nevada—immediately recognizable by its casinos. For a little Rat Pack nostalgia, check out the Cal Neva Resort, once owned by Frank Sinatra. Everyone from Sammy Davis, Jr. to Marilyn Monroe hung out here in the 1950s and ’60s—and reportedly, so did big-time gamblers and nefarious types with nicknames like Wingy and Skinny. Sit at the Circle Bar and listen to tales of the tunnels that run beneath the building between California and freewheeling Nevada.
EAST SHORE VIEWS
One of Lake Tahoe’s best “wow” moments comes just past Incline Village, where Nevada Highway 28 sidles up alongside the lake. Suddenly Lake Tahoe takes center stage, its bands of teal and tourmaline changing shades like a chameleon warming itself in the sun. Much of this shore remains undeveloped, thanks to Nevada State Parks. At Sand Harbor and Chimney Beach, trails lead to humps of granite by the lake’s edge, where Tahoe’s famous blue hue fades to water as clear as a wavy windowpane.
Trails also wind inland, across a spongy carpet of needles in an airy grove of ponderosa and Jeffrey pines. From Spooner Summit (near the intersection of 28 and U.S. Highway 50), the two-mile Spooner Lake Trail runs past groves of aspens, neon yellow among the evergreens, as it loops around the calm little lake. A longer trail leads to larger Marlette Lake and the 9,200-foot perch of Snow Valley Peak. Log flumes once zigzagged through this serene area, carrying water and wood to the Comstock Lode silver mines around Carson City. To mountain bikers, the Flume Trail is now a renowned downhill ride.
Highway 50 continues south along Lake Tahoe, tunneling 150 feet through Cave Rock before arriving at Zephyr Cove. Despite all the recreation—beaches, sand volleyball, picnic areas, boat cruises—it’s still low-key compared with Stateline and South Lake Tahoe, the busy two-city hub on the state border at the lake’s southeast corner.
THE SOUTH SHORE, THE EASY WAY
Lake Tahoe didn’t even have running water or electricity when Harvey Gross opened his first gambling hall in Stateline in 1944, joining a nascent gaming industry that has worked out pretty well for Nevada. Today Harveys and other casinos provide 24/7 entertainment in Stateline. A recent building boom has revamped the region, bringing a new pedestrian village, great dining tucked away on side streets, and the Heavenly Mountain Resort gondola, which departs right from downtown. It’s used by sightseers as well as skiers, as it’ll whisk you up 2.4 miles in 12 minutes for the best Lake Tahoe views you can get without hiking boots and a lot of ambition.
Beyond South Lake Tahoe’s busy commercial area, California Highway 89 runs west along the shore. Stop at the Tallac Historic Site for a quiet take on the lake. Once home to grand estates, today it preserves three houses, one built in 1894, along with old-growth Jeffrey pines and Taylor Creek, which gurgles through a wet meadow and into the lake. A path connects to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, where a window allows for an aquarium view of Taylor Creek—especially interesting in fall, when kokanee salmon turn scarlet for the spawning.
Precarious barely describes Highway 89 as it threads its way up along a skinny ridge, Cascade Lake off to the left and the deep pocket of Emerald Bay far below to the right. The fjord-like cove reminded its wealthy owner of Norway, and in 1929 she built Vikingsholm, a grand Scandinavian-style estate on its shore. Nearby, Eagle Falls crashes down from a basalt ledge. The Rubicon Trail traces the bay, then swings north to enter D.L. Bliss State Park. Trails here skim high above the lake, leading to a small wooden lighthouse and a watery panorama ?at Rubicon Point.
ROUNDING THE WESTERN SHORE
Above the deeply forested western shore, the land folds like an accordion. Hikers explore its deep peaks, valleys and high alpine lakes on foot, since much of it is protected wilderness. At Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park, the General Creek Trail heads west into the High Sierra backcountry. The park also has shorter trails and picnic areas along Lake Tahoe.
You’ve nearly completed your loop. Before reaching Tahoe City, cap off your tour at Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park, at the Granlibakken Resort. Ladders and ziplines carry you into the tree canopy, where you traverse from tree to tree on a clever and challenging array of swinging bridges, ropes and rings. It’s an exhilarating way to spend a few hours—and another unforgettable Tahoe “wow” moment.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
North Lake Tahoe Water Shuttle: northlaketahoewatershuttle.com
Cal Neva Resort: calnevaresort.com
Spooner Summit: US Hwy 50 Zephyr Cove-Round Hill Village, NV 89448; 775-684-3448
Zephyr Cove: zephyrcove.com
Heavenly Mountain Resort gondola: skiheavenly.com
Tallac Historic Site: Heritage Way and Hwy 89 South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150; 530-541-5227
Taylor Creek Visitor Center: fs.usda.gov/ltbmu; open seasonally
Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park: parks.ca.gov
Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park: tahoetreetop.com