Despite decades of commercialism, this perfect lake remains the jewel of California's Sierra Mountains and the perfect high-altitude summer getaway
"At last the lake burst upon us--a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft three thousand feet higher still! As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords."
Mark Twain wrote down those immortal words about Lake Tahoe in 1861. For anyone who has been to this "jewel of the Sierras" in Northern California, you'll know what Twain meant. Lake Tahoe is one of the most breathtaking areas of the West, and one that has attracted travelers for generations--be they Native Americans looking for sanctuary, miners looking for silver, businessmen looking for casino-fed wealth, or tourists looking for simple tranquility.
Granted Twain wrote that quote a few years before the great silver rush in Nevada and its subsequent ecological devastation to the region, which left Lake Tahoe (which straddles the border between California and Nevada) nearly bare of its fabled pine forests and the crystal clear lake muddy with erosion. The pine forests are now back, and despite the rampant growth of casinos, condos, and cars along the lake, Lake Tahoe is far from spoiled. Better known for its skiing (Squaw Valley and Heavenly are around Lake Tahoe), the area is home to over a dozen large state and county parks, and the hiking, backpacking, kayaking, and sailing during the cool summer days is close to perfection. The local residents, burned by no-holds barred developers in the '60s and '70s, founded The League to Save Lake Tahoe (keeptahoeblue.com/) to make sure it stays environmentally pristine despite its popularity. The result is one of the best Alpine vacations you can experience in the lower 48 states (and that's not biased, even though I am a native Californian!). Summertime in Tahoe affords even more outdoor opportunities than winter. And even though summer is high season at the lake, prices can be well within budget of the frugal traveler.
Keep in mind that the south shore of the lake, though overflowing with cheap deals thanks to the casinos around Stateline, is a lot more commercial and trafficked than the north shore, where year-round residents inhabit mellower lakeshore towns that have kept their High Sierran character. Having lived in Northern California for a few years myself, and frequented Lake Tahoe as a refuge from the crowded coasts, I always liked staying on the north shore since it had a more authentic feel with its friendly towns and grand vistas of the lake. If you want to stay a week or so, the north shore is the more relaxing area, free of large hotels, and full of reasonably-priced condos and vacation rentals--always a deal compared to similar prices for box-like hotel rooms. Contact Lake Tahoe Accommodations (530/581-5210, tahoeaccommodations.com/) for some of the best deals. For instance, during the month of August you can stay at the quaint town of King's Beach on the north shore at a one-bedroom condo that can sleep four for just $134 a night. That comes with a loft-style bedroom, a fireplace, complex pool, sauna, and hot tub. Lake Tahoe Accommodations has many more similar deals in their listings.
But if you're looking for a quickie stay, the south shore is fine for first timers and has its charms too. Most importantly, it offers lots of hotel deals. Your first step should be the official website of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority-- bluelaketahoe.com/. In the site's "Cool Deals" section, visitors will find a bevy a continually updated beauties to choose from. For instance, from now until September 4th, $159 per person (Sunday through Thursday) gets you two nights in a deluxe room at large Harrah's casino (www.harrahs.com/our_casinos/tah) on the south shore at Stateline, with two for one coupons to one of the hotel's live shows, a $25 dining voucher, and even a complimentary wine or beer at the bar. Better yet, the price dips to $127 per person from Sept. 5 to Oct. 16. Call (800) 427-7247 to book.
Also right in the center of the action in Stateline in the classy, Alpine-themed Forest Suites Resort (forestsuites.com/), at the base of the ski gondola to Heavenly (open in summer and offering great views of the lake) on the south shore. Forest Suites offers the best deal hands down on that oh-so summer sport: golf. For just $69.50 per person based on double, you get a deluxe one-bedroom suite, daily continental breakfast, and a ticket to the 15th annual American Century Celebrity Golf Tournament from July 13-18, 2004. Call (800) 822-5950 to book. If you would rather do than watch, then check out the $520 per person golf deal at The Ridge (ridgetahoeresort.com/), a condo and spa resort with great views and modern amenities. For that price per person, you get three nights in a deluxe room, two rounds of golf (per person) at the Sierra Nevada Golf Ranch, two 1-hour massages, four tickets to Celebrity Golf Tournament, dinner for two (a $100 value at The Hungry Bear Restaurant), and a champagne basket! Call (800) 334-1600 to book.
If you don't need all the fancy-schmancy resort stuff, then check into the lovely Zephyr Cove Resort (775/588-6644, tahoedixie2.com/) in a quiet southeastern corner of the lake. Under huge sleepy pines, the resort offers 28 self-contained fully modern cabins (ranging from studios to four bedroom houses) with small kitchens and great views of the lake. Cabins that sleep two to four people start at $159 a night until Sept. 12 (and drop to $129 thereafter). Zephyr Cove also sports a large beach with motorized and non-motorized water sports like jet skis and kayaking, and it's also home to the M.S. Dixie II, a faux paddleboat that takes you for $26 across the wide lake to its most picturesque portion--Emerald Bay on the southwestern shore. (Behind Emerald Bay is some of the best hiking around Tahoe to the high mountain lakes in the 63,475-acre Desolation Wilderness.)
No matter how long you chose to stay, we think Twain was right. Stunning Lake Tahoe remains "the fairest picture" even in the 21st Century.