Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

California & Nevada, USA

July 7th - 14th, 2019

This is a blog post about what to do and see on a hiking and family trip at beautiful Lake Tahoe. I spent a wonderful week there with my best friend Lara, her husband Gary, my wonderful little godson Max and his nanny Pearl. I met up with them in New York the week before and we all flew out together on a Sunday morning from La Guardia to Reno-Tahoe International Airport with a stop-over in Denver. Reno, Nevada, is about a 2 hour drive from Lake Tahoe. Lara had booked us a gorgeous and large house (through Tahoe Luxury Properties) with a big garden for Max to romp around. It was located in the town of Tahoe Vista on the northern shore of the lake.

Lake Tahoe straddles the California-Nevada state border and is the largest Alpine Lake in the US, measuring about 30 kilometers (20 miles) North to South and almost 20 kilometer East to West. The whole lake is encircled by the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada, many of which were still snow covered in July.

The lake is remarkable both for its depth (with over 500 meters it is the second deepest lake in the USA, only beaten by Crater Lake in Oregon) and for the amazing clarity of its water. With visibility down to 80 feet (almost 25 meters), this was the clearest water I had ever seen. However, this had not always been the case, as visibility had been greatly diminished because of pollution in the 20th century. We learned about the significant effort the communities around the lake had been making over the last decades to clean up the water. There is now absolutely no waste water flowing into the lake. And even the snow cleared from the roads in winter is driven several miles away instead of being dumped into the lake. Only the clear streams from the mountains flow into the lake today.

The Lake Tahoe area is a perfect year-round holiday destination. In summer it is a paradise for hiking, water sports, cycling and many other outdoor activities. And it is also one of the premier skiing destinations in North America. The lake is surrounded by several major ski resorts, with Heavenly and Squaw Valley being the two most famous ones. While much of the land around the lake is private property, there are many public beaches, which are very well maintained and all include changing rooms, playgrounds, BBQ areas, etc. Some of them are fine sand beaches, while others are made up of gravel and stones. Max certainly enjoyed the beaches a lot.

Since the lake is mainly fed by snow melt and since the night time temperatures are quite chilly even in the summer due to the altitude, the water remains fairly cold all year round. Most people you see paddle boarding or swimming tend to wear wetsuits. I did jump into the water every day, but I usually didn't manage to stay in for much longer than a couple of minutes, as it was just too painfully cold. We often spent the morning with Max at the beach, and then went hiking in the afternoons. The area has a near unlimited number of great hiking trails, ranging from short easy strolls to multi-day long distance treks (some of those require overnight or wilderness permits).

The Hikes:
Our first hike was called the Five Lakes Hike, which started near the Alpine Meadows skiing area located to the west of the Lake. It was about a three hour out and back hike, which began fairly steep climbing up through open woodlands. Lake Tahoe lies at over 6,000 feet (almost 1,900 meters) elevation and we certainly felt the lack of oxygen on the steeper slopes.

Once on top we entered into a forested area, where we found the five small lakes nestled among the trees. There was a lot more snow here than normally at this time of the year, since they had unusually large amounts of snowfall this winter. (Apparently the ski season at Squaw Valley only closed a few weeks earlier in mid June this year.)

The Skunk Cove Trail, which we did a couple of days later, is a fairly short hike that started by the road on the Eastern shore and took us down a wide dirt road through large pine trees to a small cove, which despite its name smelled lovely. The whole hike took less than two hours.

The most beautiful of our hikes was the Rubicon Trail, located on the Californian side near the south-western corner of the lake. Since we had two cars we were able to do the whole trail in one direction. We started at the northern end of the trail and ended up at Emerald Bay. The whole trail winds along the edge of the lake for about 10 kilometers, occasionally dropping down to small coves and then rising up again high above above the shoreline, which provided us with stunning views over the clear blue waters and the people in kayaks and stand-up paddle boards floating along the shore below us.

The last part of the trail took us along beautiful Emerald Bay. At the end of they bay there is the large Vikingsholm Mansion, which  was built in the 1920s in the style of a Nordic Castle. Right behind the mansion we could walk up a few stairs to see the Eagle Falls.

From here is was a short but fairly steep hike up to the road and the car park, where we had deposited the second car. Right before we reached the top the Tahoe Steam Boat slowly made its way into the bay drifting past the little island, for this rather kitschy postcard view.

On our last day, Lara and I drove a bit away from Lake Tahoe to do a hike called the Judah Loop Trail. It was located near Donner Pass and above the beautiful Donner Lake, both of which were named after the ill-fated Donner Party - a group of settlers that tried to reach California by wagon train, but got stuck here in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846/47. About 30 of the settlers died from cold and starvation, while some of the others only survived by resorting to cannibalism.

Since this hike was bit higher, there was still quite a lot of snow up here and we had to cross a few small snow fields. But the views from the top made it all worthwhile.

In addition to hiking and hanging out at the beach, there are many other things to do here in the summer. There are some great road and mountain bike trails, which we did not have time to explore. We also spent one morning hiring a small boat (with a captain) for a leisurely cruise along the Western shore and into Emerald Bay. We had great views of the enormous houses along the lake front. There are some grand old mansions built by early industrialists in the 1920s, and many new and large houses built by today's Silicon Valley millionaires. (We were told that Mark Zuckerberg just bought a humble lakeside weekend abode for a mere $58 million.)

Before our boat trip we stopped by the grandest of all the historical mansions, the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, which was completed in 1903. The house and the extensive grounds around it are now a California State Park.

Among all the activities we did, the absolute highlight was the hot-air balloon flight. We had a very early start that day. Because it tends to get windy in the afternoons, the best conditions for flying balloons over the lake are right after sunrise. So we set our alarms for 4:00 am and were on the road in the dark before 5:00 am for the hour long drive to South Lake Tahoe. Leaving this early had the additional benefit of seeing things you wouldn't see during any other time of the day. First we had this breathtaking view of Emerald Bay just before sunrise.

And to top that, just a few miles further on we encountered a brown bear crossing the road right in front of us. He wasn't really scared of the car at all, and walked along the road for a while looking at us curiously and then minding his own business:

We made it just in time for the launch of the boat, from the Tahoe Keys Marina. Lake Tahoe Balloons is the only hot air balloon operator in the world that inflates, takes off from and lands balloons on a custom built boat.

They did two flights that morning, with up to 20 people in the basket. It was just an unbelievably stunning sight seeing the lake from high up. We could really appreciate the incredible clarity of the water. The boats below us seemed to float magically in the air.

It was a perfectly clear morning, and we had gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains in every direction. This lake on the left is Fallen Leaf Lake, which was made famous in the movie "The Bodyguard".

Our pilot took us up several thousand feet and then managed to touch both the tree tops and later on the water before setting us down with pinpoint accuracy on the boat again. Here is a short video clip of our flight:

Overall we had an absolutely fabulous week at Lake Tahoe and we were sad that we had to leave on Sunday morning. I dropped the others off at the Reno-Tahoe airport for their flight back to New York, while I continued by myself down South towards Yosemite for two more weeks of Californian adventure.

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