Pure Shores: Explore Lake Tahoe, California
By Helen Wright
Despite the rising dollar and questionable politics, the USA is still one of my favourite places to go on holiday. Having been to the usual hot spots (Florida, New York, Las Vegas) I’m always on the hunt for alternative US destinations to explore and they rarely disappoint. My recent road trip across Arizona was a surprise highlight. I love to encourage people to experience not-so-hidden treasures of different countries and I needed a few more to add to my list. With towering pines, blue waters and a cult-like following Stateside, California’s celebrated Lake Tahoe has always been somewhat of a curiosity.
Explore Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and the water is apparently so clear (99.9% pure, to be exact) that if you dropped your dinner plate into the lake you would still be able to see it 75ft down. Despite attracting over three million visitors every year, it’s not as well-known to the hoards of international tourists that flock to California with most Brits favouring Los Angeles or San Francisco. But I was tempted by photos of colbot blue waters, fresh air and the chance to get outdoors and experience the beautiful landscape first-hand. Plus, not that I needed any extra persuasion, but flights to both Oakland (San Francisco) and Los Angeles starting from only £160 each way on Norwegian Air really sealed the deal.
LAND OF PLENTY
When it comes to jaw-dropping scenery, majestic vistas and exploring the great outdoors, America has definitely got it covered. There is no state more diverse than California, which offers beaches, snow-capped mountains, desert, cool cities and (most of the time) sunshine. Lake Tahoe straddles the California / Nevada border and is a year-round destination of snow sports in winter and beautiful hikes, outdoor adventures and on-the-water activities in the brighter months. The massive lake itself is said to be over two-million years old and 500 metres deep at its lowest point.
We rented a proper American car from Alamo which made a change from our little London compact and felt like a big living room on wheels. The drive from Oakland should take around three hours. Once you pass Sacramento, desert roads are replaced by lush greenery and a skyline dotted with snow-capped mountain peaks.
Our first stop was at Tahoe South, the most built-up area around the lake, with a growing nightlife, live music, restaurants and casinos. During the day the area is perfect for hiking up to a choice of amazing vistas and really taking in the beauty of the water.
The Emerald Bay State Park is the best place to start. Mark Twain described the views here as ‘the fairest picture the whole earth affords’ and we can see why. It’s seriously beautiful. The ideal place to spend the day wandering about or just sitting with your headphones on, listening to music and contemplating life. There are six miles of golden shoreline that border the turquoise waters and frequent lookout points that can be reached on-foot or by car. I often find that the most talked about tourist areas never completely live up to the hype, but this did. I fell instantly in love with Lake Tahoe.
CALM AND COSY
We stayed at the Hotel Azure which had a log cabin vibe, giant comfy beds and a glimpse of the lake from our room. The hotel has been recently renovated and is close enough to walk to a choice of bars, restaurants and of course, the lake. I had a preconceived idea that Lake Tahoe was going to be a remote beauty spot in the middle of nowhere, but the city of Tahoe South was a lot bigger than I was expecting with lots going on. Walking into town on our first day, we stumbled across a music festival and spent the afternoon dancing, drinking craft beer and chatting to the locals. There are also lots of restaurants, shopping areas and entertainment to keep you busy when you’re not out on the water or skiing. During snow season the area is even more popular with outdoor types coming into town to explore the mountains that hug the lake and the alpine peaks get an average of 125 metres of snow every year.
EXPLORE LAKE TAHOE
The following day we had breakfast at a Lake Tahoe institution, The Red Hut Waffle Shop. After scoffing a traditional American breakfast of pancakes and eggs we were set up for the day and headed off for a hike around the lake, taking in views from higher up. If you’re not a seasoned hiker, the Eagle Falls Trail is relatively easy and takes around 25-minutes to climb. We had our four-month-old, Finn, with us but we were assured the trail was suitable for us to take him in his carrier and I’m really glad we decided to go for it.
When we parked the car at the foot of the trail the weather was sunny and warm but as we climbed higher, a flurry of snow began to circle, creating a beautiful display of nature. At the top there is a waterfall cascading down the valley. The rapid white water splashed across fallen boulders and tree branches, perfectly framing the lake below. With hardly anyone around us it felt like our own private mountain. We had a moment.
In the afternoon, we took a more leisurely walk through historic Camp Richardson and had a peek at the historic mansions along the beach. These include The Baldwin-McGonagle Estate, a working museum (free entry), The Pope Estate, the summer homes of wealthy families that have been restored to the 1920’s chic (open to the public for a nominal fee) and Valhalla, meaning Viking Heaven, a grand former home now used for music and events (valhallatahoe.com).
Tahoe North is quieter and outside ski season most people come to enjoy the water, either by boat, kayak or paddleboard – with some braving the cold water for a swim. The drive around the lake is dotted with cute lakefront towns that look like they’ve been plucked straight from a made-for-TV movie. In fact, the lake is actually a real movie hotspot, with scenes from The Bodyguard and The Godfather II famously filmed here.
We were lucky to get a room at the Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort, a family-run hotel with a home away from home feel. The resort has been here for over 40 years and is the kind of hotel that welcome the same guests back every year. Our room looked directly out onto the lake to a perfect view and the deck that wraps around the hotel is the ideal place to take in the famous Tahoe sunset.
Guests can enjoy free use of paddleboards and kayaks and despite the temperature being pretty cold during our stay, we couldn’t resist a chance to get onto the water. Because it wasn’t the height of summer we were almost alone on the lake. With just a board between you and the water there is nowhere better to take in the vast size and beauty of Lake Tahoe. Boat tours are also available for those who want to stay dry or you can just relax on the hotel’s private beach if you’d rather enjoy the stunning view from dry land.
OUR LAST STOP
The last place we wanted to tick off our list was the Sand Harbor (which is technically on the Nevada side of the lake…just.). This was another view I didn’t think would live up to its Instagram expectations but was even lovelier in real life. Pick a spot and have a picnic on the sand. The nearby Alpine Village is a good place to stock up on snacks. The water is so clear that when it is warm enough to swim, snorkeling is a must. In the summer season it’s also a popular spot for scuba diving, kayaking and fishing, but the ability to take beautiful photos is available year round.
I’m thrilled that I finally got to explore Lake Tahoe. Spending a week there with my family was a joy after a busy year. Not only were we able to see another gorgeous part of California but, as far as holidays go, this was just about as relaxing and blissful as it gets.