Take a drive for 45 minutes south east of Reno, come off the interstate 580 and you will head up the winding roads through the Mount Rose Wilderness in the shadow of the rounded peak of Mount Houghton. You might stop en route for a night to recover at one of the geothermal spas that line the highway, from which you can take in the cool evening air in a hot tub with a glass of Californian pinot noir.
Back on the road, and as your ears pop, you will appreciate the startling transition from the glorious flat yellow desert plains to the alpine forests and lush wildflower meadows that surround Lake Tahoe. After driving through the Nevada desert, a wilderness that stretches impossibly far out into the dusty mist, the red-barked pine trees and verdant slopes of the mountains are a stark relief, as they have been for as long as people have sought the fresh water of America’s largest alpine lake.
The Washoe people, a tribe of Native Americans, have lived around the lake for at least six thousand years, with tribal lore claiming that the Washoe (meaning ‘people from here’) have lived on the lakes since time began. Lucky them, because Tahoe is a place of serene beauty, and the forests that surround it are a world of tranquillity. The name ‘Tahoe’ is a mispronunciation of the Washoe word for ‘the lake’ (da ow). To come upon Tahoe from the desert is a breathtaking encounter. In his 1872 book Roughing It, Mark Twain describes the experience as well as anyone might hope to:
“…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 full 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 earth affords.”
In short, Lake Tahoe is a unique and beautiful place. In the winter, the Lake is home to dozens of ski resorts, many of which are beautifully constructed in the log-cabin style that typifies the area’s most environmentally sympathetic and iconic architectural style. Sledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and ice skating are all popular in the alpine wonderland surrounding the lake, which was home to the 1960 Winter Olympics at the height of the cold war. After a morning’s skiing, the thing to do is eat S’mores (a chocolate biscuit sandwich with a toasted marshmallow filling) around the campfire, while drinking a beer from Alibi Aleworks, a craft industry in the romantically named Incline Village. Alibi provides friendly tours of the facility and surprisingly delicious beer.
In the summer months, Lake Tahoe becomes a warm, sunny location for water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding to jet skiing. For something calmer and just as scenic, the mountains surrounding the lake are terrific cycling and hiking territory either at the shoreline or by heading up amongst the pine trees.
Nevada has been home to a Basque population that first came in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush, and today their influence is most readily appreciated in the many Basque restaurants that can be found around the state, typified by generous portions of grilled meat and spiced stews. For more upscale dining, places like the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort serve the sort of modern, healthy food you’d expect from an area that attracts tourists coming for wellness and the great outdoors.
Whether you are looking for somewhere to unwind, or somewhere to exercise in the great American outdoors, Lake Tahoe is a special place. Calm, quiet, and extremely civilised, it is an American oasis of clean air, clear fresh water, tall pines and healthy, happy locals. Nordic beauty meets American service. Everyone you’ll walk past in the street has a dog, and the dogs appear to be about the happiest on earth.
Whatever you do in Tahoe, don’t rush your trip. It’s a place that starts off as a breathtaking spectacle, and soon gets under your skin for the calmer, breezier pace of life there. When the time to leave eventually comes, you’ll be plotting your next trip back to breathe the sweet pine scented air on the journey out of town.
Where to sleep: head to the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort for top-notch food and a relaxing lakeside pool experience
Where to eat: dine on local basque food
Where to drink: Sink a beer at the Alibi Aleworks
Where to go: Into the great outdoors around Lake Tahoe, walk around the lake from Incline Village, via Sand Harbour, to secret cove
Do: take time to unwind and connect with nature
Don’t: jump into the lake before checking the temperature first – it’s called an alpine lake for a reason!