10 days, 10 states: Lake Tahoe, California

“…As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole Earth affords…”
-Mark Twain, upon first viewing Lake Tahoe. Excerpted from his book, “Roughing It”

As anyone who has ever spent time in Lake Tahoe can attest to, Mark Twain had Tahoe pegged from the moment he first laid eyes upon it. Once Twain was done waxing philosophical about the clarity of its waters and pristine nature of its shores, however, he would go on to nearly burn the entire place down when his campfire raged out of control and gave rise to a massive forest fire.

Luckily for Mr. Twain, Tahoe managed to survive the blaze, and it continues to be the ultimate playground for outdoor enthusiasts all across the West. If you’ve never paid a visit to this lake the Washoe Indians dubbed “Da-ow-a-ga”, (Big Water) it’s hard to properly describe the sheer magnitude of how big the largest alpine lake in North America really is.

Unlike the Great Lakes, you can, in fact, still see across to the other side. This is aided however by the lake being rung by the 9,000 ft. peaks of the Sierra Nevada that remain at least partially snowcapped for the entire year.

21 miles long by 12 miles wide (193 sq. miles), Lake Tahoe is officially larger than three of the eight main Hawaiian Islands (Kahoolawe, Ni’ihau, and Lana’i). Aside from its area, at 1,645 ft. deep, Lake Tahoe is also the second deepest lake in North America behind Oregon’s Crater Lake.

That’s great. It’s big, and it’s deep. But what exactly does that mean? Give me some perspective. Well to start with, if you were to somehow pull the plug on Lake Tahoe and allow its waters to drain across the valley floor, the volume would be enough to cover the entire state of California to a depth of 15 inches. Think about that. Every Californian, all 37 million of them from San Diego to Humboldt would have their basement sloshing under a foot of water.

%Gallery-138378%So what actually goes on in water that deep? Are there any fish down there? Is there anything down there? Although the lake does house some good sized mackinaw (lake trout) that hang out around 200-250 ft. down, it’s rumored that there is potentially something else that’s floating around at the deepest depths of the lake:

Dead Native American Indians and Chinese railroad workers.

That’s right. It could all be urban legend, but it’s reputed that throughout history there were times when warriors or workers who met an untimely end were simply cast into the frigid lake waters. As the water temperature at the deepest parts of the lake remains a constant 39 degrees Fahrenheit, the waters are sufficiently cold enough to keep human bodies from quickly decomposing.

Creepy depths of the lake aside, Lake Tahoe remains one of the premier spots in the Western US for outdoor recreation on land as well as on the water. During the winter months, Tahoe boasts no fewer than 12 ski resorts that are lauded as some of the best in all of North America, with Squaw Valley playing host to the Winter Olympics in 1960.

During the summer months, Tahoe is rife with outdoor summer adventures that range from standup paddling to mountain biking. The Flume Trail on the east shore of the lake is regarded as being one of the most scenic rides in the entire country, and as the fall foliage currently engulfs the lake basin I find it to be the perfect time of year for getting out and riding the Flume.

From the rampant development that lines the shoreline, however, it’s easy to deduce that the beauty of Tahoe is no longer really a secret. Although the lakeshore may be rung by mega-mansions (Incline Village), lakefront restaurants (the entire West Shore), and glitzy casinos (South Lake Tahoe), there is still one stretch of the lake that is uninterrupted in its rugged and natural beauty.

When George Whittell’s real estate magnate parents passed away and left him with a sizeable inheritance in the late 1920’s, the San Francisco eccentric took a lump sum of cash and purchased the entire east shore of Lake Tahoe. Upon the granite strewn shoreline he constructed his infamous retreat, the Thunderbird Lodge, an architectural wonderland of ornate stonework, hidden tunnels, and cascading man-made waterfalls.

As real estate interests along the lake grew, however, so did interest in acquiring the lands held by Mr. Whittell. In one of the state of Nevada’s landmark cases of eminent domain, the state seized the land from Mr. Whittell that now comprises Sand Harbor State Park. Finally reducing his estate to the 6 acres surrounding the Thunderbird Lodge, the east shore of the lake ended up in the hands of the state of Nevada and has been exquisitely preserved as a state park system that offers some of the best beaches along the entire lake.

It’s just off of these beaches I find myself gliding along on a dull red kayak, completely encircled by granite boulders, turquoise waters, and the yellows and oranges of the fall colors that dance their way down from the treetops. If I didn’t have the rest of the country to go and see, I would be more than content to simply find a patch of sand, read a little Twain, and stare out over one of the great natural wonders of the West.

Follow Kyle on the rest of his journey as he explores “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”.