Lake Tahoe from Mt. Rose Overlook

LAKE TAHOE

DEEP & EERIE WITH SPLIT PERSONAS

Elevation: 6,225 feet

WHAT TO DO IN TAHOE

Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

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    Get on the rim to appreciate the lake in all of its glory. Hike to the Stateline Fire Lookout or Eagle Rock. Or drive to Mount Rose Summit.

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    Take the Heavenly Gondola for some exciting and panoramic sightseeing above 9,000 feet. Send Sonny Bono some RIP wishes while you’re up there.

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    Look for Googie architecture, mostly motel signs.

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    Have your pizza, creampuffs and pancakes, too! Enjoy a breakfast of champions in one of the all-you-can-eat casino buffets on the Nevada side.

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    If you’re looking for high-alpine views to backdrop your auto-based lake sight-seeing, drive along the eastern shore on Highway 50 instead of the mostly woodsy route to the west on Highway 89. The north side beaches similarly offer more dramatic mountain backgrounds.

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    Fan of world-class athletes? Go to Squaw Valley to see the torch from the 1960 Winter Olympic Games. While you’re there, try to imagine the opening and closing ceremonies masterminded by Walt Disney.

An Astounding Depth

Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America (22 miles long and 12 miles wide) and the second deepest in the country. Only Oregon’s Crater Lake is deeper. It’s also remarkable for its elevation. In all of the United States, it’s the largest of its size to be found at that high an altitude — 6,225 feet above sea level.

The water is exceptionally deep — 1,645 feet in Crystal Bay and 1,000 feet on average. More than 60 streams feed Lake Tahoe, and only one (the Truckee River) flows out of it. Drop-off from the shoreline is dramatic. At Rubicon Point (also home to the highest-elevation lighthouse in the country), the lake floor quickly plunges 1,000 feet.

Here’s another way to put Lake Tahoe’s depth into perspective: Carson Valley (at the base of the Sierra Nevada to the east of Lake Tahoe) lies at an elevation of roughly 4,750 feet. The floor of Lake Tahoe is 4,580 feet above sea level. That means that the bottom of the lake extends deeper than what is ground level in the Carson Valley, and Lake Tahoe’s surface would be about two-thirds of the way up to the ridgeline of the mountains that can be seen from there.

Forged by Many Forces

It may seem like the remnants of a volcanic crater, but Lake Tahoe is actually the result of shifting tectonic plates, volcanic eruption and glaciers. Fractures in the Earth’s crust (called geologic block faults) caused blocks of land here to both rise up and drop downward millions of years ago. Those that shifted upwards became the Sierra Nevada and Carson Range, and those that sank lower made the Lake Tahoe Basin in between.

Snow, rain and streams flowing into the Basin slowly brought the lake to life, but it didn’t begin building its depth until lava from now-extinct Mount Pluto formed a barrier across the Basin’s outlet, sealing off the water’s escape. Later, when glaciers moved through during the Ice Age, they helped to further shape the area by leaving behind this clear, deep lake (and others) surrounded by polished granite and jagged mountains.

Tahoe Blue

Besides its depth, Lake Tahoe’s water is also extraordinarily clear. Objects are visible 70 feet below the surface. That’s because much of the rain and snow here falls directly into the lake, and the rest of the precipitation joining it passes through marshes and meadows that provide filtering. Lake Tahoe is also what is known as an oligotrophic lake, meaning that it has very little algae or other plant life. That purity and its depth are what give the lake its signature blue color. When sunlight shines on water, most of the colors in the spectrum are absorbed, but blue is scattered back. That effect is more dramatic at pristine, deep lakes such as Tahoe.

“Keep Tahoe Blue” stickers are a common sight in the area. That’s because, over time, its unspoiled waters have become less so thanks to pollution brought by human activity around the lake. While water clarity today is still astounding, it was once possible to see 100 feet below the service. Clarity readings became routine in the late sixties and are taken throughout the year and averaged annually. It’s measured as the depth at which a 10-inch white disk is still visible in the water.

North Tahoe vs. South Tahoe: Rustic Mountain Quiet vs.Casinos, Wedding Chapels & Retro Motels

Many Lake Tahoe destinations are commonly referred to as North or South Shore, and there is a distinct character for each. Generally speaking, North Tahoe is more rustic and scenic, with several small lakeside towns and more ski slopes. It also has a more monied feel. Besides luxury resorts, the span of lake bordered by Nevada is lined with mansions as Incline Village has become a tax haven for wealthy Californians drawn to the fact that this neighboring state has no income tax.

The South Shore is much more developed and home to casinos, quickie wedding chapels, inexpensive motels and a lively nightlife scene. It also shows elements of time warp. The 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley sparked a building boom here, and today many of those structures remain — largely unchanged. As the environmental concern and activism surrounding Lake Tahoe’s diminishing water clarity intensified in the decades following, development as a whole has become more challenging, including redevelopment.

The Tahoe Border: California & Nevada See Things Differently

North to south, nearly the entire length of Lake Tahoe serves as an underwater border between California and Nevada. Much of it is a straight line located roughly four miles west from the Nevada shore. The point where Nevada’s boundary turns eastward in a diagonal line is also beneath Lake Tahoe’s surface.

Where the two states meet on land, more Lake Tahoe dichotomy becomes apparent — namely that California and Nevada have differing views on vice. Since the 1900s, Nevada has taken a more tolerant view on “wicked” behavior and sought to attract visitors with activities that are illegal in California. (That includes prostitution, though you won’t find brothels near Lake Tahoe.) Here, it’s about gambling, with multiple casinos in Stateline on the southern shore and Crystal Bay to the north. One example there is the Cal-Neva. In the early sixties it was owned by Frank Sinatra, making Tahoe a hot spot for his Rat Pack and Hollywood pals.

South Lake Tahoe has one of the agricultural checkpoints situated along California’s borders. Here, those passing through may be stopped to ensure they are not carrying anything deemed a risk for the state’s all-important agricultural industry. Plants (and fruits and vegetables) are the main emphasis for the investigation, particularly any insects or diseases that they may be carrying.

Vikingsholm: The Castle

One of Lake Tahoe’s leading tourist attractions is its castle — Vikingsholm. Built on the shore of Emerald Bay in 1929 as a summer home by heiress Lora Josephine Knight (who was also a major financial backer of Charles Lindberg’s historic flight across the Atlantic), she modeled it after a Scandinavian castle.

Besides its grand appearance, aspects of its construction are also unusual. Some sections were constructed without nails, and the roof over two wings is covered with sod. A popular short (but steep) hike to Vikingsholm is accessible year-round, but tours are available only in summer months.

Fannette Island & its Hermit

The only island in Lake Tahoe, Fannette is easily visible from many of the roadside overlooks around Emerald Bay. It doesn’t look like a cemetery, but that was Dick Barter’s plan for it in the late 1800s.

The retired English sea captain and Emerald Bay caretaker known as Captain Dick chose it as his final resting spot after narrowly surviving an accident. Barter lived an isolated life given that Emerald Bay was remote from more populated Tahoe communities. In the snowy winter months, Captain Dick had no choice but to sail for provisions in nearby towns.

On the ill-fated trip that later compelled him to construct a small chapel and tomb for himself on Fannette Island, his boat capsized on the return voyage. Captain Dick, who had also paid a visit to a Tahoe City saloon, was plunged into the icy water. Somehow managing to haul himself back aboard, he made it home, where he lost consciousness in his bed. When he woke up several days later, he would discover that frostbite had claimed his toes. After amputating them himself, he kept the toes in a box and would display them to visitors. Ultimately, Captain Dick was unable to use the tomb he built, drowning a few years later during another disastrous boat trip across Lake Tahoe.

Today, Fannette Island is part of Emerald Bay State Park, which also includes Vikingsholm and parts of the lake itself, making it an underwater park for scuba divers who want a close-up of historic sunken boats and barges. The island is accessible by boat or kayak only and has a campground. Its sole “structure” is the remains of a tea house that was built for Vikingsholm. Lora Josephine Knight and her guests came by boat for tea in the small building that also had a castle design.

The Tahoe Graveyard: Preserving Underwater Bodies

Given its size, Lake Tahoe maintains a considerable chill (though it has never frozen over, being so deep). Below 600 feet, it maintains a temperature of 39 degrees Fahrenheit.

This has led to grim legends of preserved corpses below the lake’s surface. Rumors abound that there are Indians, groups of 1800s Chinese immigrants killed after completing work on the railroad through the Sierra, and victims who ran afoul of the mafia during Prohibition and beyond. Another popular urban legend is that explorer Jacques Cousteau ventured deep into Tahoe’s waters only to emerge shaken by what he saw and proclaiming: “The world isn’t ready for what’s down there.”

Those claims aren’t substantiated, but there have been instances of well-preserved bodies being found in Tahoe’s depths as many as 17 years after death. (Because of the cold water, few rise to the surface during decomposition as is common in other bodies of water — meaning that many are not recovered. So though the idea of corpses preserved as time capsules may be a myth, descriptions of the lake as a graveyard are apt.)

Another macabre mystery is that people who meet their end in Lake Tahoe have been rumored to resurface in Pyramid Lake (or vice versa). The two are connected by a river (the Truckee River)m but it seems implausible that it would provide a passageway given that such a journey would involve traveling some 120 miles. There is also a dam in Tahoe City that would presumably serve as an additional barrier. Instead, some speculate that a system of volcanic-created underground tunnels connect the two lakes and allow objects of all sorts to pass between them.

A Sea Monster?

One other macabre tale from the area concerns Tahoe’s own version of a sea monster. Tahoe Tessie is rumored to be a large, serpent-like creature and discussion of it traces back to Indian legend among Tahoe tribes. Though Tessie remains shrouded in mystery, reports of sightings continue to this day.

Heavenly: Ski Resort with Two-State Slopes

Like Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Ski Resort spans two states. After emerging from a gondola that climbs Heavenly’s 3,500-foot vertical rise in a 15-minute, 2.4-mile ride, skiers and snowboarders have a choice of going down in California (to the right) or Nevada (to the left).

The gondola also offers panoramic views of the lake and mountains to non-snowsporting sightseers: it has an observation deck two-thirds of the way up (elevation: 9,123 feet).

Mining Scars: Tahoe Trees Sacrificed for the Comstock Lode

Gold may have been what sparked the Sierra’s mining boom, but 10 years after the beginning of the Gold Rush, it was silver that incited prospector fever near Lake Tahoe. Found near what is now Virginia City, NV, the Comstock Lode was the first major silver discovery in the United States. Demand for lumber exploded to build the many mines that extended deep into the ground as well as the structures in the boomtown that exploded around them.

Tahoe Basin trees supplied much of it, with the native forest stripped to such an extent that the Comstock mines were eventually described as a tomb of the Sierra’s forest. Another lingering scar from this period is visible traces of the era’s lumber industry equipment. In Incline Village, a historical marker (#246) notes where a log lift called The Great Incline of the Sierra Nevada once stood. From the marker, a large gash where its remnants lie is easily visible among the trees on the mountain above.

Vigorous logging and an influx of people passing through Tahoe enroute to the Comstock Lode served as early triggers for conservation efforts in Lake Tahoe. By 1900, bills were being introduced to create a national park in the area. Though that designation didn’t come to fruition, substantial areas of Lake Tahoe have come under protection from development.

Public lands were established in the area as early as 1899, and in 1980, Congress authorized the US Forest Service to acquire land to protect against overdevelopment. Today more than 75% of the area around Lake Tahoe — more than 150,000 acres — is public land managed by the Forest Service.

Mark Twain’s Fire

Mark Twain was a Lake Tahoe visitor, and a destructive one at that. Recounted in his book Roughing It, the incident occurred while preparing a campsite meal. After getting it started, he left things unattended to gather further supplies and returned to find a fast-burning forest fire. The story is also told in signage along the trail to the Stateline Fire Lookout, which offers prime views of the lake.

Thieving Gourmand Bears

Like Mammoth and parts of Yosemite, some of Lake Tahoe’s bears have come to develop a taste for human food and become effective burglars to obtain it. The black bear population has grown dramatically in recent years, meaning fewer acorns, berries, plants, etc., to go around. And more trouble with animals that have given up their wild habits for easier eating closer to people. That includes break-ins. Trash bins and cars are targets, but so are homes and restaurants where the furry intruders raid refrigerators and binge.

The results are often tragic. In recent years, a 500-pound bruin repeatedly helped itself to pasta and ice cream in a Tahoe City Italian eatery after the kitchen closed for the night. It was eventually killed after the owner surprised it during one such raid and the bear became aggressive.

Another couldn’t stay away from one of the ski resorts — where bear sightings are in no way common. After wandering through a ski race, it was relocated more than 20 miles away only to find its way back and linger near the slopes, leaving officials with no choice but to place it in an animal sanctuary or zoo.

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