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'California Dreamin', uncovering the secrets of Lake Tahoe

Words: Jess Scutt

The four days I spent in Lake Tahoe last year were some of the most action-packed, glorious days I’ve spent anywhere on the planet. This vast lake follows the California border, while a third lies in casino-loving Nevada. California is surprisingly accessible from the UK, with several flights a day from Heathrow to San Francisco. In normal times (remember those?), by the time you’ve watched a couple of movies, enjoyed an in-flight meal and marvelled at the snowy landscapes of Greenland, you’ve arrived.

From San Francisco, Lake Tahoe is a fascinating three-hour drive over the iconic Bay Bridge, through Davis and Sacramento, and up into the stunning heights of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Home, or at least second home, to some of California’s richest and most famous, Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. Its 70 miles of shoreline play host to individual villages and towns, each with their own unique atmosphere and setting, with a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks framing many of them.

The northern side of the lake offers a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere, with smaller towns and a striking granite boulder shoreline. South Tahoe boasts long, sandy beaches and exciting nightlife, especially on its Nevada side. Casino hotels, all-night dance clubs and high-stakes gambling mingle easily with chic lounges and spas to give the affluent visitor thrills and time to relax. Some of the most awe-inspiring homes are on the tranquil northern shore of the lake at Incline Village, Nevada. This was our base for a four-day, summertime Tahoe adventure. Here, you can rent a cosy lakeside cabin or stay at the fabulous Hyatt Regency, where there’s a spa and casino to boot.

'Hikes on the south and western sides of the lake in the Emerald State Park and D. L. Bliss State Park rival Yosemite for also offer spectacular visits'

“The fairest picture the whole earth affords” was Mark Twain’s opinion of the view of the lake he happened upon from the Flume Trail, which runs through the granite peaks above Incline Village. One of the world’s most picturesque hiking routes and a bucket-list must do, it offers staggeringly beautiful views. Four of us opted to navigate it on mountain bikes, which we rented from Incline Village at Flume Trail Bikes, next door to the Tunnel Creek Cafe. We took the 30-minute shuttle bus to Spooner Lake where the trail starts. A four-mile uphill slog from Spooner was rewarded at the summit with a dip in the crystal-clear, alpine Marlotte Lake. Then a less strenuous descent through huge valleys and impressive mountains, all accompanied by stunning views of Lake Tahoe.

The single-track path zig-zags down, with rather heart-stopping, thousand-feet drops to the lake on one side reminding us of just how far we had climbed. On the shoreline below, the snow on the ground near the trail, and snowcapped panorama. We finished the excursion back on the deck of the Tunnel Creek Cafe for draught beers and freshly-baked sourdough toasties after an exhilarating day. The north of the lake is not the only mountainous area worth exploring. Hikes on the south and western sides of the lake in the Emerald State Park and D. L. Bliss State Park rival Yosemite for also offer spectacular visits.

The lake itself offers many sporting activities too with Paddle Boarding being a popular activity with locals and visitors alike. I’d always viewed paddle boarding as rather a tame activity, and had never had a strong desire to hire an “SUP” (as in “Stand Up Paddle”) but after some persuasion, agreed to hire out the last boards from the beach kiosk at Meeks Bay. What an experience it turned out to be! After navigating our way through swimmers near the shore, we headed out into tranquil, clear, glassy waters. Paddle boarding is rather like having your own boat, sun lounger and surfboard in one. Although not difficult or seemingly strenuous, after a while you do feel as though you have had quite a workout without realising it, as you’ve enjoyed it so much.

'Emerald Bay is an exquisite expanse of turquoise and indigo waters surrounded by cathedrals of granite and dense forests of firs and sugar pines'

Just a little further south, at the iconic and aptly named Emerald Bay, you can rent either a paddle board or a canoe and paddle out for 10 minutes to the only island in Lake Tahoe-Fannette Island. One of the most stunning bays in the world, and truly one of Lake Tahoe’s gems, Emerald Bay is an exquisite expanse of turquoise and indigo waters surrounded by cathedrals of granite and dense forests of firs and sugar pines. The beach is only accessible via a mile-long winding trail from the parking lot. This is definitely not a hardship, as the hike takes in breathtaking views of the emerging bay and runs alongside the creek of the spectacular Eagle Falls.

For a longer walk, the path continues north, hugging the coast, along the Rubicon Trail. A 10-mile hike to the Rubicon Point Lighthouse and back will reward you with jaw-dropping views of the lake and sightings of bald eagles and ospreys. Buoyed up by our first positive paddle experience, we chose to rent canoes from the beach and paddle out to the island. There, you can climb up through rough rocks to an old, ruined tea house. The views over the lake and towards the mountains are incredible.

On the other side of the island lies the Sunken Forest - an other-worldly area where huge pines sit upright after plunging into the water during a landslide. With trunks impressively wedged in the depths of the water and tips protruding out, it creates an obstacle course to navigate with our canoes, and a great spot for snorkelling in the cobalt blue water.

As for places to eat, our favourite spot on the lake was Christy Hill in Tahoe City. Offering “Modern American” cuisine and located right on the water with panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains, Christy Hill is a wonderful place for an early dinner. You can watch the sun set on the lake while sipping spicy Californian Chardonnay and tucking into grilled octopus and wagyu ribeye. We also loved the pan-roasted gnocchi, and local peaches with homemade ice cream for dessert. There is very much a fine-dining feel to Christy Hill, with amuse-bouches and an impressive wine list.

I’d definitely recommend booking ahead, although we managed to secure a table nipping in on the off chance, after a day on the water. Jake’s on the Lake is another idyllically located restaurant on the marina in Tahoe City. A beautiful place to relax and watch the breathtaking sunsets, this family-run restaurant brings Hawaiian and Californian-style food together in dishes such as panko-encrusted artichoke hearts.

'Fallen Leaf Lake is filled with small, colourful granite rocks and submerged trees which make wonderful snorkelling'

Weekends can get busy around Tahoe, as many people escape the hullabaloo of San Francisco. To get away from the crowds and the traffic, try heading towards the more secluded Fallen Leaf Lake. A blissfully quiet, winding road takes you up towards this alpine lake. If you’re lucky, a kaleidoscope of butterflies might accompany you on the ascent and add to the magical scenery. Fallen Leaf Lake is filled with small, colourful granite rocks and submerged trees which make wonderful snorkelling, and to hike around the 8-mile lake with snorkelling breaks to cool off is an enchanting weekend activity.

Lake Tahoe is year-round destination and is also renowned as a winter sports destination, with world-class skiing at Squaw Valley and Heavenly. Heavenly boasts the longest ski run in the area at 5.5 miles long and the greatest vertical drop of 3,600 feet. In total the Tahoe area offers over 8000 acres of skiing. If you are in the mood for unparalleled lake and mountain views, exhilarating outdoor pursuits, and breathing in the air of the angels, try Tahoe.


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