Snowed by Tahoe
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Have I become jaded?
I vividly remember the first time I drove the mountain passes leading to Lake Tahoe 15 years ago and have been eagerly anticipating seeing them again. But now I'm here. The song "Is That All There Is?" is running through my head.
Sure, the views of deep gorges and craggy mountains and tall green trees are beautiful. But I'd remembered the vistas as being not just among the best, but of a singular, even a different order of beauty. What's missing?
Fresh snow, it turns out. On my third day, it falls, transforming spectacular into magical. If you've seen the movie "The Chronicles of Narnia," the scene where Lucy walks through the back of the closet and finds herself in an amazing, wondrous, wintry land -- Tahoe is like that, only better.
My recent experience is a reminder of why you must come here in winter, even if you don't ski. Granted, the lake with 72 miles of shoreline is fantastic all year long: the biggest, clearest, most pristine alpine lake in the United States, surrounded by peaks that reach more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Straddling the Nevada-California border, the lake gets the most visitors in summer. But if you've never seen the mountains around Lake Tahoe after a fresh, brilliantly white snow has fallen and the sun comes out to set it aglow, you haven't properly seen Lake Tahoe at all.
"Even people who have lived here all their lives rush outside like little kids at the first snowfall," says McAvoy Layne, who lives on the northern Nevada side of the lake in Incline Village. "It's so quiet, so pristine. Just blue sky, white snow, emerald lake, a little bit of dark green showing on the trees.
"And the air," adds Layne, who is a Mark Twain impersonator. "Twain, who loved it here, described it as the air the angels breathe."
The Lake Tahoe area was also a favorite subject for photographer Ansel Adams. A combination of public ownership of much of the land and strict environmental laws means it hasn't changed much since he captured "Thundercloud, Lake Tahoe" in 1936. John Steinbeck wrote his first novel here while working as a winter caretaker of a lodge, and it has been a favorite backdrop for Hollywood since silent-picture days.
The lake, which reaches depths of 1,645 feet, never freezes, so you can boat and fish even in the coldest months. Ride gondolas up the mountains just for the views or to dine in a mountaintop restaurant. Have lunch there, then dinner in a lakeside restaurant as the setting sun turns the landscape pink and gold. Ice skate, snowshoe across meadows and into silent, empty woods, or see the area by horse-drawn sleigh or snowmobile.
On the Nevada side, casinos and nightclubs are a major draw. On the California side, you can visit or even stay in historic buildings, see a museum, stop at the memorial to the wagon train emigrants who were caught in the Sierra Nevada over the winter at the infamous Donner Pass.
Granted, many visitors who come in winter are drawn mainly by the skiing, and both North and South Tahoe offer great alpine and downhill skiing and snowboarding, often well into April, given the magnitude of the snowfall here -- more than 30 feet a year on average. By March, you can ski in your shirtsleeves; showoffs ski down the mountains in swimsuits.
But there is plenty for non-skiers to do. In fact, it's worth the trip just to look, to gaze on what winter adds to an already awesome landscape.