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Snowed by Tahoe
California or Nevada? Ski or gamble? On this iconic lake, you don't have to take sides.

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Paddling Toward Desolation

I drive first to the Nevada side of the lake, just over three hours by car from San Francisco. I arrive just in time for my 1 p.m. cruise aboard the Tahoe Queen, a Mississippi River-style paddleboat. The captain provides running commentary as the boat glides away from the casinos and hotels and along the shoreline that is predominantly undeveloped public land -- a combination of California and Nevada state parks and federal property in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management.

Two-thirds of the lake, which is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, is in California; the remaining third, Nevada. In the shallows close to shore in summer, the water in the lake, fed by snow melt, warms up to about 70 degrees. But even then, dive 10 feet and it's a frosty 39 degrees.

The boat meanders past sandy beaches, bays and coves, always in view of mountains that, in certain passages of light, are reflected in the clear blue water. The captain points out the mountain peaks that shelter Desolation Wilderness, where the opening scenes from the television Western "Bonanza" were filmed.

We glide through a narrow passage to enter Emerald Bay, named for the color of the water. A small granite island covered with naturally stunted bonsai trees juts straight out of the water. At the island's top are the remains of a teahouse. On the shore is Vikingsholm Castle, a stately mansion built in the Scandinavian style in 1929 by an eccentric woman who once owned all the land around the bay. She also built the teahouse, with stained-glass windows and marble floors. The mansion is open for tours spring through fall.

Near shore, the clarity of the water is amazing: You can see the bottom of the lake through as much as 70 feet of water.

After leaving the boat, I head to the two big casinos the captain mentioned to sample the quarter slots. I'm glad the one-armed bandits still have the arm option, which is much more satisfying than hitting a button. But quarters don't spill out for a win: The machines just calculate what they owe you and print out a paper slip. A $40 win on paper feels like nothing compared with the sound of 120 quarters hitting metal. Am I the only one for whom the sound is the thrill? Apparently so. I ask half a dozen people how they feel about it, and they look at me like I'm nuts.

March Madness

Say the word "casinos" and people naturally think of a Vegas-style strip. But actually the South Tahoe area, which includes a big piece of Nevada and a smaller piece of California, is pretty low-key.

Most of the development is concentrated in a strip less than two miles long near Stateline in Nevada, near the California border. The town of Heavenly, in the middle of the developed area, has a series of attractive low-rise buildings surrounding the gondola that ascends and descends Heavenly Mountain. The mountain has 91 ski runs, one of which is 5 1/2 miles long, and is arguably the best place in the world to ski off-trail through the trees.

My second day in South Tahoe, I find untrammeled nature along a sandy beach in a state park just yards from the last hotel in the strip. I hike to a marina and stumble across the Beacon Bar and Grill, along the water's edge, in view of towering mountains that must look incredible at sunset. I've found my dinner spot.

But first I head back to the center of Heavenly to catch the gondola, which climbs 1.2 miles up the side of the mountain to a massive, 4,800-acre ski area -- among the largest in North America. The gondola, open year-round, carries both skiers and those simply seeking a view. I strike up a conversation with Brent Adams, an extreme skier based at Heavenly who competes around the world. Adams, 19, grew up here and started skiing at age 4, he tells me on the ascent. In summer he skis New Zealand.

I'm already envying his life when he describes an average day for himself and his buddies in Heavenly.

"We ski from about 9 a.m. until they kick us off the mountain around 4," he says. "Then after a nap we sneak into the hot tubs in the hotels, then maybe hang out awhile at the fire pits at Fire and Ice, then go to the night park." That's a playground for skiers who careen off jumps and rails and pipes.

March, he tells me, is one of the best times to visit Tahoe.

"Last March we got eight feet of snow. Often it snows at night, and you wake up to bluebird skies and fresh powder."

Adams can't wait to turn 21, so he'll be able to add nightclubs to his daily routine. I'm already plenty old, and that night take just a peek at one of the hot spots, Blu. Hip, young crowd. The lights and sound system are the ultimate in high-tech, the seating areas the ultimate in cool. You can chill on big exercise balls that are mounted on a metal device that turns them into chairs, or lie down propped against a headboard on a bed-like lounge that holds eight people, four facing four. Like Adams, I'm wishing I were 21. In my case, again.

Snowshoes and Chickadees

If casinos with hot clubs are your idea of nightlife, California's North Tahoe doesn't have it. But it does have a historic town, a variety of resorts scattered throughout the mountains with both indoor and outdoor activities, and a village in the valley that was the center for the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Although I highly recommend driving the entire circumference of the lake -- a drive that would take about 1 1/2 hours without stopping, which you will want to do -- it's best to settle in for the night on the side of the lake where you plan your daytime activities. That's especially true in winter, when road conditions can become hazardous.

I move to North Tahoe on the third day of my visit and head to the alpine hut of the Resort at Squaw Creek to get outfitted with snowshoes and take off from the edge of the property. Later I learn how much more adventurous I could have been on snowshoes when I talk with Layne, the Twain impersonator.

The best place to snowshoe, Layne tells me, is up Mount Rose to Chickadee Point. "Little chickadees come out of the trees and eat out of your hand, four or five at a time, or as many as your hand will fit," he says. But then again, there's a spot on Rifle Peak where you can see inside Emerald Bay and almost the entire lake. But then again, almost anywhere is good.

"I've lived here 23 years come next month," Layne says, "and every winter I come across a place that looks like no other place I've ever seen before. There are so many vistas and outlooks you can never go wrong."

Mine is a mild walk on a path along the tree line, then across a broad meadow that connects the resort to the Village at Squaw Valley, where shops and lodgings surround a gondola that climbs the mountain. It's my first time on snowshoes. Though the antique ones hanging on the wall look as if they'd require some skill and grace, the modern ones are so small and sleek that they feel no different from a new pair of tennis shoes.

Snow is falling, which is delightful until the wind begins to blow. At that point, I'm happy not to have to fight my way down Mount Rose in a near blizzard, but instead have a warm village within sight.

You could spend a few hours checking out the boutiques in the village, which includes lodgings, bars and restaurants, but I head straight for the gondola.

The ride ends at High Camp, about 8,200 feet above sea level. You step off the gondola and into an indoor area with restaurants and bars and an Olympic-size skating rink with a view of the lake far below. From here, you can catch chairlifts that will carry you to some of the 100 or so ski and snowboarding trails, or simply settle in and watch the action on the slopes from one of the restaurants with floor-to-ceiling windows.

At the sports bar, locals are grumbling about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has just made national news by breaking his leg on a ski trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. The general opinion: We've got the best skiing you could ever hope to find, so what's he doing bringing attention to a competitor? Better he should break his leg in his own state.

The Water's Fine

That afternoon I drive about 15 minutes from Squaw Valley to the historic town of Truckee. The transcontinental railroad reached here in 1868, and almost immediately tourists begin pouring in.

A number of houses and other structures from that era, including a jail and the train depot, survive in the town's historic district. One of the best examples of Victorian architecture, the Richardson House, is now a B&B.

By 1910, Hollywood had discovered Truckee. Among the film stars who've strolled these streets during the filming of nearly 100 movies: Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore and, in later generations, Henry Fonda and John Wayne. And in 1994, while filming "True Lies" with Jamie Lee Curtis, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Truckee's history is chronicled in the museum at Donner Memorial State Park, but the museum's main attraction is its exhibits about the Donner Party, a wagon train of settlers who arrived in 1846. Unable to get through the Sierra Nevada mountains before winter set in, half of the emigrants died. Those who survived did so mainly by eating their dead friends and family members.

Seeing as how it's only an hour or so until dark, and recently reminded of the dangers of getting lost in the mountains in winter, I decide to pass on my earlier idea of trying to find the Donner Historical Site, which marks the spot where the Donner family camped.

Instead I head back to the resort and, after dinner, grab a swimsuit. I use my toe to test the water in the outdoor pool. Warm, but not hot enough. The outdoor spas, however, are just right.

People who know both North and South Tahoe squabble about which is better the way people in Washington debate the merits of Virginia vs. Maryland. Really, the biggest difference is in the nightlife, and even that is a matter of taste.

On my night in North Tahoe, I immerse my body into the steaming-hot water, snow falling on my head, and watch the moon move across the starry sky. As nightlife goes, I think it's pretty great.

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