Straddling two states, Lake Tahoe offers slope-carving fun – and then some.
Viewed from its snow-covered shoreline on a winter day, Lake Tahoe is a thing of brooding beauty. The massive lake – which straddles the California-Nevada border and covers 191 square miles, roughly the surface area of Scottsdale – slumbers under a silent curtain of snowfall. Mountains rise up on every side, offering a tantalizing spread of skiing and snowboarding options. It's stunning.
Six months later, I'm back in Tahoe – in fact, I'm standing on the same beach, and her mood has brightened considerably. The sapphire sky is crisp and cloudless. Sunbathers soak in the rays on beach towels. Kids splash in the water, and do back flips off a buoy. Stubborn toupees of snow linger on the mountaintops, the lone reminder of Tahoe's bygone winter.
A mere half-hour drive from Reno and its regional airport, Tahoe is one of America's great pick-your-poison playgrounds – a prime ski destination in winter, a gorgeous swimming and hiking getaway in summer, and a gaming mecca all year round. I hate to use the term "Flagstaff on steroids," but that's what it is. High-elevation heaven.
Hitting the slopes is one of two common ways to trigger a wintertime adrenaline rush in Lake Tahoe. Within a few hours of my arrival, I'm discovering the other way – blasting though a stand of pine trees at 9,000 feet above sea level on a four-stroke Yamaha snowmobile. With access to 45 miles of groomed trails, many of which provide handsome panoramic views of the lake itself, Zephyr Cove Resort (760 US Hwy. 50, 775-589-4907, zephyrcove.com) is Tahoe's best bet for wintertime motorheads. The resort's standard "lakeview" tour ($139) includes a brief tutorial, two hours of slip-sliding thrills and a cup of hot chocolate at the resort's backcountry picnic spot during a break in the tour.
My appetite for alpine adventure sufficiently whetted, I take stock of the ski offerings in Tahoe. There are 12 resorts in the area, mostly clustered around the north half of the lake, which collectively boast about 150 ski lifts – an awe-inspiring number to a ski rat from Arizona, where we have 18 lifts total. The monsters of the bunch are Squaw Valley (squaw.com) and Heavenly (skiheavenly.com) ski resorts, which both feature about 3,000 acres of skiable terrain. Drawn to Heavenly, the larger of the two, for its novel south Tahoe location and sprawling, interstate layout, I'm not disappointed – the lifts are impeccably maintained, the staff is efficient, and there are more semi-challenging, mogul-free runs than a fair-to-middling two-planker like myself knows what to do with. (And plenty of black diamond action, too, if you swing that way.)
If you ski Heavenly, you'd do well to bunk up at The Ridge Sierra (265 Quaking Aspen Ln., Stateline, 775-588-5565, theridgesierra.com), located steps from the slope's Nevada-side base facility. From the lobby, you can even take a multi-person elevator car directly to the lift itself. No lugging equipment from the car. No slog across a parking lot. And the east-facing rooms at The Ridge have commanding, 9,000-foot views of the Carson Valley below – a captivating reminder that you're sipping a post-slope whiskey and resting your burning quads in one of the world's great alpine mountain ranges.
With its convenient proximity to the shopping of South Lake Tahoe (on the California side) and gaming of Stateline (on the Nevada side), Heavenly might be the only resort you need for a typical ski weekend. But for a nice change of pace – and a ravishing glimpse of Reno from on-high – check out Mt. Rose Ski Resort (mtrose.com) on the north side of the lake. The eight-lift facility is typically less congested than Kirkwood, Northstar and other north-side resorts, and offers a tidy but diverse menu of slopes, from easy cruisers to a dozen gnarly chutes in the middle of the mountain.
Carving my way down Mt. Rose's Sunrise Bowl, I pass a group of snowboarders dressed like extras from Hot Tub Time Machine – DayGlo ski pants, '80s headbands, the whole bit. Tahoe fashion victims? Not quite. They're dressed up for the resort's annual Slide Back Retro Party, an '80s cosplay ski blowout complete with a Grand Master Flash-playing DJ (February 22). It's a lot of fun, but I doubt these are the "white lines" Flash was thinking of when he wrote the song.
Cosplay and skiing can make a person hungry; so afflicted, I put on a dinner jacket and head over to Edgewood Restaurant (100 Lake Pkwy., Stateline, 775-588-2787, edgewoodtahoe.com) at the Edgewood Tahoe Resort. Known as a blue-chip golf resort when the snow thaws, Edgewood caters primarily to skiers, weddings and diners in the off-season – often all at the same time at the resort's signature restaurant, where panoramic views of the lake go nicely with roasted sea bass, paired alongside savory cannellini beans and a glass of buttery chardonnay. The Edgewood has another virtue: It's located about a quarter of a mile from Stateline's casino strip. Having purchased my last ski pass on this trip, I proceed to blow my remaining budget at the blackjack tables at Harvey's (harveystahoe.com).
The surf is never up in the Sierra Nevadas – but that's not a bad thing in Tahoe, where the water laps gently at 33 swimmable beaches, beckoning sunbathers for a leisurely splash or a water skiing session on the glassy surface.
Zephyr Cove Beach (760 US Hwy. 50, 775-589-4907, zephyrcove.com), located on the Nevada side of the lake, is known as one of the more energetic "scene" beaches in Tahoe, with an onsite bar and grill, volleyball courts and an annual hot-body contest. Plenty of water sports to be had, too, with WaveRunner rentals starting at $115 an hour.
For a more genteel beach scene, head up north to Kings Beach State Recreation Area (parks.ca.gov), a big, free public beach with boat and jet ski rentals; or for something more exclusive, shack up at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (111 Country Club Dr., Incline Village, 775-832-1234, laketahoe.hyatt.com), north Tahoe's premier casino and resort, where you can rent a standup paddle board at the private beach and explore nearby Crystal Bay. Rutted with cozy little inlets where sedan-size boulders peek out of the spotless water, it's an ideal milieu for leisurely paddling. The lake's other great paddling option is Emerald Bay near South Lake Tahoe, a serene cobalt retreat named one of Outside magazine's top 10 sites for beginner SUP users.
Located near the north Tahoe shopping cluster of Incline Village, the Hyatt is just steps from Lone Eagle Grille (111 Country Club Dr., Incline Village, 775-886-6899, loneeaglegrille.com), a lodge-like protein palace that braises a wagyu beef short rib in a red wine lacquer until the meat practically leaps off the bone. After dinner, I check out the Cal Neva (2 Stateline Rd., Crystal Bay, calnevaresort.com), a hotel-casino once owned and frequented by Frank Sinatra during Tahoe's heyday as a hangout for mobsters and Rat Pack high-rollers in the 1960s. Closed last fall for renovations, the old casino is due to resume operations this December. No way to be sure, but this also looks like the stretch of rustic Tahoe shoreline where Fredo rowed to his death in Godfather II. Precious memories.
Water play is well and good, but you can't go to Tahoe in the summer and deny yourself a hike. If you're willing to invest a full day, tackle the 9.5-mile Mount Tallac hike in South Lake Tahoe, while wildflower-blanketed meadows usher your journey to the top of the lake's tallest peak. To experience what many believe to be the best views in Tahoe, take Mt. Tallac Road south from Emerald Bay Rd./89 until the road loops at the trailhead.
Another trip to Tahoe, another bittersweet farewell. On my last summertime evening, I collect my remaining ducats and head down to the blackjack tables at the Hyatt. Different season, same outcome.