Summer at Lake Tahoe is part bliss, part traffic and part high prices, but the arrival of Labor Day is like pulling the plug: Crowds drain out of the basin like bath water. Suddenly, there's elbow room.
And just when you thought summer was a done deal, here comes the best Reno-Tahoe event weekend of the season.
We're not picking these events in any kind of order just getting your engines revved for a trip up the hill.
Virginia City Camel Races
Joe Hedrick started out as a rodeo clown, one of those guys who wears silly makeup while performing the serious job of diverting enraged bulls from the rodeo jocks who ride them. Next thing you know he had his own trick buffalo. And then a chimpanzee. And then an exotic animal farm and bed-and-breakfast inn in Kansas, and a production company that travels the country putting on shows that leave spectators wide-eyed and in stitches.
Once a year, Hedrick's menagerie of camels, ostriches, emus and zebras comes to Virginia City, Nev., that Wild West town turned tourist town perched in a high-desert bowl above Reno. The 53rd International Camel Races (an Australian holds the crown) promise what fans come back for year after year: a highly entertaining, fast-paced, family-friendly show filled with thundering hooves, unpredictable action and lots of laughs. And yes, your kids can get a camel ride before or after the show.
To add to the adventure, travel from nearby Carson City to Virginia City on the historic Virginia & Truckee Railroad; www. virginiatruckee.com.
Tickets: Family pack, $30; individual $12, military/ senior/child $8; VIP $40; http://visitvirginiacitynv.com.
You may have heard the buzz words "geotourism" or "sustainable tourism." But what's it all about? Find out by participating in Tahoe Expo, an opportunity to ditch your car and explore the natural assets of the Tahoe basin under the guidance of local experts in a variety of scientific and conservation fields.
Full-day, guided tours on 11 "adventure tracks" include educational, stewardship and recreation components, along with bus, boat or bicycle transportation and lunch.
Pick from options that will introduce you to something new, such as viewing wild mustangs at Pyramid Lake to the north of Tahoe, exploring Tahoe beneath the surface, tracking bears, practicing yoga, monitoring water clarity or kayaking with a biologist.
Tours are priced from $15 to $95.
The Tour de Tahoe, a 75-mile, round-the-lake bike ride on Sept. 9, is not part of the Expo but is included in the registration options; www.tahoeexpo.com.
Great Reno Balloon Race
Hate getting up early? Force yourself. The 5 a.m. reward is an overdose of eye candy in the form of seven night-flying hot-air balloons ascending like glowing Christmas-tree ornaments into the still-black sky above Reno.
As soon as the sun peeks over the horizon, almost 100 more balloons rise into the sky, roaring like dragons as pilots open their balloons' blast valves to create the heat that sends them aloft.
The Great Reno Balloon Race, billed as the largest free festival of its kind in the world, attracts thousands of spectators for the signature "glow show" and "dawn patrol" events on Sept. 8 and 9. On all three days, spectators can walk among the giants, talk to the crews and watch balloons inflate and take off. It's all over by mid-morning, leaving plenty of time to drive up the hill to Virginia City for an afternoon at the camel races.
The festival is free; parking is $10 and VIP packages including breakfast and front-row seats are $75; www.renoballoon.com
Tahoe Trails & Vistas Art Hike
An "art hike" works like this: You assemble at Donner Ski Ranch, perched at a cool 7,780 feet on Donner Summit above Lake Tahoe.
In groups of 25 to 30, you take off on a 2 1/2-hour "hike" that pauses 15 times on Sept. 8, 12 times on Sept. 9, for entertainment and performances by visiting artists stationed along the way.
It's a purely sensory experience: You'll see exquisite dancing; hear a variety of musicians; listen to poetry, stories and chants; view some gasp-worthy art installations, and watch a rope-trick artist doing amazing things with a lasso.
Special departures for families with young children are scheduled, along with meditation hikes.
Tickets are $30 for adults, $10 for children. Please: no cellphones, cameras or dogs on the trail. www.trailsandvistas.org.