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Blue lake special

Editor's note: Though not all the snow has melted, no doubt your interest in Lake Tahoe-Reno has heated up for the summer. Here is the first of a two-part series, concluding next Sunday in Travel, on Tahoe attractions. In addition, check out Scene/Outbound on Thursday for a feature on sailing Lake Tahoe, and look for a July 17 Travel package on how the West is fun in the Reno area.

While you're counting your blessings, be sure to include Lake Tahoe -- recent earthquake activity notwithstanding. We're a mere two-hour drive from a year-round playground that is increasingly becoming a destination for travelers worldwide.

Oh, it's easy to recite the facts: The 11,000-year-old lake is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, with an average depth of 989 feet and an average surface elevation of 6,225 feet. Sixty-three streams flow into the lake, but the Truckee River is the only drain. Two-thirds of the lake is in California, the other third in Nevada. The sun shines there 274 days a year.

But the numbers don't tell the real story. Lake Tahoe is a paradise for campers, boaters and snow-riders. Thousands of visitors crowd its beaches each summer and its slopes each winter.

Hundreds of trails take hikers to some of North America's most vivid natural outposts. Around the lake, there is no such thing as a bad view.

Options abound: casino gaming, big-name entertainment, first-class dining, tours and excursions and walks on the beach in the moonlight.

The lake has it all - which is just the problem. Each summer is more crowded than the last. Parking lots near trailheads fill early. Restaurants have two-hour waits, no apologies offered. Traffic is maddeningly slow. An estimated 750,000 visitors will come to the lake this summer, says Andy Chapman, director of tourism for the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, most of them staying for several days.

It's what happens when everybody wants a piece of the pie, or at least a taste.

For us, though, staying home is not an option. Each summer, we circumnavigate Lake Tahoe's 72 miles of shoreline, discovering new places and revisiting old favorites.

We hope you do the same. But be advised: Yes, you will get stuck behind an RV going 15 mph, or a logging truck or tour bus belching black fumes. Be prepared to come to a standstill on Highway 50 near Stateline, because the road and the traffic signals can't handle the load. And, sure, you're going to get frustrated because you can't find parking.

Best advice: Chill. Enjoy the scenery. Take a detour and do some exploring. After all, you're seeing Lake Tahoe firsthand, not sitting in front of a computer terminal writing about it.

Burger break

We're cruising on Highway 50, headed east, admiring the rushing American River, the eternal beauty of the thick forests and the moonscape of granite cliffs formed millions of years ago. Soon we come down off the summit, round a bend and spot our goal shimmering in the near distance -- Lake Tahoe, the blue alpine jewel itself.

We drive through the outskirts of town and come to the intersection where Highway 50 and Highway 89 converge - known as "the Y." Turn right and 50 will take us to Stateline and the hotel-casinos. Go straight on 89 and we'll hit the Camp Richardson Resort.

We decide to begin our tour of the lake on 89, but first we want to grab some cheap eats. Two choices come to mind:

Turn right and detour to Izzy's Burger Spa (2591 Highway 50, 530-544-5030), a South Lake Tahoe landmark that opened 25 years ago. The  1/3-pound burger is cooked to order and makes an excellent handful.

Or continue on 89 and look on the right for Colombo's Burgers a Go-Go (841 Highway 89, 530-541-4646), 32 years old and still making juicy charbroiled burgers and one of the all-time great milkshakes.

The best ways to explore this part of the lake is by pedal power. On the right at 13th Street and 89 (aka Emerald Bay Road) is Anderson's Bike Rental, which opened in 1978.

"Biking is a nice way for people to access the beaches and forests, and get away from the casino traffic," says owner Doug Anderson. "We rent bikes to visitors from all over the world - England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, India. This morning we sent off two groups from North Carolina and Kansas."

The 10-mile round-trip Forest Bicycle Trail begins just two blocks away and meanders through aspen and fir forests and over Taylor Creek. "The trail is more scenic than strenuous," Anderson points out, though it does have some up-and-down thrills.

Sidetracked

We pick up the paved bike path and head north. Along the way, we veer off to see these sights (look for the signs):

* Tallac Historic Site: Lake Tahoe was the summer playground for wealthy San Franciscans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They would arrive by train and get around by boat. Some of them built summer homes, a few opened public lodging. We're exploring 74 wooded acres featuring the foundation of the Tallac Resort and three formerly private estates - the Pope, the Heller and the Baldwin. The Heller, aka Valhalla, is overseen by the Tahoe Tallac Association (530-541-4975) and serves as a cultural arts center and gift store; the 20-foot-tall stone fireplace is impressive. The other properties are managed by the U.S. Forest Service (530-541-5227) and supported by the Tahoe Heritage Foundation (530-544-7383). All three buildings are open to the public from now to September.

* Taylor Creek Visitor Center: We chain our bikes at the visitor center and take a stroll along the paved Rainbow Trail. As simple as this interpretive trail may be, it is also charming. Highlights include signage explaining the ecology of the area, a dramatic vista of Mount Tallac, open meadows, stands of aspen and the Stream Profile Chamber, an underground room that allows visitors to look into a stocked trout pond.

* Fallen Leaf Lake: The pothole-filled road that leads to the lake is a great place to bike -- just watch out for auto traffic. The mountain bikes we're on were made for off-road excursions through the open fields and stands of aspen.

Back in the car, we drive farther along Highway 89 to Camp Richardson (530-542-6550), where we find a lodge, campgrounds, bike-rental shop, general store, ice-cream parlor and marina with kayak rentals.

Turn right on Jameson Road, next to the trading post, and park by the Beacon Bar & Grill (530-541-0630). It's one of the hottest scenes on the South Shore, with live music on the beach deck. The summertime drill goes like this: Mix the sun with fun on the lake, work up a thirst and an appetite, knock back a couple, dig into a plate and have some laughs with the locals.

The Beacon bills itself as the home of the notorious rumrunner cocktail, a potent concoction served in slush form out of a machine and topped with dark rum. Sales figures are 5,000 on a weekend, about 300,000 for the summer, says assistant manager Destiny Lexa.

This cocktail is a cousin of the original rumrunner, which was born in the mid-'70s in the Florida Keys. The thing is, it's not the same color as a genuine rumrunner, which calls for blackberry brandy and grenadine as two of its ingredients. Oddly, the Beacon's is orange-colored but tastes good enough to order a second one.

Take a hike

Farther along 89, we spot the sign for the Mount Tallac trailhead (directly across the highway from the Baldwin Beach entrance). We turn left and follow the signs to the small parking lot.

We could spend most of the day hiking to the summit of the 9,735-foot-high peak, but we don't. Instead, we hike the uphill trail as far as it parallels Fallen Leaf Lake, and turn back when the trail drops to the right. In return, we get remarkable vistas of Fallen Leaf and Tahoe.

Highway 89 gets very curvy as it winds along the West Shore, heading to Tahoe City. During the summer, this stretch is one of the most traffic-congested around the lake. If you want to hike Eagle Falls, for instance, arrive early - like between 7 and 8 a.m. -- to find a parking spot.

We pass Emerald Bay Vista Point on the right and the Eagle Falls parking lot on the left and pull in to the Emerald Bay State Park lot. We climb atop the granite outcrop at the back of the lot for the best view of Emerald Bay and the tea house on Fannette Island.

The highlight is Vikingsholm (530-541-6498), a timber-and-stone Scandinavian-style home built in 1929 and now open for tours. We walk the mile down the switchback road to the beach and Vikingsholm, then wander for awhile along the Rubicon Trail, which parallels the shoreline.

A few miles farther along 89 is Sugar Pine Point State Park, home to the three-story Hellman-Ehrman Mansion (aka the Pine Lodge; 530-525-3345 or 530-525-3381), open for tours. This is another stone-and-beam structure, a "shingle-style Craftsman" built in 1903 as the summer home for San Francisco banker Isaias Hellman. At one time, it sat on a 2,021-acre cedar-and-pine-covered estate.

In nearby Tahoma is Angela's Pizzeria (7000 W. Lake Blvd., 530-525-4771), serving what we consider the best pie on the lake.

"We get very jammed in the summer," says Liz Frydl, who owns it with husband Joe. "To avoid the crowds, it's best to come after 1 and before 6."

Why is it so popular? Mostly because everything is made from scratch - the sauces, the meatballs, the dough "and even the garlic butter that goes on our garlic bread." Save room for a slice of cheesecake, new to the menu.

All hands on the deck

On the outskirts of Tahoe City is a 58-year-old lakeside landmark, the Sunnyside (1850 W. Lake Blvd., 530-583-7200), with 23 rooms for rent and a sprawling indoor-outdoor restaurant. The big attraction is the outdoor deck - Tahoe's largest - facing the lake and marina.

"We have tremendous boat traffic all summer, with boaters pulling up and coming in for lunch," says marketing manager Rick Brown. "It's what the lake is all about - sitting outside in the sun and looking out over the water. It's a party scene, but we're also very much a family restaurant."

Boaters also flock to two other lakefront restaurants for their outdoor decks and marina views - Jake's on the Lake in Tahoe City (780 N. Lake Blvd., 530-583-0188) and Gar Woods Grill & Pier in neighboring Carnelian Bay (5000 N. Lake Blvd., 530-546-3366).

Tahoe City is a happening place, similar to Truckee in that it overflows with specialty shops and restaurants. Check out the rustic, mountain-themed home furnishings at Mother Nature's Cabin Fever (551 N. Lake Blvd., 530-583-8143), the breakfasts and bloody marys at Rosie's Cafe (571 N. Lake Blvd., 530-583-8504) and the by-the-slice pie at Front Street Pizza Co. (205 N. Lake Blvd., 530-583-3770).

Ready to go with the flow

Near the intersection of highways 89 and 28 is the Truckee River Raft Company (185 River Road, 530-581-0123), where we ask about renting a raft and floating down the Truckee.

"It's a 4 1/2-mile, three-hour trip from here to the River Ranch, where we take the boats out of the water," general manager Kelly Norton tells us. "For $25 a person, we supply everything including a bus ride back."

Exactly when the floodgates will be opened to allow water from the lake to flow into the Truckee is still uncertain. It could be next weekend - or not. Without it, there's not enough depth in the Truckee for rafting.

Downstream, the River Ranch Lodge (Highway 89 at Alpine Meadows Road, 530-583-4264) is a sprawling property of stone, wood and glass with 19 rooms for rent, a fine-dining restaurant and a very comfortable bar and outdoor patio, both overlooking the Truckee River.

"Everybody says the same thing about this place - 'I've driven by it a hundred times, but I've never stopped,' " says office manager Jessica Eisenberg. "A good 60 percent of our daytime business is from the rafters. I mean hundreds of people."

Helping foster the party atmosphere are the six midweek live concerts planned for the summer.

Back on the road, we've turned off Highway 89 in Tahoe City and are on Highway 28 driving toward the North Shore - Kings Beach, Brockway, Incline Village. The area is known as "Old Tahoe" because of its rich, multilayered history and has hands-down the best views of the lake and its backdrop of mountains. Also, the hundreds of multimillion-dollar residences along side roads off Highway 28 are pretty cool to drive by, too.

But first, about a mile out of Tahoe City we take a right on Lake Forest Road and seek out the 70-year-old Bacchi's Inn (2905 Lake Forest Road, 530-583-3324), a favorite of locals.

"Italian Dinners," the sign says. "Mixed Drinks," the retro neon announces. Its old-fashioned menu is heavy on veal dishes, pasta and homey items such as chicken cacciatore and eggplant Parmigiano.

Next Sunday: We continue our journey around Lake Tahoe's 72-mile shoreline with a stop at the historic Cal-Neva Resort, a tour of the majestic Thunderbird Lodge near Incline Village, plus shopping, dining and adventuring in South Lake Tahoe.


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