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Beach party: This summer, go jump in the lake

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- "This is the best job in the world," says Jan Hunt. "You're outdoors in a beautiful place and you don't get the problems that are common in the cities."

She pushes a windblown strand of brown hair out of her face and wheels the U.S. Forest Service-green Bronco XLT off Highway 89 and into the Pope Beach parking lot. We're on beach patrol with Hunt, slowly cruising the parking lots and beach areas on this perfect Tahoe day in late May, looking for anything that might be amiss. Hunt, who was raised in Sacramento, has been with the U.S. Forest Service for 10 years and has been a USFS law enforcement officer for the past six years. An automatic is holstered on her right hip. An upright shotgun is a short reach away.

"The job can be routine," she allows. "We look for boats that get too close to the beaches. We watch for campfires on the beaches. We look for teenagers drinking beer. We make sure dogs are on leashes and people know the camping rules."

Hunt, wearing a tan uniform and scanning the scene from behind a cool pair of shades, adds, "Yeah, we do end up with some problems in the summer. For instance, we get a lot of people who've been partying too much. But that's Tahoe, isn't it?"

The parking lots of the beach areas we cruise -- Pope, Kiva and Baldwin -- are nearly empty. There aren't many beachgoers this time of year, but that will soon change. "There won't be much parking from June to September, so get here early," Hunt says.

One problem the USFS is facing this summer is the consequence of a brimming lake: The beaches are shrinking. As Hunt puts it, "I think we'll have major overcrowding on the beaches this summer because of the high water level."

In the past two years, significant pieces of beachfront land have been undermined by waves and washed away. Many of the beaches visited for this story were partially underwater; some had vanished almost entirely, victims of erosion.

Lake Tahoe has 72 miles of shoreline. Only 15 miles of it are beaches open to the public. Still, that's more beach than you can handle. And what grand beach it is, changing in character from the white sands of Baldwin to the rocky coves of Sand Harbor; from the genteel atmosphere at Meeks Bay Resort to the raucous vibes at Kings Beach.

Up here at around 6,200 feet, with the heady atmosphere and endless blue-sky summer days, it's easy to forget that Lake Tahoe has a history -- a piece of which is connected to the beaches.

In 1859, silver was discovered in Virginia City, 20 miles east of the lake, and the rush was on. In brief, a fortune in gold and silver was mined out of the Comstock Lode. The forests of the Tahoe Basin were cut down to provide lumber to build boom towns and to shore up the 750 miles of tunnels being dug under and around Virginia City.

But let Tahoe historian Don Lane tell it. He's a supervisory recreation forester for the USFS and host of a local radio show, "Tales of Tahoe," broadcast over KOWL (1490 AM).

"The heat and pressure in the silver mines rotted the timber, so it had to be constantly replaced," he says, sitting in his office at USFS headquarters in South Shore. "The most convenient source of wood was the forests of Lake Tahoe. Most of the beaches probably got their start as landing areas for timber operations. They were sandy areas without rocky shoreline. Timber was boomed across the lake, yarded up at different beaches on the shore and pulled to the saw mills by horses and mules and, later, hauled by trains. This went on until the mines played out, around the mid-1890s. By then, two-thirds of the Tahoe Basin had been stripped of trees, enough lumber to build about 5 million homes.

"If there is one good legacy to come from the logging years, it's that the shoreline didn't get subdivided," Lane says. "Five logging companies owned two-thirds of the lake shore and they wouldn't sell it. The irony is that we have beautiful beaches today, thanks to the same companies that cut down the forests."

At the time, much of Lake Tahoe looked like a burned-out logging camp, Lane says, but the lake itself remained a jewel. "Eventually, a fledgling tourist industry started to develop. And that's what saved Tahoe -- tourism. It became a playground."

One thing about Tahoe beaches: They all have idyllic views. Another thing: They're not all created equal. We sampled a bunch of them and, sorry to say, some have faded in recent years. Perhaps the current ongoing series of environmental conferences will help.

Meanwhile, here is a list of personal favorites. We'll start at the Y, the intersection of Highways 50 and 89, and head north on Highway 89. Expect to pay a use fee ($3 to $5) at most of these beaches.

Note: The first four beaches mentioned -- Pope, Jameson, Kiva and Baldwin -- are geographically one long beach. That is, start walking from Pope and you pass through the other three.

Pope Beach:It's a wide, sandy beach about two miles from the Y. The attraction is the shade from the fir trees, which grow within 30 feet of the shoreline.

Pope is most popular with families who want to picnic at tables in the woods and venture onto the beach for bursts of sunning and swimming. The parking lots are large, but fill quickly. There are restrooms and barbecue grills.

Jameson Beach:This is the beach at historicCamp Richardson(founded in 1926), next to the Beacon bar and grill. Adjacent to the beach is the Tallac Historic Site, a compound of three turn-of-the-century mansions. The site is registered on the National Registry of Historic Places and is well worth a visit.

This isn't much of a swimming beach, but it's a heck of a place to hang and is popular with the locals. Little wonder: Each afternoon, the Beacon cranks up the level with live bands (blues, rock, jazz and reggae) and the rumrunners flow like ... well, water. (P.S.: The original rumrunner is a rum and blackberry brandy-based cocktail of legendary properties, but let's get it straight: The drink was born at a small bar in the Florida Keys in the 1970s and not at Lake Tahoe -- despite popular misconception.) The hardbodies gather here for beach volleyball, barbecues and mutual admiration. The marina rents all the water toys: jet skis, boats, kayaks, canoes and the like.

Kiva Beach: Known as the "dog beach" because leashed dogs are allowed, it's a narrow strip more interesting for its surroundings than for itself. Mount Tallac and an alpine meadow are the backdrop, and Heavenly ski resort can be seen in the distance. A trail from the parking lot leads to the Tallac Historic Site.

Taylor Creek, which originates at Fallen Leaf Lake and separates Kiva from next-door Baldwin Beach, pours into Lake Tahoe at the end of Kiva. In late May, it was about eight feet deep and 30 feet wide. It's plain fun to plunge in.

Frankly, the only reason Kiva is mentioned here is for the benefit of dog owners who can't leave their pets at home. We counted 14 unleashed dogs romping on 100 yards of beach -- barking, chasing Frisbees and depositing land mines. Watch your step.

Baldwin Beach:This is the nicest beach on the South Shore, attracting a mixed crowd of locals and tourists. One drawback: No shade, so bring shelter.

Baldwin gets plenty of sun. The white-sand bottom seems to reflect the sunlight, making the water relatively warm -- or maybe "seemingly less cold." Air mattresses and rafts dot the water during summer, and kids with masks and snorkels bob up and down everywhere. So do flocks of Canada geese and seagulls. Feed them at your own peril (the birds, that is).

Choose from two parking lots. The restrooms are usually very clean.

Lester and Calawee Cove beaches:Moving up the West Shore now -- still on Highway 50 -- to the 1,237-acre D.L. Bliss State Park (a few miles past Emerald Bay). It's home to two pine-lined beaches, which physically are one beach separated by some shrubs and rocks. The colors of the water are striking, moving from seafoam to azure to indigo, depending on the water depth.

Each beach has its own personality. Lester is a flat, sandy area where families picnic and play volleyball, and the wee ones amuse themselves for hours with nothing more than a plastic pail and a shovel.

Next door is Calawee, which is more like a cove bordered on one side by a rocky cliff. It's a good one for snorkeling. In fact, it's popular with scuba divers because of the Rubicon Wall. Dive down 70 feet or so and you come to a granite shelf; look over the edge and the world turns navy blue and black. That's because the bottom drops off more than 1,000 feet.

Meeks Bay Beach:Really two beaches in one, separated by a marina. One beach is overseen by the USFS, the other by Meeks Bay Resort.

Meeks Bay public beach is small but well-kept and popular with the locals. The shady parking lot is a bonus in summer. This is the place to launch a canoe or kayak and paddle around the surrounding rocky shoreline.

Meeks Bay Resort beach is clean, groomed and mellow. The resort opened in 1921 and is well-versed in catering to families and an older clientele. The leisurely afternoon barbecues and genteel manner of the staff and guests (there is lodging) hearken to the early years of Tahoe resorts.

While some beaches are notorious for getting roughed-up by afternoon winds, this one always seems to be calm.

Lake Forest Beach:The Tahoe City area gets crowded and hot in summer, making this tiny oasis a welcomed respite. Though it's little more than a shady grove of quaking aspens, a few picnic tables and a handful of sand, it calms the nerves and soothes the soul.

Just outside of Tahoe City -- we've gone from Highway 89 to Highway 28 -- turn right onto Lake Forest Road and right again on Bristlecone.

Kings Beach:Anything is possible on the beach of this busy little city, perched at the very north end of the lake. In summer, it's a melting pot of cultures. It's noisy, crowded and sometimes circus-like -- and way interesting.

The large, sandy beach doesn't offer shade, but the neighboring park is filled with trees, and has a playground and basketball court. A plaque in the park explains why Lake Tahoe was officially known as Lake Bigler from 1870 to 1945. Hmmmm.

Kings Beach Aqua Sports rents all the water toys from the beach. Of special interest are the Aqua Cycles, oversized tricycle-looking craft that could have been props in "The Flintstones."

Hidden beaches: Tahoe's east shore is arguably the most scenic of the four. Giant granite boulders the size of cars, quiet little coves, stands of blue-green fir trees and clear, aquamarine water make it irresistible. Problem is, most of this shoreline is inaccessible unless you have a house or condo on it, or are willing to go to some trouble to get to it. But you can get to it, by kayaking there or by parking and taking a little hike.

This is not ideal, but it works: Along Highway 28 between Incline Village and a little south of Sand Harbor are a few undeveloped roadside shoulders where you can pull off and park. The plan is to walk downhill through the trees and manzanita to the shoreline. The steepness of the hillsides varies, however. How adventurous are you? Park, scout it out and decide for yourself. Some of these areas are clothing-optional, so don't go if you're offended by nudity.

We stopped by recently to see if the "boulder beaches" are still as dramatic as they were a few years back. The answer is yes. The answer is also "yes" to the question, "Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, should most people remain dressed when strangers are present?"

Sand Harbor:This beach is idyllic, a mix of flat white sand, rocky coves, inspiring views and boulders to lie on and dive off. The public facilities include showers.

The large cove portion of Sand Harbor is popular with scuba divers, though it seems that most of them spend the day in the parking lot talking with other scuba divers, all of them in various stages of getting into or out of their wetsuits.

Sand Harbor is home to the annual Shakespeare Festival, Aug. 1-31. Watching a play as the sun sets over the lake, with the Sierra Nevada as a backdrop, is an experience. Details: (800) 747-4697.

Zephyr Cove Resort:Another beach with local history and a split personality. Zephyr Cove -- named for the afternoon winds that sometimes blow off the lake -- was a camping and trading site for pioneers in the 1860s. Now it's a hot spot for Tahoe's best beach volleyball players, casino showgirls and cocktail waitresses, and hardbodies in general. This group gathers on the south side of the pier/bar/restaurant, the focal point of the beach. It's always party time here.

Things are less frenetic on the north side of the compound, traditionally the gathering place for families. But, again, the lake's high water level has the resort management concerned that there won't be much of a north beach this summer.

All the beach toys are for rent here. Or you can cruise on the M.S. Dixie II paddlewheeler or the Woodwind, a 41-foot sailing vessel.

Nevada Beach: Highway 28 takes us back to Highway 50, shortly past Spooner Lake. If it's hot and crowded coming into Stateline and the casinos, look for Elk Point Road, across from the Round Hill shopping center. Make a right turn for Nevada Beach, a wide, sandy strip dotted with pine trees, picnic tables and grills. It's out of the fray, yet close to the action, a place for a picnic and a swim and some time out.