Sacramentans love Lake Tahoe: Just witness the cars cruising up the hill on any weekend morning -- and the exodus in reverse at the end of the day.
It's that old "close to" phenomenon at work again -- as in, Sacramento is close to Tahoe, San Francisco, Napa, etc. And it means that most of us are much more familiar with the near -- i.e., California -- side of the lake than we are with the far -- Nevada -- side.
That certainly was the case with me. Sure, I'd driven around the lake a time or 10 and spent ski weekends at various California-side resorts. But much of the Nevada shore beyond the Stateline casinos remained terra incognita until I devoted a December weekend to exploring.
The first thing I learned: It's a mistake to associate wintertime Tahoe only with snow sports. While Nevada's Diamond Peak and Mt. Rose ski areas offer great terrain, reasonable lift prices and a relaxed, insider's ambience (not to mention the occasional Elvis sighting), there's a lot to be soaked up on the sidelines, as well.
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The development of Lake Tahoe as a tourist destination began around the turn of the 20th century, after the gold, silver and timber booms had played out.The state line bisecting the lake gave the lion's share of resources to California, which came out with 42 miles of shoreline, compared with Nevada's 29.
Then as now, money knew no boundaries. Communities of summer homes and resorts, some of them quite grand, sprung up all around the lake. Today few vestiges of old-time Tahoe remain, but those that do inspire a great deal of nostalgia.
Back in time at Zephyr Cove
One such landmark is Zephyr Cove Resort, named for the westerly winds that sweep Lake Tahoe on many an afternoon. At the southeast corner of the lake on U.S. Forest Service lands, Zephyr is managed under special-use permit by Amarak, a concessionaire with experience in many park settings.
With its milelong beach, bustling marina, popular Sunset Bar, well-regarded restaurant and 193-space campground, Zephyr Cove can be considered the east-shore equivalent of the west shore's Camp Richardson. But if summers here are nonstop busy, winters are glacial by comparison -- which is why the resort offers some of the best midweek deals at the lake. It also operates the nation's largest snowmobile center, where visitors zoom off on guided tours that reward with awesome views from ridgelines along the Tahoe Rim Trail.
My visit was too early in the season for that, so I snuggled into one of the 28 log cabins arrayed along a loop drive skirting the beach.
"Cozy" is operative word here. Built in the early 1900s, the scrupulously maintained cabins predate the age of SUVs and families traveling with everything but the kitchen sink. The largest structure sleeps 10, but the majority are one-bedroom affairs with kitchenettes. Recent renovations have spruced up the interiors, to inviting effect, with rustic, peeled-pine furniture and colorful textile accents.
The best thing about staying at Zephyr in winter is that it puts you smack on a long, empty beach. It's easy, on a morning stroll along the frost-crusted strand, to get a feel for the wilderness that Tahoe once was.
I was standing near the water, contemplating scenery that appeared almost black-and-white under a lead-gray sky, when the unmistakable silhouette of a bald eagle caught my eye.
"We see a few of 'em around here," Jim Biller confirmed later in the day.
Biller captains the M.S. Dixie II paddlewheeler, most recent in a line of Tahoe excursion boats dating back to the SS Tahoe, a familiar sight at Zephyr Cove from 1896 to 1935. The original Dixie operated out of Zephyr Cove from 1972 until 1993, when it was replaced by the current vessel.
The view from the water
I took a lunch cruise on the Dixie II because, well, it's a classic tourist thing to do at Tahoe.
The recently renovated, 550-passenger vessel is the larger of two paddlewheel excursion boats now operating on the lake. Both it and its former competitor, the Tahoe Queen, since summer have been sailing under the Aramark banner.
"We go out five times a day in summer -- it's a busy boat," Biller said from the bridge, where he uses an old-fashioned wooden ship's wheel to steer the 151-foot paddlewheeler.
In winter, the Dixie's schedule is reduced to once-daily Emerald Bay cruises and Saturday dinner-dance events. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow can cancel a sailing.
"Visibility won't shut us down, but wind will," said Biller, casting a practiced eye at the sky. "I've been out here when you can't see at all."
On this two-hour trip across the lake, passengers are mostly Japanese tourists and multigenerational families enjoying a weekend getaway. Visibility is minimal. The bar and kitchen do a brisk business in $6 rum runners, $5.75 plates of fish tacos and $4 bowls of chili. An educational narrative about the lake's history and characteristics plays over the public address system.
As the boat enters Emerald Bay, Tahoe's most photographed cove, it begins to snow. The kids on board go wild, running outside to catch flakes on their tongues and examine the crystals that alight on their gloves. Suddenly all have smiles on their face -and cameras in their hands. The Dixie II has accomplished its mission.
Into hot water at Walley's
If a cruise on the Dixie II ranks as one of the more obvious diversions at Tahoe, David Walley's Resort, Hot Springs and Spa, 17 miles from South Lake Tahoe via Kingsbury Grade (State Road 207) surely is one of the more obscure.
Travelers have been getting up to their necks in hot water here since 1862, when Harriett and David Walley built a $100,000 spa with 11 baths, a ballroom and gardens at the edge of a wetland laced with streams deep enough for guests to paddle about in rowboats.
Water levels in Nevada's Carson Valley have dropped since then, and the original complex long ago burned down. But the geothermal springs that bubble up from a fault at the eastern base of the Sierra massif still offer respite for weary travelers.
Management of the historic property has changed in recent years. The new proprietor, Quintus, has attractively overhauled the resort's aging swimming pool and seven mineral hot-springs tubs. As many as three weddings a day are held on the property, which includes an island with elaborate gazebo. The resort restaurant, DW's Dinner House, has an outstanding reputation to go along with views of the tawny desert outside.
But the biggest change at Walley's is the addition, over the past three years, of 115 time-share condominiums. These can be rented for overnight stays, as can two rustic cabins dating from the 19th century.
"We're about six years into a 10-year project," assistant resort manager Juane Rowland said of the grand plan for Walley's. "When we're done, we'll have nearly 400 condominiums on the property."
The good news for skiers, hikers or other casual visitors is that Walley's still is open to day guests. A $20 pass buys unlimited use of the pool, soaking tubs and fitness room. The only danger is in getting so relaxed you won't be able to wobble back to your car.
Don't leave without strolling to the end of the parking lot for a look at the old wagon beds parked on a knoll overlooking the steamy spring that feeds the resort. An inconspicuous Pony Express Trail marker here bears a placard commemorating the era: "Walleys was considered a natural curiosity by the emigrants and recorded in their journals," it reads.
If only those wagons could talk ...
Genoa: A pioneer-era gem
It would be unthinkable to visit Walley's without making a short sidetrip to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Genoa, two miles away. Nevada's oldest continuously occupied community, Genoa was settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1850s and still has enough weathered, false-fronted buildings to bring John Wayne galloping to mind.
This is the kind of burg you can breeze through in a minute -- or get hung up in for hours. Quaff a brew at the Genoa Bar, oldest saloon in Nevada; comb the next-door Antiques shop for dusty treasures; have dinner at La Ferme, a fine French restaurant in a former house of ill repute. Once you get started poking around, leaving can be hard to do. But you don't have to: the 11-room Legend Country Inn offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations in a new, two-story building right in the center of town.
The lucky Lady of the Lake
Back up the hill, I moved from the south end of Tahoe's Nevada shoreline to its northern extreme, just for a change in perspective. My base this time was another hotel steeped in history: the Cal Neva Resort and Casino at Crystal Bay.
Many places at Tahoe whisper of intrigue, but this venerable establishment along North Shore's modest casino strip harbors more than its fair share of spice. Frank Sinatra used to own the place. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Juliet Prowse and Marilyn Monroe, among others, performed in the Celebrity Showroom back in the the resort's 1950s heyday. Politicians, Hollywood stars -- and mobsters, if you buy the rumors -- played at the "Lady of the Lake's" tables and in the private cottages overlooking the water.
These days, Cal Neva's handsome Celebrity Showroom is reserved for special events, and the casino is smaller than it used to be. But it's still a classy place to gamble or come for a drink. The handsome Circle Bar is one of few casino libation stations anywhere to offer views of the outdoors.
The adjacent Indian Room, which straddles the state line (a gold-and-silver stripe follows the survey mark down the middle of the floor) is one of Tahoe's most classic settings. A natural boulder fireplace, antler chandeliers, a wall of historic photos, paintings of the lake and cozy seating areas create a warm, nostalgic feeling. You've gotta love it -- even without the ghosts of Marilyn and Frank swirling around.
Cal Neva's celebrity cottages are still here, though not all are open in winter. A more convenient hotel tower features hallways with mirrored ceilings -- a decidedly dated look, but not out of keeping with the period feel of place. Recently renovated guest rooms have been freshened with light colors and wickedly luxurious bed linens. A bonus: No other structure at Tahoe is close enough or high enough to offer vistas that compare with the eagle-eye panoramas of the lake to be had from Cal Neva's guest-room balconies.
Ski till you drop
Crystal Bay is an especially advantageous location for skiers: Just up the road, on the slopes above Incline Village, Diamond Peak offers 30 runs (one of them 2.5 miles long), glade skiing -- and, for daredevils, a superpipe.
Locals and visitors in the know gather on Saturdays for "Last Tracks," a $20 wine-and-appetizer event at the mid-mountain Snowflake Lodge, with after-hours ski privileges to the base area.
Tahoe's other Nevada-side ski resort is Mt. Rose, a favorite haunt of locals since before World War II and the proving ground of many a champion skier. Perched alongside the outrageously scenic Mt. Rose Highway (State Road 431), which threads a hairpin path between Tahoe and Reno, Rose boasts the highest elevation of any Tahoe ski area. Conditions at the 9,700-foot summit are reliably good even when the snow has turned to mush elsewhere around the lake.
"We've got some of the best learning terrain at Tahoe, but 40 percent of it is rated expert, and that scares some people," spokesman Mike Pierce says of the layout.
Advanced skiers love it, of course. And intermediates can't get enough of the high-speed, six-person lift that travels 1,440 vertical feet to the summit in just 3.5 minutes. Skiing off this technological wonder is akin to running laps on a track: you barely catch your breath before taking off again.
Laid-back Mt. Rose is definitely a blue jeans kind of place -- which is not to say it can't be cutting edge at the same time. What other resort, after all, would dare to host an annual Elvis Day?
"It's developed a cult following," Pierce says of the January event. "We have every employee dressed like Elvis, Elvis up on the roof dancing, Elvis music playing, lots of Elvi skiing. This is our eighth year -- it's turned into quite something."
Hmm. Sounds like another one of those things worth putting on the calendar for a future trip to the Far Side.
The Bee's Janet Fullwood can be reached at (916) 321-1148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.