Mark Twain hated the name. To Twain, the word “Tahoe” was “insipid and spooney” and “as weak as soup for a sick infant.”
So great his passion, he threw his full heft into the move to name Lake Tahoe after Gov. John Bigler. But Twain was on the losing team. The name and the beauty Tahoe represents remain one and the same.
I spent a summer in Tahoe as a poor college student and landscaper. Last month, my wife and I took our three kids to experience the 1,600-foot-deep marvel but not before an exhausting and rewarding trek to the icons of northern California.
We arrived in San Francisco in time for lunch in Chinatown. My daughter Whitney scouted out the options and soon we climbed the steep sidewalks to House of Nanking, houseofnanking.com, featured on the Food Network. The food was great, but I made a rookie mistake. Sniffing the slightest whiff of hesitation with our order (we had just been given the menu), chef Peter Fang was instantly there to “order for us.”
With dizzying speed, dishes landed on the table faster than the money leaving my thinning wallet. Using the international symbol for “no more,” I asked for the check. Multiple to-go boxes in tow, we made it to our hotel and then to the ferry to Alcatraz. Note: Buy your tickets in advance or, ironically, you won’t be able to get onto the island where the prisoners could not get off. alcatraztickets.com
While I’d love to share our experience at Alcatraz, Muir Woods (the staggering Redwood forest just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge), or the timeless Yosemite, this trip was always about Tahoe. We arrived late afternoon.
“It looks like an ocean in the mountains,” my wife, Melissa, said to the dissonance of cobalt blue water set before the snow-capped peaks that ring the alpine lake. The same types of words used to describe the warm waters of a Turks and Caicos equally apply to the chilly waters of Tahoe.
From South Lake Tahoe, we covered the lake’s 24-mile length north to set up camp in the posh and exquisite multilevel chalet (courtesy of a good friend who apparently studied harder in school than I) that would be our home for the remainder.
From our Northstar resort setting, we drove the next morning around Lake Tahoe’s eastern shore to Emerald Bay. The bay is a postcard, a large inlet off the main lake. A steep climb down and we were soon paddleboarding and enjoying the trails along the shore.
The next day found most of us fishing at a depth of 250 feet for toothy Mackinaw trout. Captain Mike Peterson (calnevacharters.com) made sure we had a banner day in windy conditions.
The following day, we were on the water again. In the quaint hamlet of King’s Beach, we rented Jet Skis and sped out into the lake at 49.9 mph exactly. gotahoenorth.com
The next morning, we traveled 15 minutes north to Donner Lake. Knowing our American history, we made sure we ate before the trip. (donnersummithistoricalsociety.org) Donner Lake is a percentile of Tahoe’s size but fantastic for swimming, water sports and relaxation. We then followed the scenic Truckee river south to Tahoe City, where we shopped and finished the day with a local pub experience at the Bridgetender Tavern. (tahoebridgetender.com)
The sunsets, pine-infused air and mornings that begin with degrees in the 40s make Tahoe the perfect place to visit in mid- to late summer. With a heaviness, we packed the rental and took the last bag of trash to the bear-proofed dumpsters, only to find a bear in the less-protected recycling container. As the bear calmly enjoyed his late breakfast, we began the 7,000-foot descent toward San Francisco. And I wondered: Would Lake Bigler have been so blue?