When people think of Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border, many think of three things: gambling, stage shows and downhill skiing, a mini-Las Vegas of bright lights and round-the-clock action in high-mountain setting.
But there is another side to Lake Tahoe, just as wild as the gambling and the stage shows, but lesser known -- the "wild" of wilderness, wild that spells tranquillity rather than urban hustle, solitude and physical challenge rather than machine-generated excitement. It is this wildness that first drew tourists to the area many years ago, and for many, the dramatic mountain beauty remains the area's principal charm.
Lying at an elevation of 6,200 feet on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and surrounded on all sides by lesser ranges, Lake Tahoe is one of the largest alpine lakes in the world. With its crystal waters and dramatic mountain setting it has drawn praises at least since the time of Mark Twain, who described it as "the fairest picture the whole earth affords."
Twain, of course, was not known for understatement, but many other people seem to have agreed. By the turn of the century, the region was well established as a resort center and today, although much of the area no longer can claim the pristine beauty of 100 years ago, it draws tourists from all over the world, treating them to a mixture of ski resorts, casinos and splendid natural beauty.
In the middle of these attractions, like a king surrounded by his royal court, sits the lake itself, whose sapphire depths reach more than 1,500 feet below the surface, but whose water is so clear that in the shallows it almost seems not to be present at all. Deep blue and stunningly clear, Tahoe represents nearly 200 square miles of some of the clearest mountain waters to be found anywhere.
If the lake is the monarch, then the half-dozen state parks that surround it are its crown jewels. Strung out along the shore like so many gemstones, each one is different and memorable. The parks serve as camping bases for exploring the basin or as jumping-off spots for wilderness excursions, offering historic buildings or sandy beaches, grassy meadows, rocky shorelines, or simply the scent of pines in the warm sunshine.
For any visitor to the lake, a drive around its 60-mile shoreline is a must. It is a trip that can be completed in only a few hours on well-maintained highways, but it is also a journey that can absorb an entire week if you are so inclined.
Most people prefer to go clockwise around the lake so that the water and the highway pull-outs are always on their side of the road. Where you begin obviously will depend on where you spent the previous night, but a good starting point is Lake Tahoe State Park near the lake's northeast corner, near the junction with the highway to Reno.
Lake Tahoe State Park is the only state park on the Nevada side of the lake, but it is a spectacular one, offering several miles of undeveloped shoreline, with views across the lake at mountains towering nearly 4,000 feet above the water. It is a good place to visit both in the morning and the afternoon. Before noon, with the sun behind you, the mountains on the far side of the lake stand etched against the alpine blue of the sky; in the afternoon, the sun glints silver off the water, and the mountains loom in soft, misty silhouette.
Diagonally opposite from Lake Tahoe State Park, on the California side, lies the most famous of the Tahoe-area parks -- Emerald Bay. Combined with D. L. Bliss State Park, which lies adjacent to it, it is for many visitors the best of Tahoe's parks.
People in the Tahoe region brag that Emerald Bay is the most frequently photographed location in North America, and perhaps the world. Although it is doubtful that this claim is accurate -- it's hard to see how it could compete with Yosemite Valley or Old Faithful in Yellowstone -- Emerald Bay is undoubtedly the most popular photographic site in the Tahoe valley itself. A narrow gulf of water, breaking the otherwise smooth western shoreline of the lake, it was formed thousands of years go by a glacier spilling out of the rugged mountains behind it.
In many ways, the six miles of rugged shoreline contained in these two parks represents the epitome of the grandeur that is Tahoe's California shore. From the south, the road climbs steeply to the top of a knife-edged glacial moraine, offering views on one side down into the bay, and on the other into a smaller lake nestling at the foot of the mountains. The centerpiece of the park, however, comes shortly after this, as the road falls off the moraine to cross just above the head of Eagle Falls, offering photographers the chance to view sunrise reflected in the calm morning waters of the bay.