Reflections on Summer in Lake Tahoe

When I was going to school Lake Tahoe was synonymous with skiing by day and poker by night. Even then the slopes and casinos were packed with Asians. It was the winter weekend getaway for young Bay-Area Asians, as it is today.

Gazing down at the Lake while shushing down Heavenly Valley’s slopes fixed it in my mind as perfectly blue, flat and freezing. Looking at it for too long from that height made me shudder at its cold sublime beauty dominating the white landscape. It invited as much interaction as a block of ice. For decades the Lake Tahoe basin stayed frozen in my memories as a place of deep snow, icy highways and smoke-filled casinos. Knowing that the Lake was 6,250 feet high and 1,650 feet deep ensured that I would not see it as a place in which to engage in any meaningful interaction with water.

It was a quarter century before I would even consider the idea of spending summer days in Tahoe. Two trips later I am convinced that Tahoe is the ideal short American vacation, superior to Las Vegas, Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.

Start with the buffets at South Lake Tahoe hotels. Harrah’s lays out an impressive nightly spread on its 18th floor for $18.95 with a dessert bar that rivals the best in Vegas. The Montbleu a half block up Lake Tahoe Boulevard offers weekend buffets with good desserts and a somewhat limited but ample selection of entrees for a bargain $13.95. The importance of desserts can’t be overstated for Tahoe vacationers. The kinds of activities that Tahoe encourages requires plenty of fuel.

One of my favorites is hiking up to Heather Lake from the Glen Alpine trailhead just above Fallen Leaf Lake. The net vertical gain of about 1,600 feet (total gain of over 2,300 feet) over a loop distance of about 11 miles ravishes the soul with breathtaking alpine views and ravages the body of 2,800 calories for a 160-pounder carrying a backpack.

Fallen Leaf Lake itself is a poem of stillness and cool shade that invites kayaking and maybe lunch at the rustic cafe overlooking the south end. And the best way to get there is by bike from one of the rental shops along Highway 89 just before Fallen Leaf Lake Road. Both activities must be fueled by more calories, justifying another buffet visit.

Despite my old misconceptions, Lake Tahoe itself is one of America’s great summer water playgrounds, rivaling Waikiki or Mission Bay. Jetskiing, parasailing, kayaking, windsurfing, waterskiing, paddle-boarding, parasurfing — it’s all there in abundance. The Lake is 22 miles long north-south by 12 miles wide east-west, providing ample square-mileage for water sports. It even has the kind of white sand beaches associated with tropical places. The nicest are along the northeast and north shores, like Sand Harbor and King’s Beach. We even went swimming, though it helps to have a good layer of body fat if you want to stay in the water for more than a half hour. The nearly crystal-clear water is cool, getting up to only 68-70 degrees in August and September. Frequent afternoon winds scallop the water with whitecaps and force parasailing operators to cancel many afternoon runs.

A Tahoe trip even offers good opportunities for whitewater kayaking and rafting, though not on the Lake itself. The Truckee River—fed by water from the Lake—and the American River accommodate some of the best whitewater action around. We did whitewater kayaking on the Middle Fork of the American River before getting to Tahoe, avoiding the indignity of being herded onto a big bus at Lake Tahoe City to be taken en masse to a raft put-in point.

Tahoe’s scenic beauty and sporting opportunities are intensively served by Lake Tahoe Basin’s huge number of hotels, timeshares, casinos, restaurants, markets and other amenities. The areas around the south end of the lake are built for tourists and occasional visitors while the north end has mostly houses and condos for permanent and seasonal residents. Nearby Carson City (35-minute drive from South Lake Tahoe) and Reno (80 minutes away) offer day-trip opportunities for a change of scenery. The staggering amount of recent shopping, entertainment and residential development in the Reno area, including the dazzling Legends at Sparks Marina outlets shopping mall, is seriously jeopardizing that city’s claim to being “The Biggest Little City in America”.

Possibly because of its Old-West heritage—what with being situated among the scenes of Nevada’s silver boom, California’s gold rush and Donner Party’s horrific misadventure—Lake Tahoe in summer feels like Americana in the same way as Williamsburg, Charleston, Savannah or New Orleans. Certainly Lake Tahoe’s July 4th fireworks as viewed from the roof of the Horizon Hotel is one of the most memorable I’ve ever seen. The only thing that was more memorable was next day’s endless caravan of cars snaking down from the Tahoe basin on their way home.

The many Asian Americans who have come to know and love Tahoe for its winter thrills have nurtured the same prejudices that I harbored for so long. I can’t think of any other reason why I see so few Asians there in the summer.