Lake Tahoe: The Sapphire Jewel of the Sierra

Mark Twain once called Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

It’s no wonder millions of visitors from around the world come every year. Lake Tahoe’s mesmerizing sapphire lake, surrounded by soaring alpine snow-capped mountains, provides unforgettable postcard-perfect memories. Sporting 72 miles of pristine shoreline hemming in 190-plus square miles of brisk, crystal-clear opaline water, North America’s largest alpine lake and second deepest reaches unbelievable depths of 1,645 feet.

During summer, the upper lake can warm up to 68 degrees, but temperatures remain a constant 39 degrees below 600 feet. Due to its depth, the lake never freezes with winter temperatures consistent at 39 degrees. The crystal-clear lake water is almost 99 percent pure—the same as distilled water. Its clarity is so amazing, a white plate can be seen 75-feet below the surface on a clear day.

Blessed with 300 days of sunshine a year and iconic “bluebird” skies, outdoor enthusiasts love coming here, regardless of the time of year. Snowfall’s been recorded every month on its peaks, especially those near the 11,000-foot elevation.

Geographically divided into Tahoe North and South, the picturesque lake straddles California and Nevada with the Silver State’s one-third far less developed. While Tahoe North is more rustic with mountain lake charm, the South is where the action is. But don’t let that fool you as the South Tahoe region features plenty of its own picturesque awe-inspiring sites.

The 70-mile loop around the lake would take about two hours to drive, but that can easily be doubled due to the “honey, stop the car moments” which happen quite frequently due to jaw-dropping views around every bend.

Where to Stay

Accommodations in Lake Tahoe range from rustic cabins to luxurious spa resorts. With so many choices, visitors can easily find a place that fits their getaway preference. Our favorite for its spacious accommodations and home-away-from-home amenities is the magnificent Marriott Grand Residence Club, Lake Tahoe.

Located at the base of Heavenly Mountain in South Lake Tahoe, resort offerings range from beautifully-appointed fully-furnished studios to spacious two-bedroom, two-bath villas. A large heated outdoor pool with two bubbling spas is nestled at the base of the picturesque mountains.

Location means everything with Heavenly Village’s boutiques, stores, restaurants and high-speed gondola just mere steps away from the resort.

Where to Play

Lake Tahoe is an adventure-lovers paradise. The lake provides opportunities for kayaking, stand-up paddling, sailing, rafting, waterskiing, wakeboarding and parasailing. Scenic cruises are an ideal introduction to the area, either on the iconic paddle-wheelers or on smaller boat excursions.

We loved the Bleu Wave, a 70-foot yacht that takes passengers on a two-hour lunch cruise from Tahoe Keys Marina to the stunning waters of Emerald Bay. An oasis of shimmering greens, turquoise and blues against the strikingly magnificent mountains framing the lake’s west shore, Emerald Bay is the crown jewel of Lake Tahoe and is by far its most photographed site.

Kayakers love Sand Harbor and that included our group of four. There’s nothing like exploring the area from the water. Gently sloping beaches, some of Tahoe’s most scenic, descend into crystal-clear water surrounded by massive boulders and stunning rock formations. Here is where kayakers can enjoy some of the most impressive panoramic views of the region.

Beyond the lake, hiking and biking trails abound with options for everyone. Super hikers rave about the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile long path encircling the lake that can be accessed from 10 different points along the route.

One of our favorite hikes in the area is Eagle Lake Trail for its dynamic forest and towering vistas of Lake Tahoe’s high country. The 1.8-mile moderate but rocky hike rewards hikers with a stunning waterfall and then a pristine alpine lake nestled within the mountains.

Site of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, Squaw Valley in North Tahoe is one of the world’s finest year-round ski resorts. Skiers and snow tubers can choose between six different peaks ranging from beginner to advanced. The Nordic Center has 400 acres of groomed trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. For those visiting during non-ski season, High Camp, accessible via cable car, features year-round ice skating at its Olympic Ice Pavilion.

With nearly as many links as ski resorts, Lake Tahoe is a golfer’s paradise. Courses rim lake’s edges snaking through glacially-carved valleys and meandering through groves of conifers. Of note is that even at an elevation of 6,000-feet, a golf ball will travel 25 yards further on a drive. That alone should put a smile on a golfer’s face.

Where to Dine and Drink

There’s certainly no shortage of dining options in Lake Tahoe, with choices ranging from casual to fancy-pants four-star restaurants. Most can be found in Tahoe’s South Shore, where the food and drink scene definitely flourishes. Like most mountain towns, eateries lean much more to the casual.

Craft brew aficionados will love tapping into Lake Tahoe’s brewery offerings. South Lake Brewing Company greets patrons with wafting scents of hops and fermentation as their craft beers are brewed on-site. The sprawling beer-makers funky industrial-inspired interior features a tasting room complete with ping-pong, cornhole and other games. While there’s no restaurant on-site, weekends bring on-site food vendors serving the best bar grubs to accompany the brewer’s impressive collection of beers.

Located in the the heart of Heavenly Village, Base Camp Pizza serves up top-notch gourmet pies accompanied by live music on the patio. Our concierge recommended this pizza place, and boy was this a treat on a chilly autumn evening. 11 pizzas on the menu feature everything from Classic Margherita to Big Mountain (with loaded meat) and Thai Chicken Curry. Patrons can even create their own pizza from a wide variety of toppings.

Our favorite place to dine in North Lake Tahoe is Sunnyside Restaurant and Lodge. The casual elegant lakeside dining restaurant provides breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe from both indoors and its magnificent outside deck. Menu items include a variety of selections from mouthwatering appetizers and burgers known as “the best in town” to entrees featuring chicken, steak, fish, and yes, even elk.

But save room for their famous Hula Pie, a shareable frozen concoction with a chocolate cookie crust, macadamia nut ice cream, hot fudge, toasted mac nuts and whipped cream. Yes, it’s big enough to share, though you won’t want to.

As with any destination that ends up being one of those “heaven on earth” places, one visit here is never enough. We know we’ll be back; the hardest part is deciding which season we want to experience next.

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