Weekenders: Time Traveling in Lake Tahoe

Iconic blue waters and a colorful past await visitors.

By Tina Lassen

This grand lake has been captivating outsiders—pioneers, prospectors and American icons—for well over a century. “As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains…I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords,” an enamored local reporter named Samuel Clemens once wrote before turning to fiction and taking on the pen name Mark Twain.

Pivotal moments in history tend to occur around Tahoe’s shores­—moments that have shaped our country and yet never quite managed to upstage the natural beauty of this striking expanse of sapphire.

Westward Ho

A grand bronze monument rises among the sugar pines near Truckee, California, not far from Lake Tahoe’s northwestern shore. A family gazes westward with steely determination—or perhaps growing despair. The statue commemorates the 1846 Donner Party, the group of ill-fated settlers whose wagon train became trapped in deep Sierra snows.

The Donner Memorial State Park visitors’ center tells the grisly story of the Donners (about half the party of 83 perished; those who did make it allegedly resorted to cannibalism to survive) and the wave of western migration that would continue for decades.

Donner Pass Road (part of the Yuba Donner Scenic Byway) gives a sense of the challenge they faced. The byway roughly follows their westward trail, snaking upward through slabs of granite big as covered wagons. The route eventually became part of the nation’s first transcontinental highway. At Vista Point, you can spot the tracks of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, too.

Six miles west of the state park, the byway slips through a gap and crests 7,056-foot Donner Pass. California’s nascent ski industry took hold here when Hollywood investors such as Walt Disney financed the state’s first chairlift, in 1939, at the Sugar Bowl resort. Twenty years later, nearby Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Games, ensuring Lake Tahoe’s reputation for world-class winter sports. Today more than a dozen ski areas ring the lake. Larger ones, including Squaw and Heavenly, offer scenic gondola rides and mid-mountain activities, from dining to zip lining, in summer.

Riches of the Eastern Shore

On the heels of the pioneers came the miners. In 1859, prospectors tapped into a three-mile-long vein of silver and gold just east of Lake Tahoe. Over the next couple of decades, precious metals worth more than $400 million—that’s $11.3 billion in today’s dollars—were found in the Comstock Lode, making Virginia City, Nevada, one of the richest places on earth. Just 40 miles east of Lake Tahoe, Virginia City was the center of it all. Saloons and dance halls lined wagon roads smooth with blue mudlike waste pulled from the mines. One day someone decided to assay the mud—and discovered the city’s streets were paved with silver.

The asphalt Geiger Grade (Nevada Highway 341) climbs up to today’s Virginia City through pine-filled high desert frequented by wild mustangs. Look beyond the trinket shops to discover the town’s remarkably well-preserved mining heritage, including underground tours into the Chollar Mine and open-car train tours that chug past tailings (the by-products left from mining) and shaft houses (structures built on top of mine shafts to hold machinery). The 1876 Territorial Enterprise Building, where Sam Clemens wrote for Nevada’s first newspaper, is on C Street. By the time Clemens moved on from Virginia City, he had coined the pen name that would become known around the world.

The miners brought the loggers, who leveled the grand pine forests along Tahoe’s East Shore for wooden mine shafts and flumes. But the denuding of the forests for the silver mines had a silver lining: In the 1930s, a wealthy and reclusive banking heir named George Whittell Jr. purchased 40,000 acres of that “wasteland,” including more than 25 miles of lakeshore, saving it from the region’s rampant development in the second half of the 20th century. Now largely protected as national forest and Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, it’s once again resplendent with pine forest and largely pristine shore.

At the lake’s northeast corner, Sand Harbor—a broad curve of sand beyond which rise white boulders like whales from transparent waters—beckons. Farther south, a trail leads 1.5 miles downhill to Skunk Harbor, where an abandoned stone house fronts a hidden aquamarine cove. Miles of trails etch the east slope above the lake, one of the first areas where winter snows melt away; you can’t go wrong with a segment of the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Whittell, of course, picked the finest parcel for his estate. A tour starting in Incline Village gets you behind the gates of the otherwise inaccessible Thunderbird Lodge compound. The 75-minute tour gives you a sense of his personality and his home—replete with a 600-foot tunnel, an opium den, a mahogany yacht powered by aircraft engines, and tales of gambling with Rat Pack–era stars.

The Good Life

Even before Whittell, rail and steamship service ushered in an era of genteel Tahoe living. On Tahoe’s South Shore—beyond the casino hub of Stateline, Nevada, and the commercial center of South Lake Tahoe, California—a community of early lakefront estates hide among the pines at the Tallac Historic Site (on the California side).

This large swath of land along the lake remains an exceedingly peaceful and pleasant retreat, best explored on foot or by bike (rentals are available nearby). Trails connect with U.S. Forest Service lands and wander along the beach, wildflower meadows and wetlands of Taylor Creek. The Rainbow Trail descends belowground, where windows provide an underwater view of the stream, busy with beavers and kokanee salmon

More estates lie along Tahoe’s West Shore, none more famous than the Scandinavian-inspired Vikingsholm, a 1928 mansion along Emerald Bay. Yet some of Emerald Bay’s most impressive views come before you reach the mansion—where California Highway 89 threads along a narrow knife-edged ridge. Stop at Inspiration Point, which rises 600 feet above the bay, with rocky Fannette Island reflected in its still blue waters. It’s surely one of the fairest pictures the whole earth affords.

Chollar Mine

615 S. F St., Virginia City, NV; 775-847-0155; visitvirginiacitynv.com; adults, $10; children 5–12, $2

Donner Memorial State Park

12593 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, CA; 530-582-7892; parks.ca.gov; day passes, $10 a vehicle

Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park

2005 Nevada Hwy. 28, Incline Village, NV; 775-831-0494; parks.ca.gov; day passes, $10 a vehicle

Tahoe Rim Trail

Multiple trailheads in California and Nevada; 775-298-4485; tahoerimtrail.org

Tallac Historic Site

1 Heritage Way, South Lake Tahoe, CA; 530-541-5227; tahoeheritage.org

Thunderbird Lodge

5000 Nevada Hwy. 28, Incline Village, NV; 800-468-2463; thunderbirdtahoe.com; tours, $39; children 6–12, $19


Access is via a steep one-mile trail from the parking lot off California Hwy. 89 or a gentler 1.5-mile trail from Eagle Point Campground; 530-525-9530; vikingsholm.com; admission, $10


775-586-7000; skiheavenly.com; mountain activities, from $58

Squaw Valley

800-403-0206; squawvalley.com; mountain activities, $55 a day; children 5–17, $30 a day; children 4 and under, free

Bite American Tapas

The Spanish small plate gets an American twist. 907 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village, NV; 775-831-1000; bitetahoe.com; dinner for two, $60*

Riva Grill

Dungeness crab sandwiches and a view of Lake Tahoe. 900 Ski Run Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA: 530-542-2600; rivagrill.com; dinner for two, $100

Truckee Tavern and Grill

Fresh cuts of beef, lamb and pork expertly prepared without fanfare. 10118 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, CA; 530-587-3766; truckeetavern.com; dinner for two, $80

RCI® affiliated resorts near Lake Tahoe include:
Americana Village 0485

Conveniently set between Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River so you can explore both. 3845 Pioneer Trail, South Lake Tahoe, CA

Stardust-Tahoe 0515

Wind down after your outdoor adventures with one of the resort’s board games or movies. 4061 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA

Tahoe Seasons Resort 2627

These spacious units can hold as many as eight, allowing families to stick together. 3901 Saddle Rd., South Lake Tahoe, CA

Olympic Village Inn 0916

Take the complimentary bicycles out for a spin on the property’s scenic trails. 1909 Chamonix Place, Olympic Valley, CA

For member reviews and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts near Lake Tahoe include:
The Landing Lake Resort

Lake views and a location set back from the hustle of South Lake Tahoe make this boutique hotel a winning retreat. 4104 Lakeshore Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA; 850-700-5263; thelandingtahoe.com; doubles from $229 a night

Camp Richardson Historic Resort

Old Tahoe charm lives on in lodge rooms and cabins along Tahoe’s southwestern shore. 1900 Jameson Beach Rd., South Lake Tahoe, CA; 800-544-1801; camprichardson.com; doubles from $115 a night, cabins from $130 a night

  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Spring 2018