One hundred years ago, Lake Tahoe was the exclusive playground of people rich enough to pack their steamer trunks and take two trains and a steamboat to a shoreline resort. All that changed in 1936, when a road around the lake opened this vacation paradise to everyone with a car.
Start the loop along Highways 28, 50, or 89, which encircle the lake. If you begin at Tahoe City on the North Shore, be sure to view the baskets by local Washoe Indians at the Gatekeeper's Museum. Farther south, on Route 89, glimpse old-time Tahoe at Sugar Pine Point. There, the Tahoe Maritime Museum displays sleek wooden speedboats and you can tour the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, where a large staff once cosseted the family and guests during long, languid summers.
At D.L. Bliss State Park, the steep mile-long hike down to Vikingsholm, a Scandinavian-style house, gives views of Emerald Bay and the lake's only island, Fannette. South Lake Tahoe's casinos offer 24-hour gaming, but a sure bet is the view from Heavenly Valley's gondola. If you'd prefer to be on the water, paddle wheeler and catamaran tours are available at Zephyr Cove. The Nevada shoreline is relatively tranquil because playboy George Whittell, who owned most of it until 1969, never got around to developing it. To see his Thunderbird Lodge, reserve a boat or bus tour in Incline Village.
On the North Shore again, kayakers favor pristine Sand Harbor Beach, while families giddyap to Ponderosa Ranch, the set of Bonanza, the long-running TV Western. Heading south toward Tahoe City, you'll pass the Cal-Neva Resort, once a Sinatra haunt, and King's Beach, one of Tahoe's prettiest places to swim.
WHERE IT IS Highways 28, 50, and 89 in California and Nevada, forming a 72-mile loop.
WHEN TO GO Although skiing and gambling keep Tahoe alive in the winter, most of the area's attractions are open only in the summer.
WHAT'S THERE Views, views, views, whether from canoes or hot-air balloons, beaches or trails, to get you on, in, or above that deep blue water.
Illustration by Michael Klein
This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.