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Lake Tahoe: Winter Wonderland

Snowflakes are falling and winter is calling you to the Sierra's ultimate winter destination—Lake Tahoe.

  • Achomawi basket, Gatekeeper's Museum, Lake Tahoe, California, picture
    Photo caption
    The Gatekeeper’s Museum displays a 10-inch-high Achomawi basket.
  • Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California, picture
    Photo caption
    Emerald Bay is a Lake Tahoe jewel.
  • Gar Wood speedboat from 1939, Tahoe Maritime Museum, California, picture
    Photo caption
    A 1939 Gar Wood speedboat sparkles at the Tahoe Maritime Museum.
  • Gondola above Heavenly Mountain Resort, Lake Tahoe, California, picture
    Photo caption
    Gondolas glide high above Tahoe's Heavenly Mountain Resort.
  • Pancakes with Swedish toppings at Rosie's Cafe, Lake Tahoe, California, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: David H. Collier
    Photo caption
    Rosie's Cafe, in Tahoe City, Calif., serves pancakes with Swedish toppings.

Over 6,000 feet up and 1,600 feet deep, the northern Sierra’s Lake Tahoe is cold, clear, and sapphire blue, ringed by a tiara of snow-capped peaks. Its downhill resorts get over 400 inches of powder each winter, thrilling skiers, snowboarders, and visitors who simply come to toss a snowball. Pick any point along the 72-mile shoreline of North America’s largest alpine lake—each community has surprising treasures to explore.

You can snuggle with your sweetie and drink hot chocolate on an old-fashioned sleigh ride through the woods in South Lake Tahoe, race aboard the virtual speedboat at the Tahoe Maritime Museum, or rent snowshoes and pad along park trails at pretty spots all around the lake, where the pebbled beaches are hushed and the 100-foot green pines are decked out in epaulets of snow.

One of the largest villages on the North Shore, Tahoe City makes an especially popular home base for winter visitors with its proximity to several ski resorts, its snow-cleared sidewalks, and a concentration of shops, lodging, and bistros. For a cozy meal and local color all winter long, head to Rosie’s Cafe, a diner in the heart of town. It serves up comfort food like Swedish oatmeal pancakes and Yankee pot roast in a setting filled with regional artifacts, including a large collection of 19th-century wooden skis and spiky elk-horn chandeliers.

Down the street at North Tahoe Arts, you can buy locally made jewelry, bright-colored scarves, felted hats, and landscape paintings, or take an afternoon printmaking class. Craft and history buffs will also delight in the nearby Gatekeeper’s Museum (named for the lodging of the caretaker whose job was to control Truckee River levels). A 1,500-year-old cap woven out of willow, discovered by spelunkers in a western Nevada cave, is just one of the museum’s American Indian artifacts, along with more than 800 exquisite baskets, hats, cradle boards, and other objects from 85 different indigenous cultures west of the Rockies.

The tiniest basket on display, woven of willow by an early-20th-century Washoe master basket maker named Datsolalee, is “larger than a grain of sand and smaller than a drop of water,” says Marguerite Sprague, executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society. “Surely created by feel, not by sight.”

For outdoor fun, Tahoe’s North Shore hosts the annual SnowFest, a family celebration in early March that includes daily events for all ages, from broom hockey and ice cream eating to dog-pull races and professional ice sculpting.

Steinbeck’s Tahoe fish tales Generations of literary artists have sought inspiration and solace along Tahoe’s shores. From 1925 to 1928, when John Steinbeck was struggling to finish his first novel, Cup of Gold, he worked as a caretaker, technician, and tour guide at the Tahoe City fish hatchery. In the book Tahoe Beneath the Surface, historian Scott Lankford describes the moment Steinbeck got fired: “When his hatchery boss found the aspiring young author dead drunk in bed one morning, a bottle of gin in one hand, a pistol in the other—and blasting holes in the hatchery’s ceiling with a lazy nonchalance—Steinbeck lost his job on the spot.”

Steinbeck is long gone, of course. The historic hatchery reopened to the public in 2010 and is now home to the Eriksson Education Center, one of several facilities run by the UC-Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. Along with interactive ecology-themed games and exhibits, you can see native fish, such as the speckled dace and the Tahoe sucker, and learn how a recent population explosion of nonnative clams has fed the growth of algal muck that is threatening the lake’s trademark clarity.

In Incline Village, UC-Davis scientists also staff the Thomas J. Long Foundation Education Center, a little-known treasure on the campus of Sierra Nevada College. The center’s 3-D movie lets visitors fly over, around, and even deep into the lake. You’ll see how glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes, and an ancient 300-foot-high tsunami gave the 22-mile-long lake its shape and life.

On a winter’s eve, pick up cheap, fresh, and delicious tri-tip tacos or sweet, smoky Yucatán chicken at a local favorite, T’s Mesquite Rotisserie, and head to the Mark Twain Cultural Center to watch actor McAvoy Layne re-create the 19th-century author’s history and humor. (Bring your own meal; tables are available for stage-side dining.)

Twain’s link to Tahoe is genuine: Young Samuel Clemens first took the pen name Mark Twain in nearby Virginia City, Nev., where he lived and worked for three years in the 1860s. “The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine,” he writes about the lake in Roughing It. “Bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? It is the same the angels breathe.” For Twain and other legendary characters who found their way to Tahoe over the years, the Sierra frontier represented not just glorious scenery but also freedom from the cultural restraints of citified flatlands.

Sinatra tunnel tours in Crystal Bay In the 1960s that same license to play lured Lake Tahoe’s celebrity kingpin, Frank Sinatra, who for three years owned the Cal Neva Resort, once a bootlegger’s casino, hotel, and tavern conveniently straddling the California-Nevada state line. In those days the resort wiggled out of legal sanctions by putting gaming tables on wheels and pushing them across the room into the other state, as needed.

Today, the resort’s $10 Frank Sinatra Tunnel Tour gives life to that story and others. As the guide tells it, Sinatra’s Rat Pack pals, politicos, and investors (some of the latter barred from the casino by state officials for gaming infractions) likely crossed paths in the extensive underground tunnels they used to hide their comings and goings. Check out the Celebrity Showroom where Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. crooned, and step inside the lakeview cabin (near Sinatra’s) where Marilyn Monroe relaxed in her custom-made, heart-shaped bed.

As you head south along the western shore, the vibes downshift into the gentler rhythms of old-fashioned ski and sledding spots. At Granlibakken Conference Center & Lodge, $10 gets you a saucer rental and full-day access to sledding on a machine-groomed hill.

Another locals’ favorite, Homewood, midpoint on the lake’s west side, offers a full range of ski runs and snowboarding trails. Don’t miss the refurbished Tahoe Maritime Museum near the base of the Homewood chairlift. The gleaming mahogany hulls of the museum’s classic wooden speedboats—Gar Wood racers—are the glamour-pusses of the place, but the wall of vintage outboard motors is worth a close look, too. Sit in the cockpit of the virtual speedboat upstairs and run circles around sailboats on an imaginary lake. You’ll all but feel the wind in your hair.

Sleigh rides and paddlewheels Computer-generated vistas may be fun, but nothing beats Inspiration Point, a drive-up granite outcrop on the southwest shore, hundreds of feet above Lake Tahoe’s glittering gem—Emerald Bay. If you’d like to get out of the car for a while, Camp Richardson Mountain Sports Center, farther south, rents cross-country skis and a wide selection of snowshoes for exploring some six miles of well-marked, groomed trails, as well as easy paths along the lake’s edge. Or you can take a more leisurely approach to the outdoors with a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the trees at the Camp Richardson Corral.

After all that nature, the more densely populated South Lake Tahoe and neighboring Stateline can be a surprise, but there are homey treasures here, too. You can float above the hubbub in the popular gondola at Heavenly Mountain Resort or enjoy indoor sports and fitness activities at the South Lake Tahoe Recreation Center. Next to Heavenly Village, the South Shore’s 4-year-old interpretive center, Explore Tahoe: An Urban Trailhead, presents a changing array of interactive exhibits and films on local lore.

Reach deep into the South Shore’s past at the Lake Tahoe Museum (in winter, open only on Saturdays). Its trove of early photographs captures the time before roads, when steamers ferried locals and visitors to settlements along the lake’s edge. You can still take a paddlewheel cruise aboard the 400-passenger MS Dixie II, which leaves from the South Shore’s Zephyr Cove in Nevada and glides to Emerald Bay in California and back in a couple of hours, offering striking lake scenery, an audio history of the region, and one of the few wintertime views you’ll get of opulent Vikingsholm. This classic Scandinavian-style manor house (open for tours only in summer) was built on Emerald Bay at the end of the Roaring Twenties by the wealthy philanthropist Lora Josephine Knight and is now a state park.

It’s even easier to catch the nature-inspired rhythm of yesteryear with a slow drive up the wooded east side of the lake at sunset, through the narrow twin tunnels at Cave Rock, long a sacred spot for the Washoe tribe. Wherever you are when the sun begins to dip below the mountains, find a safe spot to pull over and stop. Turn to the lake and watch as sky, water, and snow-blanketed pines meld into a misty fog of frosty pink, lavender, and violet. Angels’ breath indeed; Mark Twain would feel right at home.

This article was first published in January 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.