By Laura Bly
August 10, 2012
SAND HARBOR STATE PARK, Nev. – Three months at Lake Tahoe, a smitten Mark Twain writes in his 1862 travelogue Roughing It, "would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones."
This "noble sheet of blue water," Twain rhapsodizes, is so clear "the boat seemed to be floating in air," and the air is "bracing and delicious … the same the angels breathe."
A century and a half later, Tahoe's restorative mountain breezes and translucent water helped propel it past 14 challengers to win a USA TODAY reader survey as the "Best Lake in America."
"I call it the 'big blue pill,' because it cures whatever ails you," says Tahoe City resident Todd Smith, who came here as a ski bum and now runs a small-ship expedition company called AdventureSmith Explorations.
"I travel to some pretty spectacular places," Smith adds, "but the biggest benefit has been the joy of returning from a trip and being reminded that I live in the most beautiful place on Earth."
But from rafting trips so crowded they can evoke theme park bumper-boat rides to 45-minute midweek waits for a table at a lakefront restaurant, finding the "delicious solitude" Twain experienced during his sojourn can be elusive at a destination that draws 150,000 visitors on a peak summer day.
"One of the challenges of keeping Tahoe blue is that so many people come to admire and revel in the beauty of this lake. And therein lies part of the problem," says Tim Donahue, a guide and self-described "beach monkey" at Sand Harbor State Park. This East Shore gem is famous for its giant granite boulders, inviting, white-sand beach and gin-clear water — and, as I discover during a recent visit, a parking lot that fills by 11 a.m. during the summer.
The quest for clarity
Cradled in the Sierra Nevada mountains and straddling the California-Nevada border southwest of Reno, Tahoe lives up to its "Big Blue" reputation. The lake is 22 miles long by 12 miles wide, and it takes several hours to drive a 72-mile circuit that encompasses glitzy waterfront estates, lakeview condos, mom-and-pop resorts and high-rise casinos on the more populated South Shore.
Descending 1,645 feet, Tahoe is second only to Oregon's Crater Lake as the deepest in the USA. Though surface shoreline temperatures can warm to a relatively balmy 70 degrees by Labor Day, its frigid depths have been a rumored graveyard for everyone from Chinese railroad workers to Vegas mobsters.
On this cloudless, cool-enough-for-a-sweater August evening, however, the only creatures emerging from Tahoe's placid surface are a handful of crayfish. Lured with bacon and hot dogs by youngsters gathered on a pier at Sunnyside Resort, a West Shore landmark since the 1950s, the crawdads represent both a threat and an opportunity.
As an invasive species that is contributing to a decline in Tahoe's legendary clarity (visibility is down from about 100 feet during Twain's day to 70 feet today), the crayfish have proliferated in recent years. And this summer, they've expanded from tourists' fishing nets to local restaurant menus for the first time.
"Our motto is 'clarity by cuisine,' " says Tahoe Lobster Co. owner Fred Jackson. "The more you eat, the clearer the lake will get."
Many tourists choose to admire Tahoe from above, whether hiking or biking a segment of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail or catching a gondola at Heavenly or Squaw Valley ski resorts. The latter hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and is credited with catapulting Tahoe into skiers' consciousness; during the winter, the lake's seven major alpine resorts now draw more than a third of the destination's 3 million annual visitors.
To truly appreciate Twain's "noble sheet of blue water," however, you have to be on it — or in it.
You could take the easy route on a tour boat like the M.S. Dixie, a paddlewheeler that makes two-hour cruises from Zephyr Cove to one of the lake's marquee attractions, fjord-like Emerald Bay.
What the die-hards do
Peering down from the top deck as late-afternoon thunderclouds flirt with the southern horizon and Twain impersonator McAvoy Lane holds court in a spotless white suit, I could almost buy Twain's hyperbolic assertion that on Tahoe, "one can count the scales on a trout at a depth of a hundred and eighty feet."
For a glamorous perspective that evokes Tahoe's Roaring Twenties, there's a cocktail or dinner cruise on the Wild Goose II, a sleek, bright-as-a-mirror mahogany speedboat known as a "woodie."
And for a more athletic option, a growing number of companies offer stand-up paddleboarding, the newest and fastest-growing sport on the lake.
Among the most popular places to dip a paddle is Sand Harbor, particularly in the early mornings. Before Jet Skis and powerboats arrive to ruffle its glass-like calm, you can, as Twain did, "float on air" — accompanied by a squadron of seagulls to salute your navigational prowess.
Of course, skimming the surface of the "big blue pill" is one thing. Taking that pill is quite another.
Die-hards show up at the Gar Woods restaurant in Carnelian Bay for a Polar Bear Swim every March — average water temperature 40 degrees — and for the Easter "bottle hunt," an adults-only extravaganza that involves miniature bottles of booze and dives for a coveted "golden bottle" off Gar Woods' pier.
But even in August, when air temperatures climb to the 80s, Tahoe's nippy waters give most would-be swimmers pause. The key, Tahoe Adventure Company guide Robin McElroy tells me, is to skip the inch-by-inch option and plunge — decisively, joyfully — instead.
So, following the lead of a few teenagers who've clambored atop a 12-foot granite launching pad at Sand Harbor, I take her advice.
Yes, that cold-turkey leap leaves me breathless and reeling. But moments later, floating on air under a reliably blue summer sky, I'm remembering another line from Roughing It: "As (Tahoe) lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords."
Who could argue otherwise?