LAKE TAHOE – THE SIERRA NEVADA’S SAPPHIRE LAKE
By Doc Shaw, 2011
It’s Sunday morning, May 22nd and the world did not end yesterday as predicted and I was a little disappointed. So much for the eternity or at least next week off. Its 8:30… my eyes were open, the cat was purring in my face and reminding me with her claws gently pressed against my chest that breakfast had not yet been served.
Mark Brown, a good friend of 28 years and Mayor of Truckee, California phoned shortly after I had opened my eyes to see if I was up for a couple of hours of riding-therapy around Lake Tahoe. It took me close to a ¼ second to conclude that I could work in the yard next weekend and finish up an article tomorrow. So, I conceded that a ride around Lake Tahoe would definitely be therapeutic and arranged to meet at his office by 10:00.
Through the window, I could see this was the start of a nice Sunday and the idea of a ride was enough to first get me vertical, feed the cat and brew a cup of coffee. With my bike warming up, I kissed my wife, throttled up my Honda VTX 1800 and soon merged onto Interstate 80 toward Truckee 30 miles to the west of Reno. For a change, the weatherman got it right. The air was still cool at 60 degrees, but the sky was clear with a few cotton white cumulus overhead. Crossing the Nevada-California State line, I noticed that I-80 no longer had the confusing array of construction cones guiding travelers along miles of interstate. Caltrans had recently completed renovation of the four lanes I-80 corridor and surprisingly the road work that the California taxpayers had invested over the last couple of years was money well spent. I-80 was simply a smooth super slab with all the curves and road camber nicely engineered for motorcyclists as well as more boring forms of transportation.
The first fifteen miles along I-80 west out of Reno parallels the picturesque Truckee river. Smooth green hills rise sharply upward to the south of the river while impressive moonlike outcroppings rise out of the north side of the valley. This ancient geology can only be appreciated from two wheels or a top down convertible. Traffic was light at half past nine and despite the failure of the rapture to materialize at the predicted hour, all was right with the world as the miles of asphalt passed smoothly under my wheels.
I met Mayor Mark Brown a few minutes past ten and enjoyed another cup of coffee as we planned out our ride for the day. Mark and I have always been consistent about taking a few minutes for a pre-ride conversation. Many riders dismiss a pre-ride briefing as unnecessary waste of time. However, over the years, I have found, that if I omit a pre-ride discussion, even a short one, I start the ride a bit out of synch with my riding partner. Never the case with Mark. Maybe it’s like rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot, but it’s my way of developing the rhythm of the ride before engaging first gear and letting out the clutch. We had decided to travel Lake Tahoe clockwise along the lake shore road and stretch our legs at Sand Harbor, followed by lunch at the Fresh Ketch, one of my favorite restaurants on the California side of South Lake Tahoe. After lunch, we would continue on to Emerald Bay and back to Truckee along Hwy 89. Mark and I hadn’t talked in a few weeks, so the 85 mile ride on what promised to be a beautiful spring day offered both great alpine scenery and plenty of time to catch up. I would lead and the Mayor would be my wingman. His quiet red 1100 RT BMW had proven itself in the past to have the oomph to ride along side my not so quiet Honda cruiser. Leaving the Mayor’s office, we made good time rolling along Hwy 267. As we passed the Truckee City limit, we enter a lush open meadow with Martis Lake Dam as a backdrop against the mountains. The tree line marked our ascent toward the Hwy 28 junction that would actually begin our ride around Lake Tahoe. About halfway up, we ride past “Northstar at Tahoe,” a world class family ski resort. Generally open until early Spring, it’s a definite top stop for the white powder aficionados. Located 15 minutes from Truckee and 35 minutes from Reno, Northstar is picturesque with well groomed slopes for every caliber of skier. There are plenty of stores in the village for shopping where you or your spouse can spend more time browsing than time on the slopes.
The ascent over the pass was smooth with light traffic. After a few minutes riding through the pines lining the road, we crest the peak and begin our decent toward Lake Tahoe. Still after 30 years of living only a few minutes away, I continue to be captivated by the panoramic view of the sapphire lake each time I ride over the crest. At the end of Hwy 267 is the community of Kings Beach, a stone’s throw from Lake Tahoe. As we turn south onto Hwy 28, the main street through Kings Beach, I notice a good number of breakfast and lunch eateries lining both sides of the main road through town. There are also a few beachfront motels within feet of the lake’s shore. A few vacancy signs are seen, but that is not going to last as Memorial Day weekend is approaching. On weekends during the summer, Kings Beach hosts a fine crafts fair to meander through. The fair is situated near the lake’s shore for an enjoyable experience. Paid parking is adjacent to the fair, though you can generally find parking on the street within a couple of minutes of the park. Kings Beach is definitely worth a few minutes to stop and explore and maybe walk away with a cool memory of the trip.
Mark and I continue to ride north along Hwy 28 with Lake Tahoe’s edge at an arm’s length to the right. The crisp alpine air certainly enhances the ride past small hamlets overlooking the lake. As we cruise parallel to the water’s edge, my eyes are frequently drawn to the blue vastness of Lake Tahoe. More times than not, the high sun reflects the same hue as star sapphires, while at other moments, it seems more like bits of opals dancing on the surface of the water. The draw of Tahoe will challenge riders as well as drivers to keep their eyes focused on the road. The twists and turns of Hwy 28 east from Kings Beach are enjoyable and easy for novice riders to negotiate.
Mark knows the history of Lake Tahoe, not to mention the roads better than anyone I’ve met. As I was developing the research for this article, Mark reeled off the salient stats of Lake Tahoe. As Mayor of nearby Truckee, I guess knowing the local lore and facts are part of the mayor’s job description. The lake sits at 6229 feet above sea level, making it the highest alpine lake in the country. It’s 22 miles in length and 12 miles at its’ widest. At 1645 feet in depth, Lake Tahoe is the deepest body of fresh water in the United States, holding somewhere in the neighborhood of 39 trillion gallons of clear alpine water. Lake Tahoe provides 75 miles of well maintained scenic mountain roads with more than a few tight twisties to keep any motorcyclist searching ahead for the next curve. Road maintenance is a year round lifestyle for residents, so you’ll notice intermittent sections of fresh asphalt that have been recently replaced, but very few potholes or divots.
At Incline Village, we turned onto Lake Shore Road riding slowly past a number of beautiful homes inhabited by the definite rich and maybe famous. It certainly is a very nice neighborhood with some unique architecture along quiet tree lined roads.
The Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe also shares Lake Shore Drive. If you are looking for an upscale location to spend a night or two, the Hyatt’s beach front cabins are definitely worth the investment in your mental health. The Lone Eagle Restaurant is situated on the Hyatt’s private sugar powder beach. While waiting for your table, you can enjoy a coffee or cocktail in front of a stone fireplace large enough to walk through or you can walk outside and sit beside a large stone fire pit overlooking the lake. The Lone Eagle’s interior reminds me of a European mountain chalet. Fine craftsmanship is apparent throughout. My wife and I have previously stopped for lunch at the Lone Eagle wearing full leathers and were treated as if we were dressed for an evening of dining and dancing. The Lone Eagle is priced like you would expect for a five star restaurant, but the perks include an incredible view of Lake Tahoe, upscale ambiance and excellent food that is the Hyatt experience.
Mark and I follow Hwy 28 which parallels the ever changing blue hue of the lake. Next stop… Sand Harbor. Sand Harbor is a definite stop point for all riders circumnavigating the lake. And yes, travelers in four wheel comfort are also welcome. During the day, Sand Harbor offers a long clean beach with convenient parking. Of course you will pull $8 out of your pocket for the convenience, but that’s part of being a tourist. Two or more motorcycles can occupy the same parking space for the same cost as one car. No food or beverages are available at Sand Harbor, so plan to pick up sandwiches or hot food and drinks in Incline Village a couple of miles before the park. Sand Harbor offers a nice place to enjoy a picnic, stroll along the beach or climb around large sandstone boulders by the water.
Sand Harbor is best known for hosting the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. Every July through mid August, a professional Shakespearean evening play is produced on alternating nights. This season The Twelfth Night will be playing six nights per week. Lake Tahoe is incorporated as the backdrop for the play adding to the enchantment of the evening. Arrive early for acquiring a good seat as well as good parking spot. There isn’t a bad seat under the stars, but for those who want to be up close and personal with the actors, you can purchase select seats close to the stage. Staff are dressed and converse with guests as if recently removed from the time of William Shakespeare’s late 1500’s. You may decide that the experience would be incomplete without a bottle of your favorite wine to begin your evening and later add a warm drink as the evening cools and trust me… the evening does cool. Keep in mind that you are sitting at a little over 6200 feet and the temperature drops sharply as the sun is replaced with a clear view of the stars. So you will be glad that you brought a warm polar fleece or jacket as well as a blanket. Outdoor dining and beverages are also available.
Mark and I ride out of Sand Harbor and continue rolling east and upward along a pine lined two lane section of Hwy 28. The gentle curves among the trees will appeal to most riders, but watch out for a few drivers that may graze or across the double yellow lines. If you are unfamiliar or not completely comfortable with riding mountain roads, be sure to ride to your comfort level and follow an outside-inside-outside path of travel through the twisties. Never let traffic behind push you beyond your comfort zone. That said, this section of road and a few others around the Lake will offer riders an enjoyable change of pace.
At the end of Hwy 28, we connect with the Hwy 50 and follow the sign toward South Lake Tahoe. This four lane super slab soon provided us again with a panoramic view Lake Tahoe as we descend toward dual tunnels carved into Cave Rock. I noticed that these tunnels are interesting to ride through as the road does not go straight, but curves through them. These tunnels also mark where the lake and the road once again merge. The ride takes you through small communities as you make your way toward Lake Tahoe’s alpine gaming center.
Rolling past Zephyr Cove, a great RV location, we enter South Lake Tahoe, a smaller version of Las Vegas with a European resort flavor. Harrah’s and Harvey’s Casino resorts and other resorts line the route. Heavenly Ski Resort is a definite year round paradise with skiing and snowboarding during the winter day and gaming through the night. There is a Zip line ride, which I have heard is a real kick in the pants. There are weekly outdoor concerts at Harvey’s Resort and Casino and the acoustics in the amphitheater allow every seat to enjoy whoever is headlining the show. An impressive view of the entire Tahoe Basin is to be had from the decks of two Mississippi paddle wheelers from bygone days. The MS Dixie departs from Zephyr Cove and the Tahoe Queen is to be found in South Lake Tahoe. The two hour cruise will take you across the lake and around the shore of Emerald Bay. The voyage costs $39 a person. Food and beverage is available inside the reproductions of these historic vessels. Bring your camera as the views are once again very impressive and well worth the money.
Hwy 50 through the city is four lanes, but as you would expect does get congested during summer and winter seasons. Keep in mind that while on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, you are not permitted to split lanes, though you can ride a single lane in tandem.
Riding to the California side of South Lake Tahoe, we turn into a residential area on our way to lunch at the Fresh Ketch sitting in the Tahoe Keys Marina. Window seating gives us a good view of the Marina. We watch a few boats pull out of their slips and head away onto the lake. One downside of living the dream in this alpine wonderland is that winter can take its sweet time leaving the mountains and locals are quick to make up for time spent hibernating.
The food at the Fresh Ketch is very good as is the coffee and the price for lunch is pretty reasonable. We head back out onto Hwy 50 and merge with Highway 89 to continue this enjoyable day along the west side of the sapphire blue water. After a couple of miles, we leave the last of the hamlets and the tall green pines begin to fill in along the sides of the road. As I am leaning through the turns, I have the impression that Tolkien may have gotten his inspiration for The Hobbit Series on this side of the lake. The scent of wild flowers was definitely in the air adding to the Shire-like experience. As Hwy 89 ascends, the rocky alpine experience returns with the appearance of five hairpin turns. The road signs implore a traveler to keep their speeds at 10 or 15 mph. The camber at the turns is correct, but definitely banked harder than most turns you will find in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When riding this section of Hwy 89, enter each turn with good technique, i.e with an outside-inside-outside path of travel and definitely don’t let off the throttle as these turns have a sharp upslope. After the last hairpin turn the road smooth’s out. A short distance ahead is a Vista Point overlooking Emerald Bay, a definite stop point as you travel around the lake. Emerald Bay is one of the most photographed locations in the world and for good reason. It is simply the most beautiful settings you will discover as you explore Lake Tahoe. If you want to stretch your legs, there is a well maintained trail down to the Vikingsholm’s Castle just around the bend from Vista Point. It’s easy going when facing downhill. But remember, the only way back to your bike is the way you went down… on your feet. Take water and a lunch or snacks. At the bottom there are two trails worth exploring. To the north of the bay is a trail that will follow the coast to Bliss State Park which we will discuss shortly. To the west is a trail for a short walk to Eagle Falls. Eagle Falls provides an excellent view of melting snow pack cascading into the bay. If you are part mountain goat, you can climb up along the side of Eagle Falls back up to Hwy 89, but it is creative trail blazing and not for an older heart wearing sandals.
Mark and I stop and take a few photos and then continue rolling along Hwy 89. The road is well above lake level as we pass Bliss State Park. If you enjoy camping, Bliss offers a scenic place to enjoy Lake Tahoe. The facilities are clean, trees plentiful, the beach wide and firewood is available for a fee. To the south of Bliss beach you will easily find a well maintained hiking trail that leads back to Emerald Bay. It’s a long hike with expansive views of the lake. Take a camera as the views from the trail are something to email to those you left at home. There are also nesting Ospreys below the trail and the occasional eagle as well as other mountain birds to enjoy. As always, bring water, food, cell phone and other emergency supplies as there are no facilities along the way to Emerald Bay.
The miles pass under our pegs as we settle in for the ride toward North Lake Tahoe. There are a few more twisties to enjoy, but for the most part its easy riding as the villages appear and fade quickly as we wind our way through the pines toward the town of North Lake Tahoe, a definite stop point.
As you enter North Lake Tahoe, you will ride over Fanny Bridge. The bridge has been long known by the locals as the place to appreciate the back sides of the many tourists who lean far over the side of the bridge to get a look at some of the largest trout you will find anywhere in the country. Besides the fine entertainment at Fanny Bridge, you will also find a good number of restaurants and cafés for every budget, not mention some pretty decent shopping the length of the town. If you are hungry, I personally recommend “Jake’s On The Lake” for great lunch or dinner. Located in the Boat Works mountain mall, there is no better Clam Chowder this side of San Francisco. Service has always be excellent. The outside dinning patio is an easy stone’s throw from the Marina and every table has a great view of the Lake.
A two minute walk along the river from Fanny Bridge, you will arrive at Tahoe Rafting Company where you can rent a professional quality raft for a lazy ride from the headwaters of the Truckee River. During the summer months, especially on weekends, you might be accompanied by a couple hundred of your soon to be closest friends as you glide past wetlands and tree lined hills along the river. Every so often way you will pass under several bridges where you can count on receiving a drenching from the indigenous natives. Its’ all in good fun, so bring your Super Soaker to defend yourselves. Occasionally, the rafts will all congest like the LA freeways where that’s the only excuse needed for a party to start. Hundreds of river devotees will indulge in music and beverages for hours. You don’t have to be young to join in, just young at heart. Its’ just a great place to enjoy people watching and spend some time enjoying a cool drinks. When you are ready to move on, slide your raft clear of the congestion and continue your journey under the sun.
Like all good things, your self guided raft trip ends at the River Ranch Lodge. With a couple of paddle strokes your raft comes to rest against a dock where it is picked up by members of the Tahoe Rafting Company leaving you to follow the short dock up to the patio to enjoy libations, burgers and fries at the River Ranch Lodge. If you have the time, it’s a good place to unwind after floating down the Truckee. If you don’t have the time to spend at the lodge, The Tahoe Rafting company will have a bus waiting to return you to your start point.
The River Ranch is uniquely situated with fine dining as well as limited lodging. The River Ranch Lodge is intimate, with 19 very nice rooms where guests will fall asleep to the sound of the Truckee River beneath their balcony. Tom Ballou, the general manager of the lodge reported that occasionally in the early morning hours, black bears will come by the lodge to fish in the river. There are not too many places that I would put in the category of upscale romantic stops, but the River Ranch Lodge is, in my opinion, near the top. Regardless of where you are riding in from, the River Ranch Lodge will make the stop very enjoyable.
Mark and I continue down Hwy 89 until reaching the Donner Pass Road in the heart of Truckee. The Mayor and I stretched out our legs at the Wild Cherry Café to enjoy a late afternoon coffee and a slice of homemade apple pie, hold the a-la-mode. Over coffee we recapped the highlights of today’s ride around Lake Tahoe. Good roads to indulge in, fine alpine mountain scenery and as always, good company. I can honestly say that Mayor Mark Brown is a great tour guide. Despite the failure of rapture to materialize, life just doesn’t get much better. Mark and I agree that we need to connect again in the next two weeks for a ride to some the hidden spots around Truckee that most visitors never see.
For me and most others who live or visit, Lake Tahoe is the gem in the Sierra Nevada Mountains offering incomparable lake and mountain views. Lake access from Truckee, California; Reno, Nevada; Carson City, Nevada and Hwy 50 out of Placerville is easy and uncomplicated.
Lake Tahoe is easily qualified as one place to put as a must see visit this summer.