Clear, deep, and cold, Lake Tahoe has long been one of California’s most-visited tourist destinations and a crown jewel of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The 22-mile-long alpine lake is a wonder of nature, revered for its azure-blue color, crystalline water clarity, and remarkable depth. Bottoming out 1,645 feet below its surface, Lake Tahoe is the 10th deepest lake in the world and third deepest in North America.
The biggest city around the lakeshore is my hometown, South Lake Tahoe, which many think of as the poor cousin to the lake’s more glamorous towns. True, South Lake Tahoe is not exactly a quaint mountain village; it’s more the kind of place where you get your engine oil changed or grab a burger at the drive-in. But that’s exactly what I like about it. South Lake is where the long-time locals live, work, and go about their business despite the swirl of tourist activity happening all around them. And it is where budget-minded visitors come when they want a cheap motel room—say a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn instead of the Ritz-Carlton—and inexpensive meals (try Sprouts for healthy fare, Freshie’s for fish tacos, or Blue Water Bistro for a lakefront dinner). Sure, the town has its share of Starbucks and kitschy T-shirt shops, but it also has locally-owned businesses like the Tahoe Keys Café, where the homemade breakfasts will fill you up for a full day of mountain fun, and Sports Ltd., where you can always find a good deal on skis, hiking boots, or flyfishing gear.
From your car window, you might only notice South Lake’s preponderance of strip malls and a near-constant parade of traffic on Highway 50, the main drag. But pull on your hiking boots, or pump up your mountain bike tires, and you’ll discover a wealth of scenic beauty. Less than a 15-minute drive from downtown lies the eastern stretch of Desolation Wilderness, one of the most stunning glacier-sculpted landscapes in the Sierra Nevada. You can spend weeks exploring its miles of trails, visiting dozens of alpine lakes, and climbing a banquet of peaks and precipices. I’ve been hiking and skiing through this area for 20 years, and yet I am always finding new spots. Mountain bikers can choose from a host of single-track trails, from the mellow, shaded glen of Cold Creek to the rocky challenges of Saxon Creek (a.k.a. “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”).
If you aren’t the active type, pack up a lawn chair and a picnic and head to one of South Lake Tahoe’s beautiful beaches—Pope, Baldwin, Kiva, Regan, or Eldorado. If you want to know my favorite spot, just ask my golden retriever and he’ll grab his leash and take you there. Almost every summer evening you can find the two of us at Kiva Beach, watching the sun set over Mount Tallac as we take an end-of-the-day dip in Lake Tahoe.