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The Lake In The Sky - Exploring Lake Tahoe

Ben Hall

With a reputation as one of the most stunning ski resorts in the world, Lake Tahoe is largely ignored outside the northern hemisphere winter. But when the ski lifts close and the snow begins to melt, not only do the crowds disappear, but the lake itself transforms into an outdoor paradise of a different kind. It’s a place where rugged mountains kiss the glassy water, and much more than just a winter wonderland. Spring is when Tahoe is at its most beautiful - the mountain peaks are still snow capped but the temperature during the day is often balmy and in the low to mid 20’s. This is when the hikers, mountain bikers, wildlife watchers, waterskiiers, parasailers, and golfers come out to play in one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world.

The dramatic mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevadas drop straight into the exquisite topaz blue waters of Lake Tahoe, lined with white sandy beaches. In between the towering fir trees that line the mountain slopes, the remnants of the last winter snow linger as a reminder of the elevation of the “Lake in the Sky”. At  1,900 metres above sea level, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and straddles the state line between California and Nevada. The border gives the lake region its unique split personality. Although many visitors are nature lovers intent on disappearing into the solitude of its great outdoors, there’s an equal number, or more, that head straight to the Nevada side for the neon lit allure of the casinos, cheap eats and shows.

The lake itself is 19 km wide and 35 km long and can be circumnavigated on the 122 km of road quite easily in a full day, even allowing for the numerous photo-stops that pop up along the way. The sheer size of Lake Tahoe means there’s plenty of room for all outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy their own past-time without the “cheek-by-jowl” feeling of smaller lakes. Jet skiiers and water skiiers whizz past in the distance as couples enjoy romantic picnics on the many beaches around the lake, and fishermen trying to hook a salmon or trout don’t seem bothered by the occasional speedboat-partying crew.  

Migratory Canadian Geese waddle around and keep a respectful distance from the sun lovers and dog walkers on the beaches. It seems everyone, and the wildlife, is so caught up in the stunning beauty of the lake that they’re oblivious to any distractions. Despite the depth of the lake, which averages 300 metres with a maximum of 500 metres, legend has it that the water is so pure that a white dinner plate can be seen to a depth of nearly 25 metres. Crystal Bay on the north-western side of the lake is probably where the “dinner plate” myth developed - appropriately named for its clarity - its turquoise blue takes on a deeper hue than the sky on a clear day. While driving Lake Tahoe provides a good orientation of all the area has to offer, the best way to fully appreciate its vastness and stunning beauty is by boat on the water itself.

Cruises to Emerald Bay on the paddle steamer m/s Dixie II is one of the most popular for both visitors and locals. The crossing of the lake itself from Zephyr Cove is a surreal experience, with parasailers set against the towering mountains, and regular fly-bys by Coast Guard aircraft just above the waters’ surface. The entry into Emerald Bay is the highlight - it’s surrounded by impressive peaks that stretch up to 3000 metres and the cobalt water changes colour to aquamarine as an indication the water depth has dropped to just a few metres in places.

Nestled regally in the bay is Fannette Island, the lake’s only island, and perched on top are the remnants of Mrs Knight’s Tea House - where the former resident entertained friends in elegant style in the early part of the last century. Lora Knight built and lived in Vikingsholm - a mini-castle at the end of Emerald Bay which was constructed in northern European style and tops off the impression of arriving in a Scandinavian fjord. The only problem with Lake Tahoe is the abundance of natural beauty - it’s impossible to take it all in within a short space of time, and lifetime locals and return visitors say this is the reason the lake has a magical hold on those who are fortunate enough to experience its unique charm. 

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