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WINTERTIME IN TAHOE

By Wendy van Diver
A snowy North Lake Tahoe beach walk  | courtesy of North Lake Tahoe
A snowy North Lake Tahoe beach walk | courtesy of North Lake Tahoe

TALK ABOUT MAGNIFICENT. Lake Tahoe measures 22 miles long, 12 miles wide, and 1,644 feet deep. Straddling Nevada and California, it is the nation’s largest alpine lake and easily one of the most stunning places on earth. In the words of Mark Twain, Lake Tahoe is “the fairest picture the whole world affords.”

Home to 15 ski resorts (including Squaw Valley, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics), countless hiking trails, and miles upon miles of wide open spaces, Lake Tahoe is the kind of place we dream of escaping to—especially this winter. But what if you’re not an avid skier, snowshoer, or snow shoveler? Admittedly, I am not. So, a few weeks before ski season was scheduled to begin, I set the GPS for the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe to find what else there is to do. I’m thrilled to report that I discovered a land of plenty—stretching from mountain to valley and beyond. Now it’s your turn to mask up, socially distance, and start your winter adventure.

THE JEWEL OF THE SIERRAS
No visit is complete without some lake time. Water temperatures average 40 degrees this time of year, but there are other ways to enjoy the lake without diving in. Charter a sportfishing boat or paddle a kayak along a portion of the shoreline following the well-marked Lake Tahoe Water Trail. Clearly Tahoe is operating scenic tours in their transparent kayaks, which promise visibility to depths of 65 feet. The M.S. Dixie II, an authentic two-story paddle wheeler, provides a drier alternative with a variety of cruises from the lake’s southeast shore. During winter, your best option is the 2½-hour Daytime Scenic Cruise, which glides from Zephyr Cove to Emerald Bay and back. The M.S. Dixie II offers both indoor and outdoor seating, several bars, and lunch service. When you reach Emerald Bay, you’ll get a unique vantage point of the splendid 38–room Vikingsholm Castle, considered one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the nation. Have your camera ready as you pass Fannette Island, the only natural island in Lake Tahoe, to capture a dramatic shot of the abandoned tea house built in the 1920s.

If you prefer to stay on shore, many scenic trails and paths around the lake are open for hiking, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. Don’t miss the three-mile East Shore Trail, a paved path with 16 vista points connecting Hidden Beach and Sand Harbor. At Spooner Lake, you’ll find a beautiful two-mile flat loop trail. From here you can hike, ski, or snowshoe four more miles to Marlette Lake at 8,200 feet above sea level for spectacular views of Lake Tahoe and the Spooner backcountry. It’s hard to believe that this idyllic spot is just 20 minutes from Heavenly Village. If you care to venture farther, consider following the popular Tahoe Rim Trail or Flume Trail.

Soaring over Carson Valley | Ronele Dotson
Soaring over Carson Valley | Ronele Dotson
Carson River | Ronele Dotson
Carson River | Ronele Dotson
Genoa Bar in Nevada's oldest settlement | Ronele Dotson
Genoa Bar in Nevada's oldest settlement | Ronele Dotson

CARSON VALLEY
After a couple of days skiing and exploring the lake, it’s time to spread your wings. The descent from Lake Tahoe’s southeast shore to Nevada’s valley floor takes about 20 minutes, but you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to another world. Here, the vista views stretch for miles and the snow melts a whole lot faster, making it easy to drive on the well-maintained country highways. Best yet, there’s an abundance of intriguing activities.

Carson Valley is one of the world’s most acclaimed locations for soaring. Glider rides are offered year-round, but an even greater sight to behold is the wildlife. Each winter during calving season, bald eagles, raptors, and other birds of prey come in droves, circle overhead, and swoop into the ranchlands to feed. Photographers, birders, and falconers from around the world gather, too, to behold the plethora of feathered wildlife in this natural environment. To get a real feel for the history and culture of the area, be sure to visit the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville and arrange a guided history tour at Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park. Gardnerville also boasts JT Basque Bar & Dining Room featuring delicious traditional Basque country cuisine served family style. Don’t miss the lineup of retired cowboy hats hung high on the wall and dollar bills covering the barroom ceiling.

Walking tour maps are available at the Carson Valley Museum for Gardnerville as well as two other towns in the valley: Genoa and Minden. Genoa, Nevada’s oldest settlement, is a great place to explore. Not much larger than a crossroads town, Genoa dates back to the late 1840s when wagon trains rolled in on the Overland Emigrant Trail on their way to strike California gold. Two members of the Mormon Battalion established the first trading post here in 1850 to provide an oasis for weary travelers as they prepared for their final push west through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Today’s Mormon Station is a state historic park featuring a reconstructed version of the original 1851 trading post and a museum with original pioneer artifacts. Genoa is also home to Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor. Established in 1853, Genoa Bar has served many famous folks including Mark Twain, President Ulysses S. Grant, Carol Lombard, Clark Gable, and Lauren Bacall.

The silver-domed Nevada capitol building in Carson City | Lydia Brugge
The silver-domed Nevada capitol building in Carson City | Lydia Brugge

CARSON CITY
About 20 miles north of Carson Valley lies Nevada’s state capitol, Carson City. Built in 1870, the capitol building is set on beautiful tree-filled grounds that invite you to take a stroll. On the second floor of the capitol, there’s a 2,000-square-foot space featuring interactive exhibits dedicated to Nevada’s history. Nearby, the Nevada State Museum is housed in the former United States Mint building where silver discovered nearby was minted into coins. More than 49 million dollars in silver and gold coins were created here. Today, it is the only coin press of its time that still produces commemorative medallions. The museum also includes a replica of a mining town and an underground mine. The Kit Carson Trail is an engaging 2.5–mile walking tour of Carson City’s Historic West Side with 40 stops. Detailed maps are available at the Carson City Visitor’s Center.

Did you know that the majority of America’s wild horses live in Nevada? Winter is an excellent time to spot them on the rolling terrain, along State Route 341 between Carson City and Virginia City.

The Brewery Arts Center along Carson City's Kit Carson Trail  | Lydia Brugge
The Brewery Arts Center along Carson City's Kit Carson Trail | Lydia Brugge
The Territorial Enterprise Building, home to Nevada's first newspaper | Ronele Dotson
The Territorial Enterprise Building, home to Nevada's first newspaper | Ronele Dotson

VIRGINIA CITY
For a genuine step back in time, head on up to Virginia City. This historic mining town made a name for itself in the mid-1850s, when prospectors struck silver and established a thriving metropolis above the bountiful Comstock lode. Today, not a whole lot has changed, which makes it a motherlode for visitors who want to experience a real mining town. Stroll down C Street, the town’s main drag, lined with saloons, eateries, and quaint shops. Several drinking establishments tell colorful tales from the past and some swear they’re frequented by ghosts. Be on the lookout for Nevada Centennial Marker No. 27 dedicated to the year of 1863 when Samuel Clemens became a reporter for Virginia City’s newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise, and first used the pen name, “Mark Twain.” The printing press from Twain’s tenure is still in the building’s basement. Virginia City has more than a dozen museums and many are usually open year-round. As a sampling: the 20–minute Mine Under the Ponderosa Saloon Tour offers a glimpse into the Best & Belcher mine along with some colorful tales; The Comstock History Center has one of the original steam locomotives, Engine 27, from Virginia & Truckee Railroad on display; and The Way It Was Museum boasts the most complete collection of Comstock mining artifacts in the world as well as rare historic photos, lithographs, and maps.

The Way It Was Museum in the heart of Virginia City | Ronele Dotson
The Way It Was Museum in the heart of Virginia City | Ronele Dotson

Plan Your Trip

While COVID-19 restrictions are in place, please be sure to call tour companies, attractions, restaurants, and other businesses in advance to confirm their days and hours of operation.

GETTING THERE

By Air
There are several daily flights from San Diego to Reno–Tahoe International Airport. From the airport it’s 45 to 60 minutes to Lake Tahoe, depending on where you’re staying.

By Car
Scenic Hwy 395 offers a great halfway stop at the quaint town of Lone Pine. For a real treat, stop at Bodie State Historic Park and wander through the remains of a gold rush town and in Bishop at Schat’s Bakery, home of the original Sheepherder bread and loads of other goodies. From San Diego to Lake Tahoe nonstop, it’s roughly a 10-hour drive.

HELPFUL LINKS

Carson Valley
visitcarsonvalley.com

North Lake Tahoe
gotahoenorth.com

Sierra Safely
sierrasafely.com

South Lake Tahoe
tahoesouth.com

Virginia City
visitvirginiacitynv.com