They used to say “Postcard Perfect” about stunningly beautiful scenery. But nobody sends postcards anymore. Here in the digital age, one of those achingly scenic pictures is more likely to make an appearance on your screensaver or mouse pad.
For instance, Lake Tahoe – the “Jewel of the Sierra.” And sure Tahoe looks nice on your computer monitor…
…but you really need to see it in person.
I just returned from an early September vacation at Lake Tahoe and I’m happy to say it lived up to all the hype.
A Big City Refuge for all Seasons
At over 6,500 feet in elevation, Lake Tahoe is the most famous alpine lake in America, a favorite of big city dwellers in Los Angeles and San Francisco who drive up for weekend getaways and annual vacations to frolic in the cool waters in summer and snowboardin the mountains in winter.
What makes Tahoe so stunning is the bright blue water reflecting the often snow-capped peaks that entirely encircle the 200 square mile lake.
Hiking, skiing, swimming, boating, kayaking, paddle boarding, gambling, drinking and eating are just some of the many varied activities you can participate in on a trip to Tahoe. The lake literally has something for everyone.
Take the Scenic Route
Really the only essential activity is to drive around the 72 mile scenic loop that encircles Lake Tahoe. I recommend driving the loop clockwise so the lake and its many scenic pullouts are on your right – which avoids having to pull out across four lanes of curvy, often busy highway.
The personality of the lake changes as you drive around its perimeter.
First of all, the lake is divided between two states, with California covering the western side and Nevada on the east. California and Nevada of course are very different states politically and culturally, and you can literally see the difference at the state line.
In California, gas prices are higher, COVID rules are stricter, and indoor dining is currently banned by Governor/Dictator Gavin Newsom.
You’ll know you crossed into Nevada when you see the high-rise casinos pushed up flush against the state line, as if gambling-starved Californians couldn’t stand to drive even ten more feet further in their quest to throw their money into a slot machine.
My wife and I stayed at the Rustic Cabins in King’s Beach on Tahoe’s North Shore, just over the state line in California.
Life’s a Beach
King’s beach is the quintessential beach community with plenty of public beach access, paddle board rentals and ice cream shops.
As you drive east into Nevada, the first community you come to is the tiny Incline Village, a famous ski town and haven for wealthy refugees seeking shelter from California’s high taxes.
The eastern shore of Lake Tahoe is a beautiful stretch of pine forest clinging to a rocky coastline. Be sure to stop at Logan Shoals Vista Point and explore the short trails leading to tranquil views of the lake.
The south shore is dominated by two crowded, congested towns plagued by strip malls and chain restaurants and seedy motels.
Stateline, Nevada is home to Harrah’s, Harveys, Montbleuand Hard Rock Casinos blotting out views of the lake with their neon signs and ten story hotels.
Adjacent South Lake Tahoe in California is even uglier.
Even though I had plenty of points I could use for free nights at some of the chain hotels (the only part of Tahoe that has them), I chose to spent $500 for three nights at the Rustic Cottages just to get away from this blighted side of the lake.
But once you get out of the South Lake Tahoe traffic, the drive quickly reverts back to Alpine forest, culminating in the most spectacular scenery in all of Lake Tahoe at Emerald Bay, a small inlet of the lake punctuated with picturesque Fannette Island in the middle.
Get Inspired at Inspiration Point
The camera app on your phone will get a workout at the overlook at Inspiration Point and again at Emerald Bay State Park.
On the western shore, we stopped at Eagle Rock for a quick but steep 20 minute hike up to the top of this volcanic outcrop and felt a great sense of accomplishment — with unparalleled views of the lake.
Further north is the village of Tahoe City, the best community on the lake for shopping and dining.
Then the road curves back to the east along the north shore where we ended the day where we began it, our home away from home at Rustic Cottage.
As a frugal traveler with lots of saved up points for endless free nights at chain hotels, it was a particularly painful decision for me to plunk down the $500 for a three night stay.
But once we checked in, I had no regrets. The place is well run by friendly folks who seem to genuinely care about extending warm hospitality to regular customers and newcomers like us alike.
Air Conditioned by Nature
The Rustic Cottages Resort is comprised of an assortment of century-old cabins which originated as old lumber camp accommodations. Today, they are popular with low maintenance travelers looking for a simple nostalgic throwback to the quieter days of Lake Tahoe tourism, many of whom return to their favorite cabin year after year.
I can see why. All guests are treated to a made-to-order hot breakfast, cookies, brownies, and a coffee mug you can take home as a souvenir.
Despite their age, the cabins are clean and comfortable, with welcoming front porches under the tall pines.
I found it interesting that the old advertisements for the cabins from the 1960s touted them back then as a “rustic” throwback to an earlier time.
This place was “rustic” and nostalgic 60 years ago.
In 2020? It is virtually prehistoric.
The un-air-conditioned cabins come in various sizes and configurations and are priced accordingly.
Front Porch Sittin’
We stayed in the “Tahoe” cabin, a step up from the tiniest bargain-basement cabin, but still small enough that my wife complained about the lack of space to put her stuff.
No doubt, in addition to being rustic, the cabins are cozy. I guess people traveled with less junk a century ago.
Your trade-off in return for a lack of A/C, space, and frills is a great location and a price well below the going rate for most other Tahoe lakeside accommodations.
Directly across North Lake Boulevard from Moon DuneBeach, I could see Lake Tahoe while relaxing on my cabin’s front porch, sipping my FiftyFifty Eclipse Imperial Stout.
The Rustic Cottages are also centrally located just 15 minutes from the three best dining and shopping towns in Tahoe.
Just to the east, we enjoyed an excellent meal at Bite located in Incline Village, Nevada.
Bite serves creative and tasty “American tapas.”
The idea of tapas originated in Spain where bars would give away free food to entice patrons to drink. These “small plates” found popularity in the United States.
Except American-style tapas are not free. Far from it.
Our final bill at Bite weighed in at over $150 for five small plates and a few drinks. Ouch.
Welcome to Incline Village
This is where Silicon Valley and San Francisco millionaires (and billionaires) come to vacation. It isn’t cheap.
While you’re not going to save any money eating your meal one small plate at a time, it can be a fun way to try several delicious foods without committing to one entrée. Kinda like a culinary version of Tinder, I guess.
Fortunately, Bite’s kitchen turns out nothing but high quality creative dishes you will love like seared diver scallops over grits, lobster BLT sliders and a spicy gumbo chock full of okra, shrimp and andouille sausage.
We capped our meal off with a decadent chocolate mousse spiked with caramel cheesecake crumbles.
After dinner, we stopped by Alibi Ale Works. The only brewery on the north end of Lake Tahoe also brews some excellent beer. The Don’t Be Skared IPA was like a hike through a Nevada pine forest, an IPA whose hoppy spice is accented with juniper.
Alibi also serves cider from Common Cider Company for hop frowners like my wife.
A Table with a View
On another night we chose to drive west to Tahoe City to dine al fresco in accordance with California’s strict COVID rules at Wolfdale’s, an old-school favorite for sophisticated dining that won’t disappoint, despite the San Francisco prices.
Perched high above Lake Tahoe with at least a partial lake view from most tables, Wolfdale’s is a rare lakefront venue that doesn’t let the food take a backseat to the view.
Most menu items have a touch of Asian flair which you will notice as soon as you unwrap your silverware and discover a pair of chop sticks with the traditional spoon, knife and fork.
I enjoyed sesame seed short ribs with mashed potatoes while my wife loved her King Salmon.
The third Tahoe population center we visited for dining and shopping isn’t actually on the lake. Truckee is a historic railroad and ski town about ten miles north of the lake, with a main drag lined with quaint shops, bars and restaurants.
For me, the highlight of Truckee was FiftyFiftyBrewing Company.
California is known for its craft beer and FiftyFifty is one of the best. FiftyFifty is famous among beer snobs for its various versions of Eclipse, an Imperial Stout aged in whiskey barrels.
With unparalleled outdoor recreation, beautiful scenery, delicious dining and barrel-aged craft beer, a vacation to Lake Tahoe really can only be described as “Postcard Perfect”.
Even if nobody sends postcards anymore.