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The boundary between California and Nevada runs some 330 kilometers due south from Oregon, and then jogs diagonally southeast toward Arizona. The “angle point” (at 39° north latitude) where that southeast jog begins is in Lake Tahoe. The state line unevenly bisects the lake, putting the western two-thirds of it in California and the rest in Nevada. It’s an absurd place for the state line, but it wasn’t intentional.
The 48 men who gathered in Monterey to draft a constitution for the new state of California in 1849 had limited knowledge of geography. They decided the state would extend eastward from the Pacific coast to the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. To formally define California’s eastern boundary, they chose convenient parallels and meridians they believed would encompass those mountains. It would be another six years before the Legislature sent the first team of surveyors to figure out where the state line actually went.
The American explorer John C. Fremont first sighted Lake Tahoe from a nearby mountain in 1844. He named it Lake Bonpland, after the French botanist Aimé Jacques Alexandre Bonpland, a member of Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to Latin America. But Fremont’s cartographer called it Mountain Lake on his map. Neither name caught on. The report and map from Fremont’s expedition, published in 1845, served as the authoritative guidebook for the 1849 Gold Rush. The map clearly showed the lake, but didn’t specify the location precisely enough for the convention members to recognize that their new state line ran through it.
In another odd split, Lake Tahoe had two names for more than 80 years. In 1853, the Surveyor General of California named it Lake Bigler after his boss, Governor John Bigler. The legislatures in both California and Nevada soon made it the official name. But in 1862, a cartographer for the federal Department of the Interior refused to put Bigler’s name on a new map. It was during the Civil War, and Governor Bigler strongly supported the Confederacy. The cartographer instead labeled it Lake Tahoe. Because many Californians were dissatisfied with Governor Bigler (for numerous reasons beyond his Confederate sympathies), Lake Tahoe had already become the preferred unofficial name. But the lake officially bore Bigler’s name until the California Legislature finally renamed it in 1945.
The origin and meaning of Tahoe is controversial. It’s almost certainly taken from the local Washoe Indians, although some sources cite the Spanish tajo, meaning “cut” or “cleft.” It’s possibly an abbreviated Anglicized version of Da-Ow-A-Ga, the name the Washoe apparently used for their territory. Various fanciful translations of Tahoe circulated in the 19th century, culminating in Mark Twain’s satirical claim that “it means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the Digger tribe.” (“Digger” was the common and rather pejorative term for the Maidu people of northern California. Their dietary staples included acorns and roots, but not grasshoppers.) The pronunciation of “Tahoe” was even disputed: Some said Tay-hoe, others said Tah-hoe. They called the whole thing off when the latter pronunciation won out.
Local merchants and the chamber of commerce like to say that Tahoe means “Lake of the Sky.” (Are they perhaps referring to the astronomical price of lakeside real estate?) But it most likely means either “Edge of the Lake” or “A Whole Lot of Water.”
Whatever you call it, Lake Tahoe is a place of superlatives. The product of volcanism and uplifting in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s the largest alpine lake in the United States— 35 kilometers long, 19 kilometers wide, at an average elevation of 1,897 meters— and the second deepest, with a maximum depth of 500 meters. That truly is Da-Ow-A-Ga, as in “a whole lot of water”— over 147 trillion liters. The shore has some nice sandy beaches, although the lake is too cold for swimming. The lower depths stay a constant 4° Celsius, and the surface might heat up to 20° on a hot summer day.
That chilly water is renowned for its purity and clarity, which scientists have measured for over a century by lowering a dinner plate into the lake. You can see a plate 23 meters down in some parts of the lake, but development and hordes of visitors are reducing that visibility at an alarming rate. Bumper stickers proclaiming “Keep Tahoe Blue” are often seen on SUVs in California.
Lake Tahoe looms impressively large when you’re standing on the beach. But you might not get that impression from pictures of it. The iconic location for countless postcards is a little appendage to the lake’s southwest corner called Emerald Bay, which contains Lake Tahoe’s only island. Fannette Island (the last of the half-dozen names it’s had) is a piece of very tough granite that rises 45 meters above the water. It resisted the grinding ice sheet that carved the bay during the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago.
Inspiration Point is the official developed viewpoint overlooking Emerald Bay. It offers a parking lot, toilets, and wheelchair-accessible trails; but stands of tall pine trees obstruct the view. You’ll probably be more inspired at any of several small unmarked turnouts just north of the viewpoint on Highway 89.
You won’t get the complete Emerald Bay experience by viewing it from overlooks. You also need to visit it up close by boat. If you didn’t bring your own powerboat, dinghy, or kayak, you can take a rather expensive cruise on a Mississippi-style paddlewheel boat, the Tahoe Queen or the MS Dixie II. These cruises depart from Zephyr Cove Resort, on the Nevada side of the lake north of Stateline. There’s also the smaller Tahoe Paradise, departing from Ski Run Marina in South Lake Tahoe, if you prefer “elegant yachting.” Coupons in any of Lake Tahoe’s numerous tourist publications will knock a few dollars off the fare. From a boat on a clear day, it’s easy to see how Emerald Bay got its name.
A location within three hours’ drive of Northern California’s major metropolitan areas ensures that visitors to Lake Tahoe can enjoy crowds and traffic jams at least nine months of the year. From roughly November through April, legions of skiers and snowboarders flock to what is possibly the largest concentration of winter sports facilities in North America. There are 15 downhill and 13 cross-country ski areas around Lake Tahoe, including Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. (As some Native Americans consider squaw an offensive word, the Postal Service and Google Maps bypass that village’s controversial name by referring to it as Olympic Valley.)
Between June and August, Lake Tahoe is even more jam-packed with families (and their mini-vans and SUVs) taking summer vacations.
Spring and Autumn are Lake Tahoe’s pleasant off-seasons, when crowds are thinnest and accommodations most affordable. Autumn is a particularly fine time to visit, as fall colors decorate even the sprawling agglomeration of strip malls, motels, and time-share hucksters known as South Lake Tahoe.
The off-season at Lake Tahoe is not exempt from the rule that life is a series of tradeoffs. Three state parks along the south and west shores offer fine views, hiking trails, and public lake access. But two of them, Emerald Bay and D.L. Bliss State Parks, are only open during the summer.
Sugar Pine Point State Park is open year-round; but when I was there in October, it might as well have been closed due to extensive construction. Autumn seems to be road construction season in the Sierras. I spent too much of my trip in accumulating queues of vehicles waiting for “pilot cars” to guide us over single open lanes, as crews worked to repave and improve the roads before the snow and skiers arrive.
Even without access to the state parks, you can enjoy the views of the lake and surrounding forest on the 116-kilometer drive around the lake. Walking on the shore is more difficult. California law defines a right to public access along the Pacific coast (a law vigorously opposed, and sometimes ignored, by wealthy celebrities in places like Malibu). But that law does not apply to inland lakes. Much of the west and north shore is private property, with locked gates to secure beaches and boat piers from trespassers. But you can find public access in parks and villages.
Most accommodations, restaurants, shops, and tourist services in the Lake Tahoe area are on the south shore, in the agglomeration of South Lake Tahoe, California that spills over into adjacent Stateline, Nevada. A few smaller and somewhat quieter alternatives are on the north shore, directly across the lake in Kings Beach and Tahoe Vista.
The Nevada side of Lake Tahoe has some of the lake’s finest scenery. And instead of the private development that makes much of the California side off-limits to the public, much of the east shore is a state park that’s open to the public all year round.
If you drive from from San Francisco or Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe along Highway 50, you can enjoy some very nice scenery as you approach the lake. Another even better scenic drive is a day trip from Lake Tahoe along the Carson Pass National Scenic Byway, a section of California Route 88.
Autumn “leaf-peepers” can find plenty of colorful foliage there. I made that excursion in early October, the day after the season’s first snow added fresh white trim to trees at their peak of fall color. Mountain weather can change quickly, and snow can fall at any time of year (though that’s not very likely in summer). The morning after a day of overcast and snow brought a nearly ideal blue sky with just the right amount of puffy clouds.
Route 89 leads from South Lake Tahoe to Picketts Junction, where it
joins Route 88. Head west from there. Just past Picketts Junction, these
cabins added a nice scenic element to the autumn color and winter snow.
At an elevation of 2,613 meters, Kit Carson pass is literally and figuratively the high point of Route 88. John C. Fremont named it for the famed explorer who served as guide for for the 1844 expedition in which he discovered Lake Tahoe. Carson led the expedition over the pass and on to Sutter’s Fort, now a historic park in Sacramento, the state capital.
As your tire treads follow in the footsteps of Carson and Fremont on Route 88, keep in mind that this was the main westward overland route for emigrants looking to strike it rich in the 1849 California gold rush that began at Sutter’s Fort. But they didn’t have a paved road or motor vehicles.
As you continue driving west, it’s all downhill from there as the road passes alpine lakes and meadows. An overlook near Kit Carson Pass offers a view of scenic Red Lake.