“Natural” Park Primer: Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe almost became a national park. Almost. Conservation pioneer John Muir and many others tried to preserve the 1,645 foot-deep alpine gem, but commercial interests and public distrust of government deals with railroads prevented Tahoe from joining America’s collection of national park treasures. Even though Muir lost the battle to save Tahoe, he was pleased that much of the surrounding land was preserved and noted that, official designation or not, Lake Tahoe was a “natural park”.

Despite Tahoe never receiving national park status, it offers so much scenic and recreational enthrallment that an adventure there can be as equally satisfying as one in any of the “real” parks. Let’s have a look at just how outstanding a summertime Tahoe trip can be.

“Natural” Park: Lake Tahoe

Where to stay: There is no shortage of hotel, motel, and resort rooms all around the lake, but, as usual, I would recommend hitting one of the many campgrounds in the area. A simple Google search reveals a nearly endless list of places to pitch your tent or park your camper. I stayed at the KOA near South Lake Tahoe, and I was entirely pleased with my stay.

What to do: My first recommendation would be to hit the beach. Tahoe has miles of sandy beaches, all complete with some of the most splendid scenery found on Earth, scenery that moved Mark Twain to remark that the lake presents “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Sunbathers, swimmers, and paddlers all revel in the constant sun and mountain beauty at one of Tahoe’s many beaches.

If you want to leave the beach and get out on the water, you can rent boats, canoes, or kayaks. If you feel like catching your dinner, you can hire a fishing guide to show you how to hook into one of Tahoe’s delicious lake trout or Kokanee Salmon. Or if you are looking for a truly unique experience, hop on the Tahoe Queen and tour the lake on an old-timey Mississippi paddlewheeler. No matter how you choose to float, the majestic mountains that ring the lake will provide you with plenty of peaceful gazing.

Another great way to get to know Tahoe is by driving around the lake. The drive is 72 miles long and there are countless views, beaches, and other interesting places to stop. One not to miss is Emerald Bay, a gorgeous inlet that holds Tahoe’s only island.

A peek through the pines above Emerald Bay shows the usual parade of boats motoring in from the hazy expanse of Tahoe.

On my Tahoe excursion, by far my favorite adventure was backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness Area, located a few miles southwest of Tahoe. Myself, my dog Ursa, and my friend Ryan—who lives in Tahoe—loaded up our packs for a three-night stay along the shores of Lake Aloha. As we were packing, Ryan suggested that to save weight I could leave behind the rain fly for my tent. As an avid tentophile who has ridden out some heavy Minnesota storms from within the confines of my nylon fortress, the prospect of going in without rain protection was terrifying. When I related my misgivings to Ryan about such a risk, he looked me square in the eye and with a steel confidence declared,

“Dude, it isn’t going to rain.”

I decided to trust my Tahoe-dwelling friend and didn’t pack my rain fly nor my rain gear. My apprehension was attenuated by the happy knowledge that doing so would lighten my pack, a welcome reduction given my less-than optimal level of fitness at the time.

Although our hiking party was composed of only two humans, three backpacks were loaded up. Ursa was going to have to carry her share. Within her little doggie pack she had her own food, her collapsible dish, our first aid kit, and our water filter. Once on the trail, Ursa moved with purpose and joy, pleased to be given a job to do.

Ursa all loaded up and ready for our taxing uphill trail assault. She carried her cargo with ease and enthusiasm, unlike myself.

After five miles of criss-crossing granite trails and dipping in and out of thick stretches of evergreen forests still holding snowbanks in the shadowy spots, we emerged from the trees and faced the arresting panorama of Lake Aloha.

Lake Aloha’ stunning beauty temporarily suspends the part of your brain responsible for creating speech. All you can do is gaze as the stark granite, stunted trees, and shimmering water work in concert to calm your nerves and awaken your spirit.

At just over 8,000 feet in elevation, Lake Aloha lies near the tree line, leaving scattered scrubby pine trees as the only source of precious shade from the unrelenting Tahoe summer sun. Do not forget your sunscreen should you venture into Desolation.

Lake Aloha is a man-made lake. By damming run off streams from the Crystal Mountain Range, the basin filled up, creating an archipelago with shallow waters in between the countless islands. The shallow water combined with the short distances between islands means that nearly the entire lake can be explored by swimming and walking. From one spot of dry land you can walk out in the water a long distance, and then have to swim only briefly over a deeper spot to reach shallow water again. The light grey granite lake bottom reflects the blasting sunshine back upwards, warming the shallower areas to near bathwater temperatures. This island-hopping form of exploration is one of the most enchanting and satisfying outdoor experiences I’ve ever had.

Ursa, who swims like a fish, couldn’t get enough of the shallow water wonders Lake Aloha provides. I’m certain she had more fun than I did.

As evening set in each night, our exhausted bodies cried for the soft embrace of our sleeping bags. But winning the battle to stay awake rewarded us with a vibrant alpenglow show just above the horizon; a visual lullaby that made sleep that much easier to give in to.

Evening stillness, within and without.

Lake Tahoe truly is one of the most beautiful places in America, if not the entire world. Whether you prefer immersing yourself in remote nature or relaxing amongst fellow campers, there is a level of solitude to suit your tastes. This alpine paradise may best be known for its world-class downhill skiing and snowboarding, but a summer visit will offer every bit as much (perhaps more) wonder and enjoyment.

John Muir may not have been able to get the words “national park” attached to the end of Lake Tahoe’s name, but anyone that visits this singular gem soon realizes that his “natural park” description couldn’t be more apt.







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