What Is Lake Tahoe Known For?

On the border of California and Nevada — right where the line makes a sharp downward turn —  is a large, deep alpine lake. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe is a center for boating and mountain activities in the interior west of the United States. But what makes this lake special, and what is Lake Tahoe known for?

Lake Tahoe is known for the wide variety of outdoor recreation activities, from boating and water sports in the summer to skiing in the winter. Aside from tourism, the lake is one of the deepest in the world. And much of the area is protected to preserve the natural beauty and ecosystem. 

Because the lake and the wilderness around it are so extensive, there are dozens of activities and attractions at Lake Tahoe all year round. The lake’s history is also an interesting look at how the west interacted with the rest of the country in the antebellum period. Read on to learn more about this incredible area in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

a photo of two people paddling a kayak in Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe in the Summer

Lake Tahoe is the 16th deepest lake in the world and the sixth-largest lake in the United States (following the five Great Lakes) by volume. The waters are known for their clarity and deep blue color. With a body of water this impressive, it’s no wonder that most of the summer activities in the area are water-related. 

The surrounding mountains are known to be a hotbed of recreational activity as well, with plenty of hiking and biking options. The communities around Lake Tahoe also offer numerous golf courses with gorgeous views of the lake and mountains. 

 

Lake Tahoe is Known for it’s Boating and Water Sports

The warmer months bring the most variety of activities to Lake Tahoe. Boating is incredibly popular, and many of the lakefront restaurants and businesses have docks to park your boat. Sailing, cruises, and other leisure boating events happen throughout the summer, including the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance for wooden boats.

Smaller watercraft are also popular. Paddleboards, kayaks, and jet skis are all popular, as is parasailing. Swimming is allowed, and scuba diving has gained popularity, especially since California added its first underwater heritage trail to the area. The underwater trail showcases shipwrecks of various boats from the lake’s history, accessible via snorkel or scuba. 

 

Lake Tahoe is Known For it’s Boat Competition: Concours d’Elegance

Since 1972, classic wooden boat enthusiasts have gathered at Lake Tahoe for the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance. This boat competition happens in August for a few days during Wooden Boat Week. It’s the premier wooden boat show in the United States. 

Events include races, a judged boat show, and barbecues at the various yacht clubs around the lake. Each year, the events raise money for various charities and foundations dedicated to preserving the lake and protecting the maritime landscape. This way, boat lovers can preserve the area and the pastime for generations to come. 

Fishing

There are plenty of fishing areas around the lake and in some of its 63 tributaries. There are native and stocked species of fish, including trout and salmon, in the lake. The native trout species — the Lahontan cutthroat trout — was eventually pushed out by the nonnative species, but reintroduction efforts started in 2019.

Some of the nonnative species good for fishing are brown, rainbow, brook, lake trout, and sockeye salmon. Fishing seasons vary in the lake and the tributaries, so check the open season dates carefully before heading out. However, most fishing areas are open by July, so summer is a good fishing season.

 

Hiking and Biking Trails

Out of the water, the mountains offer a stunning array of hiking and biking trails, as well as some motorbike-accessible trails. There are trails for every skill and fitness level, whether you’re traveling by foot or by wheel. 

There are a handful of state parks and other wilderness recreation areas scattered around the lake’s massive shoreline, in addition to the seasonal and year-round communities. There are dozens of views and vistas you can visit, whether you’re up for a full-day adventure or just a few hours on an easy path.  

Be sure to check out this book on Amazon for a list of hikes in the area.

 

Golf Courses 

Another way to take in the impressive scenery is from any of the golf courses around the lake. They range in splendor and difficulty level from kid-friendly to pro-level. At every course, the biggest draw is the incredible beauty of the surrounding landscape. Many courses feature tributaries as they flow towards Lake Tahoe, and mountain views are possible from almost every angle.

a photo looking down over the snow covered Lake Tahoe area, showing the sky hills and chair lift

Lake Tahoe in the Winter

Summer might be the star for water sports at Lake Tahoe, but the mountains take center stage in the winter. The skiing is so good, the Squaw Valley in California hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. There are a dozen ski areas around the lake, mostly above the northern shores. 

Winter activities aren’t limited to skiing, however. There are plenty of other snow-related pastimes and sports you can take advantage of in the Lake Tahoe area. The enormous amount of water in the valley makes for abundant snow in the winter, so tubing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing are readily accessible in the area. 

 

Downhill Skiing

The best skiing in the Sierra Nevadas is located in the Lake Tahoe region. The ski resorts range from enormous resorts like the Heavenly Mountain Resort to smaller areas like the Donner Ski Ranch. While smaller than Heavenly, Donner Ranch has more than 50 runs. 

Heavenly Mountain Resort has nearly 100 ski runs. The resort straddles the California-Nevada border in the north of the lake, and there are runs in both states. Squaw Valley (which is in the midst of a name change) is the second largest in the area, benefiting from the rush of infrastructure the 1960 Olympics brought with them. 

 

Other Winter Sports

While Tahoe is known for its skiing, other winter sports are available, including snow tubing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. These activities let you take advantage of the hiking and biking trails that are so popular in summer in a whole new way. 

Many of the ski resorts offer tubing on the hills that are too small for good skiing. Most of these resorts offer equipment rental or instruction as well, so whether you’re a beginner or an expert, Lake Tahoe’s winter magic is accessible to you. 

a picture of a bunch of colorful kayaks on the sandy shore of Lake Taho

Lake Tahoe’s Year-Round Attractions

Water activities and winter attractions are the biggest draws for Lake Tahoe, but there are year-round activities — both indoor and outdoor — that round out the Tahoe experience. The state parks are open year-round or close to year-round, and on the Nevada side, there are a handful of casinos available. 

 

Casinos

Casinos on the shore of Lake Tahoe pre-date the legalization of gambling in Nevada. The Cal-Neva casino’s first iteration went up in 1926, five years before it was legal. Since legalization in 1931, nearly a dozen other casinos have popped up on the north and south shores. 

The Cal-Neva isn’t just the oldest casino in the area; it’s also a property that Frank Sinatra once owned in the 1960s as interest in the area was growing. Tahoe is a different environment from nearby Las Vegas in nearly every way, but the lake casinos uphold the gambling standards of the state of Nevada.

 

Donner Memorial State Park

Donner Memorial State Park offers camping, hiking, and a visitor center all year long on the California side. There’s a monument commemorating the infamous Donner Party, who were trapped in the area during the winter of 1846 to 1847.

The party is most well-known for engaging in cannibalism to survive the winter. The visitor center at the state park has a more thorough account of the expedition and exhibits on other histories of the area. The Donner Pass area is worth a trip no matter the season.

 

Tallac Historic Site

Another historic area is the Tallac Historic Site which showcases three estates on the shores of Lake Tahoe. They were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and offer visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of some of Tahoe’s earlier residents. 

The site has numerous cabins and cottages alongside the larger houses, filled with information and activities about the lives of the people who lived in them. There is also a theater. And the site is often used as a venue for parties and weddings in rain, snow, or shine. 

a beautiful scenic photo of lake tahoe, the rocks, and the trees surrounding the lake

Lake Tahoe History and Trivia

Lake Tahoe is estimated to be over two million years old, so its history extends far beyond the history of the United States or even the California and Nevada settlements. The Washoe people are the earliest known inhabitants of the Lake Tahoe Basin, and the current name derives from their native language, Washo. 

Once settlers arrived in the area during the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s, the area quickly became the site of several border controversies and naming disputes between California and Nevada, which still linger to this day. Later, there was a dispute in the 1930s with the Washoe people over a sacred cave.

 

Lady of the Lake Cave Rock

Near the southeastern shore of the lake is a natural rock formation at the mouth of a cave that resembles the profile of a woman looking out over the water. The formation and the cave behind it are sacred sites for the Washoe people called De’ek Wadapush. 

Throughout their history, the Washoe people used the cave for rituals. In 1931 however, the United States government blasted a hole through the back of the rock formation to make a traffic tunnel for U.S. Route 50. The Washoe people were not consulted and disapproved of this action.

In recent years, the U.S. government has taken steps to limit recreation and activity at the site while giving control back to the Washoe people. The Lady of the Lake is still visible from the cave’s mouth if you paddle or kayak out to it on the water. 

 

Name Changes

In 1844, Lt. John C. Fremont, the first non-indigenous explorer in the area, named the water Lake Bonpland. This would be the first of half a dozen monikers for the lake before California officially established it as Lake Tahoe in 1945. 

The next name to stick was Lake Bigler, named for California’s third governor. However, Governor Bigler was an outspoken and passionate Confederate supporter, which earned him enormous disdain from the Unionist public in the California-Nevada area. 

A pair of mapmakers first suggested the name Tahoe in 1862 as an alternative to Lake Bigler. Tahoe is a mispronunciation of the Washo word for “edge of the lake,” which the mapmakers believed meant “water in a high place.” 

Tahoe got almost as much backlash as the name Bigler had, most notably from Mark Twain. The California legislature tried to confirm the name officially as Lake Bigler in 1870, but the name would not stick with the general public. By then, Lake Tahoe was the common name, appearing on most maps and literature. Eventually, the legislature made the switch official regardless of Mark Twain’s opinion.

a photo of the sunset or over Lake Tahoe

Mark Twain and Lake Tahoe

As much as Mark Twain disliked the lake’s name, he is one of Lake Tahoe’s most famous enthusiasts. He lived in the area beginning in 1861 and wrote about the lake’s incomparable beauty frequently. 

The cabin he lived in on the south shore is long gone. But the site where it stood is marked in the meadow that stands there now.

 

California-Nevada Border Disputes

Lake Tahoe sits directly on top of the California-Nevada border, a fact that has plagued the two states for generations. Differences in surveying results and acceptance of latitudinal and longitudinal measurements have repeatedly come into conflict with the states’ boundaries that are specified in their respective constitutions.

In 1980, the Supreme Court heard arguments related to these discrepancies. It invoked the legal concept of acquiescence, which essentially means that the states have agreed to disagree about the exact borders, with most of the lake falling into California’s land. 

Check out this book here on Amazon for images of Lake Tahoe’s history.

 

Conclusion

Lake Tahoe is a gem in the west, offering California and Nevada abundant natural beauty. Tourists from around the country and the world flock there for outdoor recreation throughout the year to take advantage of the wide variety of winter and summer options. The region has an interesting history and deep importance as a wilderness preserve in the intermountain west.

 

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