SF Gate: Lake Tahoe’s low season high time for recreation

Lake Tahoe’s low season high time for recreation

Alec Scott
October 29, 2014

“The fall up here? It’s a time when we watch extreme snowboarding videos and get psyched for the winter to come.” So says a guy who’s seated near me at dinner on a dock stretching out into Lake Tahoe from its less-visited west shore. He’s a precision carpenter from out East who’s worked on many high-end homes around the lake and in the villages that have grown up near its ski resorts.

I’m a skier and understand that sense of eagerness for the season to get under way. But there's something to being up here now, with fewer folks, between its big-box-office summers and winters — the “shoulder season.”

The roadside altitude markers jump up in increments of a thousand feet fairly quickly to top 6,000 as one enters Placer County, and my ears periodically pop. The efforts of engineers to make these high peaks passable draw attention to themselves: a tunnel driven with rudimentary tools through igneous rock, road switchbacks carved up steep slopes.

Case in point: the curved Donner Memorial Bridge or Rainbow Bridge, perching precariously over a chasm on Donner Pass Road, part of the old U.S. Highway 40. Completed in 1929, it was designed by Norman Raab, the man whose most famous spans support the Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur. A bear recently got trapped in the arch under the bridge and needed help to get down.

Mountain views

Near where I’m staying, in the guest rooms at the West Shore Cafe, there are bays on which multicolored powerboats and small yachts bob up and down, with the mountains of the Carson Range in the distance. Tahoe reminds me of Alpine lakes near the border of Italy and Switzerland. But the landscape is less manicured. Long-gone glaciers have tossed van-size boulders here and there as if they were so many dice; even after logging, second-growth Jeffrey pines can reach almost 200 feet, generally taller than the conifers near Lake Como, with rough, red bark.

At this time of year, the pines drop sharp brown needles and the odd big cone down from great heights — as I discovered on my first real hike, getting bonked and pricked, walking through a pine forest, on the way up to Brockway Summit East. The treeline ends just before the rocky top, and most of the lake is visible from here.
The next couple of days pass in a feverish round of activities — a somewhat frantic effort to make up for a sedentary line of work. I bike from the village at Squaw Valley along the Truckee River, Tahoe’s sole outlet, to Tahoe City. It seems somehow appropriate that one of the first offerings at the newly opened art-house cinema here is a Wes Anderson festival — the alpine kitsch near Tahoe seems right out of his “Grand Budapest Hotel” or “Moonrise Kingdom.” Still, no amount of quaint outdoor art can undermine the grandeur of the setting.

Fall color

In the Southwest Bay, a steep hiking trail mounts up to Eagle Falls, dramatic even with minimal water this time of year. The trembling aspens have turned yellow; the stairs hewn into the mountainside again speak, in a micro way, of the strenuous efforts people have made to access this extraordinary place.

Another nearby trail goes down to Emerald Bay — a layer of water that appears green along the bay’s edge explains the name. Here, Santa Barbara socialite Lora Knight commissioned a Scandinavian-style mansion, Vikingsholm, in 1929, and, on an island in the bay are the remains of a stone teahouse in the same style — a ruin made even more evocative by the knowledge that a hermit lived for years on the island.

Trail calm now

There’s no one else on a small portion of the Pacific Crest Trail that I hike and that passes through the slightly lunar, extremely dry landscape known as Desolation. I don’t expect to have this trail to myself at any walkable season next year: One of December’s most widely anticipated movie releases is “Wild,”with Reese Witherspoon playing a woman grappling on the trail with her divorce and her mother’s death.
(A few days after my return, the King Fire rages for more than two weeks, laying waste to nearly 100,000 acres, including parts of Desolation, but largely sparing Tahoe and its immediate surrounds.)

Tahoe tends to hold on to much of the summer’s heat through the fall, and both kayaking and paddle boarding remain popular pursuits, especially in the early-morning calm. My first effort at paddle boarding, unfortunately, doesn’t go so well. “You did fine,” the instructor kindly lies.

Activity rewarded

Still, in the compensations category, there was a bird I’d never seen floating nearby, a chestnut-colored merganser with a fringe on its head. It’s hardly a triathlon, but still I schedule a double reward for this rare bout of activity: a massage at the spa at the Ritz-Carlton at Northstar and a meal at its flagship restaurant, Manzanita.

On the trip’s last morning, I wake up early, and the sun coming over the Carson range paints the placid lake in pink, orange and blue. To butcher Wordsworth: bliss in this dawn to be alive. On the descent from these heights, again the ears pop. The signs come on all too quickly — 5,000 feet, 4,000, 3,000 — and lower still.

Mountain Bike, Paddle Board and Kayak Rental: Tahoe Adventure Company, various locations; (530) 913-9212. www.tahoeadventurecompany.com.

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