Lake Tahoe, USA: Diving into the world's second-largest alpine lake

Lake Tahoe is blessed with natural beauty and an air of mystery, Julie Miller writes.

The aim of stand-up paddle boarding, as a general rule, is not to get wet. But the gin-clear abyss of Lake Tahoe is an irresistible lure, and I need a closer view . 

I plunge into the blue where shafts of sunlight dance like lightning bolts, illuminating darting fish, boulders on the sandy floor and my own toes, corpse-white in the frigid depths. It's said that the clarity of the world's second-largest alpine lake has decreased since the 1960s from 30 to 23 metres; but to my waterlogged eyes, it's still as described by Mark Twain in 1872: "not merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so."

When the young humorist first laid eyes on the high alpine lake that straddles the border of California and Nevada, he declared it "the fairest picture the whole earth affords". It is, indeed, a landscape of superlatives – impossible shades of blue, cradled between the tiara-topped Sierra Nevada mountains, with inviting sandy beaches and sheer banks swathed in a carpet of pine. 

As bewitching as the lake is, however, it's what surrounds it that attracts most Australian visitors:  sky-piercing mountains, and bucketloads of snow during the northern winter. A scenic 3½-hour drive from San Francisco or just 90 minutes from Reno, Tahoe's many ski resorts  offer some of the best downhill skiing and snowboarding in the west.

Peak season at Tahoe, however, is summer.   as a soft adventure destination, it's the total package, with hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and every imaginable water sport. The days are sunny and temperate, the nights cool enough for sleep and there's an air of celebration in the resorts, with special events and festivals for added value.

Tahoe is not a single-stop destination, however. There are many moods to this 490 square kilometre body of water, from historic towns to chi chi beach hotels, wind-swept heights to alluring underwater mysteries. There is also a palpable rivalry between its North and South shores, with glamorous Californian northeners, with their million-dollar holiday homes, marinas and day spas,  often referring to their more folksy, gambling neighbours in the Nevada south as "the dark side".

Our first taste of Tahoe is in the raucous northern gateway of Truckee, an historic railway and timber town that has retained its gritty edge. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the main street has the ambience of a Hollywood western, with original wooden facades, honky-tonk dives and the atmospheric Truckee Hotel, its history resonant in period furniture, sloping creaky floor and chandeliers that tinkle as resident ghosts flit by.

After a surprising gourmet dinner at the hotel, we head across the road to Bar of America where a band scorches the stage, igniting a capacity crowd of weekend revellers. My friend and I flirt with some young men from San Francisco having a "boy's weekend' at a lakeside holiday house,  with an unrelenting  schedule of  drinking, gambling and Fantasy Football League planned.

We have more al fresco activities on the agenda, exploring the lake. . We gawk at luxurious homes, vestiges of Hollywood's assault on Tahoe  in the 1960s ; then indulge in some contemporary glamour at the Hyatt Regency beach club, a sea of umbrellas and sun beds on a sandy white carpet,  paddle the mirrored coves in kayaks, admiring the historic estates, the original log summer homes from the 19th century tucked behind ponderosa pines.

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At Heavenly, a gondola whisks us up 3000 metres, where, according to Twain, "the air would restore an Egyptian mummy .... pure and fine, bracing and delicious."  Filling our lungs with this elixir of life - "the air that angels breathe" - we hike lonseome backcountry trails with expansive views to the east, Nevada's rural basin parched in the summer haze.

We rejoin the masses at the Observation Deck. Below lies the beguiling Jewel of the Sierras. Up to 500 metres deep, the lake,  with its   147 litres of water,  never freezes; but its rumoured that its depths harbour hundred of bodies,  murdered Chinese railway workers and victims of mob slayings,  perfectly preserved by the extreme chill.  Urban legend or not, it's a curious fact that bodies lost to the lake never actually surface ..

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

tahoesouth.com; gotahoenorth.com

GETTING THERE

United Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to San Francisco. Phone 131 777 or visit united.com. Lake Tahoe is a 3-4 hour drive from San Francisco, with car rental available through driveaway.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Rooms at the historic Truckee Hotel are priced from $US79, truckeehotel.com. There are also many hotels in the Heavenly Ski Village, including the Forest Suites Resort, forestsuites.com.

SEE+DO

Stand Up Paddle Board rental with Tahoe Adventure Company costs $US20 an hour, $US70 half day. tahoeadventurecompany.com. A scenic gondola ride at Heavenly costs $US41 for adults, $US23 for children. See skiheavenly.com

The writer travelled as a guest of United Airlines, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority and North Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau.

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