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Lake Tahoe Spotlight

The country's foremost outdoor playground entices visitors all year long

By Jordan Simon

April 4th, 2006

Mark Twain (when he was still known as Samuel Clemens) rhapsodized about Lake Tahoe, describing it as, "a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the seas . . . As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it surely must be the fairest picture the whole world affords." That statement remains true nearly 150 years later. Everything about Lake Tahoe is larger than life: Nestled among the Sierra Nevada's 10,000-foot peaks, North America's highest and largest alpine lake (at 22 miles long, 12 wide, with 72 miles of shoreline), straddles two states (California and Nevada), and, with a depth of 1000 feet (on average), ranks as the country's second-deepest swimming hole. Indeed, with this kind of setting, Tahoe certainly merits its indigenous Washoe name – the tribe's word for "Lake of the Sky" was, you guessed it, Tahoe.

Few resort regions offer so dynamic a combination of pristine beauty, pioneer history, four-season recreation options, and increasingly cosmopolitan dining and digs–all 200 miles (3.5 hours' drive) northeast of San Francisco and 35–50 miles from Reno, the closest gateway. Winter months lure snow lovers with skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, sleigh rides, dog sledding, and ice skating. Summer activities attract even greater throngs for kayaking, waterskiing, mountain biking, hiking, camping, Truckee River rafting, rock climbing, golfing, fishing, horseback riding, hot air ballooning, paddlewheel cruises, even scuba diving.

But exercise is optional. Year-round concerts, performances, and festivals celebrating everything from the arts to gastronomy satisfy culture vultures. History buffs can lasso a taste of the Old West in preserved logging/railroad towns like Truckee. Tahoe's equally action-packed at night, including lively casinos and world-class headliners in showrooms on the Nevada side. Major resort developers have rolled the dice on Tahoe, investing more than $1 billion in upscale renovations, upgrades and expansions since 2002, including a $750 million makeover for the formerly garish South Lake Tahoe. As a rule, Tahoe's North Shore is quieter, with pampering luxury resorts and posh residential enclaves; a faster, party-hearty pace prevails on the South Shore. But no matter what your interest, age or budget, you won't be gambling on a quality vacation: Tahoe comes up aces in every department.

Given the wealth of recreational activities – day and night, winter, summer, spring or fall – where should you stay and play? If you have a long weekend we recommend sticking to either the North or South side, and restricting your activities to a couple of resorts. With five days, you can take advantage of discount packages on everything from lodging to lift tickets, expanding your horizons to take a paddlewheeler cruise and ride panoramic trams. A week permits sampling at least four or five areas; depending on the timing of your visit, try spring skiing one day and golfing or fishing the next, and explore historic mansions and museums before hitting casinos and showrooms at night.

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