A ski lift at Squaw Valley Resort.

Jake Stangel

In Tahoe, Outdoor Adventure Abounds

Skiing in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, hiking and biking in between—Lake Tahoe’s choose-your-own-adventure spirit is quintessential California.

At 10:30 a.m. it was winter high in the peaks of Squaw Valley, one of the largest ski resorts in North America. It was what you’d expect in a late February squall in the Sierra Nevadas. There were three inches of fresh snow on the ground from the night before, and it was still coming down in stinging gusts. The wind was strong enough that they’d shut down one of the trams and closed the whole hot tub/pool situation at a lodge called High Camp, which sits up one of the mountains.

Beachside at Lake Tahoe.

Jake Stangel

That was a bummer. I was with my kids, and we were pretty excited by the idea that we could ski into a lodge, eat a pizza, and then sit in 100-degree water in the middle of a snowstorm. We’d even packed our bathing suits in a backpack.

Then, at about 11 a.m., the snow slowed and eventually stopped, the clouds parted, and we could almost see Lake Tahoe, slate blue and motionless between the peaks. There were some sailboats on it. People sailing isn’t what you expect to see after a late February squall. And, as we skied down the mountain, that sense of season dislocation continued. If it was February at 9,000 feet, it was definitely March at 8,000 feet, and we had that sunny/chilly feeling of April at 7,000. Near the bottom it felt like full-on May— which, according to the calendar, is what it was: Memorial Day weekend, 2019.

From left: Spring skiing in Lake Tahoe, where it can snow well into the summer; The hot tub at Squaw Valley Resort.

Jake Stangel

When we got to the Village at Squaw Valley, at the base of the mountain, there was some kind of Made in Tahoe festival going on, with suntanned outdoorsy Californians selling handcrafted dog leashes and woven ponchos. It felt like summer, and it reminded me of all those outdoor gatherings in the American West—the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the farmers’ market in Boulder—where people roast weenies and dance unselfconsciously to Grateful Dead–style music wearing elaborate footgear engineered to cure all the ailments of contemporary man and have their babies strapped onto themselves in carriers that hark back to the ancient ways of the papoose.

At first I just thought: Well, that’s spring for you. You know spring: “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” and all that. But this wasn’t just spring weather. This was When we got to the Village at Squaw Valley, at the base of the mountain, there was some kind of Made in Tahoe festival going on, with suntanned outdoorsy Californians selling handcrafted dog leashes and woven ponchos. It felt like summer, and it reminded me of all those outdoor gatherings in the American West—the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the farmers’ market in Boulder—where people roast weenies and dance unselfconsciously to Grateful Dead–style music wearing elaborate footgear engineered to cure all the ailments of contemporary man and have their babies strapped onto themselves in carriers that hark back to the ancient ways of the papoose.

A seaplane on the beach at the Lodge at Edgewood Tahoe.

Jake Stangel

At first I just thought: Well, that’s spring for you. You know spring: “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” and all that. But this wasn’t just spring weather. This was arctic snowsuit in the morning, thong bikini at 3, and rubber fishing waders at 5.” This was weather psychosis. And apparently it’s the way Lake Tahoe is, period. It can snow at almost any time of any month. This year the ski season at Squaw Valley went through July, even while down at the lakeshore the children of summer were splashing around on pleasure boats.

Lake Tahoe has long been the alpine resort of choice for families of the West Coast who seek a woodsy escape from their megalopolises. You can drive from San Francisco to Tahoe City, which sits right on the lake, in four hours. We had just moved to Los Angeles and had hopped an hour flight to Sacramento— it’s a short drive from there. The lake itself is gigantic—22 miles long and 12 miles across—and dotted with beaches and little frontier towns. It’s the largest alpine lake in North America and the largest lake of any kind in the U.S. outside of the Great Lakes. It plunges more than 1,500 feet into a wedge formed by two tectonic plates bashing into each other—total California moves, those tectonic bashes. It’s coated in a thick batting of national forest, with countless trailheads and bucketlist backpacking zones like the Desolation Wilderness. And it presents not just a theme-park sense of nature but a vast landscape where the modern world is hardly visible.

From left: The Lake Club at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe; one of the suites at the property.

Jake Stangel

The other definingly cool thingabout Tahoe is that it straddles the line between California and Nevada. In Lake Tahoe, it’s not just any season you want it to be; it’s also any state you want it to be. On the Nevada side the vibe is “lawless tattooed freewheeling retiree who can legally carry an assault weapon into a brothel”; on the California side it’s “heavily regulated solar-paneled progressive CBD craft brewery.” One ironic thing: Even though Tahoe is within Tesla range of San Francisco, tech billionaires tend to buy their pleasure palaces on the Nevada side to avoid California taxes; the mountain biker dropouts who marry free-spirited hippies with open chakras and who make their own deer jerky tend more to the California side. But they’re all within spitting distance—you can literally stand with one foot in Nevada and the other in California.
The way it works is the “North Lake” is California and the “South Lake” is Nevada. You can move freely between both places in a single weekend, or single afternoon—whenever you feel like a change of pace.

On Sunday morning my wife, kids, and I woke up in our James Bond– style chalet, which is called the RitzCarlton, Lake Tahoe. When you stay in one of these resorts, it’s a world unto itself, which is great if you’re spending a weekend skiing. The Ritz-Carlton is located “on the mountain,” as they say in ski resort–marketing departments. (It also has a beach club on the lake, by the way, which is key if you want your surf-and-turf vacation.) That means you don’t have to drive to go skiing, which is paramount for those people interested in not hating their children. The hotel is a castle village that calls to mind Hogwarts, or a palace from Game of Thrones, if it had elevators and a great breakfast buffet. There are stone hearths in every public room, where fake logs are left to spend eternity licked by an orange gas flame. There are several outdoor hot tubs—we sat in one during the snowstorm to watch people ski. There are board games in the lobby and energetic bellmen who make you believe it’s their absolute pleasure to park your Pirate’s Booty–dusted SUV. You could happily spend three days just skiing and going in and out of the hot tub.

But early that Sunday, we left. In the morning we skied in and we skied out. By 10 a.m. we realized that we were cold. The novelty of being able to experience February in almost-June was wearing thin. We wanted it to actually feel like almost-June in almost-June. So we got into the car and started driving along the western side of the lake, the California side. We hit Kings Beach first, one of the little towns strung along the narrow ledge of flatland between the lake and the mountains. There’s a main drag right on the shore, a couple of little beaches, vacation houses built into the mountains that rise up out of town, and a great pizza place called Whitecaps, where you can sit on the roof in short sleeves and look across the lake at the snowcapped mountains. We kept going south from there, past the pretty little sand beaches that would be packed in the summer months. I had promised my son we’d mountain bike, so we rented some at the Olympic Bike Shop in Tahoe City, the kind of place you could imagine coming upon by horseback in 1800 but that has a brandnew CVS pharmacy. By the afternoon we were having lunch at the Lodge at Edgewood Lake Tahoe—on the Nevada side. Five minutes from Harrah’s. Ten minutes from a place where you can sell your wedding ring to get more money so you never have to stop playing the slot machines.

The Edgewood is new, LEED-certified and sort of like a living Restoration Hardware catalog plopped directly on the leeward shore of Lake Tahoe. You can sit in a heated pool and stare at the mountains rising from the opposite shore, which we did, and I’d still be doing that right now if I’d had my druthers. You can also play golf on the lakeside course, if that’s your bag. After lunch we drove back by way of Truckee, California—the town in Tahoe that, in my limited experience, has the greatest sense of itself. There’s a main street with historical storefronts that would be just the place to get shot by someone in a ten-gallon hat. There are craft breweries and old diners and spaced-out-looking refugees from the 1970s wandering the streets in clown pants. It’s where the expats who want to drop out but still want a good yoga class and a vibrant community settle down. We drank a local craft beer, which is what people do in Truckee, and then kept on.

The dock on the lake at The Lake Club at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

Jake Stangel

We were almost back at the RitzCarlton when we saw an actual bear. It was a juvenile, lying on the scree and scratching itself in a leisurely way as the sun went down. It was kind of magical, watching that bear just existing and allowing us to witness it. I killed the engine, and the kids and my wife and I sat perfectly still, trying not to speak or breathe lest we break the spell and cause nature to realize it was being observed and trundle off to its den. We could hear it breathing. We could hear the skittering of stones as it moved.

I felt a weird sensation watching that bear. We had recently moved to Los Angeles from New York. And going to Tahoe was a way to try to take advantage of what people rightly say is cool about California. Which is that it’s everything all at once. It’s a Rubik’s cube of geology, an amusement park of climates and landforms, all accessible in half a day. And that was Tahoe too. It was California in microcosm. All the seasons, all the outdoor sports. Even the fact that it was part Nevada was very California—when you live in California, you can have Nevada too, because why not? And that’s California’s greatest strength, but also its most insurmountable problem. How can something be anything that is also everything? How can you count on California, when California will change itself to suit you? The answer is you can’t. California is who you leave your husband for, only to find out everyone leaves their husband for California, and California is actually busy next Tuesday, it turns out, but let’s totally get together sometime— you’re the best.

From left: A vintage sign in Truckee, California; Truckee's Main Street.

Jake Stangel

So this was my philosophical monologue on the subject of personal unlovability. I kept it to myself. Because why wait for California, or Tahoe, to love you back? You’re wasting your time. There’s other cool stuff to do. Even at that moment, while the bear was scratching. We waited. We tittered. We took iPhone photos. But still the bear would not leave. It refused to be startled even when we accidentally turned on the satellite radio and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. Sure, it felt like a violation to throw away the gift of a bear sighting before its natural conclusion. But we left anyway. The resort’s Marshmology course started at five o’clock, and unlike bears, Marshmology doesn’t wait. 

Tahoe Tips

STAY

The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe

Perched on the mountain, the ski-in and ski-out resort has a private pier, a beach, two pools, and a luxury spa. Rooms from $289

The Lodge at Edgewood Tahoe

Amenities at the 154-room property include a lakefront pool, golf course, state-of-the-art spa, and fire pits. Make sure to pick up a complimentary s’mores kit. Rooms from $309.

EAT

Whitecaps Pizza

A casual spot right on Kings beach.

Wolfdale’s

Since 1978, this favorite institution has served Asian-inspired dishes.

Alibi Ale Works

The taproom has locations in Incline Village and Truckee.