Lake Tahoe offers mountain beauty paired with casino bustle, writes Pamela Wade.
"Never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can."
Twelve-year-old Virginia Reed's advice for travellers through the Sierra Nevadas was based on bitter experience of a journey in 1846 that could hardly have gone more wrong. But our regret was not having more time to explore California's spectacularly beautiful mountain range.
The loop from San Francisco around Lake Tahoe was both easy and rewarding, but it gave a spectacular taste of this region.
In a day's drive we passed through groves of peach and orange trees, bare golden hills mimicking the precious metal beneath that brought prospectors flocking along this route, then rows of forested ridges shading through the rainbow from green to deepest purple.
As we approached the southern end of Lake Tahoe we entered aspen country: beautiful trees with brilliant white bark and, in October, trembling leaves of purest yellow that as they fell laid a glowing carpet that lit up the woods. They set the stage for the lake, a huge expanse of purest blue that has had people gasping in delight for centuries: first the local Washoe Indians, then weary gold miners, and now a steady stream of holiday-makers.
The lake lies in a high basin that straddles the border between California and Nevada, the second-biggest alpine lake in the world. Its fabulously clear blue water once allowed a white dinner plate on the end of a rope to be still visible at a depth of over 30m; even today, careful management has maintained the clarity to around 25m, allowing some to claim sightings of a long black shape moving through the depths.
Tahoe Tessie was, however, a no-show for us on our trip across the lake on the MS Dixie II, a Mississippi-built paddle-steamer. Ringed by mountains reaching up 1000m above its surface, the lake is edged by sandy beaches, steep cliffs and clusters of rounded rocks left by ancient glaciers, but the focus of our cruise was Emerald Bay, where the water is green, reflecting the steep wooded slopes. Tucked into the curve of the bay is rocky Fannette Island, topped by a little stone teahouse that would look at home by a Scottish loch. The view of the bay from the road above is claimed to be the most photographed in the world, and it was easy to see why.
South Lake Tahoe is a big town, busy and brash, with many casinos on the Nevada side, and we drove north to quieter and older Tahoe City, where the Truckee River empties out of the lake.
Along the river is Squaw Valley, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1960 and the flame still burns at the entrance to the Resort at Squaw Creek. It was so luxurious and comfortable there that it was tempting just to wrap up in a snuggly robe and lounge by the fire, but outside there was too much to see and do.
On a bike ride down the Truckee River Trail I passed many friendly family parties walking, biking with toddlers in trailers and pulling inflatables out of the river with a "Hoowee, that water's cold!" But it was soothing to sit quietly on a log beside the clear water and watch the trout jump.
We saw more fish the next day. At Taylor Creek a footbridge was the perfect place to watch hundreds of red-striped kokanee salmon spawning below and to marvel at the distance they had swum to lay their eggs.
Poor Virginia Reed saw too much of nature's rougher side when her family tried to cross the mountains too close to winter. The Donner Party Museum at Truckee on the way back to San Francisco tells the sobering tale of starvation, death and cannibalism, and instilled in us a new respect for the motor car, which makes it so easy to go to beautiful Lake Tahoe - and come back again.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to San Francisco.
Hire a car from Hertz at San Francisco Airport and drive to Sacramento, then along Highway 50 to South Lake Tahoe and back from Tahoe City along Interstate 80: about a 500km round trip.
Where to stay: The Resort at Squaw Creek is superbly comfortable, with an excellent restaurant and many facilities, including a spa. We went in October, but there are activities to suit every season, including swimming, fishing, boating, skiing, hiking, horse-riding, biking and golf.
Further information: The lake's name is pronounced "tar-ho"! To find out more about the area go to visitinglaketahoe.com.
Pamela Wade travelled to San Francisco courtesy of Air New Zealand and around California with the assistance of Tourism California and House of Travel.