Fall is a spectacular season in Lake Tahoe.
For a few weeks between the go-go summer festival season and the popular winter ski season, there's a lull in the traffic and crowds -- an ideal time to head to the Lake for a weekend.
You'll take in wide open vistas anchored by the largest, most pristine alpine lake in America -- highlighted by the yellows and oranges of western fall foliage and the deep hues of evergreen forests.
Lake Tahoe is a four-hour drive from San Francisco, and less than a two-hour drive from Sacramento.
And providing air access just 45 miles from the Lake, the Reno Tahoe International Airport is served by dozens of daily flights from major cities across the country.
Lake Tahoe straddles California's eastern and Nevada's western state lines. Carved by glaciers, it's 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, ringed by 72 miles of easily accessible shoreline and mountains that rise more than 4,000 feet above the water.
The Lake Tahoe area offers a wide range of upscale lodging, from luxury suites at the mountain ski resorts to lavish lakeside cottages. In between are hotels, motels, inns and lodges, bed and breakfasts, and rental condos and cabins.
You'll also find plenty of chic dining in Tahoe-casual settings -- even the Nevada side of the Lake features sophisticated California cuisine.
The North Shore
I'm partial to the north shore of Lake Tahoe, where Truckee serves as a gateway to both mountain and Lake destinations. It used to be a funky little Old West town, but today Truckee's Commercial Row features authentic stone-and-timber buildings housing hip shops and trendy restaurants.
Set inside the historic
Moody's Bistro & Lounge is a happening place with casual fare. If it's mild enough outside, ask for a table on the brick patio.Reservations are recommended (even for weekend lunches) at
Dragonfly. The cuisine is Asian/California fusion, and the second floor deck provides outstanding views of downtown and the mountains.
Truckee is a few miles inland, so if you prefer to head directly to the Lake, travel south from there on Highway 89 to Tahoe City, and then north on Highway 28 to
GarWoods Grill and Pier at Carnelian Bay. It's open all day, and offers floor-to-ceiling lakeside views from the dining room, as well as from the immense heated deck.
If you continue traveling along the north shore on Highway 28 and across the California state line to the Incline Village/Crystal Bay area, you'll find Nevada-style 24-hour gaming and live entertainment at the
Tahoe Biltmore, the
Crystal Bay Club Casino, and the
Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino.
The South Shore
Although the south shore city of Stateline was considered pretty tacky in the recent past, it's undergoing a rejuvenation that's benefiting the entire region.
If you opt for the upscale Heavenly Village area, on Highway 28 just south of Highway 207, you could easily spend the entire weekend enjoying its hip shopping and tasteful dining.
Great lunch stops include
Kalani's, which offers Pacific Rim fusion and sushi, and the colorful and quirky
Fire and Ice, where your choice of fresh ingredients will be cooked to order while you watch.
Upscale accommodations are available at the
Marriott Timber Lodge, the
Embassy Suites Hotel Lake Tahoe Resort and the
Forest Inn Suites Resort.
There's also casino lodging within walking distance at
Harvey's Lake Tahoe and Horizon Casino Resort.
The newest kid on the block -- and the linchpin of the area's rejuvenation -- is the
MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa, formerly Caesars Tahoe.
The remodeled property debuted in May 2006, and features a cool and contemporary environment with seven restaurants, four nightclub venues and a 40,000 square foot casino featuring the most popular table games and slot machines.
Circling the Lake
No matter which shore you end up on, the scenic drive that circles the Lake is a magnificent fall activity.
Along the way, you can linger as long as you like at a number of historic sites and museums that bring to life the heyday times from the Gold Rush through the 1920s.
Keep in mind that as the days shorten, most of these destinations will have abbreviated hours. In almost all cases you can still enjoy their outstanding grounds and scenery -- but it's wise to call ahead if you want to tour inside any buildings. The
North Lake Tahoe Historical Society (530-541-3030) operates three must-sees in Tahoe City on the north shore.
The Gatekeeper's Museum is a reconstruction of the original home of the water master who controlled the flow of water out of Lake Tahoe. It showcases Tahoe history, from its Native American inhabitants through the logging years and the establishment of the early tourism industry.
The Marion Steinbach Indian Basket Museum features a private collection of baskets from 85 tribes throughout California, as well as Native Indian jewelry, tools and pottery.
The nearby Watson Cabin Museum is decorated with period furnishings and surrounded by outstanding gardens.
Also on the north shore, close to Incline Village, the
Thunderbird Lodge Historic Site is one of the last and best examples of a great residential estate from the period when prominent San Francisco society enjoyed vast lakefront compounds.
The site includes many out buildings in addition to the main house, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Continuing along the east shore of the Lake and into California and Emerald Bay, you'll find
Vikingsholm, considered the finest example of Scandinavian architecture in the Western hemisphere.
The castle, completed in 1929 and featuring turrets, towers, and intricate carvings, has a premier lakefront location and provides endless scenic overlooks. The nearby
Tallac Historic Site is a 74-acre compound, comprised of buildings from a popular resort for travelers during the Gold Rush and three estates that served as summer retreats at the turn of the 20th century.
Above and Beyond
If sitting in a car isn't what you're looking for, there are plenty of other activities that revolve around the crystalline lake that can fill your weekend.
The classic paddle wheeler Tahoe Queen and the M.S. Dixie II (800-238-2463) are popular venues for sightseeing cruises and weekend dinner/dance or buffet voyages.
The Safari Rose (888-867-6394) also provides guided tours of Tahoe's extraordinary shoreline and lakefront attractions.
HeliTahoe offers helicopter tours ranging from 20 minutes, focusing on the Zephyr Cove and Emerald Bay shorelines, to a gorgeous hour-long sunset tour around the Lake.
And for a truly unforgettable experience,
Lake Tahoe Balloons provides a bird's-eye view with its hot-air balloons, which take off from and land on a 40-foot catamaran yacht in the middle of the Lake.
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Barbara Koeth is an independent corporate communications writer and consultant who's always up for an adventure. A former resident of New York City, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She has worked with many Fortune 100 companies, and has published articles in Crain's New York Business, BuySide and Modern Bride.