Before anything else-before Heavenly Mountain Resort, before the casinos, hotels or restaurants-there was the lake. Twelve miles wide, 22 miles long, 1,645 feet deep and more than a mile above sea level, it was worshipped by the Washoe Indians, who called the surrounding area "Daowaga," or "edge of the lake." Trappers subsequently mangled Daowaga to "Tahoe," which stuck.
Crossing the Sierras in the mid-19th century, Mark Twain wrote, "We plodded on and at last the lake burst upon us, a noble sheet of blue water...walled in by a rim of snow-clad peaks that towered aloft full 3,000 feet higher still." Explorer John C. Fremont, however, had a bleaker experience. Watching him pack as he prepared to cross the Sierras, the Washoes warned that the journey consisted of "rock on rock...snow on snow"-bad news for Fremont and his corps, two of whom were driven insane by the unceasing cold and lack of food.
There's little risk of going hungry (or freezing to death) in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., these days, but a certain degree of insanity still prevails in this hardworking, increasingly upmarket ski town set against the slopes of Heavenly Mountain Resort. Tiger Woods recently dropped a rumored $30 million on a spread nearby, and million-dollar properties are common. But Lake Tahoe's South Shore also remains home to a motley assortment of big-name ski bums, blackjack dealers, dancers, musicians and bartenders, all of whom add an edgy spice to the area. A few insist it's something in the lake water-a microscopic bug that annually derails career-oriented college graduates.
San Francisco is three and a half hours to the southwest, Reno 90 minutes east, but arriving in the Tahoe area from either direction, you can't miss the California/Nevada border. Straddling Highway 50, Stateline, Nev., is a modern-day Sodom of blinking neon, shining glass facades, comedians, crooners and the many wonders of saline implants. It attracts senior citizens lugging buckets of hoarded quarters, German tourists hitting 17 at the blackjack tables and myopic men who abandon the family station wagon and eagerly sacrifice retirement or college funds at the altar of the tumbling dice. It's all ringing jackpots, screaming gamblers, groaning smorgasbords and enough flashing lights to induce a seizure.
Step across the line to South Lake Tahoe, however, and the difference is dramatic. If Stateline has been called Tahoe's armpit, the South Shore is the lake's hard-pumping heart. Highway 50 serves as South Lake Tahoe's clogged but irreplaceable aorta. The lake is on one side, the mountains on the other and, when fresh snow buries Heavenly, lines of San Francisco and Sacramento SUVs creep from light to light at a pace that drives local skiers mad. Fresh lines and unexplored glades are waiting on the steep faces above, the clock is ticking, and the supermarkets, ski shops, fast-food restaurants and lodges that crowd the highway serve only to mark the distance to Heavenly's lower parking lot.
As you turn east from 50 up Ski Run Boulevard, South Lake Tahoe's lights give way to ancient, weathered neighborhoods. Closer to Heavenly, houses are graced with bright Austrian frescoes that in turn yield to trophy homes set on granite outcrops. And while property is valued most by whether it offers a glimpse of the lake, real estate agents typically spin their customers 180 degrees and point to the ski runs that cascade down Heavenly's west face. West of Highway 50, homes are valued as much by square footage as by their distance from the lake. Two blocks is good, a block even better. Lakefront property will fund both the kids' tuition at Stanford and your early retirement.
Real estate brokers convincingly argue that gamblers and tourists annually pump perhaps a billion dollars into the local economy. Add new luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, deep snow and 16 ski areas within an hour's drive, and South Lake Tahoe simply can't lose. Indeed, opportunies to ski, boat, hike and gamble amid blue water, majestic peaks, deep snow and crystalline air have put considerable pressure on South Shore real estate. During the last five years, the median price of homes has nearly doubled. Many absentee owners must now rent their properties to service top-heavy mortgages. Vacation rentals have increased 80 percent, with more than a quarter of South Lake Tahoe's 14,000 homes now leased on a nightly, weekly or monthly basis-often to skiers.
When heavy Gulf of Alaska storms sweep Lake Tahoe, they create a microclimate that brings Stateline to a standstill and buries the newly resurgent slopes of Heavenly. Vail Resorts bought the mountain in 2002 and has since invested a staggering $200 million in improvements, including new lifts, new runs and enhanced snowmaking and grooming. With one foot in California and the other in Nevada, Heavenly now comprises more than 4,800 acres, 85 runs and 30 lifts-including a new gondola that serves a base village steps from local casinos. On the Nevada side, runs such as Galaxy fall toward the dun-colored desert, while across the ridge in California, skiers plummet down Canyon and High Roller toward Lake Tahoe's mirrored sapphire surface. The mix of desert and lake offers the best of both worlds, though the resort's complex lift and trail system can confuse all but celebrated locals such as Glen Plake, Shaun Palmer and Brad Holmes, who, if they weren't born on the mountain, were raised on it-and have decided to stick around.
On a rainy winter day in the late '90s, Plake and Palmer were cruising the South Shore's weathered neighborhoods, looking for a couple of fixer-uppers. Both had been raised in the area, had attended local schools and raced on the Heavenly Valley Ski Team. During roughly three decades at the lake, Plake had watched the cost of real estate soar. He realized that if he and his wife, Kimberly, didn't buy something soon, they'd be closed out forever. Back then, small cabins of roughly 1,000 square feet could still be found between Stateline and Heavenly for less than $80,000. Plake discovered a listing two-story cabin that for the previous eight years had sheltered restaurant workers. When Plake first walked through the house, he recalls, "it smelled like a fish factory and looked worse." Other than that it was, in Plake's words, "a classic South Shore ski cabin." While Plake was building a new fence, dropping dead ponderosa and clearing four truckloads of junk out of the backyard, plans were announced for the new gondola-which, as luck would have it, would go up a mere two blocks from Plake's cabin, which promptly tripled in value.
Growth, however, has a price. Parker Bryan's family has owned a home in a 3,300-acre gated community just north of Stateline since 1955. Along with a 1958 wood-hull Chris-Craft and private nine-hole golf course, Parker also enjoys spectacular views of the lake. He was 7 years old when he started skiing at Heavenly. "In those days, it was very quiet," he says. "Now traffic is increasing, and more people have moved here to telecommute to jobs in Sacramento and San Francisco."
Perhaps more distressing than traffic or crowding are the environmental pressures that come with growth. Over the past 50 years, the waters of Lake Tahoe have lost a third of their clarity. While a 10-inch white plate was once visible 100 feet below the surface, that distance has shrunk to 65 feet. Charles Goldman, the scientist who sounded the first alarm over Tahoe's declining clarity, believes if something isn't done in the coming decade, the trend may be irreversible. Often referred to as "The Jewel of the Sierra," Tahoe is drained only by the Truckee River and, as a result of recent droughts, is at its lowest level in years. If a combination of below-average snowfalls and excess nitrogen stimulates an algal bloom, Goldman says, it could take 700 years for the lake's natural cleansing power to repair the damage.
The Tahoe Regional Protection Agency has enacted a variety of building restrictions. One of the more controversial stipulates that only 2,200 square feet of a house can be seen from the lake-and it must blend with its surroundings. The upside of increased regulation is that, viewed from Tahoe's western shore, South Lake Tahoe is defined by little more than Heavenly's white ski runs. Forests hide most of the rest-the old cabins and new condos, the ski shops and restaurants and the lines of SUVs. Despite the growth, the new businesses and trophy homes, skiers, gamblers and sightseers still experience a universal first impression of awe, excitement and delight. The Washoes got it right. Call it Daowaga or Tahoe, the lake and its surrounding mountains are as much cathedral as resort.
ional Protection Agency has enacted a variety of building restrictions. One of the more controversial stipulates that only 2,200 square feet of a house can be seen from the lake-and it must blend with its surroundings. The upside of increased regulation is that, viewed from Tahoe's western shore, South Lake Tahoe is defined by little more than Heavenly's white ski runs. Forests hide most of the rest-the old cabins and new condos, the ski shops and restaurants and the lines of SUVs. Despite the growth, the new businesses and trophy homes, skiers, gamblers and sightseers still experience a universal first impression of awe, excitement and delight. The Washoes got it right. Call it Daowaga or Tahoe, the lake and its surrounding mountains are as much cathedral as resort.