The chill factor: Lake Tahoe’s cradle, the Sierra Nevada mountains are thickly carpeted with snow every year. (Source: Pooja Bhula)
Way out in the land of the setting sun/Where the wind blows wild and free/There’s a lovely spot, just the only one/That means home sweet home to me/If you follow the old Kit Carson trail/Until desert meets the hills/Oh you certainly, will agree with me/It’s the land of a thousand thrills/Home means Nevada/Home means the hills/Home means the sage and the pine.
We don’t follow the Kit Carson trail suggested in Nevada’s state-song by Bertha Rafetto, but scatterings of salt-desert shrub and sagebrush resiliently rooted on sandy, desert terrain race alongside us en route South Lake Tahoe, California’s resort city, from the Reno-Tahoe airport. Halfway through our drive under the blue sky and glaring sun, I can feel the desert. The arid, dusty climate makes my nose crusty. And, then, when the desert meets the hills, I awaken to the land’s surprising thrills.
As junipers and pinyon pines, which start surfacing as we hit inclines, seem like such a natural (albeit taller) extension of shrubs, and because Jeffrey pines line higher altitudes and plains alike, the appearance of snow-laden slopes and conifers — signalling the countdown to South Tahoe — jolt me to attention. It’s like suddenly going from arid/semi-arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan to Kashmir. Awed, yet bewildered, the inner Sherlock nags, “probe this mystery!”
Soon, we head to Heavenly Mountain Resort for some snow fun. Spanning 4,800 acres, it’s possibly the largest resort around Lake Tahoe, uniquely positioned on the border of Nevada and California. Here, you can ski in two states in one day. My hostess and I take the gondola to the observation deck. It’s chilly, but it’s the sights that really make me shiver. Lake Tahoe looks enormous. Millions of soft clouds roll in the sky. With a 495-sq km surface area, Tahoe is North America’s second-largest lake. I’m transfixed as it goes from still and clear akin to a crystal sheet — clutched by icy mountains on one side and beachy coastline on the other — to a glacial mien swept by frosty mist.
“Lake Tahoe never freezes. It’s so deep,” my hostess says. As Tahoe extends 1,645 ft down and sits 6,225.1 ft above sea level, this is easy to believe. But, while it’s true that Tahoe never freezes like other Californian lakes, misinformation like the depth being the cause prompted David Antonucci, environment engineer and director on the board of Tahoe Resource Conservation District, to start a myth-busting website: tahoefacts.com. It says Lake Tahoe’s surface water reaches 18.7 degrees Celsius at its warmest in August and is 5.5 degrees Celsius in its coldest month, February. So, the reason Tahoe never freezes is warmer climate, surface-to-volume ratio and, incredibly, “the shape of the lake” which “doesn’t allow Tahoe to lose heat fast enough in winters for ice to form,” Antonucci explains in an interview with Tahoe Daily Tribune.
What’s more fascinating, then, is that despite forming the western edge of a desert — the Great Basin — Lake Tahoe’s cradle, the Sierra Nevada mountains, are thickly carpeted with snow every year. My hostess attributes this to the elevation; the peaks range from 9,000 ft-11,000 ft. But what solves the puzzle is that the Great Basin is a (temperate) desert because the Sierra Nevadas block Pacific storms, casting a rain shadow on the region. Subsequently, NPS observes, biologic communities on Great Basin’s mountains differ with elevation and individual ranges act as islands isolated by seas of desert vegetation. Species range from desert-adapted to forest-and alpine-environ-adapted. At last, this explains the surreal transformation during the drive up to Tahoe South. How is it that a desert that freezes with a lake that doesn’t hasn’t made it to world’s list of natural wonders?
Back to the present, it’s time to dash through the snow: skiing, snowboarding, sledding or snow-tubing. A wee-bit scared at first, I get hooked to snow-tubing as I experience child-like carefreeness on zooming down. Hiking enthusiasts, try snowshoeing — it’s similar — to discover Tahoe’s trails. Water babies, check out the polar plunge.
I don’t want to leave the montane balcony, but for the après (“after” in French) ski in Tahoe south. At the gondola’s base, restaurants and bars draw you with open fire-pits, live bands and American, Latin/Mexican and Hawaiian cuisines to wash down with craft beer and cocktails. Prefer quietude? Head to the north shore. At cafes and bars there you can toast marshmallows — top with chocolate and sandwich between cookies, and you’ll get the decadent camping delicacy, S’mores.
As the gondola descends — with the resort overlooking the lake — it feels like we’re heading right for the water. Just then, the sun beams cheerfully from in-between towering trees as if giving the perfect picture a final touch. No wonder Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole world affords”.