Lake Tahoe, located in the mountains of Northern California, is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide. Its surface area of 121 square miles creates 72 miles of coastline around the lake — and room for countless travel opportunities among the natural beauty that almost led it to become a National Park. In addition to that, and due to special interest groups like the timber industry, the land eventually became one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States.
If you’re thinking about taking a trip, the best things to do in Lake Tahoe can depend on the time of year. Lake Tahoe has its advantages for summer and winter. This might be why people keep coming back, sometimes multiple times a year, to enjoy every season in this town that was originally founded during California’s Gold Rush.
Lake Tahoe has a state line drawn through it, and in both Nevada and California, Lake Tahoe has been a refuge for millions of people throughout history. Nowadays, Tahoe is where people go for amazing skiing, boating, and a love of the outdoors. Just how did this popular place go from gold mines to a luxury vacation spot? Here, we’ll walk you through it.
Lake Tahoe’s Origin: Territory to Deforestation
Like most of the United States, the first residents of Lake Tahoe were Indigenous people; the Washo Tribe predates Lake Tahoe’s first colonial settlers by 10,000 years. That said, Lake Tahoe was discovered by European descendents in 1844 by General John C. Fremont, who went on to become Governor of California and the first-ever Republican presidential nominee.
General Fremont was tasked with exploring the American West. Continuing the exploration and piggybacking off of Lewis and Clark, General Fremont led expeditions through the Rocky Mountains, prospecting the Oregon territory and other sections of the American West.
Along the way, Fremont furthered the Manifest Destiny agenda, a period of American History. T a time when the U.S. was exploring the western parts of the nation it had newly acquired. A massive drawback to that period of exploration was the unknowable number of Indigenous lives lost in that process. Under Fremont’s watch, numerous genocidal acts were committed that led to the murders of thousands of Native Americans. To make Tahoe into the tourism hub that it is today, Indigenous populations were displaced. That process started with Fremont and those who served under him.
The area started to see a large population increase four years after Fremont’s discovery. The California Gold Rush started in 1848 and officially ended in 1855, and many of the people who came to this area of California in search of riches were there to stay. It was the Gold Rush’s end that inspired the next big population boom in Lake Tahoe.
In 1859, the Comstock Lode further changed California forever. Just across the lake in Nevada, a lesser-discussed silver rush was happening. This brought even more people to Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area in the Sierra Mountains.
It was during this surge in migrations to Lake Tahoe that the logging industry honed in on the area. Roads needed to be cleared; materials were needed for housing and equipment. Around this time, several attempts were made at turning Lake Tahoe into a National Park like Yosemite or Yellowstone. There were special interests like the logging industry that did not want the land protected, and they ultimately won out.
The best any politician could accomplish was to protect some of the land as opposed to all of it. The final attempt to turn Lake Tahoe into a National Park came in 1899. The bill was proposed by Nevada Senator William M. Stewart and ultimately couldn’t get the votes. Under the watch of President Roosevelt in 1905, parts of the Lake Tahoe area were protected in the establishment of the Lake Tahoe National Forest. By then, too much of the land in Tahoe was privately owned, and turning it into a National Park would’ve been too complicated and expensive.
For over 100 years, Lake Tahoe has been both a place to visit and a place to call home. This side-by-side photo From the U.S. Geological Survey shows just how much Lake Tahoe changed from its post-Civil War era to today. The photo is from 2009, and there have been even more shifts between then and now.
Lake Tahoe’s climate makes it an incredibly special place. Its winters are snowy yet manageable, and its summers are warm but similarly comfortable. This provides ample opportunities for enjoying the great outdoors. Thanks to its natural beauty and mountain setting, in 1960 Lake Tahoe hosted the Olympic Winter Games. It’s also been the filming location for several movies.
The population of Truckee, California, a city near South Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe National Forest, grew 56% between 1990 and 2000. Tahoe is known nowadays for its crowds, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of this surge in population, the area is filled with a blend of cabins, apartment buildings, lakefront housing communities and five-star resorts.
Things to do in Lake Tahoe in the summer include hiking, boating, swimming in the lake, paddle boarding and attending summer concerts. In winter, there’s a lot more to do on top of spending time at Lake Tahoe’s ski-in/ski-out hotels. In addition to skiing, you’ll find places to ice skate, snow tube and sled. You could also spend time drinking hot chocolate or IPAs at one of the lake’s breweries.
Helping Lake Tahoe Today and Tomorrow
As you may know, Lake Tahoe is a part of a region that experiences regular wildfires annually. FEMA often provides assistance, but the area and its residents can use your support all year. The first way you can help ensure Lake Tahoe is around for everyone to enjoy for as long as possible is to make sure that it’s safe to travel. Whether it’s during wildfire season or a global pandemic, many tourist destinations aren’t prepared for large influxes of people. Traveling responsibly can help keep local communities (and you) safer.
The Washo people may also be in need of your support. The Nevada Indian Commission is a great place to donate if you’re in the position to help. Indigenous communities have struggled in the wake of wildfires and land loss. As wildfire season becomes longer and more unprecedented, more Indigenous land will suffer.
You can also explore ways to help Lake Tahoe during our planet’s ongoing climate crisis. Keep Tahoe Blue is an advocacy group fighting to limit the damaging effects of pollution and traffic on the lake. The lake’s water is actually becoming less blue, which can have harmful consequences for its entire ecosystem. These organizations are all also working to preserve the lake now and for the future.