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Lake Tahoe’s Small Towns Grab You and Don’t Let Go

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Story and photos by Lynn DeBruin

After more than a week on the road, I quickly realize the most profound statements during my trip have come from a barely-20 year-old busboy standing on the water’s edge at the Sunnyside Lodge.

“Tahoe will suck you in,” he said emphatically, recalling how his father came for one day and stayed 30 years. “And,” he playfully added, “you will get dirty.”

He was talking about the miles of biking and hiking trails, the mountaineering, fishing and kayaking, not to mention downhill and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. Indeed, the Tahoe area is a gold mine for outdoor enthusiasts.

Job's Peak serves as a spectacular backdrop on the Lakes Course at Genoa Lakes.Job’s Peak serves as a spectacular backdrop on the Lakes Course at Genoa Lakes.

And that’s not counting the 144 holes of golf I played in six days in the High Sierras, where snow-capped peaks, ponderosa-lined fairways and even the occasional wild turkey had me mesmerized.

Along the way, I took a step back in history as I drove up Donner Pass and through Truckee – a former lumber/ice-harvesting railroad stop that now boasts world-class food, digs and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Better yet, while in search of gas, I’d stumble upon my favorite area of all, the tiny town of Graeagle (pronounced gray•eagle) just an hour from Reno. After visiting the town’s website (www.graeagle.com) I learned why they left the “Y” out and after exploring the town, there’s little question why I couldn’t resist the resort retirement community dubbed the hidden gem of the Sierras.

Ex-Marine Tracey Corgan began sporting a Mohawk long before he moved to the Mohawk Valley. But the Elko, Nev. native calls Graeagle home. "The whole town is run by women," he says. "It is a good thing. They make very good decisions."Ex-Marine Tracey Corgan began sporting a Mohawk long before he moved to the Mohawk Valley. But the Elko, Nev. native calls Graeagle home. “The whole town is run by women,” he says. “It is a good thing. They make very good decisions.”

The people were as warm as this sun-splashed Sunday, with Stars and Stripes decorating every red-painted building in town as well as the scarf Marcie Sheehy had draped around her neck.

“We’re very proud of our little town,” said Sheehy, a volunteer who helped make the Taste of Mohawk a huge success that day, with red wine washing down Mediterranean pizza, spinach-artichoke-and-asiago bruschetta, pulled pork sliders and assorted other goodies.

I had been scheduled to fly home that afternoon, but decided the town with no stoplight or crime was worth a closer look.

What I’d find were people like Ken McMaster, who owns The Gold Rush jewelry shop with wife, Debbie. I had met Ken playing golf a few days earlier at Whitehawk Ranch just a few miles away, but now I was on his turf, studying the works of 124 different artists in his little gallery. Like me stumbling onto Graeagle, he had stumbled into the jewelry business while working his grandfather’s gold-mining claim in Northern California.

“I was showing people at a nearby resort the gold we had found and they said, ‘Those two match. Can you make earrings?’” he recalled. Before he knew it, he and his wife were taking jewelry-making classes. Now his signature item is teardrop-shaped earrings in sterling silver, with placer gold nuggets inlaid in the lower half.

Like his shop, he’d prove a wealth of information rivaling any tourist bureau. He told me about the Western Pacific railroad museum in nearby Portola, where one can even pay to be conductor for a day. And there was Plumas-Eureka State Park in Johnsville, where miners in the late 1800s eager for some winter fun strapped on wooden planks while riding an ore cart up the mountain – thus creating what some believe to be the first-ever ski lift in America. And of course, there was Gold Lake and the Lakes Basin just seven miles to the south, where crystal-clear blue lakes pop up seemingly around every bend in the road amid pines dressed up in bright green moss. Not to be forgotten is the legend of Snowshoe Thompson, the father of California skiing who delivered mail to the High Sierras on skis from 1856 to 1876,

Graeagle itself began as a lumber mill town, with the present-day red houses having been sawn in half so they could be transported on railway flatcars and wagons to the site. The California Fruit Exchange eventually took over the facilities to make boxes to transport the fresh produce back east.

When modernization shut down the mills, Harvey West bought the entire property, and his family preserved the town and its historic charm. Today it is a haven for day-trippers from Reno and the Sacramento Valley, not to mention second-home owners and retirees.

The drive down Route 49 through the Lakes Basin region south of Graeagle is made even more picture-perfect with the most-covered pines that line both sides of the road.The drive down Route 49 through the Lakes Basin region south of Graeagle is made even more picture-perfect with the moss-covered pines that line both sides of the road.

Graeagle’s elevation (4,460 ft) ensures the snow melts off the roads pretty quickly in winter. And while summer can be a short season, it provides a perfect home base for fisherman, campers and bike enthusiasts.

“It’s undeveloped, just like it used to be,” said Kim Salisbury, owner of a boutique shop called the Briar Patch. She spoke of old-fashioned fireworks displays, Sunday parades and community events that bring everyone together.

As I walked across the two-lane road, drawn to more buildings fronting an open meadow where horses grazed, I’d meet Zoe LeBarron Wolf, who incorporated a cruise tour agency into her high-end consignment shop.

“We’re having a lot of fun,” said Wolf, who recently married her high school sweetheart after nearly five decades apart. She was selling everything from a never-used wedding gown to English china and Oleg Cassini dresses, and reveling in her renewed romance.

Chef Patrick Kenny is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who left the Tahoe area to open Victoria Rosa restaurant in Cromberg, Calif., on Route 89. His first summer he brought in a friend whose Italian grandmother's old-world recipes were a hit. When the economy went south, he shifted more to pizzas, with everything done from scratch. His minestrone is made almost completely from his own vegetable garden.Chef Patrick Kenny is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who left the Tahoe area to open Victoria Rosa restaurant in Cromberg, Calif., on Route 89. His first summer he brought in a friend whose Italian grandmother’s old-world recipes were a hit. When the economy went south, he shifted more to pizzas, with everything done from scratch. His minestrone is made almost completely from his own vegetable garden.

Down the street, Jennifer Armstrong was testing her new Fisher road bike, while Graeagle bike shop manager Will Norton gushed about the mountain bike mecca that routinely is written up in Decline magazine. It only figures to get better as an effort is under way to cover the area with trails that link Graeagle to Calpine, past epic mountains, fields of lupine and rushing rivers in the heart of the Mohawk Valley.

On this day, I’d try to take in as much as I could, even stopping at a Frostee ice cream parlor to charge my camera batteries for the trek back to Tahoe. But the crisp, clean air, stunning scenery and serenity had me vowing to return someday soon – complete with a pair of teardrop gold-and-silver earrings and shoes made to endure a little dirt.

Truckee

My room at the Cedar Sport Hotel.A  room at the Cedar Sport Hotel.

The rumbling railroad is a reminder of what put this town on the map nearly 150 years ago. But step inside one of its hip restaurants or chic lodges, and it’s hard to believe you’re not in San Francisco. In the past 10 years, acclaimed Bay Area and Tahoe chefs have made this once drive-thru destination a second home.

Dragonfly chef Billy McCullough brings an Asian-Fusion flare to this upstairs retreat on Donner Pass Road, with items ranging from Togarashi spiced calamari to a grilled prawn noodle bowl sure to knock your socks off.

At Moody’s, award-winning executive chef Mark Estee combines the finest local farmers, ranchers and fish mongers have to offer. But Moody’s is more than a place to savor Ahi 4 Ways, roasted organic beets or the specialty Big Ass Pork Platter. Some of the country’s most influential jazz acts have stepped on stage, while artists from Paul McCartney on down have made the lounge a stop on their way across Northern California and the Sierra Nevadas.

The Drunken Monkey is another place to savor specialty sushi to sake, with gomoku noodles, tempura-battered calamari and a rich and creamy almond tofu cheesecake all tempting the taste buds.

“Tahoe was where everybody was going, but in the last 10 years, Truckee has become a destination unto itself,” said Lynn Saunders, Truckee-Donner Chamber CEO.  “It has that authentic mountain-town charm… a historic downtown that’s charming and quaint, fine dining and gorgeous scenery all around.”

While some artists are struggling to stay afloat in a down economy (forming co-ops to display their wares along the shops in the Brickelltown region), other merchants are reinventing themselves. Jessica Solberg recently combined her Riverstone home store with Kathleen McLennen’s Painted Cottage, a high-end consignment shop – displaying pewter wedding gifts next to a mannequin adorned with a Christian Dior coat and Gucci bag.

“It’s thinking outside the box,” said McLennen. “It works. We’ve flourished when others have faded.”

Indeed, a few dozen Truckee shops have closed in the past three years, but Saunders reiterated one merchant’s refrain. “One thing you can say about Truckee is not only is it a tight-knit community, but we’re strong,” Saunders said. “We’re resilient. You kind of have to be to live in this environment with the winters we have and all. We’re survivors, absolutely.”

If You Go

Where2Stay

The Cedar Sport Hotel
10918 Brockway Road
Truckee, CA 96161
Tel: 530.582.5655
www.cedarhousesporthotel.com

Just minutes from downtown Truckee, it fuses innovative architecture with the best of contemporary design, creating 42 rooms and suites in a hip European style. The merlot and camel color scheme is relaxing, as is the luxurious European bedding system with individual down comforters.
Rates range from $150 to $330.

The Ritz Carlton Highlands north of Lake Tahoe may have opened in a difficult economy, but it's still the ultimate in relaxation, with its leather furniture, gas fireplaces, balconies and mid-mountain setting. The Ritz Carlton Highlands north of Lake Tahoe may have opened in a difficult economy, but it’s still the ultimate in relaxation, with its leather furniture, gas fireplaces, balconies and mid-mountain setting.

The Ritz Carlton
13031 Ritz Carlton Highlands Ct
Truckee, CA
Tel: 530.562.8900
www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/LakeTahoe/Default.htm

This is the ultimate in relaxation with its setting mid-mountain at the Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort and just minutes from the beaches of North Lake Tahoe. The 170-room hotel has ski-in/ski-out accommodations, a premier spa and a two-night golf package (starting at $449 per night) that includes rounds at both Old Greenwood and Gray’s Crossing.

Sunnyside Lodge
1850 W Lake Blvd
Tahoe City, CA 96146
Tel: 530.583.7200
www.sunnysidetahoe.com

There’s a reason this lakeside resort in Tahoe City bears this name, what with its roof-top sun deck and sun-splashed patio-bar just steps from the clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe.

With a little haggling, I was offered a two-night stay for $300, including $60 food/beverage credit, full breakfast, afternoon snack and half-bottle of sparkling wine – with a balcony and partial lake view.

Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals – Find the perfect rental on TripAdvisor.

Where2Eat

Dragonfly
10118 Donner Pass Road
Truckee, CA 96161-0353
Tel: 530.587.0557
www.dragonflycuisine.com

Drunken Monkey Sushi
11253 Brockway road
Truckee, CA 96161
Tel: 530.582.9755
www.drunkenmonkeysushi.com

Moody’s
10007 Bridge Street
Truckee, CA 96161-0273
Tel: 530.587.8688
www.moodysbistro.com

What2Do

Scenic Drive
The roads around Lake Tahoe can get crowded, especially in summer with so much construction. But the drive from Graeagle to Truckee is serene and postcard perfect.

A dog goes for an early-summer swim on Salmon Lake, which was covered with ice just a day or so earlier. A dog goes for an early-summer swim on Salmon Lake, which was covered with ice just a day or so earlier.

South of Graeagle take the Gold Lake Highway, which straddles the Pacific Crest Trail and cuts through the Lakes Basin Recreational Area, with more than 30 alpine lakes and streams in a 10-mile radius. Down the highway, a carpet of green moss grows skyward on the stately pines, leaving me scrambling out of snow banks to take in the intense colors.

I stopped at Gold Lake, then Goose Lake and finally Salmon Lake, where a man was treating his dog to a swim now that the ice has finally melted.

The only thing prettier is seeing a colt working out his fresh legs in the late afternoon sun near Sierraville.

Lagoon and Spa
Squaw Valley Ski Resort looks deserted in the summer, but ride a cable car to the 8,200-foot summit and indulge in the lagoon and spa. The free-form lagoon features 25-yard lap lanes and two islands landscaped with waterfalls and native boulders. Cable car ride and swim passes are $32.
www.squaw.com/swimming-lagoon-and-spa

Unwind on the water

Lake Tahoe is best known for its beautiful clear water, which is 99 percent pure.Lake Tahoe is best known for its beautiful clear water, which is 99 percent pure.

One can sail, water-ski or jet-ski on the lake, but to combine the best of a workout and relaxation, try renting a kayak. On a quiet Monday, I paddled from Homewood High and Dry Marina (Tel: 530.583.7417) on the west shore until I could see Heavenly Ski Resort on the south shore. In between, the crystal-clear water seemed to change color four times, from teal to forest green then aquamarine and finally cobalt blue.

Gambling abounds
Reno, Carson City and Stateline, Nev., all offer plenty of casino action, as do Crystal Bay and Incline Village on Tahoe’s north shore.

GOLF
There are 18 courses on the High Sierra trail, from Reno/Sparks in the northeast, Edgewood Tahoe to the south and Plumas Pines resort to the north in Graeagle, Calif.

Edgewood gets the most publicity because it serves as host to the American Century Classic with its celebrity players and Party by the Lake as dozens of boats dock alongside the famed 17th hole.

On the south shore of Lake Tahoe, it rates a 10 in beauty, with mountain backdrops, lake views and tree-lined fairways. But don’t forget lunch. Order the freshly seared ahi tacos from Brooks Bar and Deck, and stop for a banana chocolate malt at the turn, a decadent dessert-drink that will power you through the back nine.
www.edgewoodtahoe.com

The 16th green at Coyote Moon in the right foreground gives way to a view of the 17th fairway and green, across the pond. The 17th hole rates as the second-hardest hole on the course. If the length doesn't take your breath away on this 472-yard par 4, the spectacular mountain scenery will.The 16th green at Coyote Moon in the right foreground gives way to a view of the 17th fairway and green, across the pond. The 17th hole rates as the second-hardest hole on the course. If the length doesn’t take your breath away on this 472-yard par 4, the spectacular mountain scenery will.

Coyote Moon rates as one of the finest mountain courses in the country. It sits on 250 acres, amid towering pines, boulder outcroppings, and the beautiful Trout Creek in Truckee, Calif. – just 15 minutes from the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Just be prepared for any condition – even through the course of one round. On this late-June day, it was barely into the 50s when we teed off, with cool rain giving way to sunshine by the back nine. Two days earlier it was 71 and sunny and five days before that it snowed a foot.
www.coyotemoongolf.com

Genoa Lakes Golf Club is south of Carson City, with breath-taking reflections of 10,633-foot Job’s Peak on its Lakes Course. Lush wetlands and the winding Carson River bring water into play on 14 holes of this links-style layout.
www.genoalakes.com/golf

Whitehawk Ranch Golf Club may be one of the best courses you’ve never heard of. About an hour north of Truckee, on CA-89 North, the 6,983-yard layout is sculpted into the Mohawk Valley, cutting through pine, cedar, fir and aspen, and open meadows sprouting native grasses and colorful wildflowers. Pro Van Batchelder certainly fits into the countryside, with his cream-colored Stetson and wide-wale brown corduroys.
www.golfwhitehawk.com

Other courses worth noting in the area include Old Greenwood, Timilick Tahoe, Incline Village, and Plumas Pines. For information on all of the courses, go to www.GolfTheHighSierra.com or call 877-332-4465.

Cycling
Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area are a mecca for cyclists and mountain bikers from spring to early fall. Two events that draw thousands of participants are the most beautiful and most popular rides in the country.

The first bills itself as America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride and is held every year on the first Sunday in June. The course offers several distances, the longest, a 100 mile-century that takes the rider around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe (72 miles) and includes mountain climbs along the way between 800 and 1,300 vertical feet, with a 28-mile roundtrip spur to Truckee. The climb up Spooner Mountain is the longest at about 8 miles.
www.bikethewest.com/AMBBR.html

The second is the Downieville Classic, held every July, and is the longest and most demanding downhill mountain bike race in the nation, dropping more than 5,000 vertical feet in 17 miles from Packer Saddle to Downieville, a California town that derives its revenue from fishing, gold mining and mountain biking. After a record snowfall, officials this year are warning competitors to be wary of fast-moving water crossings and snowdrifts. Volunteers hope to eventually make the area the best for riding in California. For the less daring, there are plenty of milder trails, from Graeagle to the shores of Lake Tahoe.
www.downievilleclassic.com

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Veno July 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Wow – This article (and esp. the photos) really make me want to visit!

joe pavone February 7, 2013 at 3:11 pm

last time i was in truckee was in 1969 wow would i love to see it now. we rode the flumes from truckee down towards reno what a blast. like to stay in one of the smaller older hotels in truckee maybe you could recommend one.

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