Travel Fuels Life Podcast and Show Notes
Hidden Gems: Exploring South Lake Tahoe in the Off-Season (Ep. 36)
This podcast episode was sponsored by Carson Valley and Tahoe South. While some of the activities, accommodations and meals were paid for by the sponsor, all opinions are my own without oversight. Tahoe South can be found: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Why just go to San Francisco, Las Vegas, or Yosemite which are going to be full of crowds and features you’ve seen in photos a million times - when there is a wonderful stretch of Nevada just waiting to be discovered
This week, I want to play a little theatre of the mind with you and take you along with me first to the beautiful skiing and lakeside town of South Lake Tahoe during the off-season to show you the beauty of the lake from several angles, fun activities for you and the family, great food and libations before heading down the Kingsbury grade into Carson Valley, an area rich in history and featuring a state-of-the-art distillery at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Rather than writing a blog you have to read through, you can experience the area by listending to the episode and then use the following guide to make your own plans to these wonderful hidden gems.
South Lake Tahoe and Stateline, Nevada
I flew into Reno International, picked up my car and headed down I-580 South onto a wide open highway that cruised the high desert valley between two big mountain ridges that were most definitely Nevada landscapes. Us East Coasters need to take a few minutes to acclimate to these wide open western spaces with the beige mountains to the left and scattered pine trees on the mountains to the right. But soon, I turned west onto US 50 and suddenly I was climbing one of those mountains, admiring some really cool rock formations to the left as I lifted in elevation to over 7000 ft and passed my first bear crossing sign. Once I had crested the mountain, I had one of those… "oh wow!" Moments.
There before me, peeking out from behind the trees, my first ever glimpse of Lake Tahoe. I have to say, I think Crater Lake in Oregon is the only other lake I’ve ever seen, that is that pure of a deep blue. Breathtaking. I mentioned to one of my hosts about that experience and she said she has that same feeling every time she rides over that stretch of road. I had to stop and soak it all in - and luckily the highway department had the foresight to put a nice big pull off area there.
When I got my jaw back in place, I drove the rest of the way down the mountain. A bit famished after a long morning of airplane flights, I decided lunch would be needed before I could head to my first destination, the Heavenly Gondola and Epic Discovery.
Parking Around Stateline, Nevada
When I’m on a trip, I tend to spend a little more on food and attractions than I would when I’m at home, but parking is the one thing I always try to find inexpensive ways out of. I had been provided a map and it showed a couple of free spots where I could park, but I soon realized, they were a bit far for walking if I actually wanted to have time for my destination, so I parked at Harrah’s Casino, which offers free parking for the first hour then $10 for hours 1-4. I thought about doing this trip by finding transportation down and then just taking Lyft or Uber ride shares, but it wouldn’t have saved me much around the lake and would probably be less practical in the Valley. So I was glad I had the car.
California Burger Co. at Heavenly Village
I headed toward Heavenly Village, which is not only the spot for my gondola ride, but also a hopping center of food, musical performers, local art, and even a movie theater. I remembered that Jenn had provided me with a large list of restaurants to check out and that the California Burger Company was here. I had asked her where the places were in town with excellent whiskey selections since I was also working on my Whiskey Lore podcast project and she happily obliged.
California Burger Co. didn’t let me down. I ordered the Caprese - a delicious medium rare burger with Roma tomatoes, basil and a slab of mozzarella cheese on it, very interesting. And I knew I wouldn’t be driving for a few hours, so I ordered a flight of 3 High West whiskies. The bartender and other patrons chuckled as I asked for the bottles to be put in front of the flight so I could capture my Instagram moment.
The burger was excellent, loved the High West Campfire which tastes just like its name (it actually has Islay peated Scotch in it), the Double Rye wasn’t quite my speed as it had almost a gin-like botanical effect.
I later got confirmation from some other establishments in town that this is definitely a place that collects whiskies and that collection is the best in Tahoe.
Heavenly Gondola and Epic Discovery
Location: South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
Head into Heavenly Village, purchase the Ultimate Adventure Pass and ride up the Heavenly Gondola for the following experiences.
I’ll say this, I tell people that heights make me nervous, but I always test myself. So when you listen to the podcast, hear how calm I am while the gondola takes off on a very slow and gradual climb up the mountain…
...Then hear me after I realize that that wind I was feeling down by the lake was a bit stronger as the ride got steeper and steeper and had the gondola swaying a bit.
Let me tell you this, the view just gets better and better. Initially I was facing the mountain while riding up but that was making my imagination run wild. I was more comfortable turning around and looking as the casinos, golf course, and shoreline got smaller and smaller. You can see the entire lake from this perch. I think holding the camera below my eyes gave me something to focus on and soon I relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. It was probably about the windiest they’ll let it get and still run the gondola, and honestly after I settled in, I was loving the view. If you come to Tahoe and miss this view, you have missed a lot.
Once you reach the first station, you’re ushered off to catch the sweeping views from along the sky walk. I was told the wind was actually blustering to around 40 mph. They watch the weather closely up there, which is definitely a comfort. 20 miles from North to South and you could the entire expanse of the lake.
The skywalk is very informative, with facts about the lake, it’s pristine nature, and why it is such an incredible blue (mostly the cleanliness and very deep depth of over 1000 ft). I happened upon a chipmunk, which I think a lot of us East coasters love to see because they’re somewhat rare, as opposed to our large population of grey squirrels, and he seemed not to mind stopping for a pose. I walked the short .2 miles of Martin’s Trail to a set of rocks where you could look out over the lake unobstructed. Again, wow! I was up there with some students from Ukraine that were taking all of their own Instagrammable shots.
After taking in the sights, I headed back to the gondola and on a continuous journey to the next level of the mountain known as Epic Discovery. Here is where all of the fun activities were. There was a ropes course, rock climbing, tubing, and even zip-lining for an extra fee. I had the mountain roller coaster as part of my ticket and unlimited rides, which was good, because the first time I went, I was so excited to be on the coaster about to fling by a mountain top view of Lake Tahoe that I forgot to hit record on my podcast mic. The next time around, the jarring of the ride actually shut off my podcast recorder at the very beginning. Finally, third time’s a charm!
Pretty cool that you can use the break to slow yourself if you need. The first time I went, I felt the need a couple of times. There are two jarring curves. However, the rest of it was just flat out fun and I didn’t use the breaks at all during the second rides. I love that you can go out by yourself or in pairs. Having your own controls really lets you enjoy at the pace you feel comfortable with. And flying at 27 mph, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but on one of these little two carriage riders
I could see families coming here and spending the day, or groups of friends, there are plenty of enough activities to fill a day. And at the end, you can grab a bite to eat at the Tamarack Ski Lodge. I know this place is probably amazing during the ski-season, but I found it just as entertaining during the shoulder season.
After thoroughly enjoying the ride down the gondola, it was time for me to jump in the car and find my lodgings for the night at Ridge Tahoe.
Ridge Tahoe Lodge
Location: 400 Ridge Club Dr, Stateline, NV 89449
When they call it Ridge Tahoe they aren’t kidding. After climbing up past Tahoe Rim Trail the lodge is right at the top of the mountain ridge looking down on Carson Valley.
After an easy check-in, I entered my home for the next two nights and was pleased to see a little apartment with full kitchen, bedroom, and especially the washer and dryer! After a week on the road, I had planned to hit the laundromat, but this was a fantastic revelation.
On top of that, I found “literally” a gift basket on the dining room table. They stocked it with some nice local goodies including some excellent ground coffee, muffins, local chocolates, and most importantly trail mix! And just beyond that windows that would be perfect for watching the sunrise in the morning. Fireplace, place to stick your skis outside the room, and an amazing viewing spot for a coffee drinking sunrise or a jaccuzi for a beautiful evening sunset.
I could imagine myself sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace warming myself after a long day of skiing. And you definitely get the impression this place is visited a lot in the winter by the ski supply storage right outside your room.
After freshening up a bit, It was time head off and meet my sponsor Jenn Boyd for dinner at the lakeside Edgewood Bistro.
Ridge Tahoe had shuttles until the early evening, and I could always take a car share back up the hill, but I decided to drive the car back down and found a spot where there wouldn’t be a charge to park and decided to walk past Harrah’s Casino, Montblue, the Hard Rock Casino main drag of US 50 on my way to enjoy some food and learn a little more about the area from my host.
The walk across the Edgewood Golf Course property was beautiful and it appeared an excellent sunset was on the way. This golf course recently expanded to add a rustic yet elegant looking lodge and this really classy and comfortable restaurant.
Jenn and I first had to clear up a major issue that bloggers probably don’t need to concern themselves with, but podcasters do. The pronunciation of Nevada.
She and the locals pronounce it Nah VAAH dah, it is a Spanish word, and the Spanish pronunciation is NEE vah da - but while the Spanish word means “snow-capped” I think it’s fair to signify a state that is no longer under Spanish control whatever pronunciation the community is comfortable with. My next trip will have to be to Oregon to figure that one out!
Dinner was a lot of fun. It was the first time I ordered food under the recommendation of what looked the most photogenic. Ahh yes, food choices brought via Instagrammability. The wine selection was a bit easier, as white wines tend to have a similar look.
So we landed on the lamb chops and salmon and got extra plates so we could sample each. THe lamb chops had a nice sweet barbeque sauce and the salmon was a full portion, extremely well cooked. The wines and main courses matched up beautifully, thanks to the smart suggestions of our waiter. The wine matched with the barbequed lamb steak was the first almost peppery white wine I’d ever had and it was a really nice fit.
We talked about some of the great hiking spots I could take off for, like Trail to Nevada Beach Rabbit to - and around Zephyr Cove, where I’d be taking the MS Dixie II the next morning, and also the walk around Tahoe Rim Trail (Castle Rock). I’ve featured a lot of those in the show notes page. We also talked about all of the breweries in the area and I was especially interested in extending my whiskey tasting, and she suggested a few hot spots like 10 Crows Southern BBQ and a certain speakeasy which really caught my attention. I had never been to one and it suddenly jumped up on my list of to dos.
As our plates were cleared away, the subject of desert came up, but instead, we decided to head over to the bar. MNF was finishing up at 8 pm - it does take me some getting used to West Coast living. At the bar, two specialties were suggested, one was the Harvey Wallbanger and the other a Chip Shot. Since there was coffee in the Chip Shot and I was really looking forward to a good nights sleep I opted for my first Harvey Wallbanger that has a black licorice flavor added to a screwdriver. It was a great capper to a fun day.
Tahoe South is also a excellent place for beer:
The next morning I was up early, tossing in a load of laundry, checking email and then making a fresh pot of coffee, so I could head out to the landing at Ridge Tahoe and watch the sun come up over Carson Valley. Stunning!
My agenda for the day was to include a ride across Lake Tahoe to Emerald Bay on the MS Dixie II, then to grab a BBQ lunch at Ten Crows, do some trail walking, stop by the speakeasy, and then head off for a nice steak dinner at Park Prime and a tour of the Hard Rock Casino and Resort.
All I can say is, the weather had other plans for me. I drove over to Zephyr Cove and Beach, where the MS Dixie II was docked and was prepared to wander the beach. But the wind was kicking up quite a bit and the waves were hitting the shore pretty heavily. To look up, you’d think it was a perfect weather day. But off across the beautiful Lake Tahoe, there were heavy clouds forming at the peaks of the mountains. We boarded the boat, but the wind was so loud, I couldn’t hear any of the announcements. A few minutes later, they told us we could go get refunds, and that the waters and weather forecast were not cooperating. I contacted Jenn and like the star she is, she reworked my schedule so I could enjoy the boat ride the next day. I’d heard such good things, I definitely didn’t want to miss it.
But what now? I decided to head back to Heavenly Village and take a walk around the shops. There is plenty of cover, so I didn’t mind at all when it started to rain. I was checking out some of the nice local art in one of the shops and headed across to Ten Crows and mozied up to the bar. Hey mozying is what they do here in the west, right?
Ten Crows Southern BBQ
Ten Crows was on Jenn’s list of good whiskey bars, so I decided to pursue the bar and found a very competent selection. I ordered the half pound pulled pork and fresh made coleslaw and a Henry McKenna 10 year Bottled-in-Bond, a new love I had discovered a couple weeks before in Kentucky. Just smelling that whiskey was a pleasure. A fan of vanilla, it reminds me of a sweet and smooth vanilla extract and the flavor carries through to the palate.
I always like sitting at the bar when I travel solo, because it gives me a chance to get a feel for the local scene and pick up on local flavor. Andy, the bartender and I talked over a variety of subjects, including where to get great cocktails - he added the Loft to my list and re-emphasized California Burger and the speakeasy, and we talked about the new American Single Malt movement (American distilleries attempt at producing something similar to Scotch whiskey). I told him I was heading down to tour Bently’s Estate Distillery down in the valley and he said I’d be pleasantly surprised. When I turned to look out the window, I was shocked to see sleet falling from the sky! It’s the middle of September!
Well, I was either going to head to a movie or continue my sipping ways, so I ordered an American Single Malt by the name of Westland - out of Seattle, which was good, it had a little piney kind of touch to it, and the bite told me it was a little young. Then as the snow continued, so I ordered a Hibiki Harmony - my first - yes first Japanese whiskey. And all I can say is, wow, I know why this stuff is so popular. It was a rich, flavorful, with a slight tanic bite. It had a very balanced presentation from sip to finish.
Andy and I talked about what the seasons were like in the area. He said it slows a bit after Labor Day and then it stays slow in October and then as the snow comes, it speeds back up. Weekends are usually hopping. It’s when the locals like to take trips. I get that, having grown up in a tourist town myself.
I then decided to warm up with a cup of coffee and enjoy some of the music over at Heavenly Village. I checked some email and then made my way back to Ridge Tahoe to relax for a little while. The sun came out while I was driving up through the snow covered hills - luckily the road was clear and when I rounded the corner I got some great photos, including the one featuring the tower at Ridge Tahoe where I was staying. All I could think is, skiers, it’s time to start booking your lodge now! Mother nature is getting ready in a hurry.
After a small nap and a load of clothes, I was heading back down the mountain for the evening's entertainment.
Every been to a speakeasy? I hadn't. How covert! Just walk into the Social House at Heavenly Village; ask the server if you can enter, then he takes you to a cooler - I kid you not - and punches a code into the keypad. Door opens and you're in.
Immediately you're taken by the dark and mysterious nature of the place. The whiskey bottles are all on shelves behind the bar and glowing with the light behind them.
Leo, who is part owner, bar manager and mixologist extraordinare was whipping up some amazing cocktails and putting on a show. I asked him my same question about local drinks and he too balked. He suggested something called a Mary Summer Sour was all the rage that past Summer. It's a tequila drink made with egg whites - frothy, creamy and smooth. It sounds interesting.
The whiskey list was really nice. They are part of the same company as California Burger Co. so they tend to join together to get some great whiskies on the shelf.
I don't know why I just ordered a straight Bookers. I like the bourbon, but honestly, when someone makes cocktails that are close to performance art, I should be breaking old habits.
Leo said they've only been opened a year. And I said it was great that the Feds hadn’t busted down the door yet. A little nod back to the old illegal speakeasies. But those speakeasies served rockgut. In fact, that is why the cocktail caught on in the 1920's, to save people the horrible taste of the low quality liquors they had available. No such problem these days.
I saw him pull a bottle of Laphroaig smokey scotch off the shelf and add it into a cocktail, I had to know what he was making. He said it was a drink where he added Woodford Reserve Rye that he had infused with green tea (which he said tasted horrible by itself) and then add the smoke of Laphroaig to top it off for an amazingly refreshing drink.
I wish I lived closer to this place!
So, how much fun did I have at the speakeasy? I thought it was maybe 6 PM when I looked at my watch but nope, it was quarter to 7 and I was supposed to be over at Park Prime Steakhouse at the Hard Rock Casino for dinner by 7.
I also was going to try to catch some of the sunset, but in a way, I was a little relieved to see clouds hiding the sun when I came out into the light of day.
Park Prime at Hard Rock Casino and Resort
My friend who said Nevada was more than just Las Vegas was right.
When I got to Park Prime, I met with Brandie who is the Director of Resort Marketing for the Hard Rock and she treated me to an amazing New York Striploin dinner - Prime beef aged 28 days, medium rare, cooked properly and well seasoned with roasted cauliflower.
They offered tomato bisque soup for an opener. I have never been a fan of tomato soup. But it tasted almost like spicy pasta sauce and was thick. I enjoyed it.
I asked what local whiskies they had besides Bently's which I would be trying the next day. They didn't have any, but said Blanton was popular. I love Blanton's when I can get it. I’d say the pour was healthy (actually our server said it was the end of the bottle, so they just topped me off). No complaints here.
Brandie and I talked about the Hard Rock Casino and Resort. I told her I saw the sign promoting an evening with Dan Ackroyd. I was confused, was he singing? She said he actually owns a vodka brand called Crystal Head and he was coming to do a vodka tasting event in conjunction with Pinktober, a charity function that is meant to help families dealing with cancer. She said that they did things much different than in Vegas. In fact, they just had San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice there recently.
She talked about the different ways you could get around town and how the Hard Rock assisted people in getting from place to place. They have a lot of perks for skiers. She also mentioned the Hard Rock's commitment to upholding Tahoe’s interest in being green and sustainable, no plastic straws, leave no trace, be kind to the environment. And she talked about the resort's commitment to great guest experiences.
And to her word of creating a great guest experience, after some very tasty and instagrammable deserts, she took me on a tour of the Hard Rock Casino.
As you’d expect in a Hard Rock, lots of rock and roll memorabilia, including one of my favorite musicians, the late Chris Squire of the band Yes - his Rickenbacker Bass and one of his outfits was on display.
For Nirvana memorabilia and in case you think this is a new hotel, it actually used to be the Sahara Tahoe, and back in the 70’s Elvis Presley had a residency here, so you’ll actually get to see Elvis’ piano on site.
Tahoe Rim Trail and Other Brilliant Walks
Location: 466 Andria Dr, Glenbrook, NV 89413
The next day I woke up and met Valerie who was representing Tahoe South for a hike up Tahoe Rim Trail to Castle Rock. It was a great day to do it. The air was a bit brisk, but the snow on the ground made for a beautiful scene.
I asked her about the snow the day before and Tahoe weather and she said it was predictably unpredictable
We came across a woodpecker first, but he was having nothing to do with my camera lense. Valerie said that when you're walking, if you hold some crackers in your hand there are chickadees that will come and eat them from your hand.
Then we saw some paw prints that I was a little unsure of (dog, coyote, or small bear). But after a few minutes I felt like a veteran tracker - I was like, oh, well a bear wouldn’t follow a path! That Cub Scout badge was well earned! Valerie also said no worries about bears, they tend to be more afraid of us.
There are tons of trails around. Tahoe Rim Trail goes all the way around. However, the other’s are not necessarily connected, so you may have to conquer one at a time.
Pacific Crest Trail, she said, had hundreds of little lakes including Lake Aloha as well as it's own trail. There are also some trails and parks right down by all the action, including Van Sickle State Park with a nice waterfall and Cave Rock State Park just north of Zephyr Cove beach where I would be meeting my boat later on.
We looked across the lake and she was naming off different peaks. So much beauty around!
I asked her about the Leave not trace behind campaign and she said it was one of many in the area. The credo is when you see it, pick it up. Clean up after camping, etc. She said around the mid 1960’s the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency set restrictions on building on the lake and determined what could go into the lake. Other organizations like Keep Tahoe Blue and the Tahoe Resource Conservation District (who inspects all the boats that enter the lake) all work in unison to make sure Lake Tahoe is preserved for generations and all the wildlife.
And that theme carried on to my next destination
MS Dixie II
So my last stop was my rescheduled Daytime Cruise on the MS Dixie II. And the difference in weather was like day and night. Aggressive waves on the shore and wind that was blowing you around turned to extreme calm, tranquil waters, so clean and clear you could see right to the bottom when you stood on the docks.
The sun was shining, I took my place on the top deck at first and enjoyed some trail mix to hold me over. As the boat left the shore, it was beautiful seeing the full 360 degrees of the lake with sight lines across the 22 mile expanse.
You could see where they had carved a fire line in the middle of the mountain. Someone said it was supposed to be cut on the state line, but they were a little off. There is some narration along the way, but mostly the super sounds of the 70’s.
After an hour, I moved from top deck to the lower deck at the bow taking video and watching as we moved into those beautiful waters that reflect the bay's name - Emerald Bay.
I had no idea there was a castle there, the Vikingsholm was built in the 1920’s, as well as a little island that we passed by with what looked like a castle tower, but was in fact the remains of a tea house. It felt like something from straight out of the Great Gatsby .
The narration continued, telling about the instability of the mountains near Emerald Bay and the multiple times they had to rebuild roads there.
I had a great time talking with people on board, learning where they were visiting from and exchanging our best of lists from the Tahoe area. I went down into the cabin area for a hot lunch of fish and chips and watched some of the video where they talk about the underwater expeditions on the lake.
On the way back across, I just sat there and soaked it all in. I suddenly noticed about half way across that it was so peaceful and I could hear the waves...and just as I was about to say to the guy next to me - it’s so nice they shut the music off - Fleetwood Mac interrupted my thoughts. Oh, well, minor bump. I’m sure many people appreciate the entertainment when the conversation with their friends dip down.
Conclusion to Visiting Tahoe South in the Off-Season
All in all, I had a wonderful time in Tahoe. It was a fun couple of days of rides, nature, a snow event, amazing food, and great people to talk to.
So, what next? Well I had so much packed into my South Tahoe trip, I’m going to save my drive down the mountain into Carson Valley for our next episode. We’ll be moving from lake activities, to old west history, family style dining, and a distillery and ranch that totally caught me off guard. Join me then!