Story and photography by Olaf Wolff[Motorcycle Touring Lake Tahoe: All About the Lake on the Border was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the April 2007 issue of Rider magazine]
During the record-breaking heat spell of 2006, when the days were too fiercely humid and miserable for anything other than a coastal ride, I was couch surfing the TV and came upon a celebrity golf tournament held in Lake Tahoe. I wasn’t as interested in the golf as in the big, beautiful lake in the background, located on the border between California and Nevada, near Carson City. It had been years since my last Tahoe trip—a visit was way past due.
Monday morning I rolled out of Ventura at 6:30. The gray marine layer hung tough along Highway 126 until Santa Paula, but from there it was all sunshine. As Highway 14 merged into Interstate 395, conditions were supreme and nearly traffic free. On the right was desert and varying shades of green pastoral flats, on the left, snow-specked mountains like Mount Langley and Mount Whitney—the highest point in the lower 48 states. Red Rock, Little Lake, Lone Pine, Independence—it was all passing by too fast. I couldn’t remember this road ever moving so quickly or the landscape and weather any more brilliant. I made it to Bishop before 1:30 p.m., where I had lunch at Erick Schat’s Bakery. I’ve been stopping here for more than 30 years, as it’s home to the original sheepherder’s bread. Along with crazy-good baked treats, they have a famous sandwich bar that’s equipped to offer something for every conceivable appetite.
After Bishop the riding just gets better as the highway starts to climb, from 4,100 feet up to 8,300 at Conway Summit. I was looking at another two-and-a-half hours of riding at my present pace, and with double that in daylight left I opted to slow down, stop more often and lollygag. This was one of those first-day rides that engages all the senses, and I didn’t want the high to end. I lingered at the overlook above 1-million-year-old Mono Lake. From my vantage point I could just make out some of the kufa towers, calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water that look like melting icebergs.
I stopped for coffee in Bridgeport, the last California town of notable size along 395, before crossing into Nevada at Topaz Lake. The first town in Nevada is Gardnerville. There I made a left on State Highway 207, which winds up Kingsbury Grade into the mountains and ends at Stateline, South Lake Tahoe. After nearly 12 hours on the road and 480 miles, I pulled into the parking lot of the Capri Motel. Instead of feeling worked and road weary, I was still pumped up from a stupendous day of riding. The Capri is located directly behind Harvey’s Casino, a scant five-minute walk to a private beach at the lake, and the same distance up to the casinos, shopping and restaurants.
There’s a saying up here “that the journey is the destination,” and the next morning after riding the 72 miles around the lake, there was little doubt about what that means. Lake Tahoe is a freshwater lake and its sweet, clean smell mingles with the scent of the conifer forest of Jeffery and Lodgepole pines and white and red firs, creating a ridiculously moving aromatherapy experience.
Approximately two-thirds of the lake’s shoreline is in California and the rest in Nevada. The area is home to several world-class ski resorts, such as Squaw Valley, made famous during the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. But Tahoe offers the greatest outdoor versatility during the spring and summer months. Hiking and biking trails surround the entire lake, and there’s guided horseback riding at places such as Camp Richardson on Emerald Bay Road. As for water sports, there’s everything from paddlewheel boats and parasailing to waterskiing and just kicking it with a fishing pole.
Lake Tahoe is one of the deepest (1,645 feet), largest (192 square miles) and highest (6,229 feet) lakes in the United States. Only Oregon’s Crater Lake is deeper at 1,930 feet. No matter how busy it gets, you can always find a secluded spot along the shore for quiet refection or to focus privately on the voices in your head. And that’s all you’ll hear, except for perhaps the chirping of birds or the rustle of leaves as a gray squirrel scurries by.
In the past tourism and construction, the very source of success for this community, have also been the source of its most problematic environmental issues. The lake has suffered over the years from uncontrolled overuse. Until recently, construction on the banks of the lake had been more or less under the control of wealthy real-estate developers and had been linked to a clouding of the amazingly azure waters of the lake. Currently, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is regulating construction along the shoreline. Although the underlying battle continues, there have been substantial improvements made in the lake’s pristine waters.
After circling the lake I stopped for breakfast before heading back down Highway 50 toward Sacramento. Centuries before explorers John Fremont and Kit Carson discovered Lake Tahoe in 1844, the Lake Tahoe Basin was a summer gathering place for three bands of peaceful Washoe Indians. The lake held a spiritual meaning for the tribe, and many sacred ceremonies were held along the southern shores. When the California Gold Rush lured immigrants and fortune seekers to the rugged Sierras, prospective miners used passes to the north and south to circumnavigate the treacherous Tahoe Basin. The first road across the mountains, the “Bonanza Road,” accommodated travelers eager to cash in on Virginia City’s massive Comstock Lode, discovered in 1859. Highway 50 now covers this route.
There are winding mountain roads that move with a rhythm and beat that is immediately familiar and comfortable, with well-paved, long, wide turns, nothing off-camber and no surprises. Highway 50 is that kind of road nearly all the way to Placerville. As the highway led, the V-Strom and I eagerly danced along.
In Sacramento I veered onto Interstate 80 down to Oakland, then onto Interstate 880 to San Jose and onto the 101. My lingering bliss from the rest of the ride was substantial enough to make even these freeways tolerable. In Watsonville I took Highway 129 west to Highway 1, coming to rest in Monterey for the night.
The stretch of coast highway from Monterey to Cambria is without a doubt one of the most renowned driving experiences, and in the morning I would savor every single mile and twisting curve. Home was an easy half-day ride away now, but I’d planned to take the whole day—when it’s this good why rush? By the time I pulled back into Ventura, I had already made plans for another Tahoe trip with my wife and some friends. If I could turn this ride into a card, I’d hand it out as a definitive reply when outsiders ask why I ride motorcycles.