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September 7th 2011
Published: July 12th 2012
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Lake TahoeLake TahoeLake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe City Beach
Today I head back to California.

The road out of Reno follows the Tokatee River.

This is the same route used by the former overland trail to the California gold fields (see Pioneer Trails).

The canyon perfectly illustrates an effect called the Sierra rain shadow.

When winter storms come off the Pacific, they hit the Sierra Nevada.

The moisture condenses as it rises over the mountains, so much of it falls as rain and snow.

The west side of the mountains is lush forest.

The east side and the land beyond are desert and steppe.

Near Reno, the canyon walls are covered in scrub.

Heading west, plants grew denser and denser until I was surrounded by forest.

Lake Tahoe

Once in California, the river turns away from the main highway, and heads south.

I followed it through a narrow canyon.

Along the way, I passed Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

The entrance sign has a huge copy of the rings.

Eventually, the river ended at one of the Sierra Nevada’s scenic gems, Lake Tahoe.

The lake is a glacial lake located close to the crest
Eagle RockEagle RockEagle Rock

Close to the summit of Eagle Rock. Note Lake Tahoe in the background
of the Sierra Nevada.

Glaciers carved a deep valley, and then a volcanic eruption sealed it off.

It’s the second largest alpine lake in the country after Lake Yellowstone (see Thar She Blows, Captain).

It’s also the second deepest after Crater Lake (see A Day of Cascades).

Forested mountains surround the lake.

It has become a major tourist destination, leading to a large clutter of tourist towns and vacation condos along much of the shore.

All those towns have caused a pollution problem, the source of a popular bumper sticker among area outdoor enthusiasts, “Keep Tahoe Blue”.

Thankfully, all the tourist tack has not completely ruined the lake.

Parts of it are incredibly scenic, and much of the land around it is still wilderness.

The Tokatee River meets the lake at Tahoe City, one of the more low key towns in the area.

It has its share of tourist traps downtown, but they are easy enough to ignore.

I spent my time on the town beach.

It has a perfect view of the water, stretching into the distance with mountains all around.

Believe it or not, this beach was once the site of the town jail!

A plaque marks the spot.
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Lake Tahoe, looking north from Eagle Rock

Tahoe City is close to the best easily accessible view of the lake.

Driving west along the lake shore reveals a rocky hill close to the water, Eagle Rock.

It is a volcanic outcrop, like the mounds found on the lower elevations of Mount Rainier (see Rainier is Shorthand for “Rains All Year”, Right?).

An obvious roadside parking lot sits just beyond it.

The parking lot marks the trailhead for the climb to the top.

This trail is popular.

It swings around the hill instead of climbing straight up it to lessen the potential for erosion.

The first part passes through tall fir trees.

The trees become shorter as the trail climbs.

Eventually, patches of lilac bushes appear.

The trail eventually reaches a series of basalt ledges, where the path becomes harder to follow.

The vegetation switches to wide areas of bushes and the occasional clumps of trees.

Some rock scrambling reaches the open summit.

The top has an incredible view of the lake and the mountains that surround it, glistening in the sun.

Donner Pass

Heading west from Lake Tahoe, the
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Lake Tahoe, looking south from Eagle Rock
interstate climbs to Donner Pass.

Drivers with a taste for history and scenery take the old local road instead, which was once part of the Lincoln Highway, the first paved cross country highway in the United States.

It soon runs along the shore of a glacial lake, with a steep rocky ridge on the far side.

This lake, Donner Lake, is where the Donner Party tried to wait out a Sierra winter.

In popular myth, they ultimately turned to cannibalism in order to survive.

It’s a beautiful place for such a terrifying history.

The actual location of the campsite is now a state park, which I skipped due to the morbid subject matter.

Once past the lake, the road climbs through a series of switchbacks.

The scenery is all open rocks with the occasional clumps of trees.

It is much better than the interstate, which is completely forested.

Eventually, it crosses over a narrow ravine that leads to the lake.

The road does so on a curved concrete arch bridge, the Donner Summit Bridge.

At first glance, the bridge does not seem very significant.

This type of bridge exists in many places in California, and
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Show Sheds above the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks near Donner Lake
most are more picturesque than this one.

Remember how old the Lincoln Highway is, though; this bridge is the first of its type ever built!

When it was constructed in 1926 the state highway department called it the most difficult engineering feat in its history.

The drive along the lake and up to the pass reveals a really odd sight, a miles long structure made of wood on the far ridge.

This structure starts roughly at the level of the lake and climbs, slowly and steadily up the side of the ridge until it reaches the level of the road at the pass.

The mystery resolves itself at the pass, where the road runs right next to it.

The incredibly long wood structure is a man made tunnel over the Southern Pacific railroad tracks.

Like the Donner Party, the railroad tracks were completely snowed in a year after trains started running.

Unlike the Donner Party, they quickly realized something had to be done about it.

Building the tunnel was significantly cheaper than trying to keep the tracks plowed.

After the pass, the scenery turns into
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Donner Lake, looking east from the south shore
dense pine trees.

I had a half hour of them until the old road and the interstate finally merged.

I then had a long haul back to the Bay Area, to continue my journey along the west coast.


Video of the pass heading east in summer:

And winter:


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