America's perfect vacation lake


(CNN) — The world is full of flawless sandy beaches lining every salty ocean and sea.

Far scarcer: lofty freshwater coasts drenched in California/Nevada sun, Sierra mountain imagery and blissfully blue snowmelt — furnished with enough volleyball nets, paddleboard outfitters, lakeside hiking trails, picturesque campgrounds, outdoor Shakespeare performances, surprise Scandinavian castles and nudist-friendly coves for everyone.

In fact, we know of only one place meeting these precise travel criteria.
Lake Tahoe might be best known as a state-line-straddling winter destination housing more than a dozen ski resorts that were all buried in powder a few months back.

Two seasons and one big thaw later, it’s now time to bask in Tahoe’s balmy flipside.

More than 70 miles of shoreline ring North America’s largest alpine lake, including some of the world’s prettiest patches of sand above 6,000 feet.

What’s the perfect shore on Lake Tahoe to jockey for umbrella space this summer? Here’s a personality tailored lineup.


For bucket listers: Sand Harbor

Northeast Shore, Nevada

Often singled out by locals and visitors alike as the lake’s most beautiful beach, Sand Harbor draws expected crowds to its pine-studded, half-mile-long crescent of powdery sand.

Plus boulder-specked coves draw leapers of all ages, and it has designated SCUBA and boating areas and state park-caliber Sierra Nevada views.

If you forgot your inflatable dinghy, you can traipse along a wooden boardwalk to the Visitor Center and buy one.

If you’re craving some Bard in an unbeatable outdoor setting, the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival runs daily summer performances in an amphitheater overlooking the lake.

And if you’d rather avoid Route 28 summer gridlock and one of Tahoe’s most congested parking lots, an East Shore Express Shuttle accesses the beach from nearby Incline Village.


For serenity seekers: D.L. Bliss

Southwest Shore, California

D. L. Bliss offers access to the Rubicon Trail.

D. L. Bliss offers access to the Rubicon Trail.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Entering D. L. Bliss State Park with its woodsy campsites, chill vibe, sweeping Shangri-La vistas and pair of crystalline bays — Lester Beach and Calawee Cove — lets you pretend you’re even farther away from it all than California’s I-80 outback.

No surprise this spot inspires comparisons to rustic corners of the Caribbean (St. John, USVI maybe?) until the lanky pine trees, toe-bracing lake water and occasional bear sightings set you straight.

Paddlers can glide past nearby Rubicon Point toward neighboring Emerald Bay. Beachcombers can lounge on soft sand and swim in protected lagoon-like waters that reach one of the lake’s deepest points nearby.

Hikers can access the Rubicon Trail, one of the area’s blue ribbon lakeside hikes. And campsite reservers can pitch a tent and feel grateful to be overnighting in one of the most “out there” spots on the lake.


For Scandinavian architecture appreciators: Emerald Bay

Southwest Shore, California

Glacier-gouged nooks don’t get much prettier or more photographed than Emerald Bay — a granite cliff-encased National Natural Landmark and underwater state park appointed with some of the lake’s most iconic landmarks.

They include tiny Fannette Island — Lake Tahoe’s only offshore isle — with the ruins of its old tea house perched at its highest point.

And Vikingsholm, a 38-room, Medieval-style Scandinavian castle overlooking the bay and open for tours. It was built in the 1920s by a local aristocrat sparing no expense to give this south shore perch a certain 9th-century, blue-blood Uppsala feel.

An armada of sailboats, paddleboards, kayaks and several other floating vehicles plies the glassy bay during summer. For a quieter peak season, come back in the fall when the crowds thin and the aspen leaves glow.


For multitaskers: Camp Richardson

South Shore, California

Camp Richardson: All-in-one summer destination.

Camp Richardson: All-in-one summer destination.

Courtesy Camp Richardson Resort

In one happy, action-packed, jet ski-buzzing strip of coast, Camp Richardson sums up South Lake Tahoe’s extroverted side — compared to quieter, private home-strewn North Tahoe.

Here’s your all-purpose, one-size-fits-all, makin’-summer-memories hub.

Water skiing, parasailing, paddleboating, charter fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, ice-cream-parlor-ing, plaid shorts-browsing, rent-a-cabin-ing, Rum Runner cruising to neighboring Emerald Bay, and happy hour live music listening to squash that last ounce of solitude you weren’t really coming here for anyway.

Camp Rich has everything required to exhaust the kids by 9 p.m. And you.


For beach volleyball players and beer sippers: Zephyr Cove

East Shore, Nevada

Are the good times rolling even more on the Nevada side of the lake this summer?

That’s a debate we’ll wisely sidestep.

But gazing west at the Golden State from the Silver State’s conifer-lined sands of Zephyr Cove on a warm and breezy, beer-shotgunning, volleyball spiking, Wave Runner-renting, cruise ship-boarding day in July, one could make an argument.

Zephyr Cove’s namesake resort has been welcoming beach revelers (of all ages and definitions of the term) for about a century.

Today, its mile-long strip of sand hosts Tahoe’s best beach volleyball scene along with a solid lineup of water sports offerings.

Depending on the day and corner of beach, Zephyr Cove is either family central or a watered down version of Florida spring break an hour south of Reno during lazy summer — on a still pretty peaceful beach in the mountains.

Panoramic views of the snowcapped Sierras from here are hard to beat. For an even closer look, board the M.S. Dixie II from Zephyr for an inter-state lake cruise that offers the best of both worlds.


For minimalists: Secret Cove/Harbor

East Shore, Nevada

Yes, there are nude beaches on Lake Tahoe. If that was your next question.

They begin (and largely end) along a picturesque string of sandy east shore coves about three miles south of Sand Harbor along Highway 28 — where a free parking lot connects with a cliffside path leading past some old but still functioning “Clothing Optional” signage.

Secret Cove (a.k.a. Paradise Rock) is the first stop, a secluded crescent of white sand that’s been called Lake Tahoe’s most gorgeous beach — with or without small gatherings of naked people on it.

An often busier but equally mellow summer naturalist scene (hiking, paddleball, grilling) turns up at neighboring Secret Harbor Creek Beach, featuring the same spectacular setting and friendly but unadorned vibe.

Los Angeles-based Jordan Rane is a Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers. His work on travel and the outdoors has appeared in more than 50 publications.


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