Article and photos by Josh Steinitz
North Lake Tahoe traditionally has been the place for NorCal residents to play in summer and winter, with the best ski resorts in the region, great biking and hiking trails, and several fun small towns with a smattering of decent bars and restaurants. But, except for old standbys like the Resort at Squaw Creek and the Hyatt Inline Village, it’s historically lacked premier lodging options for more discerning visitors, whether they’re coming from in-state or further afield. This has especially held true for the North Lake region since most of it lies inside California, outside the scope of Nevada’s liberal gambling laws, and without a single central resort town.
That unfortunate situation changed materially with the opening of the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe at Northstar-at-Tahoe, near Truckee. The Ritz brings its signature classic style to Tahoe, and, despite the size and scope of the place, manages to give guests a luxury mountain resort experience, rather than a cookie-cutter hotel experience.
My fiancée Sylvia and I used a late summer weekend to sample the charms of the relatively new property, and we used it as a base from which to satisfy our multi-sport interests. After all, the soft beds at the Ritz feel all that much better after a hard day outside.
After a casual dinner at an Italian pizza restaurant in the main Northstar village (reachable from the Ritz either by driving all the way back down the hill, over to the Northstar approach road, and then back up…or by gondola, which closes at 8pm), we relaxed in our room ready for an early morning wakeup call.
Early the next morning, I loaded my road bike into the car and drove over Brockaway Summit to the Safeway parking lot in Kings Beach. I clicked in, and set off clockwise around the lake, initially heading east towards Incline Village and the Nevada border. As I rode through Kings Beach, even at that early hour there was a crowd of people and cars starting to assemble by the beach, since this was the weekend of a stand-up paddleboarding race across the lake. Passing Sand Harbor on the east shore, the traffic declined and I was treated to gorgeous views over a mirror-smooth lake, with snow still covering the highest peaks of the Desolation Wilderness to the southeast. Once past the ugly casinos and crowds of Stateline and the commercial strip of South Lake Tahoe, it was back to a pretty road climbing up above Emerald Bay on Highway 89, beneath the looming face of Mount Tallac. Another hour of riding on rolling terrain and I was back at my car—an awesome circumnavigation of the lake before lunchtime.
Meanwhile, Sylvia explored the myriad hiking trails starting straight from the Ritz property, easily accessing the entire Northstar trail network. She walked to a small lake, relaxed in the sunshine, and then headed uphill for some views and exercise before turning around. Back at the hotel, we met up and enjoyed a casual lunch of quesadillas on the sun deck patio near the pool.
Eager to keep the multi-sport theme going, I decided to take the afternoon and explore Mount Lola, the highest peak between the Lake Tahoe region and Lassen Peak, far to the north. While relatively unknown, it’s easily accessible from Truckee, as long as a few rough Forest Service roads (reached from Highway 89 north of Interstate 80) don’t scare you off. The 10.5-mile roundtrip hike included a healthy dose of Tahoe wildflowers like mule ears, lupine, and paintbrush, a pretty subalpine meadow, and some tricky trail-finding as the heavy snow year had wreaked havoc with the trail — much of it was under large snowbanks higher up, even in mid-August. Once up on the summit ridge, the views south to the Castle Peak area and down to Tahoe were amazing. Also visible were Mount Rose to the east, and Lassen Peak far to the north. Best of all, because it’s an off-the-beaten-path trail, I only saw 2 other hikers the entire day—highly unusual in a well-trodden place like Tahoe in the summer.
That evening, we treated ourselves to a sumptuous meal at Manzanita, the premier restaurant at the Ritz. It was surprisingly lively for being located at a resort secluded from the main drags frequented in North Lake Tahoe, like downtown Truckee, Tahoe City, or Squaw Valley. The bar area was packed, and the open kitchen and unique lighting made for a visually stimulating dining experience. The service was friendly and prompt, and, while the main courses were not impressive, the appetizers and desserts made up for it.
The following morning, we decided to switch from land to water, and headed to Carnelian Bay, where we checked in at Waterman’s Landing. Unfortunately, it was a red flag wind advisory day, and large waves broke onto the shore, with the lake surface studded with whitecaps. For a SUP (stand-up paddleboard) beginner like me, it was challenging to just stay upright given the wave action, and making any progress paddling into the wind proved illusory at best. Every time I’d find myself in a non-perpendicular position relative to the waves, I’d quickly get dunked. Still, good fun and it left me looking forward to honing my technique on a normal day when the lake is a bit smoother. Likewise, Sylvia fought the wind and waves in her kayak, and after an hour of struggling, we both decided to call it quits.
Before leaving the Tahoe area, we decided to head up to a fantastic viewpoint of the entire lake, but one not well-known – the Martis Peak fire lookout. Reached via a winding Forest Service road off Highway 267 between Kings Beach and Truckee, the lookout offers a panoramic view of the lake basin and surrounding peaks, as well as open views north to Truckee and beyond. It’s a big-time view for such a humble approach through the forest, and the lookout tower was staffed with a local ranger happy to chat and answer questions. It’s surely the view I’ll hold in my mind’s eye whenever I think of Lake Tahoe.
Reservations at the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe can be made via their website or by calling (530) 562-3000. In addition, if you’re planning on dining at Manzanita, reservations are highly recommended. If you eat in Northstar Village, don’t get stuck without a car after the gondola shuts down at 8pm.
When planning to bike around Lake Tahoe, go for an early start to avoid traffic and afternoon winds, or pick a weekday. You can do the ride clockwise or counter-clockwise — it doesn’t really matter. It’s a little more than 70 miles around the lake. If you start in Truckee, you can easily make it a century.
Mount Lola hiking information can be found here — the trailhead is about a 30-45 minute drive from the Ritz Carlton.
Kayaking and paddleboarding are usually great in the summer, and mornings are usually calmer on the lake. Don’t make the mistake of trying to go out on a wind advisory day like we did.