Suffice to say, travel with a capital T remains anywhere from low on the radar to non-existent. Depending on the urge and level of comfort, one can hop on a plane and visit wherever Americans are still welcome but with air travel the least desirable mode of transportation while Covid-19 lingers, adventurers craving to spread their wings for a scenic change beyond their house walls have turned the spotlight toward road trips.
The getaway could be as simple as a one-day Bay Area excursion or, if necessary, multiple days to help alleviate some sanity. Either way, be prepared with the appropriate provisions, an attitude for discovery, and after a prolonged pandemic-induced hibernation, LOTS of patience.
Wow, did I find that out!
Six months of a high-grade cabin fever is not easily curable for someone with a chronic case of wanderlust. But the healing process had to begin sometime. When the breaking point hit my dismal travel sabbatical, I busted loose (one can only wander virtually for so long) for a week-long escape to the Lake Tahoe/Reno/Carson Valley region. Close enough, yet seemingly, worlds away.
Soon after becoming reacquainted with my car, I flashed on the irony of escaping to nature when it is currently the tiniest specs of nature that has turned our world upside down. Nevertheless, primed to practice all virus-related safety protocols, it was full steam ahead.
I can always count on a fresh mountain air and aqua combo as ideal medicine to restore some mental clarity but sometimes I need to be careful what I wish for. The moment I reached Kings Beach at Lake Tahoe and took a deep breath while gazing at the crystal blue lake a reality check hit me smack in the face upon noticing I wasn’t the only person seeking refuge from metropolis.
My sights remained focused on the mission to the Sierra Nevada playground, split between California and Nevada, and its acclaimed centerpiece – North America’s largest alpine lake at 1,644’ deep, 22 miles long, 12 miles wide and 72 miles of shoreline surrounded by boundless mountain terrain providing a four-season menu of outdoor activities, from skiing to hiking to kayaking just for starters. Since it was summer prime time my game plan targeted my top two outdoor endeavors, both conducive to social distancing and no mask requirement – golf and biking.
Anytime I engage in a discussion about the world’s best golf destinations, and I’ve been fortunate to have experienced some of the elite, the Sierra Nevada region of Lake Tahoe/Truckee/Graeagle/Carson Valley/Reno deserves way more attention. After all, it isn’t home to any “bucket-list” course in the sense that the Monterey Peninsula has Pebble Beach GL or Scotland with The Old Course at St. Andrews. But what it can claim are over 40 golf courses consisting of hundreds of fairways and greens in all shapes, sizes, and difficulty for golfers to navigate over a variety of mountain landscapes, including the ego-booster benefit of high elevation helping the golf ball travel further! Regardless of ability, this diversity and close proximity to the Bay Area places this destination near the top of my go-to golf A-list. The only dilemma…which courses to choose from the buffet?
My Summer of Covid Tour teed off at Tahoe’s northern end in Kings Beach with an old-school golf experience at Old Brockway GC (1924), surrounded by Jeffrey Pines and plenty of lake views. Rated one of the top nine-hole courses in the country, the family-owned (Lane Lewis) Old Brockway also boasts direct linkage to the perpetually highly-ranked aforementioned 18-holer along the famed 17-mile Drive. In 1934 and 1935, a rising entertainer, Bing Crosby, hosted his “Crosby Clambake” with friends for a small purse of money but after out-growing the venue, Crosby traded beaches and moved the event to where it is known today as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
On the opposite end of the golf course spectrum, Clear Creek Tahoe is a 12-year old private club and master-planned community secluded within a pine forested timber ranch 10 miles up Highway 50 from Glenbrook Bay heading toward Carson City. Spoiler alert: the admission ticket to Clear Creek Tahoe may not be bargain friendly but the behind-the-scenes amenities and activities, including a personal favorite 18-hole course designed by the renowned team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, make this setting one of the most coveted real estate assets throughout the Lake Tahoe panorama. Especially for anyone seeking a permanent getaway to take advantage of Nevada’s zero state income tax.
“It’s the Club and everything that comes with it, including the Summit Camp where the entire family can spend time – kids and grandkids” said member Buddy Goldstone. “It’s the spectacular setting, it’s the Lake House on the beach at Lake Tahoe, and it’s the people that makes it a great place.”
Visible from my room at Harveys Lake Tahoe at Stateline, NV, is arguably the crown jewel of Tahoe’s golf scene, Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. Not only is it the lone course to physically border Lake Tahoe (the entire right side of the par-3, 17th fairway is beach), the ninth fairway allows for a tee shot to travel from the Golden State of California to the Silver State of Nevada. Regardless which state you’re in and even if you don’t play the course, this is the place to be every July (except 2020) for the annual American Century Celebrity Championship to spectate plenty of golf drama produced by top stars from the NFL, MLB, NFL, NHL, and Hollywood.
Moving on from the lake scene to the valley stage, the switchback road over the Kingsbury Grade, topping out at 7,344’, dropped me into Carson Valley (20 minutes from South Shore) where I met my match with the Lakes Course at Genoa Lakes Golf Club. Score another victory for the course but that played second fiddle to the dramatic backdrop of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the lush wetlands surrounding the links-style layout. And as it always does, the 19th hole always softens the blow of poor play and this one was a no-brainer straight shot to “Nevada’s Oldest (1853) Thirst Parlor” in the nearby town of Genoa.
I wasn’t sure what I was thinking but in hindsight, I’m thankful my heart and lungs are in good working order. In no time flat, they were tested to the max immediately after driving from sea level to begin huffing and puffing on a mountain bike starting at 7,000’ and ascending to 8,157’ on the notorious 14-mile (one way) Flume Trail.
The 10-minute shuttle ride from the bike shop at Tunnel Creek Café delivered me to the trailhead located at Spooner Lake day use area in the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park (east side of Lake Tahoe). Greeted with more than 1,000’ of climbing during the first four miles and the body screaming “turn back” as I watched motor-assisted e-bike after e-bike pass by, my feet paid no attention while I kept chugging the rolling uphill terrain through aspen groves on the Carson Range to the top at Marlette Saddle. This is the point I had been forewarned that however much oxygen I inhaled and exhaled, it was about to pay huge dividends.
At the dam on Marlette Lake is where the relatively flat (drops only 40’ per mile) single-track 4.5-mile Flume Trail starts and traverses along the mountainside (with an occasional treacherous spot forcing me to walk the bike) high above Sand Harbor and with spectacular lake vistas.
“Make sure if you want to look at the views, stop and look. Don’t become part of the view by riding off the trail,” says Max Jones, two-time national mountain bike champion and owner of Flume Trail Bikes.
Once reaching the end of Flume Trail, all that remained to stay injury free was a three-mile, 1,500’ descent to the finish line.
Or was it?
That trip-starter mountain bike ride was merely a precursor for my Tahoe getaway grand finale – a 73.86-mile, 6.5-hour bike ride circumnavigating Lake Tahoe. It had been six years since my previous lake bike journey, which explains why I was sucking more wind navigating the 4,476’ elevation gain.
With my hydration pack fully loaded, a couple energy bars, banana, and some nuts, I hit the road clockwise (closer to the lake) starting at Kings Beach and within minutes, entered Nevada at the legendary Cal-Neva Lodge (closed for renovations since 2013), once owned by Frank Sinatra. From there, the Tour de Tahoe continued past Incline Village, Glenbrook, back to California at Stateline on the South Shore where I instantly detoured off the traffic-jammed Lake Tahoe Blvd. (Hwy 50) onto side streets and a fairly new (4-5 yrs.) bike trail through a forested area where I came within photo-op viewing of a mama black bear and two cubs. After a quick stop, off I went.
That perfectly timed adrenaline rush proved to be the extra boost needed to push me up the most difficult – and scenic – section of the ride with the an 800’-uphill, switchback road that, at one point, yields a 12% grade. But the reward is an A+ view of Emerald Bay.
Undeterred by a few more heart-pounding inclines that seemed to take 20 minutes peddling up one mile and only two minutes down another mile, the approximate 30-mile home stretch guided me through Homewood, Tahoe City (including an ice cream pit stop) and around Carnelian Bay to the crowning finish at Kings Beach and a lightning-bolt pursuit to the cold brews in my ice chest I brilliantly planned for in advance!
After a few gulps and gasping for air became somewhat normal, once again, I validated there is no other bike ride I’ve accomplished that takes my breath away as does peddling around the blue marvel.
As the door shut on what seemed too short a getaway from my insulated environment of recent months, this mountain recreation arena on steroids left me fired up for an encore.
By Robert Kaufman