Tahoe’s Tropical Side

Looking out across Lake Tahoe for the first time — its blue-green waters, mountains and beaches — was a moment of pure infatuation. I’d heard all about the water and the mountains, but who knew that Tahoe is surrounded by such beautiful beaches? I mean, it’s an alpine lake that’s at about the same altitude and latitude as Carbondale, but its attitude is more like California. It would be hard to imagine the concentration of golden sand and beach babes being any denser in Malibu or Big Sur.

I may have been the only person to live their entire adult life in the American West never having visited Tahoe before our trip. But after finally checking that box off my bucket list, I’m now wondering what took me so long, and I can’t wait to go back.

We drove the scenic route there — Highway 50 through the heart of Nevada, which has been labeled “The Loneliest Highway in America” for good reason. It’s the kind of place where you would not be surprised to see the skeletons of unlucky travelers lying beside the road, picked clean by buzzards. The route features some beautiful mountain ranges, but only about four small towns over its 500 miles, so you want to make sure your car is gassed up and running well before attempting it.

My fiancé lived in Tahoe for several years, so she knows the place like a local, and led me to and through some gorgeous places during our week there.

The lake is split into a California side and a Nevada side. The California side is sparsely populated, and features some awe-inspiring vistas. Hiking trails run all the way from the lake to the summits of the surrounding mountains. We hiked the Rubicon trail that traverses the lake’s western edge one afternoon. The trail meanders in and out of the forest, and gave us new and amazing views around every corner.

The Nevada side of the lake is much more developed, featuring the casinos, of course, but also some great restaurants and hotels, and most of Tahoe’s best beaches.

Our hotel room featured a large stone fireplace and kitchenette, and was only two blocks from the beach where we sat on our first night and watched the sun set beyond the distant mountains.

On another day we took a lunch cruise on a paddleboat across the lake and back, and sat at a window seat where we toasted our good fortune while contemplating the icy depths. Then we took a side trip to Virginia City — a real old west town with real (staged) gunfights and fake cowboys.

Back at the beach, I stepped into the cold water and gritted my teeth as I waded out until I was waist-deep. I took a moment to gather my courage, then dove in and swam like Michael Phelps until my body adjusted to the temperature. The crisp, clean Tahoe waters were so exhilarating that I decided to float there for a while, looking around at one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Beaver Creek on a Budget

Something seemed more than a little familiar to me about sitting around a fire ring at the base of Beaver Creek. I was certain that if I closed my eyes and clicked the heels of my ski boots three times I’d be teleported to Snowmass’ Base Village. I may have been thrown sideways by the surreal vision of skiers heading back to the lift with both poles in one hand and a stack of chocolate chip cookies in the other; or it may have just been the après-effects of the pitcher of margaritas we shared.

Doing a place like Avon/Beaver Creek at the height of ski season on a budget requires some creativity – you have to think like a local, and thankfully we had plenty of experience with that sort of thinking after two years in a tiny apartment in the Aspen core.

 The mountain at Beaver Creek is world-class. There’s a reason many of the runs are soaked with drool of FIS officials. The only problem with it is that Vail-Beaver Creek, like Aspen, knows how good their product is, and they charge accordingly. The lift-ticket sticker shock was almost enough to send us Carbondalians scurrying for Sunlight.

 

Fortunately, we were able to recoup some of our vacation cash by eating at 8100 Mountainside Bar and Grill at the base of the mountain where our pitcher of margs was only 19 bucks, and the burgers and other bar-style food were as affordable as they were delicious. There’s also the popular base-area tradition of chefs, dressed not un-like the Pillsbury dough boy, walking around with trays full of the best chocolate chip cookies this side of mom’s.

Our accommodations at the Christie Lodge in Avon were comfortably better than bohemian. I’ve stayed there from time to time for 30-odd years and witnessed a few remodels that never seemed to improve the place. The lodge features an indoor and outdoor pool, three Jacuzzis and a workout room in case your legs aren’t taxed enough from skiing. The rooms are smallish, but they do have kitchenettes which, combined with an actual full-size City Market two blocks away, helped defray our cost of eating out.

 

We did find some great places to get cheap grub, though. Having done our penance as penny-pinching Aspen locals, we tend to gravitate toward locals’ restaurants, and found two good ones right across the street from the lodge. Pazzo’s Pizzeria is a family-style pizza place with great pizza and a few video game machines to pass the time. The emphasis at Pazzo’s is on “family” though, so we expanded our search parameters to a place where we could tip back a few adult beverages with our meal. We found it right around the corner at Bob’s Place, which has nightly drink and food specials, and live music and karaoke on certain nights.

On our final night we skipped under the I-70 overpass to Northside Coffee Kitchen, which sounds like a greasy spoon but is actually a really nice restaurant. It features a three-course meal for $36.95 with several choices of appetizer, entrée and dessert. They also have a large variety of wines that you can get by the glass, half bottle or bottle. We chose a couple of glasses of pinot noir, and toasted the frugality of another great budget getaway.

Civic Pride: A 2-wheel-drive clunker conquers the Potash Road

It was one of those classic desert dirt roads — the kind where you can imagine seeing the skulls of long-dead animals strewn about and buzzards looming overhead. The sun beat down on the Civic’s already weathered roof, nullifying any benefit we got from its air conditioning. It had been miles since we’d seen another car, and I nervously checked the dashboard gauges while trying to remember the last time we’d had the vehicle in for a tune-up.

It’s called Potash Road and starts innocently enough as Highway 279 — a paved road along the Colorado River that starts about four miles northwest of Moab. But the road eventually becomes dirt and then becomes a borderline 4-wheel-drive road shortly after a sign that says “Welcome to Canyonlands – Visitor Center 22 miles.”

We stopped frequently along the road to take pictures of the desert landscape, which featured numerous red rock formations, gardens of octillos and a lot of dust. When we came upon the blue potash evaporation ponds that give the road its name, they were like the physical representation of a non-sequitur. The blue of the pools contrasted so starkly with the parched red desert that we began looking around for Mulder and Scully, and searched the skies for the Mothership.

A few miles past the ponds we rode up on an area of the Colorado River called the Goose Neck. We’d seen it the day before from high above at Dead Horse Point Overlook, and if we squinted really hard we could see tiny tourists far above looking down on us. Canyonlands is a vertical landscape like few others with sheer cliff walls jutting up hundreds of feet from the Colorado River basin. It’s the kind of place where you can easily imagine Wile E. Coyote falling with his failed Acme rocket into the depths of oblivion.

The view of the Goose Neck from up close was even more spectacular than from the high perch, though we were still more than 100 feet above the river. We stopped at several viewing points to take pictures, and we did finally encounter other humans, in Jeeps, who flashed skeptical looks at our little car.

Undaunted, we left the Goose Neck and continued up the road, which now wound its way through a tight canyon that featured an arroyo. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d want to be during a heavy rainstorm, but on such a hot dry day, its rugged beauty was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Potash Road eventually came to a T with Shafer Trail Road, which climbed more than 1,000 feet out of the canyon. If you’ve ever dared to drive up a one-lane dirt road with switchbacks climbing a sheer cliff wall with no railing, this is the one for you. The pucker factor alone was off the charts. The only thing working in our favor was that we were headed up, not down, so we had the right of way, and SUVs were stacked up at every corner waiting for us to pass.

Near the top the road smoothed out, got somewhat wider and actually provided some pullouts for photo-ops. We shook our heads in disbelief while gazing out at the canyon and our little road, which seemed to stretch out forever.

When we pulled back onto the paved Highway 313 and then into the visitor’s center, it seemed like we had finally returned to civilization. We approached the park ranger to buy our day passes and told him about the route we’d taken. He gave us a sly grin and said, “Well, you two have already had quite an adventure.” We didn’t tell him we’d done it in a Civic.