After two nights in Reno, we had a short drive to nearby Lake Tahoe, which straddles the borders of California and Nevada. The enormous lake is 72 miles (115 km) around and 1,645ft (501 m) deep. The water is 99.99% pure and reflects vibrant blues and emerald greens below the surrounding 11,000 foot (3353 m) mountain peaks. Lake Tahoe holds a special place in Lena’s memories of family holidays there, and she was excited to share this treasure with everyone. We stayed in an AirBnb on the Nevada side in a town called Incline Village. This gave us proximity to restaurants and markets, as well as breathtaking trails and hidden beaches along the east shore. After time on the road, dusty hikes, and hot beach days, we ended up really appreciating the ability to do laundry in the condo!
There are so many cool things to do on the lake, and we only had two days and two nights, so our general plan was to cover as much in as little rush as possible. Some of the more exciting activities like the treetop canopy walk and clear bottom kayaks had an age minimum of five years old…and Noodle is only four. This turned out to be the case often on the trip, and our frequent claim was, “ We’ll just have to come back.”
After a big shop at Whole Foods, an impressionable drive over Mt. Rose Pass, and settling into the condo – we decided to head into the woods. Lena consulted some excellent blogs for advice, such as Nevada Moms and Hike It Baby, and we decided to take the trail to Monkey Rock, which is in the Spooner Backcountry area of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. The route is quite popular and not difficult, except we accidentally took the shortcut to the top, which meant we climbed (er, dragged the kids) 400 feet (122 m) pretty much straight up in about a quarter mile distance (0.4km). It was totally worth it. The granite outcropping at the top offered fun climbing opportunities for the kids and some heart palpitations for mom. Apparently one of the large boulders is shaped like a monkey head, but Bug and Noodle were unconvinced. They eventually found their perfect nook to take a rest, and we all enjoy the sweeping views while the adults sipped some cold beverages.
On our way down, we decided to detour to the lake for a dip. We cut down to the Tahoe East Shore Trail for a short distance to cross under the highway and found the trail access to the aptly named Hidden Beach. The sandy cove is dotted with smooth boulders and offers shade (for part of the day), sun and ample splashing opportunities. Although a bit surprised at how freezing Tahoe’s waters truly are, Noodle spent most of the day wading in the sandy shallows while Bug chased crawfish in the rock pools. Having exhausted the kids and our snack supply, we eventually trudged/hiked the mile back to our car. Given our specific restaurant criteria, we eventually found an open cafe with outdoor seating and vegetarian options close to our condo. Sadly, the mediocre meal ended up giving us all our only bout of food poisoning of the entire trip.
Despite tender tummies, we awoke determined to explore all the personalities of the lake and headed south. Our high spirits on arrival to South Lake Tahoe were dampened on learning that rides on the gondola at Heavenly Ski Resort were closed in anticipation of bad weather. Adults and kids had been excited about the Ridge Rider Coaster down the mountain, and only a few fluffy clouds sat atop the peaks. We decided to curb our disappointment with delicious Mexican food and afternoon margaritas at Azul-Latin Kitchen before some souvenir shopping.
Sensing the kids needed a nap, we hopped back in the van and followed the south shore to iconic Emerald Cove. One of the “American” things Anna wanted was have her picture taken with Smokey Bear, who became famous in the 1940s and 1950s with the slogan, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” These signs are located in National Forests all over the United States and broadcast the fire danger in the surrounding area. Lucky for Anna, we were able to fulfill her dream. And the kids were fascinated watching a Forest Service crew load up their fire truck before heading out on a call.
After obligatory photos at the overlook, we parked at the Vikingsholm Trailhead to take the short but steep one mile trail to Emerald Bay Beach. Bug and Noodle loved spotting wildlife and collecting sticks on the way down, and they had a blast exploring the beach. Though not open for tours, we peered in the windows of the quirky Vikingsholm Castle, which was built by an equally interesting heiress, Lora Knight, who literally bought Emerald Bay and had her Scandinavian-inspired mansion built in 1929. We shared a small picnic as the afternoon sun faded and reluctantly left when the imminent storm finally blew in.
We hyped up the storm a bit to keep Bug and Noodle moving up the trail, but aside from some lightning in the distance, we actually avoided rain as we rounded the east shore. Finally, at Carnelian Bay, an incredible rainbow peaked under storm clouds illuminated by the setting sun. It was a stunning end to a stunning day. We were too exhausted to eat a real dinner, and everyone went to bed early in anticipation of our much-hyped route across the desert the next morning.
We try to keep Bug and Noodle informed of upcoming plans so they are not surprised and can ask questions. We had been telling them that we would stay in the van the whole day because we had to drive a long distance across Nevada. A new term was added to our family lexicon when Noodle concluded that it was going to be a “massive drive.” He was right. It took about 14 hours to travel from the northwest corner of the state across some of the most desolate areas of the country to the southeast corner and into Utah by the end of the day.
We didn’t want to just blow through. We were determined to see the sights and appreciate this strange slice of Americana. First stop was Tonopah. Highlights included the Clown Motel, famous for its creepy clown museum, and the Old Tonapah Cemetery, which revealed the harsh reality of silver mining in the early 1900s. Lunch at the Tonopah Brewery proved one of the best barbecue stops for Brian and Anna, and they compared all others against it for the remainder of the trip. Despite lacking options for vegetarians, Lena enjoyed a cold beer on tap.
Second stop was the International Car Forest of the Last Church located in the nearby town of Goldfield. Goldfield is what is known as a living ghost town. In the early 1900s, it was the largest city in the state but now houses a population of around 300. This outdoor art installation consists of cars, trucks, and busses often jutting out of the desert sand at odd angles. The vehicles are covered in fascinating graffiti that provides a colorful contrast to the stark surroundings. The story of the installation is that local artist, Mark Rippie, wanted to create an open air space for artists to leave their mark and set the Guinness World Record for the largest car forest (which apparently is a thing). Bug and Noodle loved chasing lizards, exploring the auto carcasses, and asking endless questions about all the exposed machinery.
From there, we transitioned to The Extraterrestrial Highway, which gets it name due to the fact that is goes right past the Nevada Test Site. This is the location of the fabled and mysterious Area 51. Depending on your source, Area 51 can be described as the location where the US military develops and tests new secret aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk, or where the US Government keeps proof of alien life and the UFO that supposedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Anna had only a cursory knowledge of Area 51, so we wanted to show her some exciting sights and perhaps have an alien encounter or two. Unfortunately, what we saw a lot of sage brush, some cows, and a few wild burros. Interesting side note: The burros’ ancestors carried people and supplies across the harsh desert during silver rush and were left behind when mines dried up and towns collapsed. The animals are now protected under Federal Law as living symbols of our history.
Summer storms chased us most of the way across this long section, which created incredible contrasts in light and gave depth to the endless vistas. Occasionally, we passed through small towns that had seen better days. We wondered about the people living so differently than us, and contemplated the bravery of settlers in the 1800s choosing to cross this barren landscape in covered wagons. This spirit of adventure and openness to the unknown is something we know well as expats living off-the-beaten path.
Our last stop before ending in St George, Utah, was at the Alien Research Center in Hico. The building is in an old Quonset hut with a two story tall metal alien guarding the front, that Bug and Noodle named Fred. Sadly, we arrived ten minutes before closing time and weren’t able to chat up the store clerk about her extraterrestrial beliefs and the interesting folks who stop in to buy t-shirts and alien tequila. Moreover, a flash flood warning had been announced for the area, so she was eager close shop and head home. Nonetheless, meeting Fred inspired a litany of questions from the kids on our final stretch to St. George.
Despite Lena being born in Carson City and Brian working in Las Vegas for six years, the massive drive across Nevada revealed even more quirkiness about the state that we both love. Later in the trip, we returned for a very different type of American experience in Las Vegas. But we have so much beauty to share about the National Parks in Utah before we get to that!