“Wading through the waste stormy winter…
Thank you for your wine, California,
Thank you for your sweet and bitter fruits.
Yes, I got the desert in my toenail
And I hid the speed inside my shoe.”
The Rolling Stones
When Spanish explorers arrived upon the snow-covered mountain range that separates the high desert from the fertile flatlands of the Central Valley of California, it must have reminded them of the snow peaked mountains rising above the arid plains of Granada and its Moorish Palace of The Alhambra, called the Sierra Nevada. So, in their infinite originality for naming newly discovered places in the New World (the choice is usually a Saint’s name, a town in Spain, or occasionally a Hispanization of a local indigenous name), the range was christened The Sierra Nevada of California.
Nestled among the jagged snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada, one finds Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, and the second deepest. Its snowmelt waters are crystal clear and run deep, so deep in fact that local lore speaks of divers who have seen Victorian era bodies at the bottom of the lake at a depth of 1600 feet, fully dressed and perfectly preserved by the icy, clean waters. One such body belonged to a young woman, still pale and beautiful after 150 years, wearing a whalebone corset. Local lore continues to say that the diver tried to bring her up to the surface by tying a rope around her waist, but as the body rose from the deep blue darkness, into the sunlit shallower waters closer to the surface, she disintegrated into dust, her whalebone corset the only thing that made it up to the boat that was winching her to the top.
Many Gold Rush era stories abound, including of a mad English sailor who became a hermit on an island on the Lake’s Emerald bay and occasionally rowed out to visit the saloons on a lakeshore town, fighting huge waves when winter storms whipped the Sierras. The mad Englishman could be seen downing shots of whiskey with his 3-fingered hand. He’d cut off two frostbitten fingers himself after his boat capsized on the lake during a severe storm.
But the mother of all Sierra lore is the story of the Donner party, a group of Wagon Train pioneers, who became stranded and snowbound in the Sierras during the bitter winter of 1846-47.
Their provisions depleted, they first ate their horses, then after weeks of hunger, shot their Indian guides for food. After that, they descended into a cannibalistic game of Survivor, with the party splintering into factions, all hell bent on eating each other. Of the 87 original members, only 48 survived the cold and starvation and rifle fights that broke out where the losers were eaten, sometimes without the benefit of a fire.
The Donner pass section of Highway 80 commemorates the ordeal as it crests the Sierras. You can see a Gold Rush era train trestle across the chasm of the Truckee River hugging snowbound ridges, making it easy to imagine what it would have been like to have been trapped in these mountains back in the winter of 1846-47.
These were the thoughts that occupied my mind as we reached 8000 feet on Highway 80. The heavy snows from the winter of 2016-2017 had transformed the Sierras into a winter wonderland with 12 feet of snow under the bright sunshine and mild temperatures of mid-spring.
We left the highway at Truckee, a Gold Rush era town named after an Indian chief, and as we drove up its main drag, the aptly named Donner Pass road, we saw a collection of mid 19th century Western style saloons, hotels and restaurants, all refurbished and enjoying the bustle of Truckee’s newest resurgence as a gastronomic destination just a stone’s throw away from the slopes of Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe’s premiere sky resort, and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
“Hey, hasn’t Truckee become a bit of a microbrewery town?” my fiancée asked as I drove slowly along the main drag, looking for an inviting Saloon.
“The only thing I know about Truckee is that Charlie Chaplin filmed Gold Rush here back in the 1920’s” I said, remembering a scriptwriter friend that was a huge Charlie Chaplin fan.
I did remember that tap-rooms in West Hollywood had started to serve some prime Belgian sours from Truckee so we parked to do a quick Google search that revealed 3 different microbreweries in town.
Selecting the one with the best reviews about their sours, we quickly left the main drag and found ourselves in the woods above town on the other side of Highway 80. Most new hipster breweries follow a pattern that’s very different from the classic microbrews of the 1990’s. Those were usually located in town, right in the main commercial area, and served food to go with their list of hoppy IPAs, lagers and occasional stouts.
But modern microbreweries follow a different pattern. They are hipper, more Belgian focused vs the German styles favored in college towns back in the 90’s. Sure, they always give a nod to their origins, usually in the name of world class IPAs, but the real draw here are the Belgian style sours.
After driving through more woodland and lumberjack yards, we finally arrived at a nondescript building in a warehouse section of town that housed the Lake Tahoe Mountain Brewing Company. A group of grungy snowboarders milled about drinking outside. They all gave us a long, suspicious look as we exited our Tiguan with California plates. Their lumberjack shirts, long hair and goatees would not have been out of place back in Seattle, circa, 1992, only that these guys wore ski pants under their checkered shirts.
Inside, the crowd was more of the same. Grungy lads and ladettes, fresh from working on the slopes as instructors or snow groomers. The place screamed ‘locals only’, but there were Belgians sours to be tried, so we would not let their semi intimidating gaze slow us down one bit.
The chalk board menu revealed a treasure trove of tart, barrel aged sours, some with blackcurrants, some straight saisons. The nod to the 1990’s de rigeur was present in their selection of double hoppy IPAs. My theory is that the skunky IPAs appeal to the stoner crowd surrounding us. We sat at the small bar and surveyed the scene. A pool table, a fireplace, a large retail fridge with an impressive bottle selection of locally brewed Belgian saisons, and, in keeping with the hipster tradition prevalent today, no food, and alas, no food truck outside.
We’re used to this by now, so we ordered our Belgians and sipped them slowly. Fortunately, their bottle selection was great, so we took a couple of their locally brewed Belgian saisons to try later at home.
Leaving the ski-bums behind, we pressed on eastwards on Highway 80, towards Reno. The lights of the casinos gleamed at us from the valley below as we wound down the Sierras into the old school un-cool (but still charming) offerings of the Downtown Reno Casinos.
We use Reno as our base to explore the Sierras around Lake Tahoe because one: Downtown Reno is only 30 very scenic minutes away from the $500 a night posh lakeside resort of Incline Village. Our room in Reno at one of the 5 star hotels downtown is usually never more than $65 per night, including free valet service (makes a difference when you’ve packed for winter).
Downtown Reno, unlike Las Vegas, hasn’t quite evolved. I’ve been coming here for a while, and nothing has really changed. The same multicolored shaggy carpets, the same crowd, the same cheesiness. But there’s something strangely reassuring about that. While Vegas changes, and grows every year, Reno still feels like that U2 video for the song “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”, shot in Downtown Las Vegas back in April 1987, before Las Vegas had gone corporate and still preserved all that seedy charm that Reno has managed to maintain, in spades.
Glen Alpine Falls Hike
We got up early the next day as the sun rose above the city, the view from our 28th floor looked away from the Sierras, where the edges of the city end up in miles and miles of scrubby high desert.
The drive from Reno to Incline Village on the shores of Lake Tahoe peaks at a spectacular 8200 feet. The snow from the last winter piled so high that the bears awaking from their slumbers had to hang out atop trees, looking down on 12 feet of snow, high enough to cover road-signs and houses.
The road was plowed to perfection and the sky was a high desert blue, not a cloud in sight. We pass the ‘locals only’ ski resort of “Mount Rose”, families, kids and hipster snowboarders with goatees and dreadlocks march uphill to ski in perfect 48-degree weather. We hit the top of the mountain and can see the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe, glistening in the sunshine, surrounded by jagged snowcapped Sierras heavy with pines and a very fat layer of snow.
We decided to skip the crass commercialism of South Lake Tahoe, with casinos and bars and nightclubs, but instead veer away from the lake, towards a destination we had found online that promised a hike up in the Sierras to a spectacular Alpine waterfall. Why do they call these lakes and waterfalls ‘Alpine’? I’ll never know, we’re not in the Alps, last time I checked. Perhaps a more appropriate name would be ‘Sierran’ in honor of the Sierra Nevada range that spawned them.
The trailhead for this waterfall was so remote that our GPS didn’t have it, so we pulled it up on Google maps. Fortunately, by some miracle, we were still in range (we usually aren’t).
Google maps asked us to leave the main road that circles Lake Tahoe and soon we were climbing through a burnt-out forest. Ghostly half burnt trees and charred tree trunks pointed at the clear blue sky as if in accusation. We reached a sign that warned us that it wasn’t an officially maintained road, barely wide enough for one car. There were waterfalls at the end of this one lane gravel road, so we pressed on. I was happy to be driving our trusty VW Tiguan 4 with 4-wheel drive, because the gravel road quickly became a muddy mess, with clear streams of snowmelt crossing it at regular intervals. 5-foot muddy banks of snow bordered the gravel path for the entire length of the bumpy ride. Soon we were driving along the edge of another lake, much smaller than Tahoe, but just as spectacularly beautiful. Summer wooden dachas dotted the shore, built above small pontoon docks, but there were no boats on the lake.
At the end of the road we found a small wooden fire station with a red firetruck parked outside. Someone had piled the snow on three sides of the station, creating a 10-foot protective wall of white.
We geared up and sloshed uphill in our hiking boots. There was an inch of snowmelt on the gravel, and a wall of snow in front of us. The trail had been long covered up with what must have been 12 feet of snow. Someone had carved steps in the snow wall, making a kind of snow path, 12 feet above the real trail. We climbed the snow steps and found ourselves looking at a steep path of snow ahead. Massive pines and redwoods grew on either side and a deep snowless well surrounded each tree trunk. We steered clear of the trees because the snow surrounding them looked dangerously fluffy. Climbing uphill we could hear the waterfall roaring somewhere above, behind gigantic banks of snow and more trees.
The snow path was surprisingly compact and it was relatively easy going. It felt right out of “Call of the Wild”, climbing on snow this deep. The snow trail curved and bent and continued rising until we leveled at a snowy hill-crest. We were still standing on a layer of snow that was several feet thick. And there it was, just behind a group of broken redwoods that looked like a giant had snapped them clean midway; a wide expanse of dark copper rocks, with a roaring waterfall gushing down at 3 levels. Welcome to Glen Alpine Falls. Thank you, California, you’re the gift that keeps on giving.
All words & images by Max Milano.