On a toasty afternoon in mid-September more than 30 years ago, Lake Tahoe spoke to me. "Take the plunge," the lake whispered, as I waded up to my ankles in its clear shallows at Nevada's Sand Harbor. Not having a swimsuit with me, and seeing that the beach was nearly deserted, I acted as any sensible person would act, or so I thought at the time: I stripped to my skivvies and dived in.
That impromptu, mildly indiscreet swim in bracing water took place during my first trip to Lake Tahoe, the Sierra jewel nestled at 6,223 feet on the California-Nevada border. I blame my impulsive action on the brashness of youth, which allowed me to imagine that tighty-whities really do resemble a Speedo. (They don't.) But I also blame that spectacular, cusp-of-autumn day. Golden, honey-thick sunlight warmed my face and arms, and the mountain air still carried the dry, piney scent of high summer in the woods. The lake's sapphire-and-turquoise-hued water sparkled as enticingly as a Broadway marquee. Rising above the opposite shore, oblivious to the imminent arrival of winter's snow, granite peaks basked in the sun. How could I not jump in?
In the decades since, I've traveled dozens of times to Lake Tahoe and its surrounding basin of deep forests, boulder-strewn beaches, and friendly towns. I love swimming and hiking here in summer, and skiing in winter and spring. But autumn remains my favorite time of year at North America's largest alpine lake.
After Labor Day weekend, the season announces itself in many delightful ways. Summer throngs and their cars evaporate, and skiers and snowboarders have yet to arrive, so traffic lightens and restaurant reservations are easier to score. Daytime temperatures drop but remain pleasant, softly popping fires make cooler nights cozy, and T-shirts give way to flannel shirts and down vests. The crisp weather calls for more substantial eats: a big stack at Heidi's Pancake House; a hefty short-rib burger and a house pint at Cold Water Brewery & Grill (both in South Lake Tahoe, California); or a prodigious smoked-salmon omelet at Fire Sign Cafe (in Tahoe City, California, on the lake's west shore). The pockets of aspens dotting Tahoe's mostly evergreen forests gradually lighten from green to brilliant yellows and golds, their leaves dropping along with the price of lodging. In autumn, Tahoe moves into the slow lane.