Fire and Water: 4th July Week at Donner Tahoe

We spent five days exploring the Donner Tahoe area during a week of 4th July by car, bike, boat, raft, and on foot. We had to fight some crowds but it was interesting to see what activities go on in what is traditionally a winter resort.

Fire and Water: 4th July Week at Donner Tahoe

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by sararevell on July 14, 2007

We were fortunate enough that friends of my sister-in-law gave us access to a private beach on Lake Tahoe. Her family also has a boat so we could zip around Donner Lake and took the boat out on the evening of 4th July to watch the incredible firework display. I’d imagine that the display on Tahoe is as good if not better so I’d recommend getting a hotel for the night on the lakes if you’re unable to get access to any of the beaches.

Another perhaps lesser highlight was a visit to the Cal Neva casino on the North Shore of Tahoe. This resort may be past its heyday, but its small size lends an intimacy that you don’t find at other casinos. We were able to chat with staff about the upcoming renovations and they even humoured us at the roulette table, advising us on where we could place bets. There’s also a small hall of fame – black and white celebrity photographs that are a throwback to Sinatra’s time as owner of the resort and casino.

Emerald Bay was also a highlight although unfortunately we lacked the time required to hike down to Vikingsholm castle. It’s definitely worth stopping by for the views even if you can’t do the hike though.${QuickSuggestions} At the time of our visit, it was incredibly hot during day but then cooled down at night. Waterproof sun tan lotion is a must if you’re planning a rafting or beach trip. It may also pay to take along painkillers as a few people in our group suffered from headaches and stomach upsets that were attributed to either altitude sickness of heat stroke (or both!)

If you’re unfamiliar with the area and plan to rent bikes or jetskis ask staff for advice on the best places to visit. Also check ahead to find out about forest fires in the surrounding areas, which are sadly becoming more and more prevalent each year.

If you do decide to watch the fireworks at Donner, be warned that it could take at least an hour to drive out of the park. The traffic is at a standstill for the most part so you just have to be patient and wait for it to break up.${BestWay} Car is definitely the nicest (if you have A/C) and quickest way to get around, although the traffic converging at Tahoe City can cause large tailbacks. We flew into Reno and were picked up by family but the airport is probably a good place to arrange for car rental. Bicycling is also a great way to go although it’s tough going in the midday heat and probably isn’t recommended unless you’re able to keep in the shade for most of the way.

If you’re near the lakes then boat or jetski is probably a great way to get around although Lake Tahoe is known to be pretty choppy, even in summer, and takes a more experienced driver to navigate. Donner Lake seemed a bit calmer although there are plenty of recreational activities going on so you have to keep an eye out for water skiers, windsurfers, and jet skis.

Tahoe Donner Cabin: Sleeping in the Burbs

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by sararevell on July 14, 2007

We were invited to spend the 4th July week with relatives who had rented a house for two months near Donner Lake. I haven’t given full address details because the house is rented through "Vacation Rentals By Owner"  ( and I didn’t think it would be fair to disclose that information. Also I wasn’t a big fan of the house and know that it isn’t going to be indicative of other accommodations offered on this website. However I did want to review it in the hope that anyone else looking for a long-term rental might be prompted into doing more in depth research before committing.

Flying into Reno, the house we stayed in along with seven other family members was a 45-minute drive away. The three-bedroom house that was to be our home for the next five days was set on a quiet residential street in a hilltop suburb about a ten-minute drive from the town of Truckee. The house was outfitted with all the appliances and furnishings you’d need to be comfortable but there were a few hidden costs and shortcomings. For example there was an additional charge for Internet connection (despite it being listed as a "feature"), the barbecue didn’t work and the promise of guests being able to enjoy local amenities of the local Homeowner’s Association (gym, pool, etc.) actually came at a cost of almost $8 per person per day.

These are minor criticisms though. My main gripes were with the house itself, which was in dire need of some updating. The wood on the deck badly needed treating and the wooden exterior was in desperate need of a new paint job. Inside, the decor was bland and despite high ceilings, the bedrooms felt dark and claustrophobic. We drew the short straw and had to sleep on the sofa bed in the living room but at least we had access to the television, DVD player, and ceiling fan. There was also a utility room with washer and dryer and a large garage.

I imagine that this area may be more pleasant during the winter months. During the 4th July week the air was hot, dry, and unforgiving and ants with body parts the size of blackberry seeds invaded the kitchen. Despite no air-conditioning, the house stayed relatively cool and by early evening it was nice enough to have dinner on the outside deck.

The house was utilitarian and was in some ways perfect for such a large family gathering but it was simultaneously uninspiring and dislocated in a way that suburbia can be. I felt removed from the action that can be found closer to Tahoe and Donner. Whilst I fully appreciate that being closer to these places would cause an increase in accommodation costs I personally think it would have been worth it to have a nice view, a place of interest within walking distance or to stay in a place with a little charm or character.
Tahoe Donner Cabin
North Shore
Lake Tahoe, California

River Ranch Lodge & Restaurant: Patio fast food

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on July 14, 2007

Walking onto the River Ranch patio during peak hours is a mildly intimidating experience. The line from the outdoor service counter was long and slow moving and every table that became vacant was immediately snapped up by parents leading a pack of four or more children. Our patience was eventually rewarded and despite some competition, we managed to snag a table with an umbrella which was a must-have given the near 100 degree heat that day.

The small outdoor kitchen had a service area on one side and an order pick-up area on the other. A group of staff prepared the food at the back and perhaps had they had two order takers up front, the queue may have moved at a more decent pace. From the perimeter of the patio you can look down onto the gentle rapids of the Truckee River and at the back you can see rafting groups exit the water from a trip that starts 5 miles up river at Lake Tahoe.

The menu choices at River Ranch are very basic and it’s not dissimilar from being at a family barbecue with the offerings of burgers, hot dogs, and chicken wings. We ordered a Garden Burger with fries and a Garden Salad. Everything is priced under $10 and is fairly good value for money given that both meals were generous in size and tasted fresh, including the fries. Completed orders are announced on a loud speaker at the pick up counter and there’s self-service for sodas, cutlery, and tomato sauce. As chaotic and as noisy as it is, the River Ranch patio works well and does fast and furious business mostly with young families and soggy groups emerging from a Truckee River rafting experience. There’s also a full bar serving beer and cocktails if you need something stronger.

We only ventured inside the lodge briefly where there were a handful of people having lunch. It had a nice old school feel though, with large stone walls and faded wooden furniture. It also had a more laid back and mature feel compared to the family frenzy outside and I can imagine it’s a cosy place for dinner when there’s snow on the ground.

Above the restaurant are 19 rooms which comprise the lodge and the website prides itself for its history which dates back over 100 years, when the original "Deer Park Inn" was erected. The present building has a car park out front and besides being next to the main rafting drop off point, it’s also handily located alongside the a bike and hiking trail that runs from Tahoe City down to Squaw Valley if you need a refreshment break.

Despite turning into a tourist haven the River Ranch has done a fairly good job of maintaining its dignity. On the patio, white plastic chairs are offset by slightly nicer wooden tables and the facade of the lodge preserves some alpine quaintness with white window shutters and diminutive flower boxes under every window.
River Ranch Lodge & Restaurant
2285 River Road
Lake Tahoe, California
(530) 583 -4264

Rosie’s Café: Lunch in the Off Season

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on July 14, 2007

Rosie’s Café was a lunch stop on a fairly sedate bike ride around Lake Tahoe and had the food been better, I would have loved everything about this place. The light in Rosies is very warm and gentle, making you feel immediately at home. Ivy hangs from the rafters alongside antlers, moose heads, old bicycles, sleds, and other odds and ends. It’s an eclectic mix, which adds character rather than clutter. My husband had visited Rosie’s before during the winter season and I can imagine that it’s charm probably goes further on a cold snowy day when you could look out across the road to the lake with some soup in one hand a pint in the other.

We took a seat by the large fireplace, which was thankfully shut down for the summer. The menu is pretty extensive for breakfast, lunch and dinner and specializes in traditional American cooking. I ordered a BLT sandwich with salad and my husband went for a grilled chicken club sandwich with fries and soda.

The service at Rosie’s was something like organised chaos. It was a little on the slow side but they got there eventually. Overall it maintains a very relaxed atmosphere although we did see a couple of people crane their necks to see if there order was going to be taken any time soon.

My sandwich somehow ended up with the Sicilian clam chowder. The staff quickly brought out the salad that I’d originally ordered, kindly leaving the chowder behind. I usually prefer the white chowder but I gave this one a try. It was very tomato-ey and noticeable un-clammy and reminded me of a cheap and unappetizing pasta sauce I used to make with tinned tomatoes and tuna.

I reverted my attention back to the BLT but sadly found the bread to be dry with cold bacon fried as crisp as a cracker. The chicken club seemed a bit more promising but was so huge that my husband could only manage half of it.

The place was busy with families and couples and reservations are available for larger groups. The bar was full and I can imagine that it’s a fun place to come for drinks in the evening although I sincerely hope that their evening cuisine is infinitely more inspiring than their lunch.
Rosie’s Café
571 N. Lake Blvd.
Lake Tahoe, California, 96145
(530) 583-8504

Truckee River Rafting with Mountain Air Sports

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on July 14, 2007

I’ve been white water rafting a couple of times before so I must admit that the Truckee River Rafting experience was a little disappointing. If you’re looking for adventure, this isn’t the place to find it. However, if this is your first rafting experience or you’re looking for some laid back entertainment it’s not a bad option.

There are two rafting companies that operate out of Tahoe City. I don’t know what distinguishes them (except maybe the colour of the paddles) but we booked with Mountain Air Sports. Unbeknown to us, it paid to phone ahead and reserve a time slot as it meant a $5 per person discount.

Signing in is an interesting process. A yellow wristband is attached to your arm and must be worn for the entire trip. River police are on duty and will take the raft away from anyone not wearing one. We were lucky to be directed to a parking spot close by as most people were offloaded into an overflow car park a few miles down the road. With wristbands and parking space figured out, we walked through a tiny shop, grabbing an ice cream on the way, and signed in at another desk where our name was added to the waiting list. Life jackets were distributed although we were told that didn’t have to wear them, they just had to be in the boat. This seemed like a strange rule but in near 100 degree heat and with most of the river being at wading depth I was pretty happy that I wasn’t forced to wear it.

After a short wait, the four of us jumped into our raft along with a cooler holding a few bottles of beer, water and sun tan lotion, all of which I’d highly recommend taking. You’ll see a lot of people floating down the Truckee River on their own inflatables; we saw two girls on a bed! For the over 16s, the preoccupations are sunbathing, drinking or flirting, and for the families, it’s playtime and water fights. Dogs are also permitted and as each raft can carry up to 15 people, there’s plenty of room for all the family.

The self-guided trip takes about 2 hours. You can make stops to paddle and there’s a portacabin at the half way mark for a toilet break. The river is extremely gentle and only at the end are you really required to do any sort of maneuvering. My brother-in-law and my husband had a small struggle to paddle our raft into the cove where rafts and people are then transported back up the road.

Although drifting through the mountain corridor was very picturesque, the river is unfortunately located just below Highway 89 so the roar of the traffic never really allows you to get away from it all. Besides which you’re sharing the river with hundreds of other people at a time so you literally do have to sit back, crack open a beer and go with the flow!
Truckee River Rafting
185 River Road
Lake Tahoe, California, 96145
(530) 581-0123

Biking around Lake Tahoe & Down the Truckee River

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on July 14, 2007

We had high hopes when we set out to rent bikes in Homewood of biking to Emerald Bay. Alongside the road from Tahoe City we’d seen a beautiful bike track that we wrongly assumed wound its way around most of the lake. As it turned out, the track stops short just south of Homewood but we were lucky that the rental staff at West Shore Sports put us on the right path. Just after the bike trail ends, the winding road takes a sudden dip towards the bay which would have involved a long, steep and painful ride back up.

We were outfitted with two bikes, helmets and one carrier basket for the cost of around $20 per person for a half-day rental, which wasn’t too unreasonable although it obviously pays to bring your own if you can. Abandoning the road south, we headed north towards Tahoe City and to the path that follows the Truckee River to Squaw Valley. The first stretch from Homewood to Tahoe City is a very gentle and flat ride and would be near perfect for beginners and families if it weren’t for the fact that the bike trail has to cross the main road on more than a few occasions. Signs instruct cyclists to dismount and wait for cars to allow them to pass but it’s a fairly narrow and winding road, making it tricky to see oncoming traffic (and difficult for them to see you too). It’s also very easy to get up some speed on the bike paths, which is a bit hazardous not just because of the road stops but also because the trail is open to pedestrians and twists around trees and in front of driveways as it snakes up and around the lake.

Between Homewood and Tahoe City the path sporadically runs alongside the lake where, on a clear day, there are spectacular views of the water and the mountains on the opposite side. In Tahoe Pines you get what I believe is a distant side view of the Corleone house featured in the Godfather films. Other homes along the route are equally as impressive, many with their own private beach or dock. As you get closer to Tahoe City, the path crosses over allowing you to freewheel through the forest before joining up with the route west along the Truckee River.

We rode down part of the River and stopped for a break under a tree to watch the river rafters float by. The bike trail follows the same path down the river towards the River Ranch Restaurant. The staff at West Shore Sports had estimated that leaving their shop at 12pm we’d be able to bike to Squaw Valley and back by 5pm when the shop closed but having followed the same route by raft only the day before, we decided to be less adventurous and turned back towards Homewood, stopping off for lunch at Rosie’s café in Tahoe City.
West Shore Sports
5395 West Lake Boulevard
Homewood, California, 96141
(530) 525-9920

Summer in Squaw Valley

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by sararevell on July 14, 2007

It’s sometimes a strange experience visiting a ski resort in the middle of Summer. It can feel like you’ve walked into a ghost town. When we arrived at Squaw Valley the outlook seemed a bit more promising. Ours wasn’t the only car in the car park and as we walked towards the village, there were more than a few signs of life.

One of the first things that I noticed was that there was a mini golf range set up. A father and his young son were taking turns to play on the course that was sensitively laid out around the village. You’d barely notice the course was there if it weren’t for parents and children wandering around with their clubs.

A good number of the shops and restaurants were open. We wandered around The North Face shop as well as another clothing shop where there were some great bargains to be had on winter clothing.

On such a hot day, the Ben & Jerry’s shop was a welcome relief so we stopped in for a couple of their delicious shakes: Cherry Garcia and Mint Choc Chip. Needing something a bit more substantial, I stopped in at the Mountain Nectar Juice and Bagel shop for a turkey and avocado wrap. It’s take-out only at Mountain Nectar but they have a small but shaded seating area outside where I enjoyed what was possibly the heaviest sandwich I’ve eaten in a long time. Fortunately I was able to share some with my husband, as I’m not sure their sandwiches are really meant for one person only. My husband’s sister, mum and her husband checked out the Blue Coyote opposite. It’s a sports bar specializing in burgers and salads where the portions are equally generous.

After refueling, three of us decided to take the cable car up to the High Camp area. It costs $20 per person, which is a somewhat on the expensive side considering the ride up only takes 9 minutes. That said, if you have time, you can incorporate other activities into your ticket for a small additional price. At High Camp during the summer you have the option of ice-skating, swimming in their lagoon and spa or purchasing a sunset dinner package for Alexander’s Café. All these passes range from $26 - $46 for adults.

Unfortunately on the day of our trip, there were some forest fires nearby and the views were significantly restricted. We were unable to see Lake Tahoe but the views of the village below and the rock formations on the way up were still quite spectacular. Once at the top there’s a viewing platform, which is an obvious place to stop and take some photos.

A short walk downhill and you pass the small swimming lagoon and spa. The pool wasn’t too busy and seemed like a great place to cool off. Further down still and we found the Olympic Ice Pavilion, which was also fairly quiet. I was somewhat impressed by the fact that Squaw keeps alive such a strong memory of its Olympic heritage. They played host back in 1960. Between the ice rink and the pool there’s a small room with a collection of newspaper articles, statistics and a video documenting the 1960 games.

As we walked back towards the cable car we noticed a small stage. As it turns out they host a series of mountaintop concerts in addition to sunset and full moon hikes and some stargazing sessions which sounded interesting.

The cable car departed every 20 minutes so we had a short wait before returning back to the main village, which we realized is actually fairly small once you get a birds eye view. Squaw Valley is obviously a different world during the winter months but for a summer visit, there’s definitely enough to do to keep families occupied as it caters well to older and younger generations alike.
Tel: (530) 583-6985

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