Brockway’s Picnic Rock: Stellar views & history

One popular and accessible Tahoe hike or mountain bike ride is a segment of the Tahoe Rim Trail that starts on the east side of Highway 267 just south of Brockway Summit. The short trip to Picnic Rock is a little more than 1.5 miles, but must be considered moderately difficult since virtually every step is uphill. The ascent is worth every bit of effort, however, because the views are truly inspirational.

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Views from Picnic Rock are worth the walk. | Mark McLaughlin

This trail is well maintained, but along the lower portion there are numerous piles of slash and underbrush collected from the forest floor. The overgrowth of the current Tahoe forest is an unfortunate legacy of 19th Century logging practices that were followed by a policy of total fire suppression. Instead of occasional low-grade forest fires that kept undergrowth vegetation and tree density in check, over the past 130 years the Tahoe Basin watershed has developed into a region at high risk for a major burn.

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“Campbell’s Hot Springs became one of the first resorts
at North Lake Tahoe and by 1873 was considered
one of the most popular around the lake.”

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Forest Service crews are cleaning up fallen debris, removing dead and weak trees, and clearing dangerous ladder fuels to mitigate a potential catastrophic wildfire. When weather conditions are suitable in the autumn or winter, these slash piles will be burned and the forest will be safer and closer to a natural state.

The current route of Highway 267 closely follows what used to be called Brockway Road, which connected Truckee with natural hot springs at the edge of Lake Tahoe. Located just west of the California-Nevada state line on Tahoe’s North Shore, the hot springs are caused by a nearby fault line where granite overlays warm lava. The thermal pools were probably enjoyed by untold generations of Washoe Indians.

In 1863, around the time that Truckee and Tahoe City were first being settled, a newspaper correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union noted the commercial potential of the hot springs: “at a comparatively trifling expense, baths and other accommodations could be provided here to meet the wishes of the most fastidious visitor.”

In 1869, after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, two Truckee men formed a partnership to grade a new road from Truckee to Lake Tahoe. Their wagon road ran south through Martis Valley and then over what is now Brockway to the lake. William “Billy” Campbell, a stage operator who had also built the original Truckee Hotel, and George Schaeffer, a Truckee-based sawmill entrepreneur, joined forces to construct the wagon road. Employing hired laborers, mule- and horse-drawn graders, the road was built in a month. Campbell took title to about 63 acres of land surrounding the hot springs and built a bathhouse. By the end of summer, Campbell had erected several cottages near the mineral springs and began accommodating tourist traffic.

Tragedy struck the new resort in September 1869, when five men working on the project drowned. The workmen had taken a boat to Tahoe City and gone drinking at one of the town’s saloons. On the way back to Campbell’s, their overloaded vessel capsized off Observatory Point (Dollar Point) and they all perished. It is one of Tahoe’s greatest single marine disasters. The following summer, Campbell and a new partner, Henry Burke, built a large two-and-one-half story building they called the Warm Springs Hotel.

Campbell’s Hot Springs became one of the first resorts at North Lake Tahoe and by 1873 was considered one of the most popular around the lake. Among its many amenities were soda and sulfur water pumped into the bathhouse, hot water in all the rooms and pleasant accommodations. Newspapers of the day reported that the temperature in one of the springs was 137 degrees.

Cold, freshwater was added to lower the heat for bathers. The hotter water was used for cleaning laundry because it was slightly mineralized and soft, which made it excellent for washing bedding and linens. Visitors who tasted the water after it had cooled stated that it had “a faint taste similar to gunpowder.”

The following year, a new road was built along Tahoe’s North Shore from Tahoe City to Campbell’s. The wagon road enabled Campbell-Burke’s stagecoach line to reach well down the West Shore of Lake Tahoe, thereby making the resort more accessible to early residents and tourists in those locations.

After Rev. R.A. Ricker took over management in 1875, the hot springs became a popular retreat for Pacific Coast clergymen searching for spiritual counseling from the Tahoe minister.

In the 1884 publication “Pacific Tourist,” editor Frederick E. Shearer described Campbell’s resort: “The water boils out in several places in great volume. The hotel is comfortable; the charge $3 a day; the entire lake is seen from the house, and the baths are an advantage to be had nowhere else on the lake.”

There were some, however, who warned that exposure to the water in hot springs was unhealthful. In 1892, Winslow Anderson wrote, “The indiscriminate use of mineral waters, either for drinking or bathing purposes, cannot be too strongly condemned, for while they look bland and harmless, they are potent therapeutic agents which may accomplish much good if judiciously employed but may also do much harm and may be followed by serious if not fatal results in careless hands.”

In 1900, Campbell sold the place to Frank “Brockway” Alverson for $3,500 and the name changed to Brockway Hot Springs. A casino was added in 1917 and a golf course built near Kings Beach. Through the 1900s, ownership changed hands several times until 1970 when the old buildings were demolished for the construction of the Brockway Springs Condominium Project.

When I first moved to Lake Tahoe in the 1970s, enterprising locals managed to access the original hot springs, but in the following years management at the Brockway Springs condominiums installed a fence over the water as a safety precaution. A cherished amenity at Brockway Springs is the cozy year-round swimming pool located just yards from the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe. The water in the swimming pool water is always toasty warm, heated directly by the subterranean springs that are still hot and active.

 

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

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Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.