Double bucket list special · Sand Harbor kayak & Thunderbird Lodge

Two of Tahoe’s most magical experiences are kayaking at Sand Harbor and touring the iconic Thunderbird Lodge. How would you like to do both of them on the same day? You can, just join Tahoe Adventure Company on a weekly tour.

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“I’ve kayaked out of Sand Harbor at least a
half dozen times, but it’s enchanting beauty
still takes my breath away.”

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In my opinion, the two best places to kayak at Lake Tahoe are from D.L. Bliss State Park or from Sand Harbor State Park. Thus, it’s always a good morning when you push off from the sand to paddle into the still waters of Sand Harbor. And, it certainly didn’t hurt that the day I joined the tour, the water was like glass and even at 9 a.m. the temperatures were already getting toasty.

I joined a group of six who were led by guide Chase Aalstadt. He is knowledgeable and cheerful and immediately got the participants excited for their special day. After a quick, but thorough run through of life jackets, paddle technique and the basics of getting into and out of a kayak, we were on our way. I’ve kayaked out of Sand Harbor at least a half dozen times, but it’s enchanting beauty still takes my breath away. We set a nice, leisurely pace across the bay to the lodge, sometimes chatting amicably, but mostly with our jaws agape at Tahoe’s splendor.

As a long-time local, I always treasure spending time on Lake Tahoe with newbies. Our trip included a couple from North Carolina who were just beside themselves with astonishment at the clarity of Lake Tahoe. It never hurts to be reminded again of the sheer dumb luck that left us paddling across this lake instead of say, packing into a tiny boat paddling across the Mediterranean seeking refuge.

Once we reached the lodge, this tour gets even more cool. We paddled onto the little beach just below the lodge, pulled up our boats on the normally off-limits private shore and proceeded to walk around the grounds. That is just not something you are allowed to do unless you are on a tour.

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Historic Thunderbird Lodge

The next pleasant surprise was that our guide conducted the tour. He knew his stuff and did an awesome job. The Thunderbird Lodge was built by George Whittell Jr. He had the foresight to get out of the stock market just before the crash in 1929, and then to purchase most of the east side of Lake Tahoe from a lumber company that was in dire financial straits during The Depression.

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The primary reason that the East Shore of Lake Tahoe is mostly undeveloped today, is that after buying all that land, Whittell became a recluse. Originally, he had great plans to develop the property, but later decided he liked having lots of land between him and other humans. The only portion of his vast holdings that he sold before his death was the land where Incline Village now resides. After Whittell died in 1969, most of his land eventually became part of the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, with the lodge controlled by the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society.

The Thunderbird Lodge is a dazzling rock house with an elaborate network of rock pathways winding around the property. There are lovely rocky coves and spellbinding views of the lake but what truly makes this tour special is the mystical quirks and eccentricities of Whittell. If you look at the lodge from the outside you will see four chimneys, but there are only two fireplaces. One of the chimneys is an elevator providing access to a secret room. The other holds a safe.

The servant’s quarters sit below the main house. Other than a woman named, Mae, who was rumored to be Whittell’s mistress, he didn’t keep other employees more than a year because he feared they would then learn too much about him. A 600-foot-long tunnel leads to the boathouse where the “Thunderbird” yacht is housed. This 55-foot-long mahogany beauty with two aircraft engines is now owned by the Preservation Society. It has been plying Tahoe’s waters since the early 1940s and underwent a major restoration last winter.

After the tour, we jumped back into our kayaks, paddled a short distance to a nearby beach and took a swim as Aalstadt prepared a delicious picnic lunch that we enjoyed on the granite.

We then returned to say our goodbyes by 2 p.m., still leaving plenty of time for an ice cream or a last swim with the hordes of happy folks at Sand Harbor.

 

Tahoe Adventure Company tours to Thunderbird run every Tuesday, with custom tours also available. For more information, visit tahoeadventurecompany.com or call (530) 912-9212.

Photos by Tim Hauserman

 

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Tim Hauserman
Tim Hauserman wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, as well as “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and the children’s book “Gertrude’s Tahoe Adventures in Time.” Most of the year he writes on a variety of topics, but you will find him in the winter teaching cross-country skiing and running the Strider Gliders program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. He has lived in Tahoe since he was a wee lad and loves to be outdoors road and mountain biking, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking and cross-country skiing.