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From City Skylines to Mountain Views; A San Francisco and Lake Tahoe Road Trip

Another month, another adventure; this time including a desert drive, a new cityscape and time amongst the trees.

Loaded up and ready to roll, last week we embarked on our first shared road trip, with my brother-in-law (the best-man for the weekend), along for the ride.

There’s not many I know that enjoy the drive across the state like we do. A seven-hour journey of desert landscape broken up only by the occasional small mining town or military base. Yet time and time again we find ourselves enjoying the solitude the road provides, given we leave early enough to beat traffic on the road. With our traditional stops in Beatty, Tonopah and Hawthorne, and noting the dates for the anticipated upcoming Goldfield Days (Aug. 5- 7, 2022), we made our way north.

Rest stops aside, we reached our first significant destination; Carson City, for a much-needed lunch break, a walk around the Capital grounds, and for me; a moment to bask in the beauty that is a well-manicured lawn surrounded by impressive shade-yielding trees. One fun fact about the Capital grounds is that the perimeter of this landmark is lined by 17 different trees, each representing of a different county in Nevada. At some point I’ll remember to note the plaques on each and document the 17 varieties, but until then I just recall their symbolism.

Although our traditional lunch stop of Comma Coffee was already closed for the day, our backup at The Fox Brewpub was a good second choice. With lunch finally in our system and energies restored, it was time to head up the mountain for our brief stopover in Lake Tahoe at the Resort Hotel. This gave us a chance to relax from the desolate drive from Southern to Northern Nevada, enjoy some time playing tourist at Stateline, and spend the evening preparing for our next destination; San Francisco.

When it comes to reaching the lake, there’s one response that always makes me smile when I bring someone new to Lake Tahoe, it is, in my opinion the most suitable response for the first sight… “WOW.” My brother-in-law’s reaction to seeing its blue shorelines and mountain landscape as we peaked the summit did not disappoint. Hearing that simple yet significant word whisper its way to me behind the wheel from the back seat was a good way to start our time in Tahoe.

For the rest of the evening we walked through Heavenly Village, enjoyed food at Azul Latin Kitchen, and did the touristy thing; ducking in and out of the shops; laughing at the Hank the Tank references (the most notable black bear in Tahoe) and getting plenty of inspiration for my next set of nature and Tahoe-inspired crafts.

The following day brought sightseeing around the Tallac Historic Site and indulging at Izzy’s Burger Spa, and if you’re reading this thinking that the title of “burger spa“ sounds a bit superfluous, trust me when I say it is on point, as their 40-year run on 1/3-pound burgers is the most mouthwatering encounter with a burger you’ll ever have.

After that, for the next couple of days we exchanged trees for bay bridges, to witness an exchanging of vows amongst friends. Here, in a city of skyscrapers and cable cars we took in the sights that limited time allowed. We walked the streets of the Business District and strolled through the Ferry Building Marketplace, enjoying all the flavors along the way; The Grove’s “thoughtfully crafted comfort food,” Super Duper Burger’s shakes, and Donut Farm’s vegan glazed goodness.

Impressive architecture, beautiful venues, nerdy-themed bars and more one-way roads in a city block than I see in a year; San Francisco was, for me, a destination I’d be okay with revisiting for the sake of tours and museums, but one that I can wait a while to check off again.

With the “I Do’s” finalized and the celebrating over and done with, it was time to head back to Lake Tahoe for the remainder of our vacation, this time with a cabin retreat at Zephyr Cove.

Making our way to South Lake Tahoe's Nevada shoreline, we took the scenic route through Truckee to enjoy a stopover at the Donner Memorial State Park and a vibrant walk through the picturesque landscape along Donner Creek.

After a busy and eventful few days in the city, the rest of the evening was a much-needed moment to relax and slow down the pace; enjoying a little dinner at the lodge and taking in the last light of day with a walk along Zephyr Cove beach.

Have you ever been somewhere that steals your heart the moment you arrive? Who’s first sight catches the breath from your lungs?

That’s Tahoe for me.

Growing up and making forts in the brush and stalking bear prints in the forest. Feeling the pins of lymphatic shock after diving into frigid waters and staring into dark skies to count the stars. Not much has changed over the years. The forts have turned into hikes amongst the brush and the experience is now yearly visits versus everyday life, but the feeling remains the same.

Our first full day in Tahoe offered a number of leisurely activities, however with colder weather, impending rain and off and on winds, a beach day was not at the top of the list. Instead, with Reno plans luring my brother-in-law away from us for a while, Jason and I decided to gamble with the weather forecast, pack some layers in our bags and take the opportunity to embark on a day of hiking.

First stop: Spooner Lake. Memories of Spooner Lake bring me back to elementary and middle school, my dad being one of the elementary field trip chaperones. While we’ve wanted to hike this on previous trips, each visit coincided with closures due to weather or construction. This visit however, though the park is still undergoing construction, the main trail was open and so we set out on a simple yet gorgeous 2.3-mile walk around the Spooner Loop Trail. Surrounded by aspens, pine trees and more than 12,000 acres of forested, open space overlooking the lake, this was not only a beautiful setting in and of itself, but a misty rain was blowing in at an angle creating an illusion of waves across the trees that backdropped our hike. Clouds rolling and shifting the sunlight overhead, in combination with the gentle mist, made for a peaceful escape that brought out my inner childhood excitement of playing in the rain. (Okay, who am I kidding, playing in the rain is just as exciting as an adult and it lures me to run around outside in it all the same as when I was little, just ask anyone who has seen me when there’s a rain storm).

Ready for lunch we jumped in the truck and headed to Sand Harbor to grab a bite to eat (the salmon burgers are delicious), and walk a little bit of the grounds that serve as home to the summer Shakespeare Festival once July hits. With the wind blowing but rain currently coming to a halt we headed to one of our favorite locations; Rabe Meadows, to hike the trails down to Nevada Beach. As always, the meadows were a serene backdrop to the hike, and the day's forecast brought winds coming and going, accompanied by more rain and broken sunshine. By the time we arrived at the sandy shores of the beach, the wind was in full force and with it came more rain. Deciding to head back to the truck rather than get more soaked walking through the sand to find our bench (where we got engaged), we took a moment to watch the waves and then headed back the way we had come, the rain lightening up as we went.

A little time spent shopping at Tahoe Sports ltd and the rain subsided enough for us to decide to take on one more hike for the day and check off a state park while we were at it; Van Sickle Bi-State Park. This nearly 700+ acres of land spans the state border and was established in 1988 as a partnership between the states of California and Nevada to connect the park to the community of South Lake Tahoe.

Though the rain started once we reached the base of Van Sickle Rim Connector Trailhead, we proceeded anyway, with the hopes of making it the just short of 2-mile trek up the mountain to a known waterfall. As is most of the hikes around Tahoe, the trail wound amongst beautiful surroundings and we made our way through the forest sheltered from the intermittent rain by the pine tree canopies above. Leaving us with only a light mist hitting us as we went. Once we broke through the forest and made it just beyond the one-mile mark we were in awe of the views that this short hike provided. There’s really nothing like discovering new places on foot. It’s something I hope I never take for granted.

Here we were, above the trees, traversing up the granite mountain side with spectacular Lake Tahoe views that were beyond compare, and here also was where the rain began to really hit hard.

There is something about hiking in the rain that creates a whole new level of extraordinary wonder. You’re not just surrounded by nature, you are fully emerged in its sense of enchantment and are at the storm’s mercy. It is a refreshing and humbling experience as you are reminded that as strong and in charge as you may feel, you are merely granted the privilege to enjoy what Mother Nature provides.

Surrounded by the rainstorm at 6,832 feet of elevation, emerged from the forest canopies, vulnerable to the wind and rain hitting the trail, and soaked through our layers of clothing, we took in a final look of the view so magnificent no words can accurately describe. With seven total miles already logged in off and on misty showers and heavy rain, we decide the rain had finally hit hard enough and we surrendered the mountain to the storm with the excitement of leaving more to be discovered on another visit.

Back in the truck and on the road I reflected on our day of rainy hikes and breathtaking views. Regardless of how many times I’ve hiked the trails, swam amongst the waves or sat on the shores of the lake, I enjoy something profound every time I visit Tahoe. I’m also reminded that while I have the utmost respect for the beauty found in desert landscapes, dusty horizons, and city skylines, my soul is definitely more on fire surrounded by trees and within reach of water.

And that’s the beauty of travel; you experience the allure that every landscape perfects in its own way, but at the heart of it all, there’s always one landscape whose own form of beauty touches us in such a way that it ignites our soul.

Our final full-day in Tahoe brought with it a wave of emotion. The three-year anniversary of my dad’s passing and here I was enjoying his favorite place on Earth. There was no place more symbolic I could hope to be for the occasion. To begin the day the three of us set out to the East Shore Trail for a morning walk and to finally see my dad’s name on permanent display in this beautiful setting. Tears welling in my eyes, our journey along the three-mile long path began with seeing my dad’s name featured on the donor wall at the start of the trail. Robert Michael Villoria. My dad would be honored. And as my husband quickly noticed and pointed out, adjacent to his name; none other than Tahoe Tessie herself. It made me laugh, made me cry and made me smile all at once.

My heart still aches when I think of what I lost three years ago, but a piece of my soul feels full when I think of all the love and memories I was granted. Among the many things my dad gave me was a love for Lake Tahoe and in his memory this tribute to him will always be at the Lake enjoying the gorgeous slice of Heaven on Earth that he loved so much. As heavy as the morning felt for me, there was no other place in this world I would rather have been. Here I was in this place that my dad, and so many others know as God’s country, and looking around me I saw that I was in fact, still surrounded by love.

The Tunnel Creek Café provided us a favorite breakfast/lunch spot on the way back to the truck (if you haven't tried their crème brûlée french toast or Swedish oatmeal pancakes, I highly recommend both). Anticipating construction and traffic heading back to Zephyr Cove, we abandoned the idea of getting in a second trip to Spooner Lake to ensure we’d get back to our cabin with plenty of time for our next activity; a cruise on the M.S. Dixie 2.

If you’ve never been on the water at Lake Tahoe let me say that the mountains are just as beautiful as on the land, but the waves add a little something extra that tilts the scales of beauty to show off the sheer vastness of its depth, both physically and metaphorically. Taking in the lake by boat, or cruise is also the only way to see a perfect 360-view of the tea house on Fannette Island in Emerald Bay, and a perfectly panoramic view of Vikingsholm in all its finest examples of Scandinavian architecture glory.

The mountain and lake views, the shining sun and a playlist from the 90s that reminded me of the soundtrack to my childhood, the combination of it all made the two hours aboard the cruise a perfect mid-day finale to our week-long adventures. All that was left at this point was to jump in the water, and that’s exactly what was in store once we were back on land. Sun screened up and towels in hand, the next couple hours were spent enjoying the beach and the refreshing water.

Sand between my toes, fresh lake water in my hair, sun kissed skin and watching my husband and his brother play cornhole on the beach as I swam amongst the waves in the water I’d grown up in. If there was only one thing I enjoyed most this past week it was the ability to slow down and enjoy the simple things like these moments.

Vacations to Tahoe are always soul filling, reviving, emotional, exciting, euphoric and above all, never long enough. I love beautiful places (as most people do), but it makes leaving even more difficult.

It’s almost torture having to pack to leave at the end of each visit, but as one of the most beautiful and sublime locations I’ve ever been blessed to experience, it’s always comforting to know that I will be back soon.

A final breakfast at the lodge and the truck packed up, we were on our way back to Las Vegas. The only official stop left on the agenda; early dinner at the Tonopah Brewing Company.

One of the most important things I’ve learned on my path to being an outdoors enthusiast and self-proclaimed adventurer is to take it all in. Admire the views. Take the photos. Smell the flowers. Examine the color changes in the leaves. Sit on the rock. Feel the sun, or rain, on your skin. Do it for the love of being outdoors and experiencing a change in location and it will leave you appreciative of the full journey.

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