History of Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a massive freshwater lake located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Formed some 2 million years ago, it boasts about 72 miles of shorelines. The only outlet from the lake is Truckee River, which flows northeast through Reno and deposits into Nevada’s Pyramid Lake. However, Pyramid Lake has no outlet.

Lake Tahoe is fed by 63 separate tributaries and is surrounded by mountains on all sides, making it one epic destination with breathtaking views. The Lake Tahoe Basin is made up of three primary faults that were formed millions of years ago, which helped to create the Carson Range and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The lake is surrounded by numerous peaks with varying heights. Some of the biggest peaks you’ll find in Lake Tahoe are Freel Peak at 10,891 feet (3,320 meters), Monument Peak at 10,067 feet (3,068 meters), Pyramid Peak at 9,984 feet (3,043 meters) and Mount Tallac at 9,735 feet (2,967 meters).

There are far more peaks of course. But those are a few of the tallest. In total, there are 13 peaks that are skiable. Three of them are located in South Lake Tahoe. Ten are in North Lake Tahoe. And although Lake Tahoe has been inhabited for ages by Washoe Native Americans, it was only first discovered in 1844 by a European by the name of Lt. John C. Fremont. If you're hoping to visit this enchanting land, take a look at our Lake Tahoe travel guide for tips, inspiration, and accommodation. 

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The Donner-Reed Party

The name Donner is seen throughout Lake Tahoe. There’s a lake named Donner Lake. There’s also a pass named Donner Pass. In fact, there’s even a memorial state park of the same name. The Donner Memorial State Park is a huge draw. But the name Donner has ominous roots. And you can’t quite tell the history of Lake Tahoe without talking about what transpired.

To understand the true origin of Lake Tahoe, we need to go back to 1846. Back then, a group of pioneers by the name of the Donner-Reed Party, championed by George Donner and James F. Reed, set out towards California. However, they spent the winter of 1846 to 1847 trapped in the Sierra Nevadas due to several very unfortunate incidents.

Instead of following the usual route west, they took the Hastings Cutoff. That route crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It was treacherous. The group lost a large portion of its livestock and the route destroyed many of their wagons. Plus a snowstorm had them effectively boxed in with nowhere to go.

What transpired next is quite gruesome. Due to dwindling food supplies, many of the setters didn’t survive. Those that died were eaten by the living. It wasn’t until 4 months later that help arrived where they were trapped, now in present-day Truckee. Out of the original 87 settlers that embarked towards California, only 48 actually survived to reach their destination.

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From Lake Bigler to Lake Tahoe

In 1853, 6 years after the Donner-Reed Party debacle, William Eddy, who was the surveyor general of California, called the lake Lake Bigler after a secessionist. But, around the time of the Civil War, the name was rejected by Union advocates. It wasn’t until 1862, another 9 years later, that the U.S. Department of Interior came up with the name Tahoe.

In 1864, Tahoe City was founded as a resort community. And in 1913, the Lake Tahoe Dam was built that helped to control the level of the lake. The dam was fashioned at the Truckee River, which still remains the lake's only outlet to this day.

However, the name Lake Tahoe wasn’t made official until much later. It wasn’t until 1945 that the lake received this official designation. Up until that point, both names were still being used. Lake Bigler was actually passed as the first official name of the lake by the legislature in 1870. However, most people still used the name Lake Tahoe during this time.

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Lake Tahoe Travel Guide

For a complete look at all there is to do in Lake Tahoe, check out our travel guide, which covers the best beaches, hikes, ski resorts, and accommodation options throughout the area. 

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How to Get to Lake Tahoe

Need directions for getting to Lake Tahoe? Whether you're driving from the north or south, or flying into Reno, we outline how to get to Lake Tahoe in detail here. 

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Lake Tahoe Hiking Trails Guide

If you're planning to do any hiking in Lake Tahoe, use our hiking trails guide to choose which ones would be best for your group based on the trail's difficulty and location. 

History of Lake Tahoe

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