The scenery of the Lake Tahoe Basin inspired the nickname “Jewel of the Sierra” and Mark Twain to say it is the “fairest site the whole earth affords.” Scenes around Lake Tahoe contain the unusual combination of rugged mountain peaks, thickly forested slopes, and a vast, flat lake surface. The unique combination of these visual elements provides exceptionally high aesthetic values.
Each year, the Basin’s beautiful scenery attracts new residents and visitors from around the world to view the distinctive alpine lake ringed by mountain peaks. Residents and visitors agree the scenic quality of the Basin is one of its most important natural resources. Some of the scenic specialties in the Lake Tahoe Basin are Desolation Wilderness, Emerald Bay and Eagle Falls, Mt. Tallac and Job’s Peak, and views of the Lake from roadways and surrounding trails.
The high quality of the scenic environment of the Lake Tahoe Basin is attributed to several factors:
- The dominant element is Lake Tahoe, a water feature of remarkable color, clarity, size and depth, visible from many areas of the basin that result in a single large feature;
- Distinctive mountain landforms that surround the flat plane of Lake Tahoe and create an enclosed landscape;
- Skylines (often ridgelines) that define the earth-sky silhouette;
- Conspicuous water-land edges;
- Conspicuous edges between different vegetation types; and
- Numerous feature elements, such as streams and rock formations and sand and rocky beaches are less dominant than Lake Tahoe but create smaller feature sub-landscapes.
The scenic quality is enhanced by the success of environmental regulation programs. Clean air and water, and healthy soil and vegetation, are key factors in upholding the spectacular scenic quality of the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Demands of residents and visitors on the Lake Tahoe Basin landscape differ; this results in competing influences on scenic resources. Residents and visitors all share a fundamental desire to protect and maintain the striking, natural-appearing scenery of the Lake Tahoe Basin. At the same time, development is necessary to serve the needs of visitors and the local population, and therefore must have a place in the Lake Tahoe Basin. It is essential to understand and address the relationship between the natural and built environments in order to successfully perpetuate the region’s high scenic quality and accommodate the daily needs of people.
Lake Tahoe Basin scenic quality has experienced cycles of degradation and improvement. The forested lands are more attractive now than they have been in some periods. In the late 1800s the Lake Tahoe Basin was intensively logged (perhaps 70 million board feet a year). Fire was a common occurrence. Not only were the mountains stripped of vegetation, but the aesthetic value of Lake Tahoe itself was diminished as the lake lost color and clarity.
Between 1890 and 1950, the forests became reestablished under a management regime of fire suppression. The development of cabins and resorts maintained a rustic character that blended with the mountain landscape. In the 1950s, however, new forms of development came to the Lake Tahoe Basin bringing new, drastic changes to the scenic resource. High-rise casinos, neon lights, strip development, ski runs, and urban development, particularly in meadows and marshes, reduced the natural scenic value of the Lake Tahoe Basin landscape. Since that period the scenic quality of the Lake Tahoe Basin environment has rebounded, to a certain extent.
Currently, scenic quality in the natural forested areas of the Lake Tahoe Basin is at a high to very high level thanks to management strategies. These strategies were applied on lands in public ownership and support naturally-appearing scenic quality. Increased urbanization and the trend toward larger residential structures have decreased scenic quality in some areas along the shoreline. Management strategies are again curbing this trend.
Meanwhile, scenic quality in some urban corridors has dramatically improved through public and private redevelopment efforts where the built environment shows improvement in design and aesthetics. Often, commercial and residential properties are being redeveloped using architectural styles referred to as “Tahoe rustic”, “Old Tahoe”, or “National Park” — styles that are considered regionally appropriate.