Many tourists choose to admire Tahoe from above, whether hiking or biking a segment of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail or catching a gondola at Heavenly or Squaw Valley ski resorts. The latter hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and is credited with catapulting Tahoe into skiers' consciousness; during the winter, the lake's seven major alpine resorts now draw more than a third of the destination's 3 million annual visitors.
To truly appreciate Twain's "noble sheet of blue water," however, you have to be on it — or in it.
You could take the easy route on a tour boat like the M.S. Dixie, a paddlewheeler that makes two-hour cruises from Zephyr Cove to one of the lake's marquee attractions, fjord-like Emerald Bay.
What the die-hards do
Peering down from the top deck as late-afternoon thunderclouds flirt with the southern horizon and Twain impersonator McAvoy Lane holds court in a spotless white suit, I could almost buy Twain's hyperbolic assertion that on Tahoe, "one can count the scales on a trout at a depth of a hundred and eighty feet."
For a glamorous perspective that evokes Tahoe's Roaring Twenties, there's a cocktail or dinner cruise on the Wild Goose II, a sleek, bright-as-a-mirror mahogany speedboat known as a "woodie."
And for a more athletic option, a growing number of companies offer stand-up paddleboarding, the newest and fastest-growing sport on the lake.
Among the most popular places to dip a paddle is Sand Harbor, particularly in the early mornings. Before Jet Skis and powerboats arrive to ruffle its glass-like calm, you can, as Twain did, "float on air" — accompanied by a squadron of seagulls to salute your navigational prowess.
Of course, skimming the surface of the "big blue pill" is one thing. Taking that pill is quite another.
Die-hards show up at the Gar Woods restaurant in Carnelian Bay for a Polar Bear Swim every March — average water temperature 40 degrees — and for the Easter "bottle hunt," an adults-only extravaganza that involves miniature bottles of booze and dives for a coveted "golden bottle" off Gar Woods' pier.
But even in August, when air temperatures climb to the 80s, Tahoe's nippy waters give most would-be swimmers pause. The key, Tahoe Adventure Company guide Robin McElroy tells me, is to skip the inch-by-inch option and plunge — decisively, joyfully — instead.
So, following the lead of a few teenagers who've clambored atop a 12-foot granite launching pad at Sand Harbor, I take her advice.
Yes, that cold-turkey leap leaves me breathless and reeling. But moments later, floating on air under a reliably blue summer sky, I'm remembering another line from Roughing It: "As (Tahoe) lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords."
Who could argue otherwise?