EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.
An invigorating swim in the mountain waters of Lake Tahoe is, for many, a great highlight of summer.
But for some, what makes it even better is to swim in Tahoe’s crystal clear waters without the limitations of those pesky bathing suits, and afterward lie au naturale in the sunshine.
In fact, Tahoe’s remote east shore beaches have been a favorite hang-out for naturists for more than 75 years. With an enticing combination of granite boulders, soft white sand, the meeting of emerald green and deep blue waters, and an off-the-beaten-track location, these lovely little beaches are irresistible.
According to North Swanson, the 91-year-old leader of the Tahoe Area Naturists (which perhaps conveniently boasts the acronym “TAN”), enjoying the east shore beaches without clothing began with casino show girls in the 1940s.
Legend has it that they enjoyed frolicking topless while joining the parties at the Whittell Estate. George Whittell once owned the land where the public beaches are now located, and built the Thunderbird Lodge, a unique and spectacular estate about a mile south of Sand Harbor. At that time, the only access to the Thunderbird Lodge was by boat, as Highway 28 had not yet been constructed.
Although the land was beautiful back when Whittell arrived, it was certainly not pristine, first-growth wilderness. In fact, during the Comstock Area of the late 1800s, the Virginia City mines were in full swing and desperately in need of lumber, and the east shore was one of the easiest places to find it. Most of the trees in the area were removed via narrow gauge railroad and water flumes.
PROTECTING THE BEACHES
Swanson says the remote mix of boulders and small coves that make up the east shore has continued to be a favorite spot for naturists since it became public in the early 1970s. At that time, the U.S. Forest Service purchased more than 10,000 acres of land, and more acreage was added to the public domain later.
TAN was created in the early 1980s, when one day a group of naturist friends looked around and realized that just about everyone on the beach was wearing a hat, and nothing else. Thus, the annual tradition of Hat Day began, which is now held on the third Sunday of August. TAN also gathers groups of volunteers for a beach clean up day in June, and a party on the beach in July.
In addition to being a social gathering organization, TAN has worked in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service to improve the conditions of the beaches. They pick up garbage and encourage people not to litter. And they have put a lot of time into maintaining and upgrading the trails.
They’ve worked with the USFS to replace dozens of steep-use trails which formerly dropped down from the highway, and replaced them with a few, less-steep trails that are less likely to degrade the environment. The group even has volunteers who tromp down to the beaches on weekend mornings and rake the sand for the busy day ahead.
The folks from TAN — through their Tahoe Area Nudesletter — and another interested citizen with his secretcove.org website conduct an education campaign to help ensure that fellow beach users protect the beach and be sensitive to all of the people who make their way down to the lakeshore. They strongly suggest: no lewd conduct, no drugs, no glass containers, no public intoxication, no fires and no littering. In other words, they remind people to use common sense to keep a heavily used resource as lovely as it can be.
NUDITY A NO-NO?
Don Lane, Supervisory Recreational Forester with the Forest Service for decades, says the Forest Service wants people to enjoy the area, but not love it to death.
“It’s a beautiful area, but also fragile. We’ve done a lot of trail work (and) taken out many tons of garbage over the years,” he says.
They developed several restrooms on the main trails to focus travel to the beach. And they encourage common sense. Lane says, “Take a moment and help us pick it up. We don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done down there.”
Another recent problem on the beaches has been graffiti spray painted onto the spectacular granite boulders. A group of volunteers, with the support of local businesses, have held several Bonsai Beach Clean-Up days to painstakingly remove the graffiti from the rocks. The next step is to figure out how to keep the taggers from tagging.
As to public nudity, there is no law against it on federal lands. While some say that it is illegal to be nude in public in the state of Nevada, Swanson said he couldn’t find a statue that says it is.
The area is also under the jurisdiction of the county of Carson City, which does ban public nudity, but in practice, as long as people without clothes stay on the more remote beaches and off the trails, the sheriff’s office doesn’t enforce it.
Both Carson City and USFS do sometimes patrol the beach, but they are primarily interested in enforcing the glass container laws and looking for people intoxicated or using drugs in public.
A major issue for TAN, the Forest Service and those who regulate the use of the lake is the lack of adequate parking for beach-goers along Highway 28. In the past, several environmental groups have urged the elimination of parking on the road, and a shuttle bus service from Incline Village was recently created to afford access to Sand Harbor (which, by the way, is not one of the nude-friendly beaches).
Swanson believes that in a tourist community such as Tahoe, shuttles have never been successful. People want to drive to the beach and spend an hour or two in the sun, and not be tied to the time constraints and limited hours of a shuttle. TAN has been active in trying to encourage more parking, and to prevent the elimination of parking along the road.
The TAN newsletter says that in November 2014, Nevada Transportation officials announced that they had located half of the $25 million needed for a major Highway 28 improvement project. It would include expanding the two small parking lots used by east shore beach-users in 2016. Also in the plan are off-highway pull-outs with limited time parking for photo takers, and transit stops along the road.
If you are heading to the east shore beaches, you are advised to come early during the summer months, as the two small parking lots often fill up by 10 a.m. Once the lots are full, you face the more daunting challenge of finding a roadside parking spot.
The stunningly beautiful beaches along the east shore are a unique resource. Not only are they part of the longest stretch of undeveloped lake frontage at Lake Tahoe, but for decades they have been a place where a live-and-let-live attitude among government agencies and the public, combined with a group of dedicated volunteers working to encourage proper use of the resource, have kept this place as a spectacular place to visit.