Steps in Time - Explore the Fascinating History of the Tahoe Basin

By: Lake Tahoe Staff

From the spectacular beaches of South Shore to the foothills of the Eastern Sierra, historic sites like Genoa and Vikingsholm Castle bring the rich history of the Tahoe Basin to life. 

Experience the Old West in Nevada 

Genoa Nevada
Genoa, NV | Photo:

Where the pastoral fields of the Carson Valley meet the jagged eastern Sierra Nevada range, you’ll find Genoa. “The birthplace of Nevada,” this quintessential small town is less than a half-hour drive from Tahoe. Historic buildings like the town hall and courthouse exude romantic Old West charm.

Central to the city’s history is Mormon Station, established as a trading post in 1851 by John Reese along the Carson Route of the California Trail. The station provided migrants with much-needed supplies before the arduous last leg of their journey westward. It also represented the first permanent, non-native settlement in Nevada.

Nevada’s Oldest Thirst Parlor

Today’s Mormon Station State Historic Park museum is a faithfully rendered reconstruction. (The original burned down in 1910.) It contains a collection of pioneer-era artifacts that offer a unique window into the past. Outside, stroll the lush grounds veiled in the cool shade of ancient cottonwoods. And don’t forget to check out the Genoa Bar, Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor. Constructed circa 1853, it offers a full dose of Wild West nostalgia. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt once enjoyed some drinks at the establishment, while Carol Lombard and Clark Gable played high stakes poker games with the local cattle barons.

One of Nevada’s First Ranches

Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park Minden NV
Photo: Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park

A bit further east, near the town of Minden, enjoy the tranquil grounds of the Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Site. To best see the site, arrange in advance for a tour of the historic ranch house, once the home of a prominent Carson Valley ranching family. Commemorate your visit with a purchase from the museum store, which offers books on Nevada history, plus jewelry and gifts.

Go Back in Time at South Shore 

From the Gilded Age sensibilities of the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion to the Norse stylings of Vikingsholm Castle, discover South Shore’s exquisite estates. During the busier summer months, consider a midweek visit to avoid potential crowds.

Hellman Ehrman Mansion Lake Tahoe
Hellman-Ehrman Mansion Lake Tahoe

The Hellman-Ehrman Mansion sits on nearly 2,000 acres. Designed by Walter Danforth Bliss for San Francisco banker Isaias Wolf Hellman, it featured cutting-edge amenities in 1903, such as electric lights and indoor plumbing. Interior decor included massive fireplaces, floral draperies, overstuffed furnishings, and handwoven grass and redwood wall paneling. Today, discover the rich legacy of the Tahoe summer house tradition with a visit to this masterpiece. 

Tallac Historic Site Map Lake Tahoe
Tallac Historic Site Map Lake Tahoe

Of course, Hellman wasn’t the only individual attracted to the many natural wonders of turn-of-the-century Tahoe. Other wealthy San Franciscans flocked to the “Grandest Resort in the World,” now the Tallac Historic Site. Today, you can still explore the sprawling estate gardens and investigate the outbuildings once used by houseguests and servants. In the summer months, enjoy celebrations of the arts at the Valhalla Art, Music & Theatre Festival, and the Boathouse Theatre. Museum displays include a vintage clothing exhibit and live blacksmith demonstrations. And don’t forget to stop in at the Baldwin Museum Gift Shop, where you’ll find unique period-inspired souvenirs.

Vikingsholm Castle Emerald Bay Lake Tahoe
Vikingsholm Castle at Emerald Bay | Photo: Aramark Lake Tahoe

No exploration of South Shore history would be complete without a visit to Vikingsholm Castle. Its owner, Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight, commissioned Swedish architect Lennart Palme to construct it. Mrs. Knight was inspired by the area’s breathtaking scenery, which reminded her of the fjords of Scandinavia. Completed in 1929, Vikingsholm remains one of the best examples of Scandinavian architecture in the United States today.

More to Explore

Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum
Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum

Ready to dig deeper into Tahoe’s colorful heritage? Pay a visit to the admission-free Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum to see photos, memorabilia, artifacts, and even historic buildings bearing witness to the region’s vibrant past.

For more from local Lake Tahoe Historian David Woodruff click below

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