SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CALIFORNIA -- When Dina Bylund Smith of St. Helena, California, was two years old, her parents took her on a summer vacation that she never forgot.
"They brought me here, to Camp Richardson," she remembered, as she stood near her cabin on the campgrounds with her husband Michael and their friend, Laura Hesselgren of Burlingame, California, "and I loved it so much that I've come here every summer since."
That was 47 years and three generations ago; Smith's grandparents came along with the family on the first trip and many thereafter, to this legendary spot on the shores of South Lake Tahoe, where families traditionally gather in summer or winter for an old fashioned kind of outdoor vacation. A former lumber camp of thousands of acres turned into a resort by Alonzo (Al) and Cora Richardson in 1923, Camp Richardson was founded to fill a need for a vacation spot that catered to someone besides the very wealthy owners of the legendary private mansions along this most beautiful lake, which to its first residents, the Washoe Indians, was once the sacred center of their world.
It started with a group of wooden cabins and spread through the years to become a tent campground, an RV village, a small hotel and beachside inn with a marina, stable, beachside restaurant, general store, ice cream parlor, and coffee shop. It has just about everything a vacationing family would want, in fact, except for television sets and game rooms. "You can leave your mobile devices at home if you wish and do a 'digital detox,' " notes the hotel manager. She added that those who cannot comletely disconnect for the one or two weeks most people stay here are welcome to use the WiFi in certain places around the property, and cellphones work pretty well...in most of the camp.
What people like to do here mostly, though, is connect with their children and friends, arranging to stay the same week or two as others they know are coming, and having reunions and parties and weddings and simple good times along the shores of what has been called the most beautiful lake in the United States. One year, when Dina Smith had the flu, her grandfather set up her sickbed on the porch of their cabin so that everyone who walked by it on the way to the beach stopped to ask how she was feeling and wish her well.
Most families soon discover the hierarchy of the cabin layout whereby newcomers get the cabins nearest the road, while those in the know move up, caste-wise, closer to the lake each year (the Smiths' and friends' cabins were practically on the beach by the summer of 2013, and they noted that to book these cabins (there are now 42 of them), you need to reserve them a year ahead of time.
Not that there's anything wrong with the cabins nearer the road (and the coffee shop and ice cream parlor) or the campgrounds away from the marina. The pine smell and clean air permeate the whole scene and make for delicious sleeping, and the macadam bike paths (rent a bike across the street from the hotel, at the Camp Richardson Mountain Sports Center) and pine needle covered walking trails begin right at the entrance to the camp and continue for miles either way. Biking near the enormous firs through the forest dotted with tiny log cabins here and there evoked a Hansel & Gretel feel for this Easterner.
You can also take quick walk next door to the camp to visit the Tallac Historic Site, a compound of old private cabins and vehicles and boats and a theater, all of which are being restored to their original charm by local volunteers. We did that and then headed to the marina for a Rum Runner cruise to Emerald Bay. Rum Runners are the signature drink of the resort and are served onboard and also in the beachside Beacon Bar and Grill, which offers casual or more formal lunches and dinners beside the water. The Rum Runner is a fruity concoction made with three different kinds of rum and which, if you're newly arrived at this altitude of 6228 feet, should be consumed in moderation!
The one and one-half-hour cruise ($44 for adults, $19 for children 12 and under) takes you to what locals consider the most beautiful part of this lake and gives a glimpse of Vikingsholm, the 39-room mansion erected by wealthy widow Lora Josephine Moore Knight in 1928 after she had bought 200 acres there, including Fannette Island, the only island in Lake Tahoe. She built a teahouse on top of the little island and had one of her 12 servants take her and her guests to the island regularly for afternoon tea. She eventually donated her estate, to be used as a public park, where visitors can now tour the interior of the home.
Everything here is geared to children of all ages as well as their parents. Toddlers can have a pony ride ($5) at the stables and in winter, enjoy sleigh rides with the rest of the family. Although the lake is icy cold for swimming, the marina has a variety of small boats and fishing equipment for guests who want to get out on the largest lake in North America (26 miles long and 12.2 miles wide). And while the lake may be cold, you won't sit inside the cabins or tents here for too many rainy vacation hours; average number of days of sunshine per year in this northern California woodlands is 307. And if you don't find enough activities inside the camp, this area has no fewer than 17 golf courses for public play.
Many guests drive the four hours from the San Francisco area; others fly into Reno airport and take the 1 1/2-hour shuttle ride to the camp. Prices at Camp Richardson, which you can reserve by telephoning 800-544-1800, are from $80 to $850 per night (the latter cabin sleeps 20) and tent sites are from $35 to $70 per night. RV Village hookups are $40 to $45 per night. Camp Richardson's address is P.O. Box 9028, South Lake Tahoe, California 96158.