Tahoe beneath the Surface: The Hidden Stories of America’s Largest Mountain Lake

The lake that changed America

Lake Tahoe transformed America, and not just once but many times over—from the earliest Ice Age civilizations to the mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe. It even played a hidden role in the American conquest of California, the launch of the Republican Party, and the birth of John Steinbeck’s first novel. Along the way, Lake Tahoe found the time to invent the ski industry, spark the sexual revolution, and win countless Academy Awards.

Tahoe beneath the Surface brings this hidden history of America’s largest mountain lake to life through the stories of its most celebrated residents and visitors over the last ten thousand years. It mixes local Washoe Indian legends with tales of murderous Mafia dons, and Rat Pack tunes with Steinbeck novels. It establishes Tahoe as one of America’s literary hot spots by tracing the steps of more than a dozen authors including Bertrand Russell, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Michael Ondaatje. Tahoe beneath the Surface reveals how the lake transformed the lives of conservationists like John Muir, humorists like Mark Twain, and Hollywood icons like Frank Sinatra. It even touches upon some of the darker aspects of American history, including anti-Chinese racism and the Kennedy assassination.

Despite the impact Lake Tahoe has had on America, environmental threats loom large, and Tahoe Blue—a term that Lankford uses to encompass the whole range of life, beauty, and meaning the lake represents—grows increasingly vulnerable. In Tahoe beneath the Surface, human history and natural history combine in a most engaging way, one that will both inform and inspire all who would keep Tahoe blue.

Winner of a 2010 ForeWord Book of the Year Award


“I urge readers to dive into this book headfirst and to allow its currents to carry them along. Bravo, Lankford, bravo! This book will take me back to Tahoe and enable me to see it as though for the first time.”

—Jonah Raskin, author of Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives: Northern California Writers and their Work, and a professor of communication studies at Sonoma State University


“This book is pure pleasure. Equally at home in nature and culture, the past and the present, Scott Lankford reflects on Tahoe from the deep geological past to contemporary ecological threats,writing about all of it with a lover's fervor and respect, a keen eye, and sparkling wit....I learned something new on every page.”

—Tom Lutz, author of Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America; editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books


“Sparkling like the lake itself, this is a revealing depiction of the characters and forces that have shaped one of our national treasures. A compelling read to keep Tahoe Blue.”

—Dr. Leo E. Chavez, superintendent and president, Sierra College


“A must read for anyone interested in Lake Tahoe, and, for that matter, for anyone interested in a good story of a particular landscape, in this case the largest mountain lake in America.”

—Greg Sarris, chairman, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria; author of Grand Avenue and Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream

About the Author

Scott LankfordRaised in Colorado, Scott Lankford got lost en route to Stanford University and spent much of the next ten years as a maintenance man, musician, and mountaineering guide at Lake Tahoe. After joining the 1985 American Everest West Ridge Expedition, he completed a Ph.D. in modern thought and literature with a dissertation on John Muir. Currently a professor of English at Foothill College, in California’s Silicon Valley, he has also served as Foothill’s dean of Language Arts and codirector of the Foothill College Center for a Sustainable Future.

Photo by Kevin Wayland