The great American writer and humorist, Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) camped here in September 1861. During his years at Lake Tahoe and Western Nevada, he became Mark Twain, using the pen name for the first time in 1863. Tahoe found its way into two books and several newspapers articles written by Twain during the 1863-1872 period. In lectures, Mark Twain spoke eloquently of the moving beauty and wonders of the lake to enthralled audiences in the Upper Midwest and Eastern United States, giving them a snippet of true life in the Old West.
At the first site, Speedboat Beach, he and a friend reached it by rowing from the east across Crystal Bay. They camped there several times and had their food and supplies cache there. At the Sandy Beach campsite, they attempted to file a timber claim, but Twain wrote later in his book Roughing It that they lost it to a wildfire caused by a runaway campfire. However, the book account exaggerated the fire’s damage, and he actually returned a week later with others to continue work on his timber claim.
At the Speedboat Beach site, visitors can see the flat granite rocks on which Clemens played cards and dined in 1861. Wading into the water, they can glimpse the large underwater boulders that Twain wrote about on his “balloon voyages” in a rowboat drifting over the lake bottom. At Sandy Beach, one can see the beach where the two men beached their rowboat and slept in the soft sand among protecting boulders. The boulders are now out in the water but still visible, having been moved to accommodate pier construction. While the trees on the timber claim were long ago logged, one can still see surviving examples of the five-foot diameter trees Twain wrote about in Roughing It.
Roughing It was the first time the world was given an introduction to Lake Tahoe, and it helped set the stage for the tourism industry that sprang up around the lake in the late 19th century. Lake Tahoe was his gold standard for lakes; he compared all other to Tahoe, with none ever measuring up to its size, depth, beauty and clarity. In Roughing It, Twain was inspired to write his impression on seeing Lake Tahoe for the first time from high up in the Carson Range, “As it 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.” These evocative words are still often quoted 150 years after Twain first stepped foot into the Tahoe Basin.
While the Lake Tahoe that Mark Twain knew has changed significantly and in many ways, at these two sites visitors can still absorb the emotive beauty and soul expanding vistas that Twain recalled in his legendary writings.
There was a dispute over whether Mark Twain camped and started a wildfire on the North Shore or the East Shore of Lake Tahoe. On May 12, 2011 the US Board on Geographical Names rejected naming the East Shore site because of opposition by the US Forest Service and reasonable doubt regarding the location of Samuel Clemens' campsite.