Truckee: The Rustic Mountain Delights of California’s High Country

Bright blue skies and terrific shops.jpg / A bright blue skies and terrific shops in Old Town Truckee

Californians knows Tahoe, the glistening lake, the casinos, the rustic camping and cozy cottages, and, of course, the heart-stopping views and pristine vistas. It’s a destination for sure, and as such, can be crowded and hard to book, particularly if you haven’t thought to reserve months ahead of time. But a quick-chuck-of-a-stone over the hill is the lovely old-world Western town of Truckee, an up-and-coming yet still authentic mountain spot that’s full of all things charming.

On a recent stay, we rented a cottage through the website Vacation Rental by Owner, grabbed some steaks and supplies on the way, and settled in for the weekend. We left early on a Friday (best to take off by noon to avoid the traffic) and took the three-hour-plus drive at a leisurely pace, enjoying the ascension to altitude.

Auburn's small town streetscape

We stopped halfway in the tiny town of Auburn for lunch at the Pelican Roost, wandering the ultra-cute streets afterward and taking in the antique post office, the Silver Store, and the lovely California bungalows that line the side streets. Auburn reminded us of the small-town Midwest, and its friendly shop owners and delightfully slow pace made it the perfect lunch stop.

Heading into Truckee a couple of hours later, what most struck me was the scent in the air. Pine is pervasive, and it sweetens every breath, so much so that I felt as though I was getting twice as much head-clearing oxygen as usual.

Standing on the main drag, Donner Pass Road, it’s wondrous to remember the stories of settlers coming over slippery, snow-covered mountains—no roads then, just a battered trail if you were lucky—with their families, their wagons, their hopes, and no particular destination except West. The spirit of that adventure is still in the air, even amongst the mountain houses and nouveau ski-lodge construction.

On our first evening, we headed into town for drinks and dinner. Don’t think downscale when you head into Truckee; there’s plenty that’s swank and priced to match. Cottonwood, Petra, and Stella all have lovely menus ($25 to $35 range) and rustic-to-upscale ambiance to beat.

Donner Pass today

For more casual fare, try Marty’s for great sandwiches by day, or—our great find—Jalisco, a terrific local Mexican spot. Jalisco is ultra-casual, cute, easy on the wallet, and delicious, delicious, delicious. You’ll find terrific margaritas, chili rellenos, carnitas, and more; you can’t go wrong here.

On Saturday we began to explore the terrain. Hiking trails abound, as do cycling trails, so find your favorite level of exertion. We hiked the Lakeshore Interpretive Trail—a two-and-a-half-mile hike with spectacular vistas and relatively easy ascension, with views to stun and delight.

Trokay Cafe

Later, we met up with friends who fly fish, and while they cast and waded, we hiked the rocky banks of the Truckee River with their dog. After the hike, I was hot enough to want to take a dip in the river, but be warned: The water is shockingly cold and a jolt to the system. I loved it.

Though we love to discover new restaurants, our best meal was on the huge deck of our rental—grilled rib eye, roasted potatoes with leeks and fresh sage, and brandy-flamed sautéed mushrooms. Add local beer, and Saturday evening was a perfectly divine, pine needle-scented private evening.

Truckee, where the railway heads into the great beyond

The next day we headed out over the hill to see Lake Tahoe. The drive from Truckee is quite lovely, with a sweeping vista driving down into Tahoe’s lakeshore. Even though I was freezing, I couldn’t resist a wade out into the lake, reminding me of what I loved so much coming here as a child: The lake is shallow for a long way out, and its waters are cool and light on skin, just as a beautiful lake should be. After a walk on the local beach and a browse of the state park historical data posted on a local kiosk, we headed back to Truckee to discover the shops.

Best downtown find: Riverside Studios

Our brilliant find was Riverside Studios, an arts collective where local female artists sell clothing, leather purses, jewelry, original artwork, and more. The purses, made by local Truckeean Kahlil Johnson, are beautiful works of leather art—hip, urban-looking bags with amazingly thick leather and incredible attention to artistry. I immediately commissioned one and have been thrilled with it.

Riverside Studios Artists Collective

Later we hiked Castle Peak, the five-mile-plus hike to Donner Peak. At the top, it was hard to imagine settlers dragging their wagons over these mountains with nothing but their will power to lead them. But after a hip and easy visit to this Western town, we were sincerely glad they blazed this trail. Discovery, in all its glory, is still viscerally alive in Truckee. It’s relaxing, it’s calm, it’s sweet, it’s authentic, and it’s easy-on-the-soul. It’s a California small town you won’t want to miss.