Listen to the legends of Tahoe’s Cave Rock
September 17, 2018
Most people drive on U.S. 50 on the east side of Lake Tahoe, pass through the tunnel that is called Cave Rock, and see it as merely a tunnel.
But it turns out there's much more to the name. Cave Rock was originally a true cave.
The first mention of this Tahoe landmark was in the mid-1850s, when surveyor George H. Goddard described it as a "legendary cave." His description reflected the importance the cave had to the native Washo people.
According to one Washo legend, the cave was formed by the Great Spirit after the waters of the lake began to rise and threatened to drown the Washo who lived by the rock. The Great Spirit thrust his spear into the rock to form a cave into which the water could drain.
Of course, these days we can only imagine what Cave Rock once looked like because it was turned into Cave Rock tunnel in the early part of the 20th century (about 1931). That’s when a 200-foot passage was dug through the back of the cave and a parallel tunnel was blasted through adjacent rock.
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Yet another legend has it that the cruel and evil Paiutes, traditional enemies of the peace-loving Washo, tried to conquer and enslave the Washo tribe. The "god of the world" came to the rescue of the Washo by creating the cave and imprisoning the Paiutes inside of it.
There, the evil ones were transformed into water demons, who were afraid of the lake, and can never leave. It is said that their cries and moans can sometimes be heard coming from the cave.
That particular legend seems to stem from the many stories indicating that the cave was the site of a number of fierce turf battles between the Washo and Paiute tribes over who could fish and hunt at Lake Tahoe.
More recently, some have claimed that "Tahoe Tessie," a sea serpent-like monster that has allegedly been sighted at the lake, resides in the waters below Cave Rock.
Of course, these days we can only imagine what Cave Rock once looked like because it was turned into Cave Rock tunnel in the early part of the 20th century (about 1931). That's when a 200-foot passage was dug through the back of the cave and a parallel tunnel was blasted through adjacent rock.
You can still see the original "cave" part of the tunnel in the rough rock walls that constitute several hundred feet of the southbound or west tunnel. A hike around the imposing rock, however, still provides glimpses of the past. To the immediate west, you can still see the remnants of the original Lake Bigler Toll Road that once circled Cave Rock.
In the mid-1860s, a one-mile road costing some $40,000 was constructed on the west face of the rock. When it was built, this section was the most expensive stretch of road between Placerville and Washoe City.
You can still find a quarter-mile or so of the road, including hand-chiseled stone buttresses. At the western-most point, where the road was apparently built out over the lake and was supported by a 100-foot trestle bridge (it collapsed long ago), you can look down to the rocks and water below, and understand why the tunnel was built.
Additionally, from the southern side, you can see several smaller caves in the granite rock. One, located above the median between the north and southbound traffic lanes, is actually fairly large and, if you listen hard, you can hear the wind whistling through it — or perhaps it's the faint wailing of the water demons.
From the north side at the waterline, you can also see several shapes in the rock face below the tunnel that have been given names, including, above the water line, the 50-foot profile of the "Lady of the Lake" (complete with eyelashes) and the "Gorilla Profile," located on the upper curve of the rock.
Cave Rock is also the location of one of the Nevada Division of State Parks more popular boating and fishing spots. Visitors will find a boat launch ramp, restrooms and a pleasant small sandy beach area with room for swimming or catching a few rays of sunlight.
There is a day use fee for parking at Cave Rock and using the state park facilities. The pass is also good during the day for the state park system's two other Lake Tahoe recreational areas at Sand Harbor and Spooner Lake.
Cave Rock is located about 20 miles west of Carson City via U.S. Highway 50. For information, go to http://parks.nv.gov/parks/lake-tahoe-nevada-state-park-2.