SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - Tahoe Trail Bars line the racks at Grassroots Natural Foods store, South Lake Tahoe's only natural food store. Bulk bagged pine nuts chill in a refrigerator. Wafts of fresh ginger-raisin bread (baked on Tuesdays) float past the all-organic produce section filled with vivid red and yellow peppers, greens, apples, oranges, melons and squash.
Skewers of whole chickens and tri-tips as big as boulders roll around and around in T's Rotisserie in Incline Village. Photos of rafters whooping as they launch down rapids on the Truckee River line the walls with paintings of magnificent violet, rose and mandarin Tahoe sunsets. Locals as well as tourists sit with bottles of Cholula Hot Sauce wolfing down those one-of-a-kind T's burritos, tacos and entrees.
Sleek and shining wood boats from as late as the 1890s sit poised inside Tahoe Maritime Museum. The prize of the collection is the Shanghai, a late 19th century launch restored to liveliness after being recovered from 300 feet below Tahoe's surface. The mountain craftsman architecture of the building with circular windows and broad exposed beams can't help but remind one of a classic Tahoe boathouse.
The Flume Trail rises above Tahoe's East Shore. Mountain bikers pedal along the granite gravel past coyote, mule deer and chipmunk tracks. Chickadees, also known as the "cheeseburger birds," chirp their three-part whistle. Sage, mountain-mahogany and Jeffrey pine line the rugged track and dot the rest of the Nevada-side of the Tahoe Basin.
These four attractions are just a sample of what brings people to Tahoe. They're also an example of a new kind of tourism - geotourism - a method of travel that provides a richer experience for the traveler, a sustainable impact on the region and an economic boost for the locals.
Geotourism, termed so by National Geographic's Center for Sustainable Destinations, is defined as tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place, its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of its residents.
Sierra Nevada geotourism, like elsewhere, centers on an online map that pinpoints geotourism attractions in the region - the biggest in the Tahoe Emigrant Corridor being Lake Tahoe itself. Others include Camp Richardson, Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, Echo Lake, Thunderbird Lodge National Historic Site, Kirkwood Mountain Resort, Blue Angel Cafe and Tahoe City Farmer's Market.
Geotourism attractions can be restaurants, stores, lodges or hotels, recreation sites such as trails or parks, geographic features like lakes, rocks and rivers, historic or cultural sites, and events. They can even be people. But all of them, no matter the type, have to be distinct to that region.
"In general what we're looking to highlight are places that have a quality unique to the area," said Jonathan Tourtellot, founding director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations. "We have to make a lot of judgment calls."
The attractions on the map are decided by the Sierra Nevada Geotourism Council, and each one comes with an explanation of why it was placed there. The places, people or things can be nominated by anybody, but the decision lies with the council. The balance of the attraction's uniqueness, environmental impact and contribution to the local community, among other factors, must be significant for it to be considered.
"We wouldn't put a sensitive meadow up there," said Nicole DeJonghe, Sierra Nevada Geotourism project manager. "We wouldn't put something that's not safe or something that doesn't exist. We check them out.
The Sierra Nevada mapguide has 1,500 contributors and receives more than 9,000 unique visits every month. Dozens of attractions dot the area around Lake Tahoe, and dozens more are yet to be added.
"It's a constant work in progress," Dejonghe said. "The Sierra is constantly changing, so the map reflects that."
Whether they're paddling the Lake Tahoe Water Trail or admiring Frank Sinatra's old haunt in he Cal Neva Resort and Casino, geotourists are a growing segment of the tourism industry. According to a study done by the Travel Industry of America, there are more than 55.1 million geotourists in the U.S. These travelers value clean, unpolluted environments, outstanding scenery and opportunities to learn about the culture and history of areas they visit. These are travelers the Sierra Nevada Geotourism Council aims to attract.
"They prefer to eat at local restaurants," Dejonghe said. "They prefer an experience where they can feel they maintained the a pristine environment. They seek out traditional music and dance. They patronize businesses that emphasize the local character."
DeJonghe hopes geotourism will bring a full circle of satisfaction to the tourism industry in the Sierra Nevada. Geotourists will dive into the local environment, culture, history and industry. They will have a rich experience that helps the local economy and sustains the region for the next batch of geotourists.
"The desire is increasing to experience the true nature of a place," she said.
Learn more about the local project at www.sierranevadageotourism.org.