‘Let’s elope’: More couples trade traditional weddings for outdoor affairs

Claire McArthur
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Cody and Victoria Blue backpacked six miles to Lake Aloha to get married with their two friends and a wedding photographer. Provided
Victoria Blue

On a sunny July morning last summer, Victoria and Cody Blue strapped on their backpacks and hiked six miles to Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness to get married with just two friends and a wedding photographer.

After setting up camp, Victoria changed into her wedding dress, did her own makeup and hair, and crouched behind the tent waiting for her first look with Cody in his suit. The group trekked to a flat granite cliff overlooking the alpine lake where their friend ordained the wedding ceremony. Afterwards, they opened cans of champagne and made tacos with homemade salsa and guacamole.

A couple ties the knot on a rocky outcropping overlooking Lake Tahoe. Provided
Ruthanne Zouboukos

“The flowers were blooming at that time, and I’d never been to Lake Aloha when it was so green and lush. It was more beautiful than I remembered it being,” recalls Victoria. “The Milky Way was popping that night. It was a magical experience. It was the best wedding I could ever have thought of.”

The Blues’ decision to forgo the traditional wedding in favor of a more intimate affair is a trend that elopement photographer and Truckee native Ruthanne Zouboukos began to notice, especially after her own wedding — a small sunrise ceremony on a nearby mountain top with 13 family members.

“Elopement used to mean running away. Going off to Vegas. Disapproval in secret just the two of you. The term has shifted to really mean bringing it back to what matters most and stripping it down to a place where your wedding day is about just the two of you, even if there are more people in attendance,” says Zouboukos.

After struggling to find vendors in the region to work with her own small-scale wedding, Zouboukos transitioned her existing photography business into one that is all about helping couples elope around Lake Tahoe. In addition to capturing the day, she scouts new locations for all of her clients, helps coordinate logistics and even hosts a podcast to guide couples through the process.

“Elopements have been on the rise for the last five to seven years. They’ve been gaining in popularity as the younger generations get closer to building their lives, and they realize that they have the option that falls into the expectations of previous generations or buying a house,” explains Zouboukos. “We don’t want to choose the wedding.”

For generations that cherish experience, a non-church wedding in the outdoors is becoming more popular. Provided
Ruthanne Zouboukos

When COVID hit, Zouboukos didn’t know what her business was going to look like with shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.

“Previously, most of my clients came from out of state — 1,000-plus miles away. My inquiries started to spike, and I received an insane number of inquiries from people, mostly local to California, looking to have an amazing wedding experience within driving distance,” says Zouboukos. “From the beginning of August to the beginning of November, I photographed and planned 18 elopements, which is pretty much my entire season condensed into three months. It was crazy.”

One bride wore the ball gown she had planned to don at her formal wedding in Austin, Texas, with hiking boots, puffy skirt scooped in her arms, for a 3-mile trek to a cliff overlooking Lake Tahoe. Another couple said their vows aboard a sailboat on the lake. During an especially magical summit elopement, the group watched as a rainstorm moved across the entire basin, but missed their small rock outcropping entirely.

“In the times that we’re in, COVID has provided the opportunity to have the wedding day that people want without family pressure or the guilt that they would feel otherwise, and that’s a very interesting point that’s come to light over the last year,” adds Zouboukos.

It’s a silver lining that Stephanie Martin, founder of the online wedding resource, Tahoe Unveiled, has noted, too.

“Everyone in this industry has figured out how to trim the fat, not necessarily their labor but how to simplify their business and see how they can survive this,” explains Martin.

And surviving meant learning how to serve much smaller parties that might not normally have worked with their price structure and services. Tahoe Unveiled even launched an online tool that allows couples to book vendors, from flowers to food, for their elopement or “microwedding.”

“For all the couples that just wanted a smaller, more intimate celebration, they can do that now, and there are all these vendors who have rallied around and decided we’re going to service these smaller groups that we’ve always turned away before,” says Martin.

Though larger ceremonies will undoubtedly return in the coming months, Martin doesn’t see the desire for scaled-down weddings going away anytime soon. Zouboukos agrees.

“I’m very hopeful that when we go back to whatever normal life looks like, that people are empowered to continue to choose what they want for their wedding and not what expectations tell them they should have,” Zouboukos adds.

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2021 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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