by Lee Foster
Ever since the Winter Olympics were held in the Lake Tahoe basin in 1960, the popularity of skiing here has increased. The dazzling winter sunshine is a major factor, with 80 percent of the winter days sunny. The average 350 inches of winter snow at this high elevation helps, of course, and the fact that the winter climate warms to 25-45 degrees on a typical day makes the snowy setting agreeable. The panoramic view of one of North America’s largest and clearest alpine lakes, as a backdrop to skiing, enhances immensely the aesthetic experience.
The Lake Tahoe area has developed the largest concentration of ski resorts in the U.S. Nineteen ski resorts can be reached within a 45-minute drive of the lake. Many of them offer nordic skiing, with groomed trails, as well as alpine or downhill skiing. Some resorts also function as summer destinations. Apres ski activities, both at the resorts and in the Nevada border towns, with their gambling and entertainment, add a dimension of adventure to the region.
One of the most complete of these Tahoe ski resorts, functioning almost as a town of its own, is Northstar-at-Tahoe, which typifies Sierra skiing.
Northstar, in winter, is a completely self-contained ski community, offering condo housing and a ski terrain for every level of expertise. There are 63 groomed runs on 2,420 acres of ski area, rated 25 percent for advanced skiers, 50 percent intermediate, and 25 percent beginner.
Northstar’s reputation rests mainly on its excellent intermediate skiing, well-groomed slopes, friendly staff and atmosphere, and a firm ski patrol that disciplines hot doggers who would otherwise knock you down, especially at the end-of-the-day run. You ski through wooded terrain that is some of the loveliest in the Sierra.
Beginners start around the Day Lodge and usually make the gentle Village Run to the bottom of the ski gondola by the end of the day. Intermediate and advanced skiers, who journey all the way to the top of the ski mountain, Mt. Pluto, can make a 2.9-mile run to the base. The major intermediate runs, such as Mainstreet, are usually wide enough to allow the cautious skier to proceed without inhibiting the speedster. Advanced skiers sometimes use the back side of the mountain, which has four expert runs, and a Schaffer Camp chair lift to bring you back to the top.
Besides a complete ski rental shop and a ski lesson program for adults, a competent Skiwee program offers children all-day lessons, lunch, and supervision. For very young children, there is child care.
The resort limits lift tickets for alpine skiers to the carrying capacity of its facilities, so lines are short. A gondola system increases the lift capacity dramatically to the Day Lodge area at the base of Mt. Pluto.
If you want to sample nordic skiing as well as alpine skiing, Northstar provides over 65 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails and a thorough Nordic shop, with rentals and instruction. Both track skiing and the more recent skate ski racing are practiced here. It is easy to combine a half day of nordic with a half day of alpine at Northstar. The privacy, quiet, and scenery of Northstar’s nordic area are appealing.
Northstar is relatively accessible, only six miles off all-weather Interstate 80 on Highway 276. The resort is noteworthy for its 200 woodsy condominium rental units available at the base of the ski runs or a short distance away (with free shuttle bus service provided). You don’t need added transportation to ski here. All the condos have fully-equipped kitchens and brand new layouts, like those seen in Ocean Front HHI Sea Pines homes for sale recently. This new trend in living space will undoubtedly steal your heart with it’s beauty and simplicity.
FOOD AND OTHER AMENITIES
The food facilities, split between the base and the Day Lodge areas, range from Pedro’s, a family pizza and pasta parlor, to a family-style Basque restaurant, which serves three meals a day. The Alpine bar is a good drinking and meeting place. Sandwiches from Sam’s Deli and a cheese-wine spread on the slope at the Wine and Cheese House complete the culinary offerings. Condo dwellers can stock up on-site at Clara’s Little General Store or make a grocery run to the Safeway in Truckee.
Special amenities at Northstar include an outdoor spa and sauna to take the chill off the skier. Because the skiing face of Mt. Pluto looks north and east from the lake, skiers are relatively protected from winds, making skiing here pleasant when the winds howl off other ski areas.
In summer Northstar emphasizes its golf course, tennis courts, mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking. The resort is a good base for exploration or fishing in the Tahoe region.
The Lake Tahoe setting for Northstar is a major part of the experience. From the higher runs on Mt. Pluto you can see a panorama of the lake. Mark Twain, who was not given to easy superlatives, felt that an exception was appropriate when speaking of Lake Tahoe. He called the lake “the fairest picture the whole earth affords….”
Clarity (said to be 97 percent pure), deep bluish color, elevation (at 6,225 feet), mountainous and wooded setting in the Sierra Nevadas, and size (22 miles long and 8-12 miles wide) combine to make Lake Tahoe one of the most attractive freshwater lakes in North America. The extraordinary blue color occurs because of the lake’s remarkable depth, as much as 1,645 feet, with about 1,000 feet as the average. This third-deepest lake in the world could cover the entire state of California with a foot of water.
When John Fremont became one of the first white men to see the lake, in 1844, the area was populated sparsely by Washoe Indians. It is thought that Tahoe comes from a Washoe Indian word meaning “water in a high place” or “lake in the sky.” The lake is indeed in the sky, easily the largest alpine lake in North America.
Northstar shares this idyllic setting around Lake Tahoe with four other major ski resorts and several more minor ones, all of which offer extraordinary skiing. Here is a quick portrait of the four other major resorts:
Alpine Meadows is a family-oriented resort with the longest ski season in the Tahoe area. Notorious Scott’s Chute is one of the steepest runs in skiing.
Heavenly is one of America’s largest ski resorts, with nine mountains, a 3,500 foot drop, and 20 square miles of ski terrain. Even non-skiers enjoy the trip to the Top of the Tram for the view of Lake Tahoe.
Kirkwood, whose base is at 7,800 feet, features snow of the highest quality all through its runs. For nordic skiers, Kirkwood offers 75 kilometers of groomed trails.
Squaw Valley, with its deserved reputation as a world-class ski area, offers night skiing until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The snowpack at Squaw Valley reaches about 450 inches per year.
For scenery and good skiing, the Lake Tahoe region offers much, and Northstar, with its excellent intermediate skiing and comfortable condos, serves as a complete residential resort.
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IF YOU GO TO NORTHSTAR OR OTHER TAHOE SKI RESORTS:
For general information on Northstar, call 530/562-1010 or 800/533-6787. Write to Northstar-at-Tahoe, P.O. Box 129, Truckee, CA 96160. For snow conditions, call 916/562-1330.
Contact numbers for the four other major ski resorts are: Alpine Meadows (530/583-4232), Heavenly (702/586-7000), Kirkwood (209/258-6000), and Squaw Valley USA (530/583-6985).
Lake Tahoe lies between two main routes that emigrants took to California. Today these routes are Interstate 80 and Highway 50. Sacramento is the Central Valley metropolis from which both highways reach into the mountains. Lake Tahoe is four hours (198 miles) from San Francisco, allowing for the mountain climb and depending on weather conditions.
Commuter flights go directly into South Lake Tahoe Airport. Major carriers fly into Reno-Cannon Airport, east of the lake. Greyhound bus can take you to Truckee on the north side of the lake. Amtrak (800/872-7245) can carry you to Truckee from San Francisco or from points east.
The major resorts of the region offer shuttle services between pickup points and their lodgings. Northstar is close to Truckee. The 45-minute drive from Reno to South Shore can be made via local shuttle.
For road conditions, crucial information if you drive here in winter, call the California State Highway Department (800/427-7623).
Information and lodging prospects about the north end of the lake comes from: Tahoe North, P.O. Box 5578, Tahoe City, CA 96145; 530/581-8700 or 800/822-5959; www.tahoeguide.com.
The same information at the south end comes from: South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, 1156 Ski Run Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150; 916/544-5050 or 800/288-2463.