By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: The story of California skiing is one of the intriguing tales in the history of the Golden State, starting with Snowshoe Thompson. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Originally, skiing the California Sierra attracted only hearty individuals like the legendary mailman, Snowshoe Thompson. Then in the 1920s—because of “national security”—the decision prevailed that Highway 80 would remain open all year. With winter accessibility, ski resorts gradually opened around Lake Tahoe. In 1960 California skiing made headlines around the world, hosting the Squaw Valley Olympics. The Olympics put Lake Tahoe skiing on the world tourism map.
Today the ski areas attract visitors, winter and summer, even for the non-skier.
The Historic Story
California offers an itinerant skier some of the finest skiing in the world. Most of the major ski resorts flourish in the Lake Tahoe basin.
Arguably, the California skier who started the trend was a mailman named Snowshoe Thompson.
Thompson was a Norwegian, living in the Sacramento region. He noticed that mail service to the silver miners in Nevada suspended in winter because snow and ice locked up the Sierra.
Snow had not stopped anyone in Thompson’s native Norway. So, summoning his entrepreneurial spirit, Thompson fashioned 10-foot-long oak skis. He balanced himself with a pole. Thompson began carrying mail and supplies for 50 cents per pound over the Sierra.
It usually took Thompson three days to go up the mountain, two days down. For more than 20 years Thompson kept up the service. He made four trips per month, defying blizzards and avalanches. He always set forth on the appointed day in his announced schedule, regardless of weather conditions. This winter mailman carried roughly 100 pounds on his back.
Skiing at Lake Tahoe
All the ingredients necessary for an outstanding skiing experience present themselves around Lake Tahoe, with amenities that Snowshoe Thompson could not imagine.
The ski season usually runs December through March. Snow usually falls plentifully. This can amount to 350-400 inches per year. Major Tahoe ski resorts also invested in snow-making equipment to give Mother Nature an assist in drought years.
The sun often shows a welcome presence in California skiing. Skiers seldom experience long periods of bitter cold that characterize some competing ski areas. Typically, a dazzling afternoon sun takes the chill off the early morning. The sun can create a 25-45 degree afternoon temperature.
Legacy of Badger Pass
In many ways Badger Pass in Yosemite assisted the start of California skiing. Tourists arrived there for more than a hundred years to ski. Badger Pass offered primitive climbing and horse-drawn efforts to get skiers up the hills. Badger Pass sometimes calls itself “California’s Original Ski Resort.”
In 1935 ski lifts officially opened the area. But Badger Pass is small and does not have the expert runs that delight an advanced skier.
Squaw Valley Olympics
However, Squaw Valley and the other major ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe basin meet those expectations.
Ever since the Winter Olympics occurred at Squaw Valley, the popularity of skiing here has increased. Having Lake Tahoe—one of the world’s largest and clearest alpine lakes—as a backdrop to skiing adds immensely to the aesthetic experience. Because of these resources, the area developed the greatest concentration of ski resorts in the United States.
Fifteen alpine ski resorts flourish within a 45-minute drive of the lake. Several of them also offer Nordic skiing, with groomed trails. Some resorts function as summer destinations. Après-ski activities, both at the resorts and in the border towns, Truckee and South Lake Tahoe, add a dimension of nightlife and culinary adventure.
Lake Tahoe’s ski areas are about 3-1/2 hours northeast of San Francisco. To approach the north side of the lake, take Interstate 80, a somewhat easier drive on a divided highway with measured grades. The north end offers access to Northstar, Alpine Meadows, and Squaw Valley.
The northern approach also takes you through Truckee and Donner Lake, scene of the infamous Donner Party crossing of the Sierra in 1846. A contingent of wagon-train pioneers halted in the Sierra due to heavy snowfall that winter. Their situation became desperate. Some survived, partly by eating those who died, an event commonly referred to in California history as The Donner Tragedy. Learn details of the story at the Emigrant Trail Museum (530/582-7892) at Donner Lake.
To approach from the south, take Highway 50, a more demanding and curvy road, narrow in places, especially when conditions are snowy or icy. You arrive in South Lake Tahoe close to Heavenly. Another half-hour south and west is Kirkwood, via Highways 89 south and 88 west.
Be Sure to See
Tour one or more of the major ski sites, winter or summer, whether you ski or just enjoy the mountain scenery. Take a ride to the top in a gondola either at Heavenly or Squaw Valley for the view of Lake Tahoe.
Some major ski resorts are:
Northstar-at-Tahoe (800/466-6784, https://www.northstarcalifornia.com/)
Alpine Meadows (530/583-4232, https://squawalpine.com/)
Squaw Valley (530/583-6985, https://squawalpine.com/)
Heavenly (775/586-7000, https://www.skiheavenly.com/)
Kirkwood (209/258-6000, https://www.onthesnow.com/california/kirkwood/ski-resort.html)
And Sierra-at-Tahoe (530/659-7453, https://www.sierraattahoe.com/)
Northstar is a self-contained condo environment with downhill skiing appropriate for all skill levels. Northstar has an elaborate Nordic or cross-country ski trail system.
Alpine Meadows is a family-oriented resort with one of the longest ski seasons in the Tahoe area. Notorious Scott’s Chute is one of the steepest runs in skiing.
Squaw Valley, with its deserved reputation as a world-class ski area, offers night skiing on Fridays and Saturdays. The snowpack at Squaw Valley reaches about 450 inches per year.
Heavenly is one of America’s largest ski resorts, with nine mountains, a 3,500-foot drop, and 20 square miles of ski terrain.
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.
Sierra, with its location on the west side of Echo Summit, is the closest major resort to San Francisco or Sacramento. The view from the top of Sierra-at-Tahoe shows the Desolation Wilderness.
The non-skier will enjoy a tram ride to the top of Heavenly or Squaw Valley, winter or summer, with a restaurant destination for libations or food to enjoy with the view. Both ski areas present outstanding views of Lake Tahoe from their elevated perspectives.
Snowshoe enthusiasts receive a warm welcome at many resorts.
The most recent chapter in ski resort history concerns summer use. The active sport of mountain biking became popular at the ski resorts in summer. You ride the tram to the top and let gravity pull you down the mountain. Hiking is also now popular in the highlands of the ski resorts.
Skiers and non-skiers enjoy the diversion that the Nevada side of the border offers at the “gaming” tables and entertainment in the casinos. This too is part of the historic story. Nevada first allowed gambling in 1931.
Best Time of Year
The ski areas are year-around destinations, with summer the expanding use, due especially to mountain biking. Winter skiing occurs mainly December-March.
Historic Sorensen’s is a cluster of cabins about 20 minutes from the south end of the lake. Sorensen’s would be a good choice of lodging if you want to concentrate your skiing or exploring at Heavenly and Kirkwood. Sorensen’s is at 14255 Highway 88, Hope Valley, CA 96120, 800/423-9949, www.sorensensresort.com.
Sorensen’s has its own restaurant. The gaming establishments at South Lake Tahoe, such as Harrah’s, offer sumptuous buffet dinners at reasonable prices.
For info on the north end of the lake, contact the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association (800/824-6348, https://www.gotahoenorth.com/).
For the same information at the south end, contact Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority (775/588-4591; https://tahoesouth.com).