by Lee Foster
California offers an itinerant skier some of the finest skiing in the world, especially at the major ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe basin. All the ingredients are also present for many other outstanding winter sports experiences, from snowshoeing to savoring scenic vistas.
The snow usually falls plentifully, amounting to some 350-400 inches per year. Major ski areas have also invested in snow-making equipment to give Mother Nature an assist. The ski season usually runs mid-November to mid-March.
The sun usually shows a welcome presence in California skiing. You are not likely to experience the long periods of bitter cold that characterizes some inland skiing areas. Typically, a dazzling afternoon sun takes the chill off the early morning, creating a 25-45 degree afternoon temperature.
The setting is extraordinary, especially if you focus your attention on the Lake Tahoe basin. Mark Twain, who was not given to superlatives, asserted that an exception should be made in the case of Lake Tahoe, which he called “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”
Twain, who had a remarkable ability to turn a phrase, went on about Tahoe, noting, “The water is clearer than the air, and the air is the air that angel’s breathe.”
The lake can be seen readily from the ski slopes of four major resorts–Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, and Sierra-at-Tahoe. 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.
California skiing presents world-class runs at well-organized resorts. On the northwest side of the lake you’ll find three of the stellar ski sites–Squaw Valley, Northstar, and Alpine Meadows. The fourth, Heavenly, sits at the south end of the lake. And the fifth and sixth, Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe, nestle in the mountains southwest of the lake. At Squaw Valley, in 1960, the Winter Olympics gave the world a taste for California skiing. There is some skiing in California from Mt. Shasta in the north to the mountains east of Los Angeles in the south, but the finest skiing in California occurs in the Lake Tahoe basin, with the possible addition of relatively inaccessible Mammoth Mountain in the southern Sierra. 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.
Good access is a major plus for the Lake Tahoe region. The ski resorts and major lodgings are within an hour’s shuttle or rental-car drive from the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Most of the lodging takes place at the south end of the lake, where there are major casino hotels, such as Harrah’s and Harvey’s, and a chateau-like hostelry, the Embassy Suites. The alternative route in is from San Francisco to the west, about four hours by car to the north end of the lake, along Interstate 80, or to the south end of the lake, via Highway 50. Once you’ve arrived, the all-weather route around the lake is on the east side. The west side drive, past Emerald Bay, is closed in heavy snow conditions, but be sure to take it if the road is open because the view at Emerald Bay is one of the choicest in the Lake Tahoe region
If there’s a non-skier in your group, the scenic tram rides at Heavenly and Squaw Valley to the tops of the mountains, with breath-taking views of the lake, are highly recommended. Both trams have restaurants at the top, pleasant places to pass some time, plus large sunny decks where you can curl up with a good book for a winter’s afternoon. A drive around the lake to see the views or an excursion ride on a tour boat, MS Dixie II, are activities favored by skiers and non-skiers alike.
Many visitors also enjoy the diversion that the Nevada side of the border offers at the “gaming” tables and entertainment in the casinos. The casinos at Stateline offer excellent buffet dinners at reasonable prices. Harrah’s Forest Buffet is highly recommended. There are gourmet restaurants, such as the Sage Room steakhouse at Harvey’s or the California-cuisine offerings of Echo at the Embassy Suites. Evans restaurant is another fine-dining pace setter in the region.
A ski trip here requires some attention to planning, preferably with a map in front of you. Where will you ski? You can’t go wrong with any of the top six ski resorts. Travelers often ski one per day, hitting all six in a week’s trip. Where will you lodge? South Lake Tahoe has plentiful lodging and three of the resorts–Northstar, Squaw Valley, and Kirkwood–have on-site condos and restaurants. You can be peripatetic and see the whole area or take a condo at one resort and ski back and forth to your front door for your whole vacation period. If you want an alternative type of lodging, consider Sorensen’s, a cluster of historic cabins run by hospitable John and Patty Brissenden, 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 at Heavenly and Kirkwood. Some skiers also lodge in Reno to enjoy the nightlife and take day trips out to the slopes, although it’s not a short commute or convenient to do it repeatedly. And finally, how will you get around? A rental car gives you maximum flexibility. Always carry chains and be prepared for storms, which can come up fast. Shuttles from the south end of the lake can take you back and forth to the ski areas.
All these major ski areas offer excellent ski instruction programs, whether group or individual. Group lessons are usually two-hour to half-day affairs. Individual lessons can often be scheduled for one intense hour of instruction. Each resort also has its children’s instruction and daycare program, known as Starkids at Northstar, for example.
Each ski area maintains an elaborate rental shop, so you don’t need to bring skis if you don’t wish to or don’t have skis.
Aside from alpine or downhill skiing, California also offers some of the country’s most elaborate cross-country skiing. Northstar and Kirkwood have well-developed courses of cross-country track and “skating” lanes, referring to the cross-country style of rapid skiing on short skis in the manner of a speed skater. West of the lake along Interstate 80, at Soda Springs, you’ll find Royal Gorge, the most developed cross-country site in the country, with over 200 miles of set track. Royal Gorge is one of the major destination cross-country resorts, complete with its gourmet food and lodging setup, either mid-mountain or at its handy highway-side lodging, Rainbow Inn.
With these introductory remarks in mind, let’s look more closely at the six major alpine ski destinations and the country’s premier cross-country resort. Each site has its own particular magic for skiing and other winter snow sports:
For a high intermediate or advanced skier, Heavenly offers enough runs to explore for days without repeating yourself.
Heavenly is heavenly both for its view of the lake and the diversity of its runs. The view of the lake from the top of the tram, plus even more rewarding views of the lake from the summit, make Heavenly special. The view can be savored while nursing a drink at the Top of the Tram Restaurant.
The size of Heavenly is amazing. Fully nine mountains and over 20 square miles of skiable surface delineate Heavenly, one of the largest ski areas in North America. Thirty-one lifts carry skiers to the far reaches. The high-speed tram transports skiers quickly to mid-mountain, where they can disperse. Heavenly boasts 84 runs, including a five-and-a-half-mile trail if you put several runs together. The vertical drop is a gargantuan 3,500 feet.
Access to the mountain is from locations in both states, Nevada and California. The Nevada side of the mountain, complete with its Boulder Base and Stagecoach Lodge, is a good morning sun area. The California side, where the tram operates and the Main Lodge is sited, is a sunnier afternoon ski location.
Heavenly is an upside-down ski area, with one of its most challenging runs, a mogul-studded precipice called “Gunbarrel”, right at the bottom, in full view of a sweeping deck loaded with oohing and aahing appreciators of this nuanced alpine sport. Much of the base lodge has been rebuilt with reflective glass and a wood-shingle exterior.
Heavenly also has plenty of snowshoeing terrain and winter play areas for children. The lesson system is complete, starting with young children just getting started.
Squaw Valley exudes a distinct world-class and Olympian feel. This aura is not merely an historic reflection of this site for the 1960 Winter Olympics, which celebrated one of the steepest collections of runs in the nation. You feel it in the parking lot as you arrive and look around. A portion of the patrons seem to be beautiful people who have just stepped out of advertisements. In a shop next to the slope you can casually snap up a $500 skiing outfit.
As you ascend the mountain, either in the speedy, six-person, modernistic gondola called a Funitel or in the huge 150-person tram-cable car, you get another impression. The mountain has ski runs spread out in wide bowls rather than narrow trails. Squaw Valley maintains a 30-unit lift system, one of the most extensive in the country.
The two day lodges at mid-mountain are elaborate affairs. Gold Coast complex at the top of the gondola includes large outdoor decks, a restaurant, bar, ski check area, and ski repair shop. High Camp complex at the top of the gondola-cable car route includes the rather posh Alexander’s restaurant, with white table cloths, glass wine glasses, and a view of Lake Tahoe. Squaw Valley has a high-altitude skating rink with a back drop view of Lake Tahoe.
Beginner and intermediate skiers feel comfortable at Squaw Valley. The gradual slopes are near the top of the mountain, not in the path of a hot-dogger’s descent. An intermediate skier can roam over six peaks that receive an average of 450 inches of snow each year. An expert skier can trace the path of Olympians down renowned mountain KT-22 and the famous Red Dog run. A long end-of-the-day run sweeps the full distance of the mountain bowls down to the base of Squaw Valley.
Northstar is the most complete, residential ski area of the five major ski sites at Tahoe. Condominiums and a Village Mall of restaurants and shops give Northstar a well-planned self-contained feel. The private, peace-and-quiet feel of Northstar is notable. A Ritz Carlton resort opened here in the 2009-2010 season.
The mountain at Northstar, Mt. Pluto, has excellent intermediate runs and is well-patrolled by the Northstar staff, insuring safe skiing. Beginners and low-intermediate skiers find plenty of wide, meandering trails. Expert skiers rocket down steep chutes, such as the Schaffer Camp run. Ticket sales are limited to the carrying capacity of the mountain, which insures that lift lines will not be long.
The Starkids ski school guides children learning the sport. Certified ski instructors assist adult learners. A six-person gondola takes skiers to the mid-mountain area, where most of the runs originate. Large decks at the Wine and Cheese House provide a rest area between runs.
From the ridge along the top of Mt. Pluto there are pleasing views of the lake, though the perspective is obscured somewhat by trees. Northstar’s northeast-facing direction makes it a wind-protected site if the weather kicks up around the lake. A spa and hot tub in the communal Swim and Racquet Club takes the chill off skiers at the end of the day.
Northstar also has developed an extensive cross-country and snowshoe system, complete with a Cross-Country and Telemark Center at mid-mountain. The Center is well-equipped with rental gear. Twenty-five miles of groomed paths await the nordic skier and the “skater” who prefers cross-country racing. Telemark or downhill skiing on cross-country skis is also allowed. Snowshoe enthusiasts have plenty of terrain to explore.
The food facilities, split between the base and the Day Lodge areas, range from Pedro’s Pizza, a family pizza parlor, to the more elegant Schaffer’s Mill Restaurant, which serves three meals a day. The Rendezvous bar is a good drinking and meeting place.
A large skating rink in the Village draws patrons during the day and in the evening, making Northstar a most welcoming and convivial place.
Though Alpine Meadows is only a mountain away from Squaw Valley, the tone of the establishment differs markedly. Alpine Meadows is a family-oriented day-visitor ski area, but it is not merely family size. Alpine includes grand slopes with runs second to none, including the notorious bump run called Scott’s Chute. Over 2,000 skiing acres stretch across two large mountains.
However, the huge day lodge at the base, one of the most spacious such lodges in the region, epitomizes the matter of style. The main floor of the day lodge consists of a large cafeteria that plunges one into a massive party of families, teenagers, and college kids. Each year Alpine celebrates another season of friendly, family skiing.
The high base area and variety of sun exposures at Alpine combine to offer one of Tahoe’s longest ski seasons and some of the most dependable snow conditions in the region, especially in late spring when other resorts falter. The terrain of the ski bowl is easily comprehended as you view it with a ski map in hand. Ski runs tend to converge at the base of the mountains near the central lodge.
Week-long ski clinics can turn the never-ever skier into an accomplished aficionado. Of the two mountains, Ward Peak offers good open-bowl skiing and Scott’s Peak offers more tree skiing for the expert who wants to thread through the forest.
Kirkwood has the most wilderness feel of all the ski areas because it is set back in the mountains, far from the lake and from city development.
The ski area sprawls over a wide mountain, with plenty of beginner as well as expert runs. Kirkwood, whose base is at 7,800 feet, is consistently home to one of North America’s deepest snowpacks and features snow of the highest quality all through its runs. There is a lodge at the base of the ski runs.
The cross-country program includes 80 miles of set track. The staff is highly professional, offering competent lessons. Conservation and environmental awareness are distinctive parts of the program here. Posted signs show the wildlife often seen during winter in the meadows and at the lava cliffs above. Coyotes, golden eagles, weasels, martens, and chickadees are sometimes spotted by skiers. The Caples Creek trail takes you past beaver ponds. Scenic views show the western downslope of the Desolation Wilderness.
A large meadow at the cross-country trailhead allows beginning skiers to build their skills. Elaborate intermediate and expert trails can be found in the adjacent hills along the Schneider and Caples Lake trail systems.
Kirkwood offers condominiums you can ski to and the Cornice restaurant for gourmet dining.
Ski lodges at Kirkwood include The Mountain Club and Snowcrest Lodge, both luxury ski-in/ski-out establishments.
A further player in the Lake Tahoe alpine skiing scene is the ski area known as Sierra-at-Tahoe, located on Highway 50 on the west side of Echo Summit, making it the closest snow-sports resort to Sacramento and San Francisco. Sierra-at-Tahoe has a number of positive aspects to recommend it.
The view from the top of its highest lift at Grand View peak gives a stunning perspective on the Sierra, showing the ridge line of the Desolation Wilderness and the distant appearance of Lake Tahoe. Along the Desolation Wilderness ridge you see the peaks known as Pyramid, Ralston, and Tallac, the last of which is the highest peak in the Tahoe basin. Moreover, the Grand View lift takes even the beginner skier to see the spectacular view, which can be enjoyed comfortably from a ridge-top restaurant, the 360 Degree Smokehouse BBQ, which offers a rare panoramic perspective of the mountains from this lofty 8,852-foot deck.
At this ethereal spot a beginner skier can take the 2.5-mile Sugar and Spice run to the bottom, making this one of the longer green runs anywhere. Indeed, it is an emphasis on fun, on families, and on beginner skiing at which Sierra-at-Tahoe excels. For the youngsters, there is a Fun Zone area where costumed creatures lead the child into snow and ski fun. The specially-designed Ski Tracks program takes a beginner skier, whether child or adult, literally by the hand and walks him or her up to a moderate level of proficiency. For someone who wants to learn to ski, this is one of the good programs. Sierra-at-Tahoe boasts much good intermediate and some expert terrain, but does not compete with the elaborate downhill runs for experts at the other major ski sites. Tucked into the mountains, the resort is fairly well protected from winds. Snowboarders find Sierra-at-Tahoe a congenial place. Unlike the other major ski areas, Sierra-at-Tahoe closes down entirely in summer, so mountain bikers and hikers should go elsewhere during that season.
Royal Gorge amounts to one of the largest and most elaborate cross-country ski resorts in existence. The trends of the future in cross-country skiing are being tested today at Royal Gorge. About 120,000 skiers glide across the trails at Royal Gorge each year.
The numbers at Royal Gorge are impressive. The resort presents 65 trails, about 200 groomed miles in total, allowing you to ski for days without repeating a trail. Eight warming huts are scattered around the property. The resort boasts an eight-mile, gradually-descending run as one amenity among many on its 7,000-acre site.
The Ice Lakes Lodge, in the heart of Royal Gorge, requires a several-day commitment, starting with a sleigh ride or a ski-in to get there. Once situated, you enjoy gourmet food, the relaxation of a hot tub, and expert guides taking you out on the trails.
The day skier at Royal Gorge benefits from a highly professional staff and a large north-facing mountain slope, located off Highway 80 at Soda Springs, four hours east of San Francisco.
Royal Gorge attracts three times more skiers than its closest competition in California. The California resorts also dwarf cross-country skiing in any other region, including New England or the Rockies. Anchorage, Alaska, with its Kincaid Park, rivals Royal Gorge in size.
Besides Wilderness Lodge, there is another facility, Rainbow Lodge, a ski trip away.
One scenic trail up to Snow Mountain Hut allows you to gaze out over the Royal Gorge on the North Fork of the American River.
Whether your passion runs to downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, snow play, or just scenic winter views from mountain vistas, perhaps with fine or fun dining thrown in for good measure, California’s Lake Tahoe area can deliver an exhilarating and satisfying winter outdoors experience.
Lake Tahoe, California, Winter Vacations: If You Go
For information on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, contact the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, www.tahoesouth.com.
For information and lodging prospects at the north end of the lake, contact the North Lake Tahoe Visitors’ Bureau, www.gotahoenorth.com.
Reno, the fly-in gateway, is an hour northeast of Tahoe. Major lodgings in Reno offer shuttles to the slopes. For information, contact the Reno/Sparks Convention and Visitor Authority, www.rscva.com.
Major airlines fly into the Reno Cannon International Airport.
If driving to or within the region, accurate road information, especially in times of heavy snowfall, comes from Caltrans (800/427-7623). Always carry chains in winter. You will be prompted to enter a highway number, such as 50 or 80, in this brilliant high-tech system that allows a synthetic voice to give you real-time and latest updates on the road.
The major ski resort and winter snow sport adventure areas are:
Heavenly Ski Resort, www.skiheavenly.com.
Squaw Valley USA, www.squaw.com.
Alpine Meadows, www.skialpine.com.
Sierra-at-Tahoe Snowsport Resort.
Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Area, www.royalgorge.com.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page