Skiers’ paradise: 7 resorts in 7 days, all within view of a world’s great lake
LAKE TAHOE - This onetime playground for movie stars and gangsters has reinvented itself with on- and off-mountain improvements, upscale lodgings, a slew of top-notch restaurants, and a cool, laid-back vibe.
“No worries!’’ Caroline Watson said, flashing a wide, warm smile as we rushed up to her. Watson, an ambassador with Heavenly Ski Resort, was waiting to show us around the mountain - and we were late. We were also hurting. Our legs were noodley, our heads were aching, and our minds were fuzzy. Six days of skiing and six late nights had taken their toll.
We plopped onto lounge chairs on “the beach,’’ the outdoor terrace of the new Tamarack Lodge, overlooking the snow-covered slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
“Looks like another bluebird day,’’ Watson cooed.
She was right; there wasn’t a wisp of cloud in the sky. We slipped on sunglasses, took in the view - a sprawling amphitheater of open snow bowls, narrow chutes, and precipitous peaks - and felt the cobwebs and dull aches disappear.
Mark Twain wrote that “Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor.’’ It was working its magic on us.
The stunning mountain-to-lake scenery, bathed in an average of 320 days a year of sunshine, probably has not changed much since Twain visited in the 1860s. But the resort area has gone through a number of renaissances. Lake Tahoe, once the Prohibition playground for celebrities and socialites, and later the famous stomping grounds of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddies, is once again changing. An influx of upscale lodgings, on- and off-mountain improvements, and several cafes, restaurants, pubs, and après-ski wine bars are putting a new shine on this old favorite. Sure, it’s still easy to have a raunchy good time in South Lake Tahoe’s slightly seedy lounges and 24-hour casinos, but more often than not, visitors end their day on the slopes with a massage and Tahoe blue ’tinis.
Today, the future of this longtime resort destination on the California-Nevada border looks bright. Despite the economy, Tahoe ski resorts have been aggressively pumping money into improvements, resulting in new lodges, restaurants, revamped base areas, expanded terrain, and record skier visits. They’re spending an additional $100 million on capital improvements this season alone.
Lake Tahoe is home to 14 resorts, the largest concentration of ski slopes in the country. We had seven days to ski seven resorts, four on the north shore and three on the south.
We landed in Reno on a direct morning flight from Boston, grabbed our gear and rental car (you need one if you are skiing more than one resort), and were on the slopes at Mount Rose in less than an hour. Mount Rose is a sweet, cheap area, the closest to Reno, and popular with locals. It’s known for its friendly, funky atmosphere and its wild theme days. It was ’70s day when we were there, and locals showed up in droves, dressed in vintage bell bottom ski suits. The ski mountain, with more than 1,200 acres and 60 trails, was easy to get around, with most trails leading back to the base lodge. Though Mount Rose has some beginner and intermediate terrain, its big draw these days is its gnarly chutes, where skiers have free rein in the mountain’s recently-opened backside, with more than 200 acres of steep couloirs. More interested in pleasure than adventure, we stuck to the six-pack high-speed chair, giving us access to several blue cruising and wide-open black diamond runs. It was a great two-hour warm-up to the week.
That evening we splurged on dinner and wine at the classy Manzanita restaurant in the new Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. The next morning, we hit the slopes at Northstar-at-Tahoe.
We expected to see lots of families at Northstar, and we did. The resort is consistently ranked as one of the top family resorts in the country, with a mountain that funnels down to a central location, a variety of terrain for every member of the family, and a lot of kid-centric activities. Since Vail Resorts took over last season, Northstar is going after the more affluent vacationer, those looking for fine dining, on-mountain amenities, and the convenience of a one-stop destination. The expanding Village at Northstar and recent opening of the mid-mountain Ritz-Carlton add to this appeal. This season, Vail Resorts will spend another $30 million in capital improvements, including a new lodge, restaurants, and 160 acres of new terrain.
In the morning, we skied the runs on Mount Pluto, perfectly combed by the claws of the snowcat, and took in Lake Tahoe views along the way. When midday crowds converged, we headed to the backside, with long, straight-shot, 1-mile, black diamond runs, some with bumps, some freshly groomed.
That evening, the Village at Tahoe was hopping with kids skating on the ice rink, families toasting s’mores over the bonfire in the plaza, and folks browsing shops. We loaded up on carbs at Rubicon Pizza, with heaping plates of pasta and pizza pie. We easily justified the calories: We had to get ready for Squaw Valley the next morning.
“You got to ski today what you can’t tomorrow,’’ Dave shouted as we exited the Squaw Valley cable car at High Camp. We had met Dave, a 50-ish man visiting from Texas, on our ride up. We weren’t sure if the tomorrow he was referring to was about changing weather conditions or our ages. No matter; the day was gorgeous, with bright sun warming Squaw’s massive bowls. Squaw is big, with wide open bowls, covering more than 4,000 acres and 170 trails. And they are not exactly trails, just suggested ways down. At Squaw, you take a green-labeled chair to access beginner slopes, blue chairs to intermediate runs, and black chairs to the toughest terrain. When you exit the chair, you are looking into a bowl. It’s your choice where you go from there.
We spent hours on 8,900-foot Squaw Peak, traversing the ridgeline and picking runs down the giant bowl. In the afternoon, we skied the bowls of Emigrant peak and ended the day on the gentler runs off Snow King. We left the stomach-lurching steep terrain off the legendary KT-22 to skiers much better than we are. This is, after all, where the 1960 Winter Olympic Games were held.
The next day at Alpine Meadows was slower-paced. The smallish mountain is typically less crowded and less expensive than other Tahoe resorts and draws a loyal, local following who like its somewhat old-school, laid-back atmosphere. This fall, Squaw and Alpine Meadows merged and one pass gives skiers access to both mountains. It’s one of a long string of changes and improvements by the new owners of Squaw Valley. The resort is in the midst of a five-year, $50 million improvement project being called The Renaissance, which includes upgrades in lodging, signage, restaurants, and more.
After four days, it was time to head to the south shore. We skied Sierra-at-Tahoe one day, sticking to the wide, top-to-bottom green and blue runs. The place is popular with snowboarders, teens, and beginning skiers. Another day, we skied Kirkwood. It seemed like everyone here has their own favorite Lake Tahoe resort, but more than a few people we asked put Kirkwood at the top of their list. It attains nearly cult status among adrenaline-seeking skiers, who cite its “epic snow conditions.’’ Kirkwood receives one of the highest annual resort snowfalls in the world. It has terrain for all abilities, but the heart-pounding steeps and chutes off in the wild and craggy snow bowls are what get skiers to come back.
After a day at Kirkwood, we should have called it an early night. We had one more day of skiing at Heavenly, the largest of the Tahoe resorts. But this was South Lake Tahoe. Instead, we tried our luck at the blackjack tables in the nearby casinos and toasted the snow gods with those blue ’tinis. And woke up late the next day.
“No hurry,’’ Watson said, as we struggled into our ski boots. We left the Tamarack Lodge beach, rode Heavenly’s Tamarack Express chair, and gawked at the views: blue skies, white bowls of snow, big, turquoise lake. We smeared sunscreen on our noses, took pictures, and pointed the boards downhill. It took only one sweet run on the winding California Trail, a groomed white carpet of snow, for our minds to clear.
“The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious,’’ Twain once wrote of Lake Tahoe. “And, why shouldn’t it be? It is the same the angels breathe.’’
It was heavenly.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@ earthlink.net.