By: Thayer Walker
The Sierra Nevada mountain range runs through California like a 250-mile snowcapped spine, with the area around 22-mile-long Lake Tahoe, straddling California and Nevada, as its winter sports epicenter. Other ski areas dot the Sierras, but the Tahoe region is the shining star of the range, with the most varied and quality runs per square mile. Adventure seekers have trekked to the area for centuries; prospectors settled here in the late 1840s during California’s gold rush. But today the mountains draw ski and snowboard enthusiasts seeking a different kind of payoff.
More than 3 million people visit Tahoe each year to enjoy its 300 days of sunshine and 450 inches of snow. Typically, snowfall starts around Thanksgiving and resorts stay open into May. Despite the considerable tourist traffic, community efforts have kept the famous clear-blue lake just that way and staved off overdevelopment. The California-Nevada state line bisects the lake, with most of the ski areas surrounding its northern rim, and the rest found to the south and southwest inside California’s vast Eldorado National Forest.
Tahoe ski areas tend to be less expensive, warmer, and more laid-back than many of the Rocky Mountain rivals. Although once known as a budget destination, the region has since seen a flurry of high-end hotel, inn, and ski lodge openings. These five ski areas (all in California, though some slopes stretch into Nevada) offer the best of Tahoe, from to-die-for ski runs to buzzing casinos and outstanding restaurants.
Squaw Valley USA
Located just northwest of the lake near Tahoe City, California, Squaw has a rough glamour, thanks to its mix of dirt-under-the-fingernails pros and upscale clientele (earning the nickname Squallywood). The ski area, which hosted the world’s first televised Olympics in 1960, is still where many snow enthusiasts test their mettle. In recent years extreme skiers have redefined the boundaries of the sport (and sanity), turning nearly every cliff into a launching pad.
Squaw offers customized backcountry tours for intermediate and advanced skiers as well as snowboarders wishing to explore previously off-limits terrain like Happy Valley, a series of powder-filled bowls. But one need not be a pro to enjoy all that Squaw has to offer. Beginner and intermediate runs make up 70 percent of the mountain’s 3,600 skiable acres.
The 405-room Resort at Squaw Creek (800-327-3353), remodeled in 2007, provides panoramic mountain views and a private chairlift to the top. In the lobby a pianist welcomes guests while a roaring blaze crackles in the granite fireplace. The resort operates four restaurants, including Six Peaks Grille, which is a great place to host an informal dinner, as chef Chad Shrewsbury will prepare custom five-course meals for as many as 10 guests.
PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn (800-323-7666) and its affiliated café lie at the base of the mountain in a building originally constructed to house Olympic delegates. Guests of the 56-room earth-toned, modern-meets-rustic lodge can enjoy slopeside access, a gym, a pool, and two hot tubs. The café’s menu changes regularly and has included such dishes as ahi tuna and Scottish salmon cones with yuzu vinaigrette, Fresno chili, and ginger. The restaurant hosts cooking classes and events with local winemakers. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, nicknamed Plump Jack, inspired the company’s name; its insignia, a knight’s shield, crops up throughout the property.
In the nearby Village at Squaw Valley USA (an outdoor mall and promenade), sushi bar Mamasake (530-584-0110) is a locals’ favorite, offering a beer and a hand roll special from 3pm to 5pm. The Auld Dubliner (530-584-6041) serves excellent Irish fare in a setting where, along with the brews, the facade, furniture, and bar hail from the Emerald Isle. At Gallery Keoki (800-995-365 4), co-owner Keoki Flagg, who has taken photographs for Outside and Men’s Journal, sells his shots alongside prints, drawings, and sculptures by the likes of Calder, Dalí, Miró, and Picasso.
Although Alpine Meadows sits back-to-back with Squaw, its atmosphere couldn’t be further from its flashy neighbor. This ski area has no wine bars, the lodge’s dining area resembles a high school cafeteria, and roughly 70 percent of its 2,400 acres go ungroomed. But hard-core skiers and snowboarders (largely locals) don’t come to sip cabernet. They come for the thrilling backcountry-type terrain devoid of crowds.
While Alpine’s stripped-down appeal means no slopeside accommodations, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino (775-832-1234), 15 miles east in Incline Village, Nevada, offers respite for the eager snow bunny, with free shuttle services to nearby slopes. Skiers may book the Diamond Peak Package, which includes a standard guest room, round-trip shuttle to the slope, and two adult lift tickets, among other amenities. Following a recent multi-million dollar renovation, its standard rooms boast velvety fabrics, pillow-top mattresses, overstuffed armchairs, and black granite bathrooms. Staying at the 24 lakefront cottages, with their river stone fireplaces and Italian leather furniture, is a smart splurge. The resort is offering a Travel and Leisure package through February, promising accommodations at a lakeside cottage, one complimentary night for each two consecutive nights booked, two day passes for use at the Stillwater Spa, and a s’mores kit to boot. The Hyatt’s Lone Eagle Grille (775-886-6899) is one of the best restaurants in all the Sierras, serving fare like seared elk chop with pear-parsnip puree and a poivrade sauce. The spot’s new lounge, unveiled after a $700,000 renovation, offers tapas-style delights, craft beers, cocktails, and wine.
The 42-room Cedar House Sport Hotel (866-582-5655) is located in the historic railroad town of Truckee, California, 15 miles north of Alpine. The decor pairs recycled oxidized-steel support beams with exposed cedar woodwork. Stella, a guests-only Italian restaurant, was inspired by the Slow Food movement and offers entrées like lobster and passion fruit salad with baby beets and micro tatsoi as well as classes on cooking over a wood fire.
Also in Truckee, the rustic Bar of America (530-587-2626) has served frosty pints for more than three decades. Across the street, Moody’s Bistro and Lounge (530-587-8688), with its red-velvet booths and live jazz Wednesday through Saturday, brings a touch of cool to the town’s center.
The development plan for Northstar seems to have followed a simple rule: Offer guests everything they need so they never have to leave. The five terrain parks and two pipes will occupy even the most enthusiastic jibber (that’s a trick-pulling skier or snowboarder, for the uninitiated). The owners have invested over $30 million into the resort, and guests this season will be able to enjoy the benefits fully. The completely overhauled Northstar-at-Tahoe, celebrating its 40th birthday this month, boasts a new high-speed chair lift, new trails, a new 700-seat restaurant, a 22 foot superpipe designed by Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, among many, many others.
Another plus for Northstar: the abundance of luxury lodgings. One Village Place (800-757-9763) offers one-to three-bedroom suites equipped with top-of-the-line kitchens, giant Jacuzzi bathtubs, and slate floors. The mountain’s gondola runs quietly from its lobby. Northstar-at-Tahoe also recently waved its three night minimum for booking, ideal for those looking for a weekend getaway.
The Ritz-Carlton Highlands, Lake Tahoe (530-562-8900) is one of Tahoe’s newest constructions, the first in decades. The 170-room hotel resort provides class and luxury from its perch midway up the mountainside, where guests can literally ski in and out. The hotel’s restaurant Manzanita, headed by James Beard Foundation award winner Traci des Jardins, serve French-inspired California cuisine derived from sustainable meat and produce. Some menu highlights include Berkshire pork belly, rotisserie game bird, and butterscotch pot de crème for those with a sweet tooth.
At the Village at Northstar, the centerpiece is a 9,000-square-foot ice skating rink surrounded by covered outdoor seating areas warmed by heat lamps and fireplaces. Guests can purchase kits at adjacent shop True North to make gourmet s’mores over the fireplaces. An outpost of a Reno venue, the Chocolate Bar (530-562-1800) specializes in handcrafted truffles and uses only Grand Cru chocolate. Try the Mayan hot chocolate, made with three types of milk and a spicy chili reduction. Nearby, shop at Olivier Napa Valley (530-562-1400) for gourmet condiments like caramelized shallot and dark beer mustard.
Inside California’s Eldorado National Forest, Kirkwood is the most remote of the major Tahoe resorts. It lies 35 miles southwest of the lake’s southernmost shore town, South Lake Tahoe, California, but is well worth the trip. Since the ski area runs along the Sierra Crest, the ridgeline connecting most of the range’s highest points, the resort is in a prime position to benefit from winter storms. The result? Each year the snowfall averages 600 inches, more than at any other Tahoe resort.
Kirkwood possesses what it calls the “K-Factor” – a geographical predisposition to receive the “lightest, the driest, and the most plentiful snow” to blanket its 2,300 acres of terrain.
The 32-unit Snowcrest Lodge (800-235-8259) offers ski-in, ski-out accommodations, ridgeline views, and full kitchens. For the best food and a rousing bar atmosphere, head to the Kirkwood Inn & Saloon (209-258-7304). A hearty saloon meal – say, a rack of barbecued pork spare ribs accompanied by a spicy Bloody Mary – can help mitigate the mountain’s chill.
Don’t forget the region’s other famous distraction: gambling. Stateline, Nevada, about an hour’s car ride from Kirkwood, is home to MontBleu (800-235-8259), whose casino floor has favorites such as table games, slots, and No Limit Texas Hold’em daily tournaments in The Poker Room. Take a break from the tables at the HQ bar’s fire pit or head to the club Opal for hookah pipes and fire dancing shows. This casino hotel isn’t quite Vegas, but it’s as close as you’ll get in the Tahoe region.
In downtown South Lake Tahoe, California, Blue Water Bistro (530-541-0113) specializes in French and California cuisine with dishes like black sesame ono and bouillabaisse. Café Fiore (530-541-2908) serves great northern Italian fare for only seven tables of guests. The house’s special: prawns, scallops, and other seafoods sautéed in a cognac and lemon butter sauce with capers and tossed with linguini.
Located smack on the California-Nevada border in South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly does everything big. Its gondola lift ascends nearly 3,000 feet, providing one of the region’s best vistas of 193-square-mile Lake Tahoe and the snowy peaks surrounding it. Skiers and snowboarders have access to 4,800 acres (some on the Nevada side). With peaks soaring more than 10,000 feet, this is Tahoe’s highest ski area.
Size brings options. Too windy for shredding the upper mountain’s slopes? Head to Stagecoach or Olympic Downhill, a pair of 2-mile runs at lower elevations. If the Nevada snow becomes slushy in the afternoon, try the more sheltered California side. After giant storms, regulars charge the 5,500 vertical feet from the Fullstone backcountry gate to the desert floor of Nevada’s Carson Valley.
One block away from Heavenly’s gondola, on South Lake Tahoe’s main strip, stands the twin-towered, 740-room Harveys Lake Tahoe (800-786-8208). The hotel offers half-canopy beds, antique-style wood furniture, and marble bathrooms. The hotel’s restaurant, 19 Kitchen*Bar (775-586-6777), on the 19th floor, provides great views of the lake. The surf-and-turf–heavy menu includes dishes like Kobe beef fillet with lobster mashed potatoes.
Offering quieter accommodations, the Black Bear Inn Bed and Breakfast (877-232-7466) lies a mile from Heavenly’s California ski lodge. Its Great Room Lounge projects a mountain-lodge ambience with a 34-foot-tall fireplace and the mounted head of a 12-point elk. All eight suites and cabins have private fireplaces. Across town, The Burger Lounge (530-542-4060) serves 13 different kinds of hamburgers and sandwiches; those not yet sated on snowy delights should try the peanut butter shake.