Destination: Skiing Lake Tahoe
Two states, 15 ski areas and endless entertainment ring America's favorite alpine lake
BY TINA LASSEN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY PRESTON SCHLEBUSCH
|Lake Tahoe seen from an Alpine Meadows run; the historic lodge at Camp Richardson Resort; the pool at Squaw Valley.
In the 1950s, alpine skiing in America was a fringe, foreign sport and Squaw Valley an unknown rocky seam in the Sierras, high above Lake Tahoe. Then Squaw founder Alex Cushing implausibly launched—and even more implausibly won—a bid to host the 1960 Winter Olympics, a move he later admitted was little more than a marketing stunt for his fledgling ski area. Those Winter Games became the Sierras’ coming-out party, showing the world that America could more than rival the Alps. Skiers discovered that the saw-toothed range ringing Lake Tahoe ponies up more altitude than Innsbruck and way more snow than Chamonix. It also offers a north-south dichotomy nearly as distinct as the Swiss–Italian border, and a breezy, laid-back vibe that doesn’t exactly run rampant in Austria.
While we heartily endorse a trip across the big pond for a ski vacation, you can’t go wrong with a trip around the big lake, either. It’s just an hour from the Reno–Tahoe International Airport—and gets our vote as the most spectacular body of water on the planet.
TRUE NORTH: TRUCKEE
The Nevada–California state line splits Lake Tahoe into east-west halves, but it’s really the north and south shores of the 22-mile lake that give Tahoe its split personality. South Lake Tahoe and Stateline anchor a lively region where shiny casinos rise up alongside ski runs, while the north end harbors small towns tucked among pine forests.
Consider Truckee the gateway to this quieter, less developed side. Located 15 miles north of the lake along Interstate 80, this rustic railroad town embodies the north’s funky Cali vibe with its covered sidewalks and slightly dog-eared Victorians. Locally owned restaurants and shops like Spirit Gallery (10009 W. River St.; 530-587-0948) long ago replaced the red-light district without sacrificing the town’s authentic bones. Cottonwood Restaurant offers fine yet unpretentious dining in a historic hilltop ski lodge. Bacchus & Venus (10118 Donner Pass Rd.; 530-550-9800) pours tastings from California’s best boutique wineries at its gleaming cedar bar.
BIG, BOLD SQUAW
Squaw Valley USA never looked back after those 1960 Olympics. It’s one of the nation’s leading ski areas, with 4,000 acres of steep bowls and granite knobs just six miles from Tahoe’s northwestern shore. Its precipitous runs have appeared in so many ski movies that the region has earned the nickname Squallywood.
But really, Squaw has everything. A network of more than 30 lifts leads to loads of sunny cruisers and intermediate tree skiing, too. You can glide to a mid-mountain ice rink at lunch, and at day’s end practically ski right into a steaming hot tub (if you happen to be a guest at the Resort at Squaw Creek). Then nab a table at the Six Peaks Grille, where chef Chad Shrewsbury uses molecular gastronomy techniques similar to those pioneered in Europe’s top kitchens. Luckily, you don’t need to understand his craft to enjoy it. 800-403-0206; squaw.com
UNHERALDED ALPINE MEADOWS
Just two miles south of Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows sits in its big sister’s proverbial shadow, with fewer lift lines and plenty of elbow room. This is the locals’ favorite ski area, and it seems content to stay out of the spotlight: Its day lodge is utilitarian, and its biggest stars are the ski patrol dogs that are trained for avalanche rescue. They’ve become such popular icons that patrollers hand out baseball cards with canine stats: Bridger, a 62-pound golden retriever, “likes powder, practicing my search-and-rescue techniques and rolling in the snow.”
Alpine Meadows skis big, with short traverses leading to huge expanses of terrain that you didn’t even notice on the trail map. There’s also plenty of inbound terrain that’s accessible via short hikes along the ridge. “What’s really great about Alpine is that only about the middle third of it is lift-served,” says local Paul Ehreewil as he glides off the Summit chairlift. “There’s about a third that way, and another third that way,” he notes, waving his arms to both sides. “Don’t be afraid to just get out and explore.” 530-583-4232; skialpine.com
NORTHSTAR PUTS ON THE RITZ
Tahoe never had the ultra-luxe lodging of, say, Aspen or Vail. But that changed last December when Northstar-at-Tahoe opened the mid-mountain Ritz-Carlton Highlands. Nestled in a grove of ponderosa pines, the surprisingly unobtrusive hotel is patterned after grand mountain lodges like Yosemite’s Ahwahnee, with a soaring central “living room” that fuses beams, stone and natural light. Sunny patios are just steps from Northstar’s slopes, which offer everything from wide groomers to hard-charging bumps.
The Ritz-Carlton is the centerpiece of an ambitious expansion plan that also includes a gondola to shuttle guests from the hotel to a new pedestrian village at Northstar’s base. The village is a perfect fit for this pleasantly mellow ski area: an idyllic family gathering spot with casual restaurants, shops and gas “bonfires” clustered around a skating rink. 800-466-6784; northstarattahoe.com
THE SOUTH'S HEAVENLY VIEWS
Skiers and snowboarders line up like slalom poles along Heavenly’s California Trail to pose for snapshots. Perched 3,500 feet above the south shore, this run delivers the most glorious view: glittering blue Lake Tahoe, laid out in its entirety before you. Put simply, Heavenly Mountain Resort is huge. Its 4,800 acres of terrain stretch across Nevada and California and offer base areas in both states (when’s the last time you saw a “Welcome to California” sign tacked to a slope-side tree trunk?). Most folks seem content with Heavenly’s ample cruisers (meticulously groomed to wide-wale corduroy), which leaves areas like Milky Way Bowl—with its perfectly spaced pines and chalky snow days after a storm—blissfully empty even on a busy afternoon. Save some time in your ski day to check out the mid-mountain tubing park, one of the speediest and friendliest in the West. 800-432-8365; skiheavenly.com
THE SIERRA STRIP
It wasn’t so long ago that the south shore was synonymous with tacky lingerie shops and strip-mall sprawl. But that’s changing in South Lake Tahoe, with upscale lodging, a pedestrian shopping and entertainment village and a gondola that carries visitors to Heavenly’s slopes. Families gravitate to the ice rink, while après crews like to hit up Fire & Ice (4100 Lake Tahoe Blvd.; 530-542-6650) for drinks on its sunny, south-facing deck.
On the Nevada side, a trio of big-name casinos—Harrah’s, Harveys and Mont Bleu—delivers nightlife sizzle and occasional big-name acts. On the California side, great dining hides in unlikely spots like Nepheles: a tiny cabin with an inventive wine list and fish and game on the menu. After dinner, go for a soak in the private hot tubs next door.
A TASTE OF OLD TAHOE
Generations of families have spent their vacations at Camp Richardson Resort, a 1920s log lodge with cabins on Lake Tahoe’s south shore. You can rent cross-country skis or snowshoes at the Mountain Sports Center (530-542-6584) to explore the grounds, now National Forest land. It’s remarkably peaceful just minutes from the highway, wandering along the broad shoreline and through old-growth cedars and pines. Continue on to the grounds of Tallac Historic Site, a 150-acre property with three turn-of-the-century estates (closed in winter) that still house elegant boathouses and ballrooms. It’s a sight straight out of the Old Country—right here in the American Alps.
A LITTLE SUGAR
Sugar Bowl, the 1,500-acre resort atop the
Donner Summit, has what might be Tahoe’s best
deal.With the price of a lift ticket, the General
Admission program offers skiers and riders ages
13–69 free standard rentals for the day and
a free two-hour group lesson—at any level.
You’ll get this deal on any day in the early
and late seasons; in peak season it’s offered
Monday–Friday (except holidays).
SIX PEAKS GRILLE
Chef Chad Shrewsbury relies on molecular
gastronomy—the application of culinary
techniques to transform a food’s physical
and chemical properties—to create
memorable meals in a glass-walled room.
Resort at Squaw Creek, 400 Squaw Creek
Rd., Olympic Valley, CA; 530-581-6621;
dinner for two, $100*
COTTONWOOD RESTAURANT & BAR
Don’t be alarmed by the battered exterior.
Once inside this century-old ski lodge, you’ll
indulge in hearty fare like seafood stew or Kobe
skirt steak. 10142 Rue Hilltop, Truckee, CA;
530-587-5711; dinner for two, $85
Game is a sure bet here (think wild boar chops
in an orange-apricot brandy sauce, and elk
rubbed with espresso), complemented by a
wine list full of big, bossy reds. The seafood
cheesecake appetizer tastes better than it
sounds. 1169 Ski Run Blvd., South Lake Tahoe,
CA; 530-544-8130; dinner for two, $110
This casual seafood spot next to the
marina is regularly filled with locals, winter and
summer. The lounge menu offers the best deal.
2435 Venice Dr., South Lake Tahoe, CA;
530-541-5683; dinner for two, $95
Book an early table at this sumptuous steak
house atop the Harveys casino to enjoy
views of Lake Tahoe. Save room for the
surprise signature dessert. Harveys Lake
Tahoe, 18 Hwy. 50, Stateline, NV;
775-586-6777; dinner for two, $130
* Prices cover a meal for two without drinks,
tax or tip.
RCI-affiliated resorts around Lake Tahoe include:
TAHOE SEASONS RESORT
Just two miles from Heavenly. All
units come with hot tubs, and
there’s on-site ski rentals. 3901
Saddle Rd., South Lake Tahoe, CA
“A beautiful view of Lake Tahoe
from the deck on the roof.”
“We eat at the Brewery at Lake
Tahoe every time we’re in town.”
TAHOE BEACH & SKI CLUB
A mile from Heavenly, with a
private beach and a year-round
heated outdoor pool. 3601 Lake
Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA
“We love this resort and will stay
here again and again!”
“Buy your lift tickets in the lobby.”
LAKE TAHOE VACATION RESORT
Heavenly is just two miles away,
or take a ski break and head to
nearby Ski Run Marina for a cruise
on a paddlewheeler. 901 Ski Run
Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA
“The Activity Center had many
activities for children.”
“Great fireplace to dry out the
gloves, etc., after a day of skiing.”
GRAND PACIFIC RESORTS AT
RED WOLF LAKESIDE LODGE
On Lake Tahoe’s north shore,
just seven miles from Northstar.
Fireplaces in all units. 7630 N.
Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista, CA
“The hot tub overlooking the lake
“Log Cabin Café is a great place
THE LODGE AT KINGSBURY CROSSING
In a quiet, woodsy area, five
minutes from Heavenly and close
to South Lake Tahoe. 133 Deer
Run Court, Stateline, NV
“They had over 1,000 DVD
movies to check out.”
“A boutique resort tucked away.”
GEO GROUP AT TAHOE SUMMIT VILLAGE
A shuttle bus runs to Heavenly
and the casinos in Stateline. 750
Wells Fargo Lane, Stateline, NV
“Great views of the Carson Valley.”
“Outdoor hot tub after a day on
For more information, including complete
member reviews (as member reviews have
been condensed), visit RCI.com or call
Club Members, please call your specific
Club or RCI telephone number.
RESORT AT SQUAW CREEK
Ski-in, ski-out units, great dining
and outdoor pool/hot tubs overlooking
Squaw Valley. 400 Squaw Creek Rd.,
Olympic Valley, CA; 530-583-6300;
squawcreek.com; doubles from $179 per night
VILLAGE AT SQUAW VALLEY USA
Condo-style units are steps from the
lifts. 1750 Village East Rd., Olympic
Valley, CA; 866-818-6963;
doubles from $243 per night
RIVER RANCH LODGE
Book a river-view room at this historic
lodge beside the Truckee River. Hwy. 89
at Alpine Meadows Rd., Tahoe City, CA;
doubles from $95 per night
This gorgeous new ski-in, ski-out
resort at Northstar will spoil you
with attentive service. 13031 Ritz-Carlton
Highlands Court, Truckee, CA; 530-562-3000;
ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $199 per night
CAMP RICHARDSON RESORT
Lodge rooms and woodsy cabins will
evoke your best memories of summer
camp. 1900 Jameson Beach Rd., South
Lake Tahoe, CA; 800-544-1801;
camprichardson.com; doubles from
$95 per night
MONT BLEU RESORT
A retro casino hotel, just a five-minute
walk to Heavenly’s gondola. 55 Hwy. 50,
Stateline, NV; 888-829-7630;
montbleuresort.com; doubles from
$60 per night
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Published: Winter 2010-2011