It’s easy to forget we’re within four hours of the world’s largest unbroken monolith of mountains. And it just so happens that a fantastic ski season has (finally) begun. The top destination resort? Squaw Valley (aka Olympic Valley). Bisected by a meandering creek and lorded over by craggy, saw-toothed peaks, this is one of the Tahoe Sierra’s most gorgeous alpine basins, surrounded by mountains so big that you’ll lose perspective on distance and height.
Host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, the games put Squaw on the map and established Lake Tahoe as a world-famous ski destination. Development of golf courses and hotels over the past 47 years has significantly altered the valley’s character, but the land remains spectacular. Skiing and snowboarding are the major draws, but since the construction of the new Village at Squaw, the valley now has a burgeoning nightlife scene and some of Tahoe’s top places to stay and eat.
- Bask in the alpenglow of a dramatic high-mountain valley.
- Ski the route of the men’s Olympic downhill races—at night.
- Shop for the hottest new look in ski couture.
- Take in mountaintop views over Lake Tahoe.
- Sup at Tahoe’s top table.
- Three-and-a-half hours—unless it’s snowing.
- Weather: if it’s storming hard outside, you’ll be stuck inside.
See & Do in Squaw Valley
Though skiing at Squaw Valley USA is—by far—the biggest attraction, there’s enough to keep non-skiers entertained, at least for an afternoon. Wander the Village at Squaw Valley, an assemblage of four-story faux-Alpine buildings connected by a pedestrian mall. The Village is chockablock with shops and galleries, most of them nothing-special, with a few stellar exceptions. Waxen Moon is a super-fun make-your-own-candle studio, the perfect place to get crafty when the weather is lousy. To up your winter wardrobe’s chic factor, head directly to Plumpjack Sport, the hottest ski-garb boutique in Northern California, and the place to find a fur-trimmed parka or a sexy one-piece (yup, they’re back in style, in some circles, at least). Across the street at Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn, there’s another branch, with pretty-girl and fancy-boy street clothes.
Ride the Cable Car up 2000 vertical feet to High Camp (elevation 8200ft), where you can twirl around the Olympic Ice Pavilion, tour the tiny Olympic Museum, then sip cocktails at Alexander’s Café and take in the gorgeous lake views (skip the food). If you can’t snag a window table at Alexander’s, head to the Terrace Bar instead, which is essentially a cafeteria, but the views are just as good.
If you’re not a skier but love a good adrenaline rush, take the kids snow-tubing at the Papoose Learning Center. A dedicated lift hauls you uphill, then you fly back down on specially groomed tubing lanes. It’s a blast! Make reservations on weekends.
Try your hand at rock-climbing or bungee-trampoline jumping at the Squaw Valley Adventure Center. Inside the Cable Car building, don a harness and climb a 30ft-vertical fake-rock face of the Headwall Climbing Wall, an especially good activity if it’s storming and the kids are…uh, climbing the walls. If you can’t commit to working that hard, head outside to the Skyjump Trampoline, where you strap into a bungee harness and start hopping; once you gain enough height, do mid-air somersaults. It’s more fun in summer, when you can wear shorts, but for a five-minute thrill, it’s worth the ten bucks.
Get the lowdown on all of North Lake Tahoe’s major ski resorts.
Squaw Valley Restaurants
The biggest name at Tahoe is also the best spot for dinner anywhere around the lake. Outpost of the namesake San Francisco restaurant, Plumpjack Café ($$$$) imports urban style to the Sierra, with a sophisticated menu of seasonal cooking, all expertly prepared using top-notch ingredients by artisinal growers—no small feat in the Sierra in wintertime. Most dishes shine for their simplicity and bright flavors: expect pan reductions instead of fat-laden sauces, perfect after a day on the slopes. The wine list is remarkable for its low prices and stellar vintages. The intimate dining room’s minimalist decor, dressed-down chic, and low lighting make it the ideal place for holding hands by candlelight. If you’re into food, don’t miss Plumpjack. Reservations essential.
A floor-to-ceiling river-rock fireplace dominates the knotty-pine dining room at Graham’s ($$$–$$$$), one of the valley’s coziest restaurants. (So what if they preset the napkins inside the water glasses? You’re in the mountains, not the Marina.) The ambitious menu bills itself as southern European, with dishes like paella and osso bucco, though there are a number of Cal-American staples like crab cakes too, making it a good choice for groups with diverse tastes. Some items fall short in their execution, a result of the menu’s unnecessary complexity: to ensure a spot-on meal, order straightforward dishes. Reservations essential.
One of north Tahoe’s only sushi joints, Mamsake ($$$-$$$$) serves all the standards, plus some inventive signature rolls made without rice. A big-screen TV shows extreme-ski movies, some filmed just up the hill, making this an über-fun spot for a kick-back meal of raw fish. Alas, service can be downright bad, prices are sky-high, and you may wait a long time for a table, but if you’re craving sushi, this is the place. No reservations.
For an easy dinner, Fireside Pizza ($$) in the Village does a reliably good job, especially when you’ve hungry kids in tow. For steaks and Guinness on tap, hit the the Auld Dubliner ($$$–$$$$), a kick-back Irish pub. Alas, Balboa Cafe is no more. The Squaw branch closed this past summer, but the SF flagship remains open.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Squaw Valley Bars
There’s a major après-ski scene at Squaw. Between 3pm and 5pm, budgeteers head directly for Mamasake and order the $5 special: a spicy-tuna or salmon handroll and an ice-cold can of Bud. (Score!) The boho-fancies meet at Plumpjack, the top spot for fur-clad winos. Few people know that Graham’s restaurant also has a cozy wine bar, a great alternative when the Village is packed. After dinner, the cool cats head to Zenbu Tapas Lounge in the Olympic House, at Squaw’s base area, where live DJs spin thump-thump house, techno, and hiphop; there’s also a pretty good tapas menu till midnight.
Squaw Valley Hotels
For luxury and style, you can’t beat Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn ($$$–$$$$), Tahoe’s definitive boutique hotel. Originally built to house visiting dignitaries to the 1960 Olympics, the two-story lodge sits right next to the lifts and has a smart, sophisticated design. Rooms are decked out with sexy custom furnishings, silky fabrics, cushy beds with feather-light duvets, and top-flight bathroom amenities. Best of all, the service—solicitous and personable—is stellar, no small feat in a ski town. Not all the rooms have bathtubs, but you can soak away your ski legs in the hot tubs outside on the pool deck.
The Resort at Squaw Creek and its black-glass, Reagan-era towers look way out of place in the mountains, but this is the only true full-service resort hotel this side of Incline Village. The once-tired rooms at the 650-acre property were renovated in 2005, and the new decor is spiffy, if slightly uninspired, with heavy wooden furniture crammed too close together. Still, there’s a full complement of activities, making this a great pick for families—kids love the skating rink and lagoon-like swimming pool. There’s also a ski lift right from the hotel to the mountain. One drawback: you’ll have to drive across the valley to reach the main lodge and the village’s nightlife.
Built in 2000 as the valley’s new centerpoint, the Village at Squaw Valley ($$$$) has one-, two-, and three-bedroom condo units right near the lifts. All have full kitchens with granite counters and living rooms with gas fireplaces. The look is clean, but strictly generic, with textured drywall and Ikea-like furniture; service is lackluster. But you can’t beat the location: the village is in the middle of everything, making it a good pick for families and nightlife hounds. If Plumpjack is full, I like to stay here.
Condos at the Squaw Valley Lodge ($$$–$$$$) front directly on the mountain and, depending which building you’re in, you can ski right out the door to the lifts. There’s a fantastic gym for real athletes, as well as a good-size pool and hot tub, but the lodge has two major drawbacks: decor and noise. Because each condo is individually owned, there’s no uniformity to the furnishings; some are downright tacky. And the walls are thin, so if your upstairs neighbors traipse around in their ski boots, you’re gonna hear ‘em. For maximum quiet, book a top-floor unit or bring earplugs. Still, the location is fantastic—this is the only true ski-in, ski-out lodge at Squaw—and the service is remarkably good. For the best rates, join the lodge’s free Granite Chief Club.