The Sierra ski resorts are open at last. It’s time to plan a ski trip. If you haven’t been in a while, here’s a primer to help you tell one north Tahoe resort from the next. I much prefer the diversity of terrain in the north, but if you’re planning a visit to the south shore, check out my guide to skiing near South Lake Tahoe.
Ski midweek, if you can. Weekend crowds can get unbearable. If you must come on Saturday or Sunday, head to Homewood or Alpine Meadows. Check the weather before you set out. If it’s going to snow, note the snow level: warm storms mean higher snow levels, which can mean rain at the base areas of some resorts. When elevation matters, choose Squaw Valley or Mt Rose, or possibly Alpine Meadows.
Squaw Valley USA is North Tahoe’s mega resort, the most famous in California, and the top pick for kick-ass terrain. Spanning six peaks and a whopping 4300 acres, Squaw is gigantic – and incredibly diverse. Beginners do well here: unlike at other resorts, the bunny slopes are at mid-mountain, not the bottom, so first timers can get the killer lake views normally reserved experts while schussing down gentle, wide-open bowls. Intermediates dig the mellow groomers below Snow King Peak, but because of the hill’s aspect, the snow here tends to get wet fast; unless it’s cold, head to the north-facing Shirley Lake area. There’s night-skiing too, down the three-mile-long Mountain Run, route of the men’s Olympic downhill race. But Squaw’s big draw is its advanced and expert terrain. This is where Warren Miller shot many of his extreme-ski movies – to star in your own daredevil film, head for the Palisades, KT-22, or the gates behind Broken Arrrow. Alas, all this celebrity attracts a sometimes-ill-mannered crowd off adrenaline junkies and poseurs, earning Squaw the nickname ‘Squawllywood,’ but it’s worth braving the showoffs to ski this legendary resort. If you’re a style maven, you’ll dig Squaw’s base area, which has Tahoe’s highest concentration of chic boutiques and happening bars and restaurants. Wear a fur-trimmed parka and blend right in. Ladies: Squaw has introduced women-only ski clinics; call the resort for details.
The stats: 100 trails on 4,300 acres, rated 25% beginner, 45% intermediate, 30% advanced. Longest run 3 mi, base 6,200ft, summit 9,050ft. Lifts: 31, including a funitel, cable car, 7 high-speed chairs, and 18 fixed-grip chairs.
Alpine Meadows has a down-to-earth vibe, friendly service, and awesome terrain, including an open boundary to the surrounding backcountry (weather permitting). The locals’ favorite mountain, it’s also the unofficial telemarking hub of the Sierra Nevada. Best of all, there’s no glitz: you won’t see any fur, and you’ll likely spot somebody skiing in Levi’s, just like in the 1970s. And because it’s part of the Lake Tahoe watershed, there are no fancy-pants real-estate developments at the base area, just a lodge. How refreshing. On the slopes, expect wide-open bowls – some groomed, some not. If you’re an expert, you’ll find plenty of steeps and glades to keep your heart racing. When it’s time to kick back, head for the Ice Bar, a tiny order-at-the-window snack bar with outdoor seating in the snow. Very cool. If the weather’s not cooperating, head to the mid-mountain Chalet instead, order a hot sake, and warm your toes by the fireplace. Tip: Bring your camera to the top of the Lakeview chair and pose for pics with Alpine’s famous, super-cute ski-patrol pooches. Alpine has a comparatively small parking area; when the lot fills up, they turn cars away, which means that on a busy Saturday, there’s more acreage per skier here than anywhere else at Tahoe. Alpine also stays open longer than other local resorts, usually till Memorial Day, but sometimes until the 4th of July.
The stats: 100 trails on 2,000 acres, rated 25% beginner, 40% intermediate, 35% advanced. Longest run 2-1/2 mi, base 6,835ft, summit 8,637ft. Lifts: 12, including 2 high-speed chairs.
Homewood has the most jaw-droppingly stunning lake views of any Tahoe resort: if you wanted to, you could ski down the face of the mountain, across the road, and straight into Lake Tahoe. And because it lies just east of the Sierra Crest and is surrounded by dense pine forests, Homewood is the best-protected area in a storm. When other resorts’ chair lifts are on wind hold, the bull wheels keep turning at Homewood—and the snow falls nearly vertically. The amenities are decidedly old-school, with only one high-speed lift, but new owners are making big changes. For now, hardly anyone comes here, ticket prices are cheap enough for a young family to learn to ski, and—best of all—several days after a storm, you can still find untracked powder. For the most atmosphere, head to Hobbit Land, where intermediates can wind down narrow, tree-lined trails, while experts can veer off piste for some serious glade skiing. The food ain’t great (bring your own lunch) and the crowd can sometimes feel a little red-necky (wear blinders), but for my money Homewood is one of the best deals at Tahoe. Note: The portion of the mountain that’s visible from the road sometimes has no snow on it, but fear not: most of the mountain lies up high out of view. If you’re worried, call ahead.
The stats: 56 trails on 1,260 acres, rated 15% beginner, 50% intermediate, and 35% advanced. Longest run 2 mi, base elevation 6,230ft, summit 7,880ft. Lifts: 1 high-speed detachable quad, 3 chairs, 4 surface lifts.
Sugarbowl is the closest to the Bay Area, making it the top choice for daytrippers. Because it’s on the west side of the Sierra Crest, it gets hammered with snow, over 500 inches a year! But this blessing is also a curse: when it’s storming, the resort has no land features protecting it from the wind, causing white-out conditions. (Remember, this is essentially where the Donner Party got trapped.) But when the weather is clear, Sugarbowl is glorious, with three high peaks connected by a series of high-speed lifts. This is Tahoe’s original resort, dating back to the 1930s, and has a long tradition of gentility, so it’s great for families and beginners. For speedsters, there aren’t many long cruiser runs, but there are some ultra-challenging chutes and gullies: the terrain resembles that of Squaw Valley, but on a smaller scale. Sugarbowl is currently undergoing a boom, with new real estate going up left and right. Compared with the charming vintage-1940s Village Lodge at the old base area, with its modest mid-century Alpine architecture, the new Mt Judah main lodge looks prefab and ugly; for the most atmosphere, stick to the old side. If you’re making it a daytrip, plan three hours with no traffic from SF, versus three-and-a-half to other area resorts. There’s simple lodging at the village.
The stats: 84 trails on 1,500 acres, rated 17% beginner, 45% intermediate, 38% advanced. Longest run 3 mi, base 6,883ft, summit 8,383ft. Lifts: 12 chairs, including 4 high-speed quads.
Northstar-at-Tahoe is an intermediate skier’s dream resort, with acres of groomed trails and an extensive series of interconnected blue runs to explore. Advanced skiers will find plenty of steeps at Lookout Mountain, the resort’s newest area. The terrain looks a lot like Colorado, with thick stands of trees perfect for glade skiing. And after Homewood, Northstar is the best-protected resort in a storm. Alas, there are two major drawbacks to Northstar. Real-estate development is booming here unlike anywhere else at Tahoe, upping the chic factor of the resort, especially with the new Village and much-touted Ritz-Carlton that’s under construction (slated to open 2009). And all this growth means more and more people will pack the already-overcrowded slopes. Do not ski here on a weekend; with so many people jammed onto the hill, it’s simply not safe. But if you can time your trip for midweek, Northstar is a great destination resort for families, with extensive lodging options, from condos to hotel rooms, and alternative activities like ice skating and snowmobiling.
The stats: 72 trails on 2,420 acres, rated 25% beginner, 50% intermediate, 25% advanced. Longest run 2.9 mi, base 6,400ft, summit 8,600ft. Lifts: 17, including a gondola and 5 high-speed chairs.
Diamond Peak was built as an amenity for the residents of Incline Village, Nevada. Though it’s small, it’s one of the best places at Tahoe to learn to ski and offers terrific family packages that help keep costs way down. Most trails here skew toward lower- and mid-intermediate, but there are some surprisingly steep runs too. Advanced skiers, however, may grow bored after a half day on the small mountain. The southwesterly aspect of the hill means gorgeous lake views and lots of warm sun, but also causes the snow to melt sooner than at other resorts so the season here is short. If you’re staying in Incline and are new to skiing and riding, this is a perfect place. Otherwise head to Mt. Rose.
The stats: 29 trails on 655 acres, rated 18% beginniner, 46% intermediate, 36% advanced. Longest run 2.5 mi, base 6,700ft, summit 8,540ft. Lifts: 6, including 2 high-speed quads.
Mt. Rose has the highest base elevation of any Tahoe resort, which means it has north Lake Tahoe’s driest snow. (But this extreme height also means that there’s little protection from the wind during a storm, so stay away unless it’s sunny.) The hill’s aspect lets you follow the sun across the mountain all day, a nice plus on a cold day. There are two distinct areas of the mountain, with lots of terrain for intermediates, but the real prize at Mt. Rose are the new Chutes, a 200-acre section of expert-only, nearly vertical terrain that opened in the 2004-05 season, making Rose the new top spot for extreme steeps this side of Squaw. Because it’s squarely in Nevada, high above the northeast corner of Lake Tahoe, Mt. Rose is the nearest resort to Reno, but the furthest from the Bay Area, making it convenient only if you’re staying in Incline Village or if the weather at lower elevations is too warm.
The stats: 61 trails on 1,200 acres, rated 20% beginner, 30% intermediate, 40% advanced, 10% expert. Longest run 2.5 mi, base 8,260ft, summit 9,700ft. Lifts: 6, including 2 high-speed six packs.
Related: South Shore Ski Resorts