Tahoe Alpine Skiing

Playground of the Western World
By Peter Oliver
  |  Gorp.com
A trackless bowl at Alpine Meadows.
What skiers crave

As someone who grew up skiing in the East, I was always impressed from afar by Sierra Nevada skiing, and on two fronts. One, the snowfall was epic. In the Sierra, snow depths were measured in feet, because who cared about anything so insignificant as mere inches? Two, the skiing was as rugged as any skiing in America. Sierra skiing was about hucking from cliffs into bottomless beds of powder, about crashing through steep, rocky chutes, and about ripping big arcs on big, fat sticks. Squaw Valley, after all, was where extreme skiing, American-style, was born.

Like any preconception, my image of Sierra skiing proved to be part truth, part fiction. On the north shore of Lake Tahoe, at places like Squaw, Alpine Meadows, and Sugar Bowl, the sort of big-mountain, big-snow skiing I envisioned was—and is—a reality. And to the south of the lake, the rugged playground of Kirkwood also fits the big-mountain, big-snow bill.

Yet in between is easygoing Northstar, where the trail skiing isn't much different than what I learned to love in the East. And on the south shore of the lake, the 4,800-acre complex of Heavenly is almost entirely intermediate terrain. In other words, to ski around Tahoe, you don't need to be the kind of steep-skiing, powder-pigging master blaster that I once imagined you had to be.

With one of the highest concentrations of ski areas in the country—more than a dozen in the general Lake Tahoe area—this is the land of anything-goes. There really is something for everyone here, from a tiny, family-oriented place like Donner Ski Ranch to a big, brawling, sprawling resort like Squaw Valley. I like Tahoe's variety and I also like the snow; although the 1999/2000 season started slowly, the last few seasons have been epic even by epic Sierra standards. Last year, for example, Kirkwood recorded more than sixty feet of snow.

After several visits to the Tahoe area over the years, however, I've also discovered a couple of shortcomings. One is just that—a shortcoming. While I'd call some of the skiing“big”—as in requiring big cajones to even consider trying it—most runs are generally short. Vertical rises in the Tahoe area are comparable to those in the East—not small-potatoes, certainly, but still a level below what you typically find in the Rockies or the Alps.

Two, lodging by and large falls below the standard of resorts elsewhere in the country. There are a few posh resorts—the Resort at Squaw Creek and the Mountain Club at Kirkwood, for example—and there are the high-rise casino hotels on the south side of the lake if that's what you're into. Gambling, after all—not skiing—is what lures the big tourist bucks to the Tahoe area. But the lodging mix leans heavily toward budget motels, especially on the south side of the lake. For my ski-vacation dollar, I'm looking for something a little more soulful than that.

Tahoe's ski resorts sort easily into two categories. On the one hand there are huge ski playgrounds like Squaw and Heavenly—true destination resorts that draw powder-chasers from all over the globe. And then on the other hand there are smaller hills like Boreal or Sugar Bowl, which have carved out very different niches for themselves and serve them very well. I've divided this round-up into two parts—the bigs and the smalls.

One note of caution as you read the stats for each resort: They are imprecise, sometimes ludicrously so. Can it really be true, for example, that Squaw Valley has no expert terrain? For terrain and snowfall figures, I've provided the numbers that each resort provides. Make of them what you will, but don't expect the precision and verity of a legal document.

About the Author: Peter Oliver has been getting it right about skiing for many years, and is a contributing editor of Skiing magazine. The author of several books, he's currently at work on an Outside magazine guidebook to the world's best ski destinations. He lives down the road a piece from storied Mad River Glen, in Vermont.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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