My pulse quickens as I exit Gate 5 and traverse the ridge above Huckleberry Canyon, 320 acres of steep and deep terrain just beyond the ropes at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Until recently, only a few ski patrollers and brave locals ventured into this former out-of-bounds area. There was always avalanche danger—not to mention the overhanging cornices and narrow rock chutes. Now, following years
of planning, Huckleberry is going public. The U.S. Forest Service has incorporated it into Sierra-at-Tahoe’s boundaries, allowing the resort to do avalanche control and make the new terrain a whole lot safer. Huckleberry is a headlining addition—it’s Sierra’s first expansion ever—for a low-key area that gets overshadowed by South Shore behemoth Heavenly and extreme-skiing capital Kirkwood. “Huckleberry is an amazing area, a locals’ secret if you will,” says general manager John Rice. “Opening it up adds a whole new dimension to skiing here.”
Bringing Huckleberry into Sierra’s boundary fulfills the vision of the area’s legendary founder, Vern Sprock. He opened Sierra Ski Ranch in 1946 on nearby Echo Summit and moved the area to its present location in 1968. Sprock had big plans. He hoped to double Sierra’s size, build hotels, put a chairlift in Huckleberry Canyon and turn the area into a destination resort. But the Forest Service rejected the plan following a lengthy battle, and a dejected Sprock sold the mountain to Booth Creek Holdings in 1993.
In the years since, Sierra has worked hard to become the South Shore’s value option thanks to its bargain season passes and three-day ticket deals. But with no lodgings or high-end retail, Sierra is a blue-collar ski area where Sorrels outnumber Uggs. Rice, at the helm since 1993, personifies Sierra’s laid-back philosophy. He can sometimes be found strumming his guitar for guests on the Tiki Bar’s deck at day’s end.
With 480 annual inches of snow, Sierra is known as the epicenter of South Shore treeskiing. Call it the Steamboat of Lake Tahoe. On powder days, skiers float down the fall line in Jack’s Bowl and
Avalanche Bowl. Most of the tree runs are unmarked and not even listed on the trail map, so follow the locals. If it’s snowing hard, stay on the frontside and do laps beneath the Grandview Express,
hitting Castle and Preacher’s Passion and working the trees in between. Sierra’s well-spaced glades, combined with its geography, offer another benefit: wind protection. When high gusts buffet Lake Tahoe and shut down lifts at other resorts, Grandview Express is often still open.
On bright blue days when there’s no fresh snow, locals head for West Bowl. Morning sun softens this side of the mountain first, making for ideal conditions on Powderhorn, Horsetail and Clipper. For a fast morning start, park in the A Lot and ski down to West Bowl Express. You can ski back to your car at day’s end and join the tailgate party that takes over the lot.
Hoping to maintain Sierra’s reputation for value in rough economic times, Rice and Booth Creek (which also operates Northstar-at-Tahoe on the North Shore) have overhauled Sierra’s restaurants.Grandview Lodge has been remodeled and converted into 360° Smokehouse, where the portions of barbecue—pulled pork, chicken drumsticks, brisket and ribs—are as big as the views of Desolation Wilderness. Plus, the rooftop deck above the smokehouse is the best spot for scouting Huckleberry Canyon.
Back on the ridge above the canyon,I feel a mix of excitement and anxiety. The northeast-facing cirque is rated double-black-diamond. Even so, not every route through Huckleberry requires nerves of steel. Any advanced skier willing to hike 15 minutes can handle Golf Course. And this is where I find myself on a blue-sky morning in March, accompanied by a patroller named Smitty. “Ready for some spring corn?” he asks.
We drop into Golf Course, which descends 1,200 feet over a series of benches through nicely spaced trees. Sierra added a cat track at the bottom that leads back to the resort, and the ski school is offering $49 backcountry lessons in Huckleberry to help newcomers navigate the terrain. South Shore skiers used to go to Kirkwood or Heavenly’s Mott Canyon to get this type of terrain. No longer. Somewhere, Vern Sprock is smiling.