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The Essential Tahoe

The Essential Tahoe

Travel
By Susan Reifer
posted: 12/24/2005

For five days last January, the deluge of snow falling on Lake Tahoe was the biggest weather story in America. CNN's Rob Marciano, caked in snow and beaming, filed frequent live reports. Huge, fat flakes fell at the rate of an inch an hour, sometimes faster. Snowdrifts grew so tall that massive state plows were rendered inadequate, and 18-wheelers had to be brought in to haul truckloads of powder off the roads. In all, 19 feet of snow fell over 14 days. "It's a 90-year storm," Marciano marveled.

Despite the national coverage, Lake Tahoe—and its 15 ski resorts and generations of ski history—remains stubbornly ill-defined and oddly mysterious to many skiers, especially those raised east of the Rockies. Perhaps that's because there isn't a single focal point, as in the Vail Valley, or a dominant gateway metropolis, as with Salt Lake City, or a flash-point ski area in its name, as with the Aspen resorts. Whatever the cause of its relative national obscurity, the Tahoe area, with its big snows, sunny skies and good-life vibe, has existed as a beloved private playground for Californians for more than 100 years. That's finally changing—for good reason. The skiing at Tahoe today is far better than it's ever been before.

The destination experience at Lake Tahoe's two biggest resorts—Heavenly and Squaw Valley—has been wholly transformed thanks to new base villages built over the past three years. Other Tahoe resorts—notably Kirkwood, Sugar Bowl, Northstar and Mt. Rose—are opening new terrain and adding lifts, lodges and condos. What hasn't changed is Tahoe's wealth of world-class skiing—and its decentralized multiresort layout. Here, then, is what every skier needs to know to tackle Tahoe.[NEXT "The Fundamentals"]The Fundamentals

Tahoe may have matured, but it's still known best for its postcard good looks: the vast, deep blue lake and thick pine forests, the monster boulders and craggy spires, the ancient, gnarled junipers jutting into the broad, spacious sky.

The region's centerpiece, of course, is Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, with Crayola-box colors, from luminous turquoise to deep-sea blue. The lake straddles the California and Nevada state lines, and is encircled by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The basin's ski resorts offer more than 23,000 skiable acres and 160 lifts, all within a 90-mile radius. Reno, Nev., and its user-friendly airport are an easy, uncongested hour's drive from the lake, although the majority of Tahoe's visitors still motor up from the Bay Area, four hours to the southwest.

Proximity to Reno also means easy access to gambling, affordable lodging and a profusion of headline entertainment rotating through casino showrooms. (One week last winter featured performances by Jay Leno, Sarah McLachlan and Ann-Margret, among others.) Up at the lake, smaller casino-hotels (in Crystal Bay and Incline Village, on the north end of the lake, and at Stateline, on the south) offer not only round-the-clock gaming but also inexpensive hotel rooms—a singular combo in the ski world. Skiing, however, is what Tahoe is all about. "What's so cool is that each mountain has something different to offer," says Sheila Greeno, who has lived in Tahoe for 17 years. "They all have their own personality. The variety is great."

Whatever your taste, the single most important key to understanding and enjoying Tahoe is that life here—both for visitors and for residents—is divided into two separate worlds: South Shore and North Shore. (Where you stay is crucial, because driving from one end of the lake to the other takes at least an hour.) Life on the South Shore is fast-paced and touristy, with casinos, nightlife and an urban feel. If you're looking to gamble, party and take in a show, head south. If you want a slower pace, go north. North Shore is about cabins in the pines, lake views and an outdoorsy feel. Either way, Tahoe can deliver anything you might want in a skvacation. [NEXT "South Shore"]South Shore

South Shore's epicenter, made up of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and adjacent Stateline, Nev., is a six-mile stretch of high-rise casinos, low-rise motels, fortune tellers and T-shirt shops, along with the typical trimmings of American strip development. Known as South Lake, this community of 34,000 residents is not Tahoe's greenest area, but it does deliver what many vacationers want: convenience, casinos, budget prices and a wide array of entertainment options—kind of a miniature old-style Las Vegas in the mountains.

But dedicated skiers shouldn't automatically point their rental cars north. The South Lake experience has been vastly improved by the new Heavenly Village and its cushy Marriott condo-hotels, trendy stores, outdoor plaza and excellent new restaurants. Across Tahoe Boulevard from the base village, it's still the 1970s—ideal if you're craving alpaca souvenirs, street art or a Mile-High Burger at Carrows. For lake views, you must still ascend, either in the casino towers or on a chairlift. South Shore skiing, however, is no gamble. Heavenly, Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe all deliver the goods.

Heavenly Mountain ResortHeavenly rises out of the middle of the South Lake casino and hotel district, and is Tahoe's largest resort by a sizeable measure. Half of its 4,800 acres are in Nevada, half in California, and most of that terrain offers lake views. Heavenly (now in its 50th year of existence and fourth year under Vail Resorts management) draws the highest percentage of tourists—and the lowest of locals—of any Tahoe resort.

Its unofficial nickname is Big Blue, both because the backdrop to virtually every turn is Lake Tahoe's vast expanse and because of its profusion of broad, rolling, intermediate runs. But it also has moguls as big as Cooper Minis, a hidden cache of steeps and Tahoe's most innovative rails. Its slopes are overwhelmingly scenic, flanked by forests of giant pines and firs, some ancient and gnarled, others jabbing 90 feet into the clear blue Tahoe sky. Heavenly's best-kept secret is that these trees are ideal for skiing. "Many locals ski here all day without skiing on-piste," confides one longtime resident. "It's like there are two separate worlds here, on totally separate playing fields."

The Scoop Heavenly is an oddly shaped mountain, with a layout many find confusing. Most baffling is that its front face—the wedge of land beneath its new gondola—is not in-bounds terrain. Skiers who ride the gondola up in the morning must ride it down at the end of the day (or take a shuttle back from the old California base area).

Also puzzling for first-timers is that the gondola doesn't end at the top of the mountain, but rather at the bottom of a basin, which skiers must clomp across to reach the Tamarack lift, which rises to the summit. From there they can ski on the California or the Nevada side. Day skiers may prefer to start at one of three other base areas, where parking is slopeside and free. [NEXT "Kirkwood and Sierra"]Kirkwood

The yang to Heavenly's yin, Kirkwood is the most isolated of all Tahoe's resorts—an island of a ski area surrounded by wilderness. Located in a stunning, horseshoe-shaped valley crowned by a cirque of rocky thumbs and spires, it offers 2,300 acres, modest on-mountain facilities and a cozy community of upscale slopeside condos and homes (over half of which are less than five years old). The resort is located one hour south by car from South Lake, yet draws more locals than Heavenly, both because of its big snowfalls (500 inches annually) and its abundant expert terrain. While known in most circles as a hardcore mountain—a place where people camp in their cars during powder cycles and catch big air off big cliffs—Kirkwood is known in others (particularly Silicon Valley and the Bay Area) as the best place to find uncrowded family skiing while being embraced by the quiet beauty of the wilderness.

The Scoop Kirkwood's recent growth has focused on residential development and activities. This is a place for people who want to ski and relax in a slow-paced environment—not spa, party or shop. Only two of its 13 lifts are high speed. The "village" is really two buildings facing a central plaza. Resort amenities fulfill the one-of-each-necessity niche, including a needed new daylodge. Nightlife means lingering over dinner at the historic Kirkwood Inn or playing cards with friends.

Sierra-at-Tahoe

An easy 12-mile drive southwest from South Lake's center, Sierra is a classic, old-style California day area. Plenty of Tahoe skiers don't even know it exists, yet Sierra is a gem—particularly during a storm, when its forested slopes offer protection from the winds and whiteouts that plague other Tahoe resorts. On sunny days, the mountaintop view of Lake Tahoe is distant but lovely. Sierra's 2,000 skiable acres and 11 ski lifts (including two express quads) cater to intermediates of all energy levels, but the mountain hides enough terrain to keep experts entertained, particularly during big snow.

The ScoopSierra keeps its customers happy with perks and service. Among other things, this translates to fresh, affordable food, including the best lunch among South Shore resorts. Sierra is also South Shore's best bargain, with deals including $39 lift tickets. This translates to crowds on weekends and holidays, so arrive early and get over to the Backside or West Bowl before the slopes clog up.[NEXT "North Shore"]North Shore

The North Shore has no single resort center. Small communities hug the shoreline. Homes and businesses nestle among tall pines. In Truckee and Tahoe City, Squaw Valley and Incline Village, Kings Beach and Crystal Bay, the experience is low-key and laid-back. Except in Truckee, there are few retail chains, which is how the locals like it.

North Shore skiers have 11 ski areas to choose from, but unless you book into Northstar or the new Village at Squaw, a trip to the North Shore means you'll be using your car. Tahoe City (a misnomer; population: 1,700) is on the lake, a short drive from several ski resorts, and has the area's largest concentration of restaurants and shops. Kings Beach is all about little cabins and lakefront motels. Crystal Bay, also on the lake, features small casinos with faded, glamorous histories (legend has it that Marilyn Monroe and JFK rendezvoused here). Incline Village is one of America's most desirable tax havens, thus home to many Silicon Valley multi-millionaires. It's more residential than tourist-oriented, but the Hyatt Resort is Tahoe's finest lakefront full-service hotel.

Squaw Valley, Truckee and Northstar are all off the lake, to the north. Squaw is a resort destination unto itself. Northstar is working to become one. Truckee is a historic railroad town with excellent dining and charming Victorian-era buildings in its downtown core. Truckee—which is where many of Tahoe's working locals live—is adjacent to the interstate and booming with residential development outside its downtown hub.

Squaw Valley USA

Squaw Valley USA, host of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, birthplace of modern American extreme skiing and Tahoe's second largest resort, has the region's brawniest reputation—and deserves it. With 4,000 acres, a 2,850-foot vertical rise, five peaks, 34 lifts and loads of expert terrain that has been featured in ski movies since filmmakers started hauling cameras uphill, it's one of North America's premier ski mountains. It attracts the same sort of fanatics as Jackson Hole, Whistler and Snowbird. But it's also popular with Bay Area weekenders and destination visitors: Peak days have brought as many as 17,000 skiers and boarders to Squaw's slopes.

Located at the head of a box canyon, six miles north of the lake—halfway between Tahoe City and Truckee—Squaw is a world unto itself. Until recently that world includedness.

The Scoop Kirkwood's recent growth has focused on residential development and activities. This is a place for people who want to ski and relax in a slow-paced environment—not spa, party or shop. Only two of its 13 lifts are high speed. The "village" is really two buildings facing a central plaza. Resort amenities fulfill the one-of-each-necessity niche, including a needed new daylodge. Nightlife means lingering over dinner at the historic Kirkwood Inn or playing cards with friends.

Sierra-at-Tahoe

An easy 12-mile drive southwest from South Lake's center, Sierra is a classic, old-style California day area. Plenty of Tahoe skiers don't even know it exists, yet Sierra is a gem—particularly during a storm, when its forested slopes offer protection from the winds and whiteouts that plague other Tahoe resorts. On sunny days, the mountaintop view of Lake Tahoe is distant but lovely. Sierra's 2,000 skiable acres and 11 ski lifts (including two express quads) cater to intermediates of all energy levels, but the mountain hides enough terrain to keep experts entertained, particularly during big snow.

The ScoopSierra keeps its customers happy with perks and service. Among other things, this translates to fresh, affordable food, including the best lunch among South Shore resorts. Sierra is also South Shore's best bargain, with deals including $39 lift tickets. This translates to crowds on weekends and holidays, so arrive early and get over to the Backside or West Bowl before the slopes clog up.[NEXT "North Shore"]North Shore

The North Shore has no single resort center. Small communities hug the shoreline. Homes and businesses nestle among tall pines. In Truckee and Tahoe City, Squaw Valley and Incline Village, Kings Beach and Crystal Bay, the experience is low-key and laid-back. Except in Truckee, there are few retail chains, which is how the locals like it.

North Shore skiers have 11 ski areas to choose from, but unless you book into Northstar or the new Village at Squaw, a trip to the North Shore means you'll be using your car. Tahoe City (a misnomer; population: 1,700) is on the lake, a short drive from several ski resorts, and has the area's largest concentration of restaurants and shops. Kings Beach is all about little cabins and lakefront motels. Crystal Bay, also on the lake, features small casinos with faded, glamorous histories (legend has it that Marilyn Monroe and JFK rendezvoused here). Incline Village is one of America's most desirable tax havens, thus home to many Silicon Valley multi-millionaires. It's more residential than tourist-oriented, but the Hyatt Resort is Tahoe's finest lakefront full-service hotel.

Squaw Valley, Truckee and Northstar are all off the lake, to the north. Squaw is a resort destination unto itself. Northstar is working to become one. Truckee is a historic railroad town with excellent dining and charming Victorian-era buildings in its downtown core. Truckee—which is where many of Tahoe's working locals live—is adjacent to the interstate and booming with residential development outside its downtown hub.

Squaw Valley USA

Squaw Valley USA, host of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, birthplace of modern American extreme skiing and Tahoe's second largest resort, has the region's brawniest reputation—and deserves it. With 4,000 acres, a 2,850-foot vertical rise, five peaks, 34 lifts and loads of expert terrain that has been featured in ski movies since filmmakers started hauling cameras uphill, it's one of North America's premier ski mountains. It attracts the same sort of fanatics as Jackson Hole, Whistler and Snowbird. But it's also popular with Bay Area weekenders and destination visitors: Peak days have brought as many as 17,000 skiers and boarders to Squaw's slopes.

Located at the head of a box canyon, six miles north of the lake—halfway between Tahoe City and Truckee—Squaw is a world unto itself. Until recently that world included superior skiing, but also an outdated, disjointed and less-than-accommodating base area. New restaurants, bars, shops and well-appointed accommodations have brought the Squaw experience up to elite-destination standards. Now it's easy to drive into the valley, park the car and forget about it for three days.

The ScoopSquaw can be busy, but it has a great lift system, so it's always possible to avoid lines. Hint: Move in the opposite direction from the passholders, who tend to start at KT-22 and work their way up the mountain to skier's left. To ski to the beat of your own drummer, start at the Funitel or Squaw One (and not the tram, which gets big lineups) then go directly to Granite Chief or Shirley Lake and work your way back. Lunch is best in the new Village at Squaw. This can be a windy mountain, so dress accordingly.[NEXT "Alpine Meadows and Northstar"]

Alpine Meadows

Alpine is the laid-back Alta to Squaw's fast-twitch Snowbird. And like the two Little Cottonwood legends, Alpine and Squaw operate side by side but are worlds apart. Halfway between Tahoe City and Truckee, one mountainside nearer the lake than Squaw, Alpine Meadows is a 2,100-acre day area that's quiet, beautiful and unpretentious—yet delivers big-time skiing. It's also among the loveliest of the Tahoe ski mountains, with a crown of rocky spines and spires and 1,000-year-old fir trees.

Families enjoy Alpine because everyone from low intermediates to experts can ride the same lift, ski appropriate terrain and join up at the bottom. Advanced intermediates like it because it's the rare mountain that helps them become better skiers without intimidating them. Experts will find weeks of great skiing hidden in Alpine's forests and bowls—but a lot of it requires hiking. "After almost 20 years here," says veteran patroller and assistant avalanche forecaster Gene Urie, "I'm still finding things I haven't skied."

The Scoop Alpine is not a destination resort—you'll have to sleep elsewhere—but it's only 10 minutes from Tahoe City and five from Squaw. Limited private-home rentals are available at the foot of Alpine Meadows. Additional lodging can be found at nearby River Ranch. It's busy on a powder day, but otherwise Alpine is pleasantly placid.

Northstar-at-Tahoe

Family-focused Northstar is the North Shore's second most popular resort, right behind Squaw. But the two mountains couldn't be more different. Northstar's 2,420 mainly mild acres are weather-protected, nestling in the pines and firs that blanket a rounded, volcanic cindercone. When it's snowing and blowing, Northstar's long, sheltered boulevards are the North Shore's best place to ski.

Like its South Shore sister resort, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Northstar woos its customers with good service, excellent food, great deals and frequent-skier rewards. Unlike Sierra, Northstar is anything but old school. Built in the early 1970s primarily as an amenity for buyers of a sprawling real-estate development on a former tree farm, Northstar has always had an ersatz pedestrian village with shops, restaurants and several hundred condos at its base. Now the village is being updated and expanded in a massive development that should reinvigorate the village core, add a private club on the summit and a new midmountain hotel.

The Scoop Northstar is shaped like a funnel. The narrow end connects the village (where skiers start and end their day) to Big Springs, 470 feet higher, where the terrain opens up and the real skiing begins. The addition of the Village Express chair last season has alleviated chronic traffic jams at the gondola to Big Springs, but wise skiers still arrive early to beat the rush. While Northstar's seven express lifts mean lots of skiing with little waiting, other Northstar capacity issues have yet to be resolved. Expect to stand in lines for a seat at lunch, for example, particularly when the resort is socked in. [NEXT "Sugar Bowl and Mt. Rose"]

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