“You’re coming to town and you’re going to Northstar?” my Tahoe friends cough in disbelief. To them—all hard-skiing locals—Northstar-at-Tahoe’s steadily surging popularity (No. 3 for skier visits in all of Tahoe) is hard to comprehend. It has no signature steeps, a la Squaw Valley or Kirkwood. It lacks the big, in-your-face views of Heavenly, offering glimpses of Lake Tahoe from only one sliver of its summit. It has none of the rugged topographical drama so signature to the basin. It’s the un-Tahoe, and my friends want no part of it—at least not on skis. “We’ll meet you in Northstar’s village for dinner,” several of them say, “but if you want to ski together, then you’ll have to come to Squaw.” See photos of Northstar.
On the face of it, Tahoe seems easy enough to understand: beautiful lake, sunny skies, biblical deluges of snow. And because this expansive mountain playground is on the California/Nevada border, there is gambling aplenty and all the nighttime sass and kitsch that goes with it. And did we mention the astonishingly lovely lake?
But to people who call Tahoe home, or who weekend there religiously, or who visit annually, this description is mere caricature. The real Tahoe is far richer and quirkier, more individualistic and harder to know. It possesses an intrinsic, hard-to-define quality that makes it much more than the sum of its parts. It hooks skiers and doesn’t let them go. At each of its signature mountains—Squaw, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Sugar Bowl, Alpine Meadows, Homewood and Mt. Rose—Tahoe’s skiing touches the soul.
And then there’s Northstar.
So why am I here today, rocketing down long, broad boulevards at the heels of longtime Tahoe locals Tom and Carla Beebe? And why is this well-groomed cruiser’s paradise Tahoe’s third most popular resort? And why is the steel frame of a giant Ritz-Carlton— what will be, in fall of 2009, the only full-service hotel of its caliber anywhere in California skidom—rising right here on the slopes of a resort that many people outside Northern California have never heard of? Here, at a mountain with terrain that many locals deride and—perhaps most astounding—in a location without views of Lake Tahoe itself?
The answers, I soon discover, have as much to do with Northstar itself as they do with its surroundings—the wonderful, strange, rewarding creature called Tahoe.
Northstar itself—a thickly forested cinder cone turned tree farm turned master-planned ski and summer resort—is roomy and flawless, as current in its amenities as any mountain resort you’ll find, and intently devoted to the cheerful delivery of innovative, accommodating service. What that means on this particular Saturday morning is that management has opened the 2,904-acre mountain early for members of its various locker rooms and private clubs. Tom and Carla, members of the “Platinum Locker Room,” meet me in Northstar’s newly rebuilt village (formerly something out of the ’70s, now an appealing updated take on Beaver Creek) and we head up the gondola for a tour.
Northstar is located near Lake Tahoe’s north shore, halfway between the historic town of Truckee, Calif., and the lakefront town of Kings Beach (about 10 minutes by car from each). Offering views primarily of a scenic alpine basin called the Martis Valley, the resort is situated entirely below tree line, well-protected from the winds that often hammer the rest of the Sierra crest. When it’s snowing and blowing, Northstar’s long boulevards are the north shore’s best place to ski. Otherwise, it has long been considered “a family place.”
“Northstar? I’m not sure I’m gonna like it,” Carla recalls thinking five years ago when Tom suggested they try a season here. Her reaction is common among hardcore Tahoe locals, who cheerfully frequent Northstar’s restaurants and free open-air ice rink but have long disdained its slopes, often without firsthand experience. But the Beebes decided to take a chance—and now they’re hooked.
They start their ski days in a convenient free satellite parking lot at the foot of Northstar Drive, where they have yet to wait more than two minutes from the time they lock their car to the time they step onto the complimentary shuttle. The bus drives 1.3 miles uphill, past roads accessing the 35-year-old development’s original rec center, fire hall, 300 homes and 1,150 condos. The Beebes step out onto the curb of the new village, which was grafted to the original village in an inviting semicircle of terraced levels. The distance from the bus stop to the Platinum Locker Room is only steps. There, a concierge serves morning espresso (with continental breakfast) and afternoon wine (with appetizers). Daily ski tuning is included in membership, and the enormous lockers with equipment dryers would make any pro athlete envious.
Despite appreciating this level of service, Carla and Tom Beebe are hardly Mel and Don Trump. The two (he’s a woodworker; she’s his business manager) are fit, down-to-earth ski and cycling fanatics. They work hard but organize their days around mountain sports. They say a warm hello to everyone they know—and they seem to know most everyone they see. Residents of nearby Truckee, they have spent more than 30 winters with local season passes dangling around their necks—including 20 years as devoted pass holders at the regional king of cool, Squaw Valley USA. In other words, they may be circling 50, but these two can ski. And today, with the mountain not yet open to the public, there’s little need to hold back.
The morning sunlight is bright and glancing, rendering everything crystal sharp. The air atop Mt. Pluto—some 2,500 feet above the Village—is shockingly cold. I follow Tom and Carla down broad, pine-flanked ribbons of perfect corduroy at thrilling, unfettered speeds. Logger’s Loops unfurls beneath us, rolling and banked. Then Iron Horse, a wide, wavy avenue nearly a mile long. Next is Lookout Mountain’s Prosser, which rides like a high-tech roller coaster, buttery smooth as it drops its passengers into weightlessness then bends them with G-forces. Then the Promised Land, where powder day magic happens amidst big trees. Everywhere we go the well-groomed mountain feels more like a place I know intimately than one I rarely ski, as though my skis are engineered to sync intuitively with each pitch and roll, and all I have to do is ride the flow and unlock the speed. We ski nonstop run after nonstop run like this, hopping on high-speed lifts to zoom back up to the top. I’d be lying if I said it was a deeply soulful experience, but it is pure fun.
“I’m not looking for absolute excitement here,” Tom says, acknowledging that Northstar is not one of Tahoe’s spine-tingling mountains full of stirring landscapes and expert thrills. “I’m just looking for good, quality skiing.” And in a region filled with great skiers who churn up snow as soon as it falls, Tom says he’s also on the hunt for more powder skiing with less of a crowd—which he and Carla have found in abundance in Northstar’s off-piste woods. “The powder skiing here is fabulous,” Carla says. Tom just smiles and nods. It’s only when they show me where they go on powder days, slipping through hidden openings into roomy glades, that I begin to get a sense of Northstar’s secreted slice of Tahoe soul.
In 1972, when Northstar-at-Tahoe first opened to the public, its then-tiny ski area was an amenity of its master-planned community, rather than its centerpiece. In those days, the idea of a self-contained recreational community de-emphasizing the car was cutting-edge. Northstar won awards for its visionary design, which was emulated at other recreational real estate developments of the era. The community—designed from the beginning to be a community, to foster connections among its users and to provide them with quality shared time—also featured a golf course, single-family homes and condos nestled amidst pines, a free bus system and a compact village center with a couple of restaurants and shops. The rest of the Tahoe basin offered plenty of jaw-dropping vistas and Wild West flavor; Northstar was about having a good life in a convenient, inclusive, low-stress environment.
Back then, Northstar’s ski terrain consisted only of a shallow basin on the very front side of the mountain, while Squaw was essentially the same dramatic size it is today. “We had to be innovative to be competitive,” says Julie Maurer, who started at Northstar as a part-time courtesy guide and public relations assistant in 1982, when it was owned by Louisiana Pacific, and is still on board today as the VP of marketing for its current parent company, Booth Creek. “Customer service and quality have always been paramount, across the board, no matter what it is we’re delivering.”
As a result, the Northstar of today features cushioned rattan conversation nooks throughout its village and carefully leveled steps up to the lifts, while adjacent resorts offer scuffed plastic chairs and slippery slopes. Food on Northstar’s roomy mountaintop sundecks includes rotisserie turkey legs and smoked ham steaks so large that a $12 plateful of either could easily feed two. Lessons for capable skiers and boarders (Level 6 and above) are free. The Mommy, Daddy and Me program shows parents how to have a pleasant experience getting their wee ones on skis—also for free. Litter is baited with $75 resort cash cards to encourage employees to pick it up. Ski racks at busy lunch spots are marked with names of states, making it easier to find gear after a leisurely sun-baked break over heaping plates of freshly made Mexican fare and midday beers. There are signs at the bottom of lifts reading “No smoking or swearing,” but there’s also a cool cabin in the woods where the jib-set is encouraged hang out.
And the ways Northstar strives and innovates in the realm of customer service doesn’t stop there. For destination visitors, Northstar delivers plush new slopeside condos that are notably large, bucking the nationwide trend of cramping visitors so that they get out of their rooms and spend. For teens and jib junkies, an entire section of the mountain has been turned into the West’s most progressive array of terrain parks, under the savvy leadership of Chris Gunnarson and Snow Park Technologies, designers of the pipes and jumps at the Winter X Games. For brown-baggers, picnic tables and Adirondack chairs are placed at the mountain’s scenic spots. For the up-market, there are discreet private clubs at summit and base. And do you recall how I felt as though my skis were somehow engineered to respond to Northstar’s slopes? It turns out the reverse is true—Northstar’s slopes have been tenderly resculpted to maximize the experience of today’s skis.
Northstar’s milieu is another story altogether. Some 13 million people live within a four-hour drive of Tahoe’s 15 ski areas. It’s a big market, and one that has long been underserved by Tahoe’s offerings in two key areas: great resort hotels and top-notch service.
Many of Tahoe’s resorts are old-style day areas operating on Forest Service lands, possessing little or no real estate to develop. For places like Alpine Meadows, which is about the same size as Northstar but skis more like Alta, Utah, this has meant none of the robust revenue stream that other North American resorts have relied on to fund face-lifts. And there’s been little incentive: With such a captive audience, one resort executive explains, many in the Tahoe ski and travel industry have remained complacent and let the lake do all the work.
Notwithstanding the recent improvements to Heavenly, Squaw and Kirkwood, the overall Tahoe mountain experience remains fragmented and, in many cases, woefully out of date. Its great skiing and superb dining aren’t easy to link together. The best restaurants are in Truckee and South Lake, with a smattering of others around the lake basin. The only full-service hotel that isn’t also somehow strange to visit is in Incline. The most exciting ski terrain is at Squaw, but Alpine, Sugar Bowl, Mt. Rose and Kirkwood also deliver thrills. The best lake views are at Homewood, Heavenly and Diamond Peak. The liveliest shopping is in Truckee. The grooviest gambling is at Crystal Bay. The best nightlife—the only nightlife, really—is on the South Shore. You get the picture.
But one central place that can consistently deliver a great ski getaway, superb service and an on-the-money lunch, all in one? That’s where Northstar and the Ritz-Carlton come in.
Unlike Tahoe’s other big resorts, Northstar is built on a huge swath of private land—some 8,000 acres. It’s not the most breathtaking site in the Sierra, but it is lovely. Skiing occupies 2,904 of those acres (including 414 newly opened acres this season), with another 490 to be added in the near future. Northstar’s approved master plan, in place since the ’70s, has always called for more than 3,200 lodging units (currently there are 1,697, of which 247 are new). In other words, Northstar has the land and the permits to build another 1,503 homes, condos and hotel rooms.
When this plan was rediscovered by owner Booth Creek, it was like found treasure—particularly since most of the remaining developable real estate is located in a prime slopeside location, uphill from the village in an area now called the Highlands.
In conjunction with savvy developers East West Partners, Northstar earmarked the very best Highlands site for the amenity all of Tahoe lacks the most: a luxurious, world-class ski-in/ski-out hotel. The partnership with Ritz-Carlton should be a perfect fit. When the six-story, 405,000-square-foot Ritz-Carlton Highlands, Lake Tahoe, opens in 2009, guests will enter via a grand, three-story circular staircase that will wind past multi-level fireplaces; they’ll have their choice of 170 full-service hotel rooms ranging in size from 500 to 1,500 square feet. (The even more discriminating can select from 23 private residences serviced by a private entrance.) The castle on the hill will have no lake view, but it will have everything else.
Downhill from the new Ritz construction site, the Village at Northstar is bustling. Kids are careening around the ice rink screeching happily while parents socialize over drinks in the rink-side cabanas. A local bluegrass band plays on a nearby stage. My friends from Squaw who demurred from meeting me on the mountain are happy to come up for dinner with their kids. The line for sushi at Mikuni is long, but no one seems to mind. Everyone is having a blast.
Northstar may only be soul-stirring on stormy powder days, when the winds that whip across the Sierra crest close the lifts at other resorts and skiers like Carla and Tom Beebe find themselves alone among Northstar’s roomy trees. But sometimes soulful isn’t all that matters.
After five winters here, Carla certainly has no doubts. “We really like the way the place is run,” she says. “The employees are truly friendly. There’s a nice group of skiers here, and we’ve made great friends. It’s like a little family. The mountain is buffed. And,” she says again, “the powder skiing is fabulous.”
“At Squaw, I always felt like a visitor,” she continues. “At Northstar, I feel like I’m home.”
SIGNPOST NORTHSTAR-AT-TAHOE, CALIF.
2,904 skiable acres; 2,280 vertical feet; summit elevation 8,610 feet; 350 annual inches; 89 trails; 17 lifts, including one gondola, one six-pack and six express quads. Tickets (’07–’08 prices): $74; child (5–12) and senior (70–plus) $28; young adult (13–22) and senior (65–69) $64.
Lodging: Northstar’s revamped base village features new lift-adjacent condos, notably One Village Place and Great Bear; $339–$2,099; tahoemountainlodging.com; 800-757-9763. Also try Hyatt’s Northstar Lodge; $209–$2,099; hyattnorthstar.com; 888-654-9288. Northstar’s earlier era of homes and condos offer great package deals; $249–$1,355; northstarattahoe.com; 800-466-6784.
Dining: Mikuni for stylized sushi in a high-energy location alongside the Village ice rink; mikunisushi.com; 530-562-2188. Olivier Napa Valley, in the village, for wine tasting, crepes and epicurean treats; oliviernapavalley.com; 530-562-1400. Dragonfly, in Truckee, for superb Asian fusion; dragonflycuisine.com; 530-587-0557. Also, Baxter’s Bistro, a new restaurant from the same team that runs the renowned Moody’s in Truckee, is opening in the village in December; northstarattahoe.com.
Getting There: Northstar is 196 miles east of San Francisco and 40 miles west of Reno. Either fly into Reno/Tahoe International and pick up an all-wheel-drive rental or drive from points west, taking Interstate 80 to Truckee’s Exit 188B/ Highway 267. Drive six miles south on Highway 267, then turn right onto Northstar Drive. Airport shuttle service is also available from Reno; northlaketahoeexpress.com.
Information: northstarattahoe.com; 800-466-6784
- SKI Magazine, November 2008