Soda Springs, Calif.
Stories of Dick Buek abound on the slopes of Soda Springs Winter Resort. Called the "Mad Dog" of Donner Summit, Buek was an enthusiastic-some say reckless-slave to gravity. A two-time National Downhill champion and 1952 U.S. Olympian, Buek thought nothing of tucking the steepest slopes, such as Sun Valley's Exhibition or Aspen's Aztec. His life consisted of screaming descents, until his death in 1957, at age 27, when his plane crashed while he was giving a flying lesson.
It was at Soda Springs that Buek learned the joy and insouciance that stamped his short life. His parents managed the ski area, and it's said that on his first day on skis, he tucked the area's steep face from top to bottom. Called "Mad Dog," the run is named in Buek's honor and remains a bare-boned delight.
Just as Buek's legend endures, so too does Soda Springs. Its mountain continues to beckon children of all ages-more than ever before. During the 2000-01 season, when many Sierra Nevada resorts struggled due to a drought winter, the small ski area hosted a record number of skier visits. Close to 7,000 adults and kids learned to ski and snowboard at Soda Springs during the 2000-01 season, resulting in the largest ski-school growth in the ski area's history.
Situated atop Donner Summit, less than a two-hour drive from Sacramento, Soda Springs was casting a spell over vacationers long before Buek came on the scene. Its first customers herringboned up its flanks in 1931 to make swooping turns over wide-open terrain. By 1935, ropetows were installed, and Soda Springs became popular with members of San Francisco society, who traveled by ski train and caravan to enjoy the record-breaking snowfalls of the Donner Summit area.
While Soda's 200 acres qualify it as a nugget-size ski area, its steep terrain and emphasis on families give it a reputation as a skier's mountain that offers great value. Adjacent to Sugar Bowl's Mount Lincoln, Soda's ridgeline commands views of Lake Van Norden and the spine of the Northern Sierra. Two double chairs and two surface lifts access broad slopes. A one-price ticket gives guests access to skiing, snowboarding, tubing (Soda Springs has California's largest snow tubing operation), sledding and snowshoe trails. Also, your lift ticket gets you several more half-price hours of skiing under the lights at nearby sister resort Boreal. But after a few hard runs on Buek's Mad Dog, you may just be too beat.
Soda Springs, Donner Summit, Calif.
Vital Stats: 652 vertical feet, 16 trails, 200 skiable acres, two chairlifts, two surface tows, two terrain parks.
Annual Snowfall: 400 inches
Lift Tickets: Adults $22, youth (ages 8-17) $16, children (7 and younger) and seniors (70 and older) free.
Information: 530-426-3901, www.skisodasprings.com
A Good Deal: The Soda Family Season Pass: Parents and children ages 8-12 ski for $399.