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THE INSIDE LINE: Sierra at Tahoe, CA

Travel Pacific
posted: 10/11/2002

At first glance, you might write Sierra at Tahoe off as a no-frills, family-friendly kind of place: The trail system is 75 percent green circle and blue square, and the base lodge is spare. But there's more to this 2,000-acre South Lake Tahoe resort.

Elevation: 8,852 feet Vertical Drop: 2,212 feet Snowfall: 400 inches Getting There: Sierra is 11/2 hours southwest of Reno and a 25-minute drive from South Lake Tahoe (take 50 West over Echo Summit). Info: 530-659-7453, sierratahoe.com

Beta: At first glance, you might write Sierra at Tahoe off as a no-frills, family-friendly kind of place: The trail system is 75 percent green circle and blue square, and the base lodge is spare. But there's more to this 2,000-acre South Lake Tahoe resort. The big draw is what you don't see on the trail map. Hidden between the runs are dozens of perfectly spaced glades that often remain untracked. The resort also recently opened five backcountry gates into the El Dorado National Forest, accessing bowls, trees, and chutes to rival Alpine Meadows. A bonus: Tucked in among surrounding peaks, Sierra is well protected from the wind. Heavenly's been known to shuttle its skiers here on blustery days.

Powder Day
Line up at 8 a.m. at GrandviewExpress (no need to camp out earlier). From the top, exit left for Preacher's Trees (between Castle and Preacher's Passion). Work your way across the front side, slaloming through between-trail stands of ponderosa pine that would give Paul Bunyan an itchy ax finger. Finish up with Avalanche Bowl (off Nob Hill), a steep, glade-ringed pitch complete with a waterfall.

3 Days Later
Inbounds will likely be tracked up, so head OB (see Backcountry Access).

Spring Day
On a sunny morning, hit the south-facing Backside for classic Cali corn on Coyote and Smokey. Later, for less sunbaked verts, jump into Perfect Run, the locals' tree stash between Upper Dynamite and Jackrabbit. For soft, ego-enhancing bumps, try Clipper in West Bowl.

The Riding
With four parks, a superpipe, and a halfpipe, Sierra has long been a snowboard-friendly place. It's also the only resort in California to offer the Burton Learn to Ride (LTR) program. In spring, riders should go OB from the North Bowl gate (no hike required). To minimize the flat part of the traverse out, cut left 50 yards above the pond.

Proving Grounds
Marquee route: Take Grand-view to Dynamite for 1,400 feet of steep, mean moguls.
Off-Broadway: Hop-turn down Funnel, a cliff-lined elevator shaft outside Pandora's gate; ask a local to point it out.

Backcountry Access
Sierra's five backcountry gates are opened and closed by patrollers, who monitor avalanche danger. The gates can be accessed by short hikes (or traverses) from the top of Grandview. From Pandora's, hit the bowl to skier's right-an 800-foot, cliff-studded drop with 40-degree pitches. For less-trafficked lines with tree shots and snow-covered boulders, take the Huckleberry Canyon gate to Golf Course (a 30-minute ridgeline hike). When avy potential is high, the Castle Creek and North Bowl gates, which access gladed terrain, may stay open. The easy-to-navigate traverse back inbounds takes about half an hour. For part of it, though, you'll be poling and skating like Per Elofsson.

Drinking & Dancing
Sierra's two-building base area rolls up the carpet early (and the road can by hairy), so head for South Lake Tahoe, where the nightlife is-ka-ching! Harrah's, Harveys, and Caesars serve up the usual hyper array of slots, cocktails, and shows.

Fuel
Grab a mocha and muffin at Alpen Sierra (530-544-7740) in South Lake Tahoe. Midday, munch on a Thai chicken wrap on the Grandview Grill's rooftop deck and enjoy the lake views. For dinner, try South Lake's Naked Fish (530-541-3474) for sushi and Chase's (530-544-9080) for a catfish po'boy at-go figure-the airport.

Digs
For big-hotel amenities and big rooms, stay at Embassy Suites ($159-$$299; 800-988-9894) in South Lake Tahoe. Nearby, Holiday Lodge ($49-$79; 530-544-4101) is the T-bar of lodging: basic, cheap, and close to the casinos.

Must-Know
If you're a Sierra OB virgin, take a $25 half-day tour with ski patrol. The best part: You get a snowmobile tow on the traverse back inbounds.

Essential Gear:
When you head into Sierra's backcountry, make sure you're packing a metal avalanche shovel, like the Backcountry Access Companion System EXT with integrated probe pole ($90; bcaccess.com). In the event of a slide, all that Sierra cement can set up like, well, cement.

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