Winter sport enthusiasts will be happy to hear there’s plenty more to California than seashore and sun. Come winter, northwest Lake Tahoe is a wonderland of skiing, snowboarding, sledding, and playing in the snow. Here’s a look at the resorts and activities offered in the area.
Squaw Valley (1960 Squaw Valley Rd., Olympic Valley, 530/583-6985, adults $95-119, youth $82-98, children under 12 $55-68) was the headquarters for alpine sports during the 1960 Winter Olympics. Today it is perhaps the most popular ski resort in California, with practically every amenity and plenty of activities, from geocaching to ziplining, but skiing and snowboarding remain the most important pursuits.
Squaw Valley has a great ski school with plenty of fun for new skiers and boarders of all ages along with a wide selection of intermediate slopes. Some slopes are long, such as those served by the Squaw Creek, Red Dog, and Squaw One Express lifts—perfect for skiers who want to spend more time on the snow than on the lifts. But the jewels of Squaw are the many black-diamond and double-black-diamond slopes and the two terrain parks. Whether you prefer trees, moguls, narrow ridges, or wide-open vertical bowls, you’ll find your favorite at Squaw. The slopes off KT-22 are legendary with skiers around the world. If you want to try freestyle for the first time, head for Belmont Park. During the day, especially weekends and holidays, expect long lines at the lifts, crowds in the nice big locker rooms, and still more crowds at the numerous restaurants and cafés.
Just one ridge over from Squaw Valley is the other grand ski resort at Tahoe, Alpine Meadows (2600 Alpine Meadows Rd., Tahoe City, 530/583-4232 or 800/441-4423, mid-Nov.-mid-May). This sprawling resort encompasses both sides of its two Sierra peaks, Scott and Ward. With a full range of trails, an all-day every-day ski school, and brand-new state-of-the-art rental equipment, Alpine is ideal for all levels of skiers. Beginners will particularly enjoy their new “rocker” skis, which make steering easier than ever, and the scenic network of green trails. An intermediate skier can have a great time at Alpine, especially coming off the Summit Six or the Roundhouse Express chairlifts. On the south side, from Scott Peak off the Lakeview Chair, all ski runs are blue. Alpine devotes considerable space to what it refers to as “Adventure Ski Zones.” These are large clusters of black-diamond and double-black-diamond bowls and runs intended for expert skiers only.
Thirteen lifts serve the mountains, including three high-speed chairs. If you’re an expert, take just about any chair up the mountain, and you’ll find exhilarating ways down. The Scott Chair leads to a bunch of single black-diamond runs on the front of the mountain, as does the Summit Express six-passenger chair at the back of Ward Peak. You can get to Art’s Knob from the Sherwood Express. Alpine has two terrain parks: Tiegel, with a few small snow features for beginners and young adventurers, and Howard’s Hollow, which usually has more features for medium-level skiers and snowboarders.
Many large, famous, and modern ski resorts around Tahoe overshadow each other in their own ways. But in the history of Tahoe, none is more venerable than Granlibakken (725 Granlibakken Rd., Tahoe City, 530/583-4242 or 800/543-3221, lift tickets $16-30, lodging $165-665). Actually called the Granlibakken Conference Center and Lodge, this lovely, historical resort dates to the turn of the 20th century, when the original Tahoe Tavern was built on this site. In 1928 the Tavern stayed open through winter for the first time for vacationers who wanted to play in the snow, and the facilities grew quickly afterward. Soon there was an ice rink and a toboggan run, and then a ski jump used for demonstrations by traveling Norwegian ski jumpers entertaining the local community. The Tahoe Tavern was the site of the 1932 and 1936 U.S. Olympic trials, and over the years it has hosted various national championships, Junior Olympics, and other competitions. After World War II the famous Norwegian ski jumper Kjell “Rusty” Rustad moved here, renamed the place Granlibakken after a ski area from his youth, and developed a mountain for skiers. Later, Rusty helped the developers of Squaw Valley get started and lived to see other resorts become grander than his own.
Today, Granlibakken is unable to compete as a major downhill ski destination, but it still has much to offer. With a large outdoor pool and hot tub, the on-site Granlibakken Spa (530/583-8111), a ropes course, bicycles, hiking and cross-country ski trails, and one of the best groomed sledding hills anywhere (saucer-sled provided, $14 per day), this is an ideal spot for family vacations, retreats, and corporate events. Most of the 84 condos on the site are managed by the company and are available for rent year-round. Granlibakken still offers some downhill skiing, but those who crave the excitement of bigger mountains should sleep here and take advantage of the package deals with other resorts, which include discount lift tickets and shuttle transportation to one of seven other ski areas.
Granlibakken’s Cedar House Pub (530/583-4242 or 800/543-3221, 5pm-9pm Fri.-Sat. mid-Dec.-Apr. 1, $10-23) serves German and American comfort food, and the Ski Hut Snack Bar (10am-4:30pm Fri.-Mon. winter) offers Mexican food and hot dogs. A lavish buffet breakfast is included for overnight guests.
Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing
One of the best cross-country ski trails for beginners is the General Creek Trail, also known as the 1960 Winter Olympiad X-C Ski Trail. A lot of the Olympic facilities in the area were neglected or forgotten for many years, but some of the ski trails were rediscovered and restored in connection with the 50th anniversary celebration in 2010. The first-ever Olympic biathlon competition was held on this trail, a 20K course designed by the former U.S. Olympian Wendall “Chummy” Broomhall and Allison “Al” Merrill, who was the head coach of the U.S. Ski Team 1963-1968. The trailhead is located inside Sugar Pine Point State Park (Hwy. 89, Tahoma, 530/525-7982, $10) just a few miles south of the town of Tahoma. On entering the park, drive through the campground to campsite 148. Signs and a trail map are posted and explain a little about the trail’s Olympic history. The trail is largely flat, so it’s not too challenging for skiers at most levels—it’s also amazingly beautiful. It’s an out-and-back trip, so you can glide silently through the woods for as long as you like then turn around before you get too tired. Snowshoers are welcome but must stay out of the ski tracks.
Snowshoeing enthusiasts will be happy to hear that rangers in Sugar Pine Point State Park (Hwy. 89, Tahoma, 530/525-7982, $10) lead full-moon snowshoe tours (West Shore Sports, reservations 530/525-9920, $25, under age 12 free, includes snowshoe rental) on specific dates in winter; call for details.
If you’re up on the North Shore, check out Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Tours (Hwy. 267, south of Northstar Resort, 530/546-4280, $150-390). With a fleet of Ski-Doo snowmobiles and more than 20 years of guided touring experience, this outfit offers everything from easy two-hour tours with gorgeous lake views through private three- to four-hour adventures for expert riders who want to tackle ungroomed backcountry terrain. You’ll see sweeping North Shore views and drive through miles of unspoiled forest. Reservations are strongly recommended. Drivers must be age 16 or older and have a valid driver’s license; children under age five may not ride.
Sledding and Snow Play
Granlibakken (725 Granlibakken Rd., Tahoe City, 877/552-6301 or 800/543-3221, 9am-4pm daily, $14 per day, resort guests $7) is a great place for the whole family to spend a day sledding down the machine-groomed mountain on saucers (included). You may also want to join the Granlibakken staff and longtime Tahoe residents when they build their community of snow people each year.