Lake Tahoe, where the alpine ambience is second to none in the world, is tough to beat any time of year, but winter is extra-special. There are other great ski areas, but there is only one Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America. In 1861, Mark Twain, a pretty good judge of such things, wrote in “Roughing It” that Lake Tahoe was “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”
The legendary beauty of the region and infinite variety of skiing terrain are unsurpassed. Rand McNally recently named Lake Tahoe the No. 1 ski destination for the 2010-2011 season. Nothing tops “The Lake” for sheer concentration of excellent skiing and boarding facilities. Whether you are an expert looking for monster slopes or a timid beginner seeking flat, forgiving runs, Lake Tahoe snow fun fills the bill.
New for 2011
• Pacific Crest Heli-Guides: One of the most exciting new ventures is Pacific Crest Heli-Guides, located in Truckee, which for the first time offers helicopter skiing in Lake Tahoe (www.pacificcrestheliguides.com).
• Alpine Meadows: Alpine Meadows is not the biggest, but with a long season (often from Halloween to July 4), a kid-friendly atmosphere and some wonderful skiing over 2,000 acres, Alpine has been a favorite of savvy skiers since it opened in 1961. Alpine features wide open bowls, steep chutes, tree-lined trails – and great views of Lake Tahoe.
• Diamond Peak: This nifty area has just about doubled in size over the past few years. Long a family favorite of Incline Village residents and visitors, Diamond Peak now offers some true advanced skiing. Snowmaking covers 75 percent of the mountain, top to bottom, and Diamond Peak now boasts a 1,840-foot vertical drop.
• Heavenly Mountain Resort: This giant snow playground sprawls across 20 square miles over nine peaks in two states and offers the greatest vertical drop in the Tahoe area (3,500 feet). From the summit at 10,100 feet, skiers have an incomparable view of Lake Tahoe. Heavenly opened Tamarack Lodge in December, a huge indoor/outdoor restaurant at the top of the gondola, which rises from the hotel/casino area of South Lake Tahoe.
• Kirkwood Mountain Resort: Kirkwood has the highest base elevation in Northern California (7,800 feet), which usually means lighter, drier snow, and more of it. Kirkwood has a 2,000-foot vertical drop, and people say it reminds them of a European-style ski village. New this year is a zip-line tour through the treetops. Also added are horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowmobile tours and evening snow-cat tours. The resort’s day-care lift ticket can be shared by parents who want to split their time on the slopes and share time with their children.
• Northstar-at-Tahoe: Northstar is a complete destination ski resort, and it’s only getting better with the maturation of the village and the completion of condominiums, new shops, restaurants, an ice rink and two new movie theaters. The newish Ritz-Carlton hotel resort at mid-mountain takes Northstar to another level of luxury. Always a great intermediate mountain, it now offers a 2,200-foot vertical drop with 25 percent of the runs rated advanced; the longest run covers 2.9 miles.
• Squaw Valley USA: Host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Squaw – always revered for skiing – really arrived as a world-class destination ski resort with the opening of The Village at Squaw Valley a few years ago. The bustling village is already a High Sierra favorite, as is the Resort at Squaw Creek. Squaw is unique in that most of the best intermediate and beginner skiing is at the top of the gondola or cable car, so nonexperts can enjoy sun-drenched skiing at 8,200 feet.
For beginners and families, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Boreal and Sugar Bowl are popular choices.
For more information on ski areas, visit:
Alpine Meadows at www.skialpine.com
Boreal at www.borealski.com
Diamond Peak at www.diamondpeak.com
Heavenly at www.skiheavenly.com
Kirkwood at www.kirkwood.com
Northstar at www.northstarattahoe.com
Squaw Valley at www.squaw.com
Sierra-at-Tahoe at www.sierraattahoe.com
Sugar Bowl at www.sugarbowl.com
Ski Lake Tahoe at www.skilaketahoe.com
Glen Putman is a Los Altos freelance writer.