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North Lake Tahoe

400,000 visitors each winter can't be wrong

a person stands in the snow on the shores of North Lake Tahoe, image
Photo caption
Snow-covered mountains ring Lake Tahoe in the winter. In North Lake Tahoe, those mountains promise good skiing.

It’s not uncommon to hear true white-winter lovers in California measure the success of the past snow season not by ifthey went to Lake Tahoe, but by how many times they went. With blue water so pure you can see 75 feet into its depths, and its setting—like a jewel in a ring of snow-covered peaks and evergreen forests—Lake Tahoe is certain to draw a visitor again and again.

Need more than beauty to get on the bandwagon?

Take North Lake Tahoe: world-class resorts for skiing and snowboarding. Cross-country skiing on great Webs of groomed track and through vast untracked Sierra wilderness. Ice-skating, comfy small lodges, high-end luxury resorts, inexpensive motels, moderate lakeside condos. Restaurants with cheap, expensive, fast, slow, excellent, or simply edible food. And thick, eye-squinting white snow piled all around.

Start with the obvious, downhill skiing: Squaw Valley, setting for the 1960 Winter Olympics, dominates the scene, with wide-open bowls to ski or snowboard. High Camp, at 8,200 feet, up sharp granite cliffs at the top end of the Squaw Valley tram, has what must be the best view from an ice rink. Skaters look down upon the Olympic Village, and off to distant peaks and the lake. Or take along a swimsuit and lounge among snowdrifts at the outdoor pool and spa at High Camp. If that’s not exhilarating enough, you can bungee jump at the edge of a sheer cliff.

Visitors staying at the big Resort at Squaw Creek, in Olympic Valley, can take a ski or snowboard run right down to the hotel’s back door. Or in the morning, buy a lift ticket at the hotel’s ski rental shop and hop on the resort’s own Squaw Valley lift to get up to the slopes.

Alpine Meadows, just a few miles south of Squaw Valley, is a favorite area with Tahoe locals. It has a well- balanced combo of mellow intermediate runs and adventurous expert slopes in wide, sunny bowls. Alpine also runs the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School, offering ski programs for people with disabilities.

Northstar, in its own luxury-condo and shopping village on Route 267 between Truckee and the north shore, offers a perfect mix for families. Expert skiers will love the "backside"; those more timid, or towing small children up and down the slopes, will love the front, with long, wide, meandering runs.

Diamond Peak, above Incline Village, is a bit smaller, but offers largely intermediate and advanced skiing. Slopes face the lake, with views all the way to South Shore and the Sierra beyond. Above Diamond Peak on the high road to Reno is Mt. Rose ski area, with five lifts and a good balance of beginner, intermediate, and advanced runs, and awesome views down to Reno and the Great Basin desert.

Ski Homewood, on the west shore, has four chairlifts and is great for kids, great for families. And it’s less expensive than some of the bigger resorts. It’s right across the street from the lake. Because of its size and price, Homewood is popular with telemarkers. Granlibakken, in the hills just above Tahoe City, is tiny, with two runs and a nice hotel tucked into the pines.

But if you’re looking for some snowy solitude, snap into some cross-country skis. A number of places offer groomed trails, rentals, and lessons, including Northstar, with a 65-kilometer trail system that takes skiers away from the downhill runs and into the thick forests. Lakeview, just above Highway 28 in Tahoe City, has 65 kilometers of groomed trails.

For a lung workout, and some of the area’s best views of Lake Tahoe, head high into the mountains on Highway 431 to Diamond Peak’s 35-kilometer trail system. Be careful not to miss it. The area is marked by only a small sign. The rental hut is off the highway, in the woods.

Squaw Creek’s 20-kilometer trail system in Olympic Valley crisscrosses the wide open valley below the downhill slopes and takes skiers along the creek. Granlibakken offers 7.5 kilometers on two trails and a sledding hill for kids.

Spooner Lake, down the lake’s east shore, has 21 trails totaling 91 kilometers.

If you’re thinking, "tell me something I don’t know," how about grabbing your own skinny skis or stopping at one of the many ski and snowshoe rental shops along the north shore, and trying one of these quiet spots? Sugar Pine Point State Park, down the west side of the lake, has ski or snowshoe trails along tiny gurgling creeks and around the stately waterfront Ehrman Mansion. North Tahoe Regional Park’s cross-country system, in Tahoe Vista, has 11 kilometers of track (no lessons, no rentals). Kids will enjoy the sledding hills here.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation runs a Sno-Park area at Blackwood Canyon, 3 miles south of Tahoe City. You can break your own track on skis, snowshoes, and even snowmobiles. A Sno-Park permit is required.

Not a skier? Ice-skaters take note: Besides the rink at High Camp, the Resort at Squaw Creek has its own ice rink. It’s outdoors, just above the pool and hot tubs.

Those looking for motorized snow sports can stop at a number of snowmobile rental shops in the area, including Northstar, Mountain Lake Adventures Snowmobile Tours in North Lake Tahoe, and Snowmobiling Unlimited, in Kings Beach.

To heck with all this active outdoor stuff—if you’ve had enough, find one of the area’s great luxury lodges (with spas, pools, fine dining, maybe a masseuse or two) and relax. Olympic Valley is a good place to start, as it has a good number of opulent hotels. Check with the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association.

For more action, lounge shows and tables are always waiting for visitors at the Hyatt, Cal Neva, Crystal Bay Club, Tahoe Biltmore, and other casinos. Or there’s bowling in Incline Village and movie theaters in Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Incline Village, and Olympic Valley.

It’s likely you can find a live band playing somewhere every night. Popular spots include Elevation in Tahoe City, Bullwhackers Pub in the Resort at Squaw Creek. Bar One, at the base of Squaw Valley, has rock and roll bands on the weekends; the Red Dog Cafe has daily après-ski entertainment at the Opera House in Olympic Village.

Then, if you possibly run out of things to do, head to the old railroad town of Truckee, with a couple of blocks of cafés, shops, saloons, and historic inns. Or go farther still to Donner Memorial State Park and Museum, where rangers lead snowshoe tours and cross-country ski trails are marked. Even farther up I-80 is Sugar Bowl, Tahoe Donner, Donner Ski Area, Soda Springs ski and snowboard areas, Royal Gorge Cross Country skiing, and four Sno-Park areas.


This article was first published in November 1998. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.