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Soda Springs, Calif.: Ski Time

Even a newbie can enjoy the snow and other pleasures just north of Tahoe.

young skiers at Sugar Bowl
Photo caption
Skiers revel in winter at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort near Soda Springs, Calif.

After snowboarding for eight years, I thought cross-country skiing would be about as exciting as a glass of warm milk: bland, unnaturally hot, something only my mom would enjoy. My friends laughed when I told them I was going to give it a shot. "Why waste energy when you can let gravity do all the work?" they scoffed. Not to mention the uncool attire—windbreakers and unflattering spandex pants in coordinated shades of neon.

So this was how I found myself trying to master the diagonal stride—the most common move in cross-country skiing—at Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort in Soda Springs, Calif., some 27 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe. The blink-and-you-miss-it town's lodging and dining options are pretty basic; you'll find fancier choices in nearby Truckee. What Soda Springs does have is snow, and plenty of it. Factor in a lack of crowds and affordable lift tickets, and you've got the ideal destination for newbies on skis or snowboards.

Royal Gorge, the largest cross-country ski area on the continent, features more than 200 miles of forested trails. Beginner lessons will set you back a mere $25. After two hours of wrestling with my unwieldy skis, I was navigating the trails with relative ease and even huffing my way up to Mirkwood Outlook for a look at Devils Peak. Gliding along on crunchy snow, I learned, had a thrill of its own.

If downhill skiing is more your speed, head to Sugar Bowl on Highway 40, three miles past Royal Gorge. The Mountain Sports Learning Center offers the First Turns package, which includes a two-hour lesson at one of the resort's two learning areas—all of them away from the advanced runs, so you won't get bowled over by fanatics on skis. You'll also be treated to great views of Donner Lake (even if you spend most of your time sitting down).

Soda Springs Mountain Resort, a cozy spot adjacent to Royal Gorge, is home to Planet Snow Kids, an enclosed playground with a snow-tubing carousel as well as a circular track for mini snowmobile rides. Pint-size skiers and boarders can hop onto a conveyor belt–like moving carpet for a ride to the top of a 40-foot-long learning hill. Instructors guide children through the basics, so they'll graduate from the bunny slope in no time.

Nearby Boreal Mountain Resort is a snowboarder's paradise, with its jaw-dropping half-pipes. But the mellow novice trails and prime location—only 80 miles from Sacramento—make this resort an ideal place to start shredding. Beginners can score a rental board, a lift ticket, and a group lesson for $75. Even better, Boreal stays open until 9 p.m.

If you plan a longer visit to the slopes, make your headquarters in Truckee, a once rollicking lumber town 15 miles east on I-80. Book a room at the elegant Truckee Hotel, a local institution since 1873. The Cottonwood Restaurant, on a hilltop overlooking the town, serves steak and seafood. Or you might prefer sliding into a booth at the Truckee Diner, a 1948 eatery right next to the train depot.

It's a quick jaunt from Truckee to whichever Soda Springs ski area tickles your fancy. As for me, you might just catch me striding away at Royal Gorge. I even bought myself a pair of spandex pants.

This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.