Taking on Tahoe: An Insider's Guide

By Finnegan, Lora J. | Sunset, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Taking on Tahoe: An Insider's Guide


Finnegan, Lora J., Sunset


HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE WEST'S BIGGEST SKI AREA

Skiers often talk about Lake Tahoe as if it were one big resort, rather than a two-state region that supports more than a dozen downhill areas. This profusion of ski areas is a bonanza for skiers who like variety, but it also makes Tahoe a magnet that seems to pull in every skier in California and Nevada.

Knowing where to find the best skiing while avoiding the throngs of fellow skiers that converge on the lake basin every weekend is an insider's art. So, to ferret out secrets that would help weekend skiers make the most of Tahoe, we went to the experts: local ski bums, ski area employees, ski clubs, and state transportation professionals.

Some of what we learned is common sense: to avoid lines, arrive as lifts open and ski while everyone else is lunching (usually 11 to 1); to miss the crunch of departing traffic, leave the slopes early or late. But we also learned the kind of things a friend who really knows a hill would share--like where to find runs in the sun or a good meal on the mountain, and how to save a buck as well as time waiting in lines or in traffic jams.

NEITHER BLINDING SNOW NOR FIERCE WINDS . . .

When are skiers like mail carriers? When they refuse to let bad weather keep them from their appointed runs. Since Tahoe topography creates widely varying microclimates, finding the best skiing no matter what Mother Nature throws your way is a matter of knowing the territory. Here's where to go when conditions are favorable, and when they're not.

Finding fresh powder. Locals say storms often dump snow earliest on the high peaks at Kirkwood and Sugar Bowl. At Kirkwood on a calm day, head for the back bowls off Sunrise or Solitude chairs; if it's gusty, advanced skiers can try the Rabbit Runs or Chamoix, while intermediates can ski Lower Monte Wolfe. At Sugar Bowl, try the east face of Mount Disney; Shutes, Fuller's Folly, and Strawberry Fields can also hold powder for several days after a storm.

At Squaw Valley, powder may get blown off the high ridges, but upper bowls like Siberia and Emigrant (intermediate) and Granite Chief (advanced) hold it well. One ski shop manager said he likes the powder in the trees off Northstar's Schaffer Camp chair (advanced) because it's often untracked by other skiers.

High winds. The more exposed high-elevation resorts--Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, and Kirkwood--are often the first to close chairs in windstorms. You'll generally have the best luck finding sheltered runs at Sierra Ski Ranch, Northstar, and Heavenly (California side).

No new snow. Faced with an ongoing drought, all the major resorts except Kirkwood have greatly expanded their snowmaking systems in the past five years to ensure better snow conditions and coverage. Heavenly leads the group with the greatest snow-making capacity and the most sophisticated grooming equipment. Squaw Valley's new computer-controlled state-of-the-art system is aided by 40 on-mountain weather stations. Diamond Peak, which installed Tahoe's first snowmaking system 27 years ago, now claims it can cover 80 percent of all runs.

The orientation of some ski areas helps them weather low-snow years. For example, Sierra Ski Ranch holds snow longer than other resorts because it's mostly north-facing and tucked into a protected cleft of a mountain.

High snow level. If there's rain at lake level, head for the upper chairs at Heavenly; its 10,100-foot summit makes it the highest resort on the lake. Kirkwood is another good choice--with Northern California's highest base elevation (7,800 feet), it gets abundant snow that's usually a bit lighter and drier than other area resorts.

SKIING ON THE CHEAP

Before you head for the slopes, keep an eye out for discount lift ticket vouchers at supermarkets and sporting goods stores. At the resorts, ask about multiday tickets, which save you money and time at the ticket window; the more days you're willing to commit to in advance, the more you'll save. …

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