Lake Tahoe is a real roller coaster ride.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range is in the midst of one of its snowiest ski seasons just six months after devastating wildfires broke out, causing billions of dollars in damage and loss of tourist revenue .
In December, 16 feet of snow fell in the Sierras, breaking a 50-year-old record.
For a ski buff like me, all that snow was too enticing to pass up. At the time, I was hanging out with my wife Leslie on sunny Southern California beaches in our RV, but my mind was in the mountains in search of powder.
“How about I go skiing for a week at Lake Tahoe while you take the RV to Palm Springs?” I asked Leslie one night. We’ve been on the road in our RV since early September (we write the Going Mobile column, which appears Fridays in The Spokesman-Review’s Auto Connection section), and Leslie was ready for a break of her own.
I got the green light to go play white, ski five days at three of Tahoe’s best resorts, keeping an eye on our travel budget. In other words, I went on the cheap.
Celestial: on top of the world
The views from the slopes of Heavenly Mountain Resort rival any ski area in North America.
The resort sits right on the California-Nevada border. On the California side, you have a breathtaking view of Lake Tahoe; the Nevada side offers equally expansive views of the Carson Valley as far as the eye can see.
Heavenly is huge, with 3,500 vertical feet spanning 4,800 acres. It definitely has that big resort feel, with three large mountain lodges and huge village scenes in California and Nevada.
Sometimes mobs can make Heavenly evil. I had heard that the Nevada side was less crowded, so I parked at the Stagecoach base area during my two days at the resort. The plan mostly worked: I never stood in line for more than 10 minutes.
Heavenly’s high-altitude slopes (the resort peaks at 10,067 feet) are particularly attractive, with plenty of long cruises to explore. The clearings and tree skiing are excellent, and I found myself shooting among the same tree trunks where artist-politician Sonny Bono died 24 years ago.
It was a shocking day. But let’s give that to Sonny – his death at Heavenly helped make the ski and snowboard industry much safer, introducing the helmet as now ubiquitous safety gear.
You’ll hear all kinds of accents at Heavenly. I’ve taken the chairlift with Argentinians, Germans, New Yorkers, Iowans, and even a few intrepid Scots who’d flown to Los Angeles, circled the Southwest, then traced it in red from the Grand Canyon after the big dumps in December.
I wasn’t the only ski addict drawn to Lake Tahoe this season.
If you are going to: Heavenly Mountain Resort, 3860 Saddle Road, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150, (775) 586-7000, skiheavenly.com
Family Fun at Northstar
On the north shore of Lake Tahoe, seven miles from the city of Truckee, California, is the Northstar California Resort. This expansive ski area is best known for its family-friendly low-angle cruisers.
Like Heavenly, it’s big. Northstar spans 3,170 acres around the slopes of 8,617-foot Mount Pluto, an extinct volcano that erupted 2 million years ago, plugging a valley and ultimately creating Lake Tahoe.
From the top of Northstar you have an outstanding view of the lake created by the lava and mudslides of Mt Pluto, but I found myself drawn more to the opposite side of the mountain.
Known as “The Backside,” these north-facing slopes feature rolling terrain and a few slopes that reminded me of a taller, longer version of Chair 4 at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Resort.
I was happy to go round after round through the trees on “The Backside”, where I spent most of the day. And even though Northstar is one of the closest resorts to the Bay Area, it wasn’t too crowded the day of the week I visited.
Northstar is definitely designed to handle the Bay Area crowds: a shuttle service takes skiers from remote parking lots to a bustling village base packed with shops, bars, and restaurants.
If you are going to: 5001 Northstar Drive, Truckee, CA 96161, (530) 562-2267, northstarcalifornia.com
Kirkwood: “a skier’s mountain”
Fancy ski villages and shops aren’t really my thing. I knew I was one of my own when I showed up for two days at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, about an hour south of Lake Tahoe on the ridge of the Sierras.
“Most of Lake Tahoe is pretty flashy, but Kirkwood is a mountain for skiers,” said one of my chairlift companions, an aging hippie from Santa Cruz, Calif. Like me, he had spent a week skiing the slopes around Lake Tahoe on the Epic Pass, Vail Resorts’ season pass which is good at Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood.
What my snap friend meant was this: Kirkwood isn’t about big resort amenities, it’s about corners.
The ski area peaks at 9,800 feet and features a long ridgeline punctuated by massive cliffs and chutes providing access to several wide bowls. Advanced skiers will love some of the steep runs on Kirkwood’s 2,300 acres, and tree skiers will be drawn to all the powder in a good year like this.
The Kirkwood Ridgeline reminded me of two ski areas in the Pacific Northwest: Schweitzer and Mission Ridge. And as I turned after turn on the final day, it felt a bit like home after all that time on the road.
If you are going to: 1501 Kirkwood Meadows Drive, Kirkwood, CA 95646, (209) 258-6000, kirkwood.com