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Taking on Tahoe: an insider's guide.


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.


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.


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. For example, at Heavenly, where an adult lift ticket costs $39, a three-day ticket costs $111 (a savings of $6), while a six-out-of-seven-day ticket costs $204 (a savings of $30).

Also ask about special discounts. Diamond Peak Ski Resort offers a new parent-child package--$38 for one adult and one child ticket, and $5 for each added child ticket. Kirkwood's Kid's Kard ($10) gives you a $10 discount on each $50 Mighty Mountain children's ski package, including lift, rental, lesson, and lunch. Northstar offers a discount lift ticket ($30) to college students on Sundays through Fridays. And Squaw Valley has a frequent skier card: for a $15 membership fee, you get every sixth day of skiing free.

Interchangeable lift tickets are available for some north shore resorts; good for three to six days, they let you avoid long lines at the ticket windows. A three-day, four-resort ticket (good at Mt. Rose, Boreal, Diamond Peak, and Homewood) costs $86 for adults, $36 ages 12 and under. An eight-resort ticket, which adds Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl, Northstar, and Alpine Meadows, costs $122 or $36. They're available at some resorts and the Tahoe North Visitors and Convention Bureau in Tahoe City; call (800) 824-6348.


Some Tahoe hotels offer services that make life easier for skiers. At Incline Village, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (800/233-1234) sells lift tickets to Diamond Peak and Alpine Meadows (you can even bill it to your room). The Resort at Squaw Creek (800/327-3353) sells Squaw Valley lift tickets and rents equipment. Northstar, to mark its 20th anniversary, is offering a midweek lodging package that includes free lift tickets; call (800) 533-6787.

In South Lake Tahoe, Embassy Suites Resorts, at (800) 362-2779, has a ski shop where you can buy next-day lift tickets for Alpine Meadows, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Northstar, Sierra Ski Ranch, and Squaw Valley, rent a pair of skis, or have your own pair tuned overnight.

For more information on north shore lodging and lift ticket packages, call the Tahoe North Visitors and Convention Bureau. To get a free package and lodging guide to the south shore, call (800) 288-2463.


Traffic trouble spots in the basin are somewhat predictable. For example, the steep, narrow stretch of State Highway 89 around Emerald Bay is often closed because of heavy snow; the east shore route on U.S. 50 and Nevada State 28 is more reliable for traveling from one end of the lake to the other. Another route that often jams up, particularly on Sunday afternoons, is westbound U.S. 50 heading out of South Lake Tahoe; take Pioneer Trail as an alternative.

Public and private buses provide lifts to skiers who'd rather forgo the frustrations of driving altogether. On the north shore, TART (Tahoe Area Regional Transit) buses with ski racks serve the area from Tahoma to Incline Village. TART also plans to add a winter line between Truckee and Tahoe City on State 89 (serving Alpine and Squaw). Fare is $1, free for ages 4 and under. For schedules, call (800) 736-6365.

All the ski resorts included in our guide (above) have their own shuttle buses; call for schedules and routes.


Almost every Tahoe weekend warrior can recall horror stories about being stuck in traffic for hours. "I know how bad it can be," says Caltrans spokesperson Pat Miller. "One Sunday afternoon when chain controls were up, I sat in traffic for 5 hours just going the 15 miles on State 89 from Tahoe City to Interstate 80."

Skiers heading to Tahoe from points west (such as the Bay Area or Sacramento) have two basic route options: Interstate 80 to the north shore, and U.S. Highway 50 to South Lake Tahoe. U.S. 50 is more scenic, but it narrows to two lanes for the last 40 miles, and the precipitous descent from Echo Summit can make an acrophobe blanch. I-80 remains a divided freeway through the mountains, but it carries more traffic, including a lot of big trucks.

Caltrans statistics for the last two winters show that I-80 has more snow-related road closures than U.S. 50. During that time, I-80 was closed 39 times for a total of 98 hours. U.S. 50 was closed only 20 times for 39 hours. I-80 had seven truck-related closures (totalling 15 1/2 hours) during the same period; U.S. 50 had none. U.S. 50 does shut down more frequently than I-80 for avalanche control, but new guns added near Echo Summit have shortened such closures.

Other weapons in Caltrans's snow-fighting arsenal should make the going easier on I-80 this winter, too. An illuminated sign installed at the western approach to the mountains alerts drivers to conditions; when problems occur, traffic is stopped or metered near the foothills community of Applegate, allowing drivers to exit there rather than get stuck at the closure point. Electronic sensors set in the I-80 roadbed feed computers with data on temperature, moisture, and salt content that tell engineers the moment snowplows are needed. An improved network of radio stations broadcasts road conditions; watch for signs telling where they are on the dial.

For getting to Kirkwood or other south shore resorts, consider using State 88. It's two lanes all the way but gets considerably less traffic than the other two routes.

To improve your chances of missing the worst traffic, Pat Miller advises that it's generally best to travel after dinner or before lunch. For example, Bay Area-based skiers should wait until at least 6 P.M. on a Friday to set out for Tahoe. To return on a Sunday, get on the road before noon if possible, 3:30 at the latest; otherwise, wait until after 6:30. Either direction, it's a good idea to check road conditions first; a new number, (800) 427-7623, is good throughout California.


This guide will help you make the most of time and money spent at any of Tahoe's six largest ski areas. Both adult and child lift ticket prices are listed; call individual resorts for age breakdowns. The first telephone number is for general information, the second for recorded snow conditions.

Alpine Meadows

Base elevation 6,840 feet; 1,797 vertical feet; 2,000 skiable acres; 11 chairs, 1 surface lift; $39, $13 child; (916) 583-4232, 581-8374.

Alpine offers wide-open bowls, steep chutes, and gentle meadows. With two peaks and runs facing all directions, it's easy to follow the sun in spring to find the best corn snow--head for Sherwood runs in the morning, Roundhouse in the afternoon. You no longer need to avoid Alpine Bowl and Lakeview in low-snow years--snowmaking now covers those areas. Time-saver: Head to Sherwood early (by 8:30 or so) to avoid later lift lines on this popular chair. Traffic: The parking lot shuttle works well, so the wait is short. The shuttle bus to a satellite parking lot can get crowded, and you may wait 10 minutes for a pickup. Dining: On warm days, check out the barbecue on the deck of the main lodge.


Base elevation 6,540 feet California side, 7,200 feet Nevada; 3,500 and 2,840 vertical feet; 4,800 skiable acres; 18 chairs, 1 tram, 6 surface lifts; $39, $17 child; (702) 586-7000, (916) 541-7544.

The California side of Tahoe's largest resort has the most diversity and several long, winding intermediate runs. The Nevada side is heavily forested, with more advanced runs. In springlike conditions, start on the Nevada side, which gets early sun and softens up first. For Tahoe's longest run--a 5 1/2-mile intermediate route--take the Dipper chair and ski Orions, Aries, Crossover, Way Home, and Edgewood. Timesaver: Ski Sunday, when crowds average about half those of Saturdays. Traffic: If possible, park at and enter from the Nevada side. For California entrance, use the shuttle buses from South Lake Tahoe, or park at the end of Ski Run Boulevard and take the shuttle from there for a fast getaway at the end of the day. Dining: The Monument Peak Restaurant offers elegant entrees and table service; it's open for breakfast and lunch daily, dinner on weekends.


Base elevation 7,800 feet; 2,000 vertical feet; 2,000 skiable acres; 10 chairs, 1 surface lift; $35, $17 child; (209) 258-6000 or (800) 967-7500, (209) 258-3000.

This mellow, get-away-from-it-all kind of place offers lots of variety. Best strategy here is to head for warm-up runs off chair 5 or 6 before they get crowded, then move to Sunrise, which gets the first snow-softening sun. When Sunrise runs get too soft, move on to The Reut and work back to chairs 5 and 6. Time-saver: Avoid chairs 5 and 11 when postlunch crowd feeds into their lines from base-area cafes. Traffic: Parking is easy before 8:30. From south shore, ride the shuttle bus ($2) from casinos and major hotels (morning pickup at 7:30, arrives at 9). Dining: The stylish Cornice Cafe is at the base area; reserve for lunch or dinner: (209) 258-7373.


Base elevation 6,400 feet; 2,200 vertical feet; 1,700 skiable acres; 8 chairs, 1 gondola, 2 surface lifts; $39, $17 child; (916) 562-1010, 562-1330.

Known for its kind intermediate terrain, sheltered tree skiing, and long cruising runs, Northstar has added two new advanced trails to broaden its range. In spring conditions, head first for runs off Aspen Express quad chair, then follow sun to runs off Lookout chair. Time-saver: Shortest lift lines are at Forest chair, serving a long run. Traffic: Ski here Sundays for easy getaway on less-traveled State 267 to I-80. Arrive early on holidays and busiest weekends: Northstar limits the number of lift tickets sold each day. Dining: Timbercreek, at the base, is noted for its extensive wine list; for reservations, call 587-0252.

Sierra Ski Ranch

Base elevation 6,640 feet; 2,212 vertical feet; 2,000 skiable acres; 8 chairs; $33, $15 child; (916) 659-7453, 659-7475.

Low-key atmosphere and relatively inexpensive lift tickets make this a good choice for families. Beginners should head first to XTC high-speed quad chair for fastest way to top of beginner runs. Intermediate and advanced skiers should head for newly developed West Bowl, reached by new Slingshot high-speed quad chair. For the longest run, try Sugar N' Spice, a 2 1/2-mile intermediate run. Time-saver: Fastest way to the summit is on new Sensation quad chair. Traffic: The exit road is worst on Sundays--leave by 1 or after 5. The free shuttle bus from south shore lets you avoid driving over Echo Summit; for schedule, call (916) 659-7535. Dining: Nothing fancy here; try the outdoor barbecue at the base lodge.

Squaw Valley

Base elevation 6,200 feet; 2,850 vertical feet; 4,000 skiable acres; 26 chairs, 1 cable car, 1 gondola, 5 surface lifts; $40, $5 child; (916) 583-6985, 583-6955.

This huge ski area spreads over six peaks. Beginners can find soaring views from the open mountaintop areas of Gold Coast and High Camp. To follow the sun, start with Emigrant Peak; after lunch move to Red Dog and Big Red, then finish at Squaw Creek. For the longest run, a 3 1/2-mile route, take Squaw Peak and Siberia express chairs and ski down Siberia Bowl (high intermediate) and The Mountain Run to the bottom. Time-saver: Squaw Creek chair has virtually no lines; it serves easy intermediate to bumpy advanced runs and chutes. Traffic: At day's end, wait for traffic to thin while taking advantage of diversions at High Camp (ice skating, dinner at Alexander's, or drinks with dramatic views at the Terrace Bar). Dining: High Camp's Poolside Cafe has table service, great mountain views.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Lake Tahoe
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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