Skiing the Eclectic Charms of Lake Tahoe, California-Nevada Style
Heavenly Ski Resort crosses boundaries in more ways than one. It straddles the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the border between California and Nevada—look east to the brown of the desert, northwest to the blue of Lake Tahoe. There’s also the vibe. Both on the hill and off, it’s constantly shifting between relaxed ski town and Las Vegas strip: families next to bachelor parties, ski bums next to slot machines, A-frames next to casino hotels…it’s a lot to absorb. And just as we get into a rhythm—carving on Heavenly’s rolling groomers, sliding our tails through corn-snow bumps and towering pines—a guy in a gorilla suit skis by. We slam on the brakes to double take.
Heavenly is the last stop on a three-resort road trip for my daughter Paige and me. We’ve come down the coast from B.C. for a March Break ski trip around Lake Tahoe, an area with multiple personalities, a fresh and foreign atmosphere, and a quirky California-Nevada vibe.
FINDING OUR NORTHSTAR
We fly into Reno, Nevada, and drive the hour up multiple switchbacks, from arid plains to snowy mountains. Northstar California Resort, one of 13 around the lake, sits just out of sight of the north shore.
“The nice thing about Tahoe is that all the resorts have their own personality and feel,” Allie Ace tells us the next morning as she shows us around the ski area. Northstar is the posh one—it’s also the one with the best family-friendly side. The resort sits in the remains of a volcano that long ago blew its top. Below treeline, with little exposed rock, it reminds me of B.C.’s Okanagan.
Ace starts the tour on the “frontside,” a giant bowl with cat tracks along the rim and ribbons of blue runs flowing into the centre. We link speedy groomers while waiting for the spring snow to thaw.
Before lunch, the California sun has worked its magic—it’s noticeably more intense than at home on Vancouver Island—and we traverse over to Martis Valley, one of the resort’s “backside” zones. The runs are steep and stick to the fall line, and in the slushy snow we have a blast ripping down yesterday’s corduroy and bashing through small moguls.
Just before loading the lift we pass a lodge with a high ropes course weaving through the trees out front. Ace tells us it’s one of several private clubs on the hill, related to different gated communities around the area. This one, a perk for the owners of the luxury chalets hidden in the forest around this side of the resort, is the most exclusive. “Northstar is known for its concierge services,” Ace tells us on the lift. “It caters to a lot of high rollers from Silicon Valley.”
Right above the interstate highway and five minutes from the Truckee airport, it’s the most accessible resort in the area. It’s the kind of place where people ski with bodyguards and entourages, but we don’t see any of that. In our day and a half skiing Northstar, we don’t wait more than two minutes in a lift line. With high-speed lifts everywhere we crack off 12 runs in two and a half hours without trying. The ski area’s relatively mellow terrain and lower elevation is a perfect warm-up for our next stop.
RIDING THE PONY EXPRESS TO KIRKWOOD
On day two at Northstar we quit early and hit the road south. The highway traces the Lake Tahoe shore, cutting through towering groves of sugar pine before joining the route of the historic Pony Express. The mounted riders that delivered express mail (10 days, coast to coast) were only in business for 18 months until the first continental telegraph put them out of business in 1861, but the route remains scenic today, as it speeds us over mountain passes and around alpine lakes leading to Kirkwood Mountain Resort. It’s a beautiful drive, on par with Canada’s Icefields Parkway or the Sea to Sky.
We pull into Kirkwood at 4:30 and the tiny village is dead. All the shops are closed. “Kirkwood is very isolated. There’s not much to do but ski,” says Dennis Baggett, the resort’s communication manager.
It’s well designed for that. Kirkwood is basically a long ridgeline with runs and lifts across the length of its north face. The shape of the valley tends to amplify storms. “If the forecast calls for three inches of snow, we’ll get six,” Baggett says. “If it snows one inch at Lake Tahoe, we’ll get two. We call it the K-effect.”
If we’d been here yesterday we would have felt it. A single centimetre of new snow fell at Northstar, while Kirkwood recorded 12cm. At home, the north-facing slopes would preserve the snow for days, but the high Californian sun had turned it all to slush by late afternoon. Today there’s plenty of untracked, but it’s rock hard.
We agree a groomer tour is a better place to start. Baggett first leads us west to Solitude and TC Express. Then we head to the eastern boundary and the east-facing slopes of the Sunrise Chair. After a high-speed flyer down Upper Elevator Shaft, the sun is finally warming the snow. Soon the whole mountain is corn and slush, opening up the steeps and chutes Kirkwood should be famous for.
“I think Kirkwood deserves more recognition as a freeride destination,” Baggett says. After riding and skiing The Wall, I agree. It’s an intimidatingly long chair that services the resort’s steepest terrain. Baggett leads us on a traverse into Devil’s Corral, a collection of bowls, couloirs, cliffs and steeps that has hosted the Freeride World Tour.
Elsewhere, ancient volcanic activity has left crooked rock towers and undercut cliffs, natural half-pipe gullies and ridges with ghostly trees. It makes for interesting and aesthetic skiing that reminds me of Whistler or Revelstoke—resorts that reward exploring—but without the lift lines. On our second afternoon, Paige and I pole a little further along a traverse line and discover the Fingers, a cool collection of mini-couloirs overshadowed by aptly named rock formations. We rip slushy turns through tight chutes, then hit the road headed north back to Lake Tahoe.
SKIING THROUGH PARADISE
While Northstar and Kirkwood were easy to navigate, Heavenly Mountain Resort is complex. Skiers access the resort from three base areas separated by 10km of mountain. In between are at least six minor summits. “Without a guide or a good sense of direction you could spend your whole day lost or skiing cat tracks,” says Michael Rogan, a veteran ski instructor and our guide for the day.
I keep a keen eye on Rogan’s blue jacket as he leads us across the resort, first heading to the Stagecoach Express, the most northerly area well inside Nevada. Then we turn south and ride a series of lifts connected with a mix of bump runs, cat tracks, wide open trees and fast groomers into the state of California, ending up at the resort’s southern boundary. Around every turn seems to be another outrageous view: of the lake, of the desert, of the resort’s giant boulders and gnarled trees…
It’s like we’re travelling through the mountains on an adventure rather than just lapping a resort. Along with the casino town at its base—full of fast entertainment and restaurants with big-name chefs—it’s a distinctly different ski experience than at Kirkwood or Northstar. And all are so different from anything in Canada. This is what sticks out for me from our trip. Whether it’s the lake or the desert, the perfectly spaced trees or the California sun, Tahoe feels more foreign and fresh.
Like how we finish our Tahoe ski trip in a most Californian way: sun-bathing poolside. Just before she jumps in to cool off, Paige sums it up perfectly: “Now this is how you do a March Break ski trip.”
The proliferation of multi-area ski passes is changing the calculus on a road trip. All of a sudden it makes sense to buy a season pass just for your holiday. Take my Lake Tahoe trip:
Vail Resorts owns Northstar, Kirkwood and Heavenly, along with 37 other ski hills. For around $1,000 (prices vary with time of year) the conglomerate’s Epic Pass includes unlimited skiing at all of their owned resorts and dozens of others across North America and around the world.
Whistler-Blackcomb is Epic’s only Canadian property, but the pass also includes up to seven days at Kimberley, Fernie and Nakiska. With day tickets pushing $200, it won’t take long for the pass to pay off.
The same goes for the Ikon Pass, the Mountain Collective and the Indy Pass. All of these multi-area passes offer good value for skiers looking to travel this winter, particularly if they want to sample several different resorts.
Before you road trip around Lake Tahoe: skilaketahoe.com