SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif.
The daily decision over the hot breakfast buffet is always a matter of debate. It's not the "pancakes versus waffles" conundrum, but "California versus Nevada." Some vote for California as the best way to start the ski day, while others prefer Nevada. It's a matter of the best warmup runs with the least number of people, and what time the sun will hit the slopes to turn early-morning powder into slush.
In the end, there is no accord. The group splits up and folks head their separate ways, with an agreement to meet at a certain midmountain lodge at a certain time for lunch. It's another day at Heavenly Mountain Resort, where spectacular skiing combines with breathtaking scenery on terrain that crosses two states.
There's a lot to like about skiing at Lake Tahoe, from its diverse array of 15 alpine and 13 cross country ski areas to its lakeside villages and casino nightlife. And temperatures tend to be milder here than at some of the high-altitude resorts in the Rockies, with an average winter high of 43 degrees and mostly sunny weather.
Most skiers opt to stay in South Lake Tahoe, where the casino rooms are plentiful and affordable and there's a large variety of activities, shopping and nightlife. Despite six casinos and a spread-out population of 34,000, South Lake Tahoe still remains a small Western town at heart with the usual sports bars, mom-and-pop motels and even a bowling alley. There is something quintessentially American about being at Lake Tahoe — it's as comfortable and predictable as a pair of well-worn boots.
The resorts around the lake offer something for all levels of skiers and boarders — and for those who don't do either.
The queen of South Lake Tahoe is the Heavenly Mountain Resort, with four base villages in both California and Nevada. Heavenly rules with the most vertical rise of any Tahoe ski resort at 3,500 feet, the highest summit elevation at 10,040 feet and the most skiable terrain at 4,800 acres, including five terrain parks.
In the center of town, a high-speed gondola sweeps skiers 2.4 miles up from street level to midmountain. The gondola makes it a breeze to avoid the parking hassles at the base lodges; lockers and lift tickets are here, too.
I like the California side to start my day, where the sapphire blue lake lies below like a brilliant gem surrounded by the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lake Tahoe is one of North America's largest alpine glacier lakes at 22 miles long and 12 miles wide and averages 989 feet deep, which is why it won't freeze in winter. Later, from the Nevada side, I'll enjoy the vast views of the desert. It's always a yin-yang ski day at Heavenly.
The mountain is a massive playground for skiers and snowboarders, who are serviced by 30 lifts, including a tram. Heavenly's intermediate runs are some of the best in the West. Advanced skiers won't be disappointed either, especially in the Killebrew Canyon area where it's rough and rugged, steep and deep.
After a hard day on the slopes, there's plenty to do around South Lake Tahoe. Step over the state line into Nevada and you walk straight into Harvey's, Harrah's, MontBleu, Bill's and Horizon casinos.
I never even plugged a token into a slot machine the entire week I was there with the Tampa Bay Snow Skiers & Boarders last winter, but it was fun to wander through the casinos and watch the action. On weekends, casinos bring in comedians, magic shows and other performers — not first-line acts like Vegas but recognizable names nonetheless.
While there is plenty of gambling, and nightclubs for those who have the energy to party on, my ski club crowd often landed at more laid-back venues like the Tahoe Pub, across from the Heavenly gondola with an excellent variety of microbrews and pool tables downstairs and live music upstairs.
The "steep and deep" crowd usually plans to spend a day or two at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, 35 miles from Tahoe along scenic Highway 88. Kirkwood claims to have the deepest snow pack of any resort in North America with annual snowfall totaling upward of 600 inches.
Kirkwood's 15 lifts carry skiers and boarders over 2,300 acres of terrain with two terrain parks. Popular with the locals, Kirkwood offers steep chutes, open bowls and plenty of powder, but also groomed runs for all levels.
Keep in mind that Kirkwood is considered a Class A (most dangerous) avalanche area, so it's best to stay within bounds unless you take a guided tour. Sign up for one through Expedition: Kirkwood, the resort's new guided backcountry education program.
Expert skiers with cash to burn can sign up for a snow cat tour to the backcountry area or up to the cirque where the lifts don't go. Cat tours are $225 per person for four runs; the price includes the use of a shovel, backpack, beacon and probe, as well as a brief introduction to avalanche and weather report reading, proper gear usage and general out-of-bounds protocols.
Squaw Valley for all
It's a whole different scene on the north side of Lake Tahoe.
The king of the North Shore is the sprawling Squaw Valley USA, with 4,000 acres, 34 lifts with a cable car and funitel (aerial lift), and three terrain parks. The site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Squaw Valley is known for its six challenging peaks, but also has a huge beginner-intermediate complex called High Camp — surprisingly on the upper mountain and reached with ease by the cable car. Nonskiers can jump aboard the aerial tram for a breathtaking ride up to High Camp, a cool place to chill out at restaurants and apres-ski bars. Bring your swimsuit for a soak in the hot tubs, where you can savor the views of Lake Tahoe from 8,200 feet. Ah, yes.
Squaw Valley is family friendly with a Kids Snowsports School and a Snoventures Center for family snow tubing, dog sledding and sleigh rides, even little snowmobiles for kids.
Squaw Valley recently acquired Alpine Meadows ski resort, just 10 minutes away with 2,000 acres of skiing from wide-open groomed runs to steeps and bowls. A multiresort lift ticket is available for Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and nearby Sierra at Tahoe; free shuttles depart from each resort every half-hour.
Head to Northstar California Resort (formerly Northstar-at-Tahoe) near the town of Truckee for a more upscale scene. I like the intimate feeling of this midsize resort with its impeccable grooming and stylish village. On the slopes, about 20 lifts transport skiers across 3,170 acres of skiable terrain.
The focal point of Northstar is its modern Alpine Village, centered on a skating rink with fine dining and outdoor martini bars, and an on-mountain Ritz-Carlton. Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar have the financial backing of corporate owner Vail Resorts, which virtually guarantees high standards both on and off the mountain.
Northstar is a giant playground for kids and teens, thanks to seven freestyle terrain parks, from a Burton Progression Park for beginners to the new 500-foot-long superpipe designed by Olympic gold medalist and Northstar regular Shaun White.
With Northstar's family-friendly focus, parents will appreciate amenities like children's ski and snowboard programs, a licensed day care center, and a day camp program for ages 2 through 6 that offers both on- and off-slope activities.
As at all resorts around Lake Tahoe, weekends can get crowded. If you prefer to stay in town, historic Truckee is 6 miles to the south and a great place to hang your skis with its many lodgings, shops and restaurants.
Fun for nonskiers
Don't ski? Don't worry. Besides visiting the casinos, you can take a paddlewheel boat cruise on Lake Tahoe aboard the Tahoe Queen, go for a lakeside snowshoe or Nordic ski at Camp Richardson, or take a snowmobile excursion from Zephyr Cove.
And even if you're a hard-core ski junkie, it's worth a day off the slopes to take a ride along the western shore of the lake for the stunning vistas of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe. Stop for lunch at one of the small towns, among them Tahoe City, Kings Beach and Incline Village, that are fun to visit for their casinos, saloons, rock shops and art galleries.
A winter getaway at Lake Tahoe is easy. It's leaving that's a challenge.
Marcia Biggs is a freelance travel writer based in Safety Harbor.