Hometown Hills: A Tahoe Tradition

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It's another beautiful day and you find yourself, with the rest of Northern California, driving to Lake Tahoe for a ski weekend. You're a little late, so the line of cars in Tahoe City heading to the 18 ski resorts that ring the lake is horrendous. Now might be a good time to head south¿along Highway 89, that is. Now you're driving against the traffic, with Lake Tahoe to the east and enormous shaded snowbanks to the west. Six miles down the road, the dense trees give way to the tiny lakeside community of Homewood, complete with a small grocery store, a diner, a pizza place, a post office, two restaurants¿and a ski area. You pull into the Homewood Mountain Resort parking lot, amazed it isn't full, and miss your space by a long shot. The parking attendant, instead of insisting you squeeze in sardine-style, just nods and goes back to his business.

"Smile, You're at Homewood." That phrase, taken from a faded smiley face painted in the Sixties on the T-Bar engine housing (yes, they still have a T-Bar, and no, they don't have detachable quads), has achieved cult-like status as Homewood's unofficial trademark and mission statement. It says relax, unwind and remember to have fun. The pace here on the West Shore is slower, the experience a little kinder and gentler, and the slopes¿though plenty challenging¿are more protected from the wind than those at other Tahoe resorts.

Ski Homewood opened for business with two rope-tows in 1961. In the mid-Eighties, owner Helen Aldridge built a marina across the street to retain her key employees year-round. In 1990-91, after 7 years of drought, Aldridge sold the area to Homewood Ski Corporation, which, under the leadership of President Steve Wyler, made several trail improvements and added a snowboard park. This past year, the area was sold yet again to Jeff Yuroseck of JAY LLC, which renamed it Homewood Mountain Resort. Though the name and owners may change, and facilities are continually updated, the feeling remains the same. Mention Homewood when riding a chair elsewhere in Tahoe, and chances are you'll get a sentimental reaction, "I learned to ski there. I love that place!"

In fact, plenty of Tahoe denizens learned to ski on Homewood's 1,260 skiable acres. About 65 percent of the terrain is geared toward beginners and intermediates, making it a great choice for families looking to escape the crowds of the region's larger resorts. Eight chairlifts, including four surface lifts, service the easy-to-navigate terrain, which is graced with 450 inches of annual snowfall.One of Homewood's greatest fans is Nan Martin, who worked at the area for 28 years, starting in 1968. Nan herself learned to ski at Homewood in her forties. "I know every chicken way off that mountain," she claims. Though now retired, she visits the ski area regularly in the winter to check on morale and bring the employees gummy bears. According to her barometer, Homewood is as happy as ever. "It's always had a family atmosphere and been a fun place to work, and that's never changed."

There is no less intimidating, more convenient place to learn to ski. The learning area, within view and earshot of the base lodge, has three Pomas and plenty of room for non-skiing kids to play in the snow under watchful eyes. Also clustered at the base are the ski school building (disguised as a little red schoolhouse), an outdoor picnic deck, ski and snowboard rentals and the snack bar. Upstairs in the newly renovated base lodge is the Ridge Grill and Pub, where the walls are filled with old black-and-white pictures chronicling Homewood's past¿scores of wobbly, smiling skiers getting their first taste of group therapy. Here, too, parents set up camp for their non-skiing kids and take turns on the slopes.

It takes more than benevolence to endear Homewood to the locals; it takes great Tahoe terrain without Tahoe hype. Olympic speed skier Jim Morgan spends most of his time at Squaw Valley, but holds Homewood in reserve for certain days. "It's the gem of the lake¿the place to go when you want to be alone and get fresh snow five days after a storm."

From the base, Madden Chair and Quad Chair transport you to the 7,880-foot summit. From there, intermediate and expert trails drop to either side of Rainbow Ridge, a gentle cruiser down Homewood's spine. To skier's left is the Shredwood Forest Terrain Park (one of the first and best in Tahoe) and intermediate terrain serviced by the Quad. Drop to skier's right for longer runs and expert tree skiing serviced by the Ellis Chair, which converges with the Quad at the summit. For more adventure, follow the ridge south from the summit and explore the trees in Hobbit Land. These runs to the Ellis side also connect with Homewood South, which has its own base lodge and parking lot. For challenge look no further than The Face, which starts high above the beginner area at the top of the Madden Chair and seems to drop off into the lake. But keep going and it rolls into a beautifully consistent fall-line pitch. To avoid The Face, take Lombard Street, a cat track that winds its way playfully through the trees to the base.

Homewood is heavy on grassroots programs such as Ride With the Pros, women's snowboard clinics and a junior race team. But perhaps the event that best characterizes Homewood's wide-ranging and unpretentious appeal is the Lord of the Boards competition. Inaugurated in 1996, the annual event tests athletes in alpine, Nordic and telemarking skiing. It also featured the first-ever skiercross, which has become a key event at ESPN's X-Games. "At first, only Homewood allowed such an event," explains Chris Ernst, who commentates for the X-Games and runs the Lord events (now a hugely successful three-stop tour). "Now we have our pick of areas, but Homewood will always be featured."

Like so many other Tahoe-ites, Ernst learned to ski at Homewood. Next year, he hopes to keep with tradition by putting his son on skis at the ski area. That takes us back to what Nan Martin remembers and the favorite part of her job: "The kids come here to learn and then they go to Squaw and Alpine for more status and more mountain. But then they have kids and bring them back here to learn to ski."