Call Northstar-At-Tahoe the Charles Atlas of Sierra Nevada ski resorts. Its modest mountain used to have a clear niche: attracting families and teaching them how to ski. But sand got kicked in its face with its nickname: "Flatstar." Hip locals never set an advanced ski boot on its slopes. During the past decade, however, the Booth Creek-owned area has spent more than $15 million on improvements. Nonetheless, it was the recent opening of Mt. Pluto's backside that finally dispelled any mixed feelings about Northstar's terrain. The resort has beefed up its 70 runs and 2,420 acres with steeps, chutes, cruisers and bumps that dwell alongside manicured boulevards tilted just enough for ego-boosting turns. Family programs continue to flex the mountain's strongest muscles. In addition to state-licensed child care, Paw Park features kid-size terrain. Parents take advantage of the "Parent's Predicament" interchangeable lift ticket, which allows one parent to ski while the other watches the little one. Northstar's success has created its own drawbacks. Averaging more than 500,000 visitors a year, third busiest in Tahoe, the resort sometimes resembles the retreat from Moscow. "I've seen smaller crowds at Disneyland," a critic says. Although Northstar offers a vast variety of off-slope accommodations and amenities, for local color, revelers head to the retro-chic town of Truckee, six miles north, or to the North Shore clubs in Kings Beach and Tahoe City.
WHAT'S NEW 250 indoor seats at the Summit Deck and Grille atop Mt. Pluto; $1 million snowmaking expansion; additional guest services in the base village; a new rental shop at the mid-mountain lodge.
A GOOD DEAL Free two-hour lessons offered daily for intermediate and advanced skiers or boarders.
MEDALS GOLD Grooming, Service, Weather, Family Programs; SILVER Snow, Terrain, Challenge, Lifts, Access, On-Mountain Food, Dining.
HIGH/LOW RANK Family Programs (6), Grooming (11), Service (11); Scenery (47), Terrain (53), Challenge (55).
DON'T MISS Full-moon snowmobile tour to the top of Mt. Pluto with dinner at the Summit Deck and Grille.
READER REMARKS (+) "Secluded tree runs and nice cruisers." "First-rate family resort with a terrific staff."
(-) "Too crowded, too much traffic." "Low elevation. No nightlife."