Think "ski town" and Reno-with its high desert landscape, casino culture, 100-year-old core and modern strip-mall sprawl-is definitely not the first place that leaps to mind. But if affordable homes, a thriving economy,
diverse career options and an international airport are as important to you as fantastic skiing, then Reno suddenly makes sense. Add a population that is less than one-third the size of Salt Lake City's, an abundance of brand-name shopping, outdoor pursuits and the bonus prize everyone loves-no state income tax-and you have a hard-to-beat urban playground.
"You wouldn't believe how many ski people live around here," says freestyle legend Wayne Wong, who has called Reno home since 1993. "Once we moved here, I realized why. There's some great skiing available." Fifteen alpine resorts and seven nordic centers lie within 90 miles, to be precise, with the closest skiing (and the Tahoe region's best snow) located a mere 22 miles away at Mt. Rose.
"And the lifestyle is fantastic," Wong adds. "It can be sunny down here and snowing like crazy up on the hill."
"The hill" is the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which rises to heights of 11,000 feet in a north-south line along Reno's western flank. The city's downtown core and its abundant suburbs-some well-established and surrounded by ranchlands and mature, sheltering trees, many others newly carved out of the dusty range-lie at an elevation of 4,400 feet in a desert river basin called the Truckee Meadows.
For many-especially skiers-Reno's arid landscape of sagebrush and alkaline lakes takes some getting used to. "I didn't think I was going to like it as much as I do," admits Erich Dathe, 38. Dathe lived in the Tahoe basin and worked as an on-slope photographer at Squaw Valley USA before moving to Reno with his family in pursuit of job opportunities and affordable housing. "But Reno has a way of growing on you. And it's close to everything people from the Bay Area spend four hours in their cars to reach." Best of all, Dathe (who found work in graphic design) and his wife Beth (a credit manager at a large construction personnel company) were able to buy a 2,200-square-foot home for the price of a one-bedroom condo in Tahoe.
Reno came to life in the mid-1800s as gold rushers and other settlers paused by the banks of the Truckee River to rest before attempting Donner Pass. Reno grew with silver mining (the nearby Comstock Lode was discovered in 1858) and the arrival of both the transcontinental railroad (1867) and the transcontinental Lincoln Highway (1927), but came to its greatest renown in the 1930s, '40s and '50s as the place for gambling and no-fault divorces. The two went hand in hand: Divorces were allowed after six weeks of residency; while people waited, they gambled and enjoyed the surrounding lakes and mountains.
Skiing was part of the package from the beginning. Makeshift surface lifts sprouted on the snow-covered slopes southwest of town in the 1930s (at about the same time "The Biggest Little City in the World" became the official Reno slogan). In 1945, Sky Tavern, a full-service destination ski resort, opened on the forested slopes below hulking Mt. Rose. The resort, with a base elevation of 7,600 feet, featured instructors from Sun Valley, Idaho, an on-site casino operated by Harrah's and outstanding vistas of the little city below. Sky Tavern was a hit with Hollywood and locals alike. Its popular Junior Ski Program, which began in 1948, taught kids from all over the Truckee Meadows for the price of a lift ticket. (Today Sky Tavern is owned by the city, and the volunteer-driven Junior Ski Program continues to provide low-cost ski, snowboard and adaptive lessons to more than 3,500 kids each winter.) After Sky Tavern's heyday, Reno's grown-up skiers moved farther up Mt. Rose's flanks to a 9,700-foot false summit known as Slide Mountain, where the Reno Ski Bowl opened in the 1950s, eventually merging with a third resort to become today's Mt. Rose.
Unlike Las Vegas, Reno has pursued aggressive economic diversification over the past 20 years, a strategy that is paying returns now. As the gaming industry has dipped, Reno's many manufacturing, distribution, financial services and technology companies (including divisions of General Motors, Barnes & Noble, Ralston Foods, Amazon.com, Oracle, Cisco Systems, Intuit and Microsoft) keep Reno's economy buzzing. Even Intrawest (North America's leading ski conglomerate and the developer of resort villages at Squaw Valley, Mammoth Mountain, Copper Mountain and more) is in the process of consolidating its western U.S. operations into a new office in this booming high desert basin.
All of which means that a typical sunny day on Mt. Rose finds as many casino workers and retirees as computer programmers, mortgage brokers and health-care professionals breezing down the north face's broad, wind-chaffed boulevards or spinning quick uncrowded laps on the steep, powdery glades of Rose's east face. Racers from the Mt. Rose Falcons Ski Team run gates under the Northwest Magnum, a high-speed six-seater that rises 1,500 feet in three and a half minutes. Low ticket prices (particularly the $249 early-season pass and weekday ticket specials that run $10-$24) mean Rose racks up more than 200,000 annual skier visits per year, 65 percent of which are from Reno.
Mt. Rose has the highest base elevation of any Tahoe area resort, ensuring excellent snow, but it's by no means local skiers' only option. Nine other alpine resorts, including Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sugar Bowl, are within a 45-minute drive of most homes (and hotel rooms) in Reno. "From my house to the Alpine Meadows parking lot is 50 minutes," says Wong, who skis an average of four days per week. "But my house to the airport is 14 minutes." Wong travels frequently to host charity events, lead ski clinics (including "Learn Right From Wong") and make special appearances at places like Club Med's new ski destination near Serre Chevalier, France. "Reno is so convenient," says Wong. "I left here on a Thursday, went to France for the weekend and was back on Monday."
The Wong family's home is perched high on a hillside at the edge of the city in a newer, upscale tract development-not exactly what you'd expect for the world's first freestyle champion. A Mercedes and a Suburban are parked in the tidy front drive, marble floors (installed by Wong himself) welcome visitors, and a small swimming pool beckons out back. The perennially tanned and beaming ski personality explains that he and his wife moved from the Tahoe basin for the top-ranked public schools and cultural offerings for their two daughters. They found far more than they expected: 300 days of annual sunshine, four seasons, manageable traffic, affordable real estate, plus all the conveniences of a well-equipped city and all the recreation of the High Sierra. "We love the Reno area," says Wong smiling broadly. "I can't think of anywhere else we'd rather be."
When state legislators legalized gaming in the 1930s, the national response was one of horror: "Cancel Nevada's statehood," demanded the Chicago Tribune, while the Los Angeles Times called Nevada a "vicious Babylon."