Ski Resort Life

Ultimate Guide to Tahoe: Essay

With some 24,000 acres of lift-serviced terrain, 160 lifts and 15 ski areas overall, the Tahoe Basin is the stuff that skiers' dreams are made of.

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of SKI.

I first arrived in Tahoe in the midst of a full-blown Sierra blizzard. It was a quintessential Tahoe experience, though I didn’t know it at the time. So much snow had fallen in such a short amount of time—and was continuing to fall—that only the roadway ahead and the white walls of snowdrifts on either side could be seen. Nothing else was visible. None of the brick-and-clapboard buildings or Wild West facades of downtown Truckee. No A-frames nestled in big Ponderosa pines. I couldn’t see the mountains. I didn’t even know there was a lake.

Storms of this sort, followed by weeks of dazzling West Coast sun, are a defining feature of the Tahoe Basin, and a lead player in its history. It was exactly this kind of storm in 1846 that stranded the Donner Party just a few miles west of what is now Truckee. Supersized snowfalls made it not only practical, but smart for a guy named Snowshoe Thompson to deliver the trans-Sierra mail on skis from the 1850s to the 1870s, spreading a love of skiing across the Sierra Nevada at the same time. The signature pattern of big snows followed by sparkling sunshine lured San Franciscans, who started ski clubs in the 1920s alongside their beloved summer cabins and camps. After World War II, the snow and sun also beckoned Hollywood stars to the chic Tahoe slopes. (Some of them also appreciated the proximity to Reno, one of the few places at the time where it was possible to get a quick divorce.) 

A classic Sierra blizzard cleared just moments before the opening ceremonies of the first televised Olympic Winter Games, held at Squaw in 1960, welcoming the world to one of California’s best winter secrets: world-class skiing in the beautiful Tahoe Basin. Certainly, the television coverage helped introduce American skiers to the region’s seemingly contradictory charms: stunningly pure natural beauty combined with the underpinning of the playfully indulgent, anything-goes California lifestyle. The publicity conspired with new easy air access, a boom in hotel beds and the consistently great skiing to make Heavenly Mountain Resort (then called Heavenly Valley) one of the three most-visited ski areas in the U.S. soon after that.

Nothing—and everything—has changed since then. The snow still piles high. The natural beauty overwhelms. And Tahoe’s enduring laid-back style, combined with a new wave of both plush and needed amenities, makes this corner of the High Sierra one of the planet’s greatest places to ski.

But I knew none of this yet. It was 1978, and I was 15. My parents had put me on a Greyhound bus in Santa Monica. An assistant coach for the Squaw Valley USA Ski Team met me at the depot in Truckee and drove me to the Olympic Valley. I saw only one road sign through the swirling snow. Placer County, it said. North Shore? South Shore? I didn’t know the difference—only that I was on my way to world-famous Squaw Valley USA, where I would be living in a bunkroom at my new ski coach’s home. What else did I need to know?

The next day, race training was canceled due to the deluge of snow. I took my first run alone on Squaw’s Red Dog, wearing blue jeans. I couldn’t see the trail. I had never skied in four feet of powder. I made a few tentative turns, then promptly fell head first into the deep snow. After extensive kicking and struggling, I eventually retrieved my gear and battled my way down the mountain, gasping and muttering, jeans frozen and crusted from the thighs down.

Of course, I was hooked. The cliquish Squaw Valley kids dismissed me, and I was terrible at racing. But it didn’t matter. Squaw Valley’s rock-and-roll skiing and soul-stirring landscape had cast its spell. 
I would spend the rest of my teen years pining for Squaw the way other Southern California girls pined for surfers. But Squaw was just the start. In measurements alone, the Tahoe basin is off the American ski charts: Some 24,000 lift-served acres. More than 160 ski lifts. Fifteen alpine ski areas. All of it in an area measuring no more than 100 road miles from end to end. California and Nevada aren’t the first states to come to mind when Americans think skiing. But in fact border-straddling Tahoe is the only place in the U.S. with such a huge amount of skiing in such a small area.

Yet the numbers barely begin to tell the tale. Tahoe’s culture is just as key to its appeal. Tahoe is both laid-back and lively, upscale and lowbrow. It can be strangely unreal yet often feels—like the
finest New England ski towns—as deeply authentic as American ski destinations get.

At its best, Tahoe is hypnotically scenic, in a palette of green, white and blue. Towering pines. Giant boulders. A clear mountain lake so big it’s more like an inland sea. And amidst it all, Tahoe delivers diversity for skiers that’s unmatched. Day areas and destination resorts. Cheap draft beers and tatty motels. Thousand-dollar wines and travertine-tiled Ritz-Carlton suites. Casinos. Race runs. Bump runs. Backcountry runs. Cruisers that yaw, pitch and roll. And world-famous steeps that have made—and broken—many skiing careers.

What you won’t find in Tahoe is one Grand Unified Theory on how to best enjoy the place. It’s simply too big and too diverse. Those who know the region and its resorts can find what they love most in a ski vacation. But this can be a confounding, complex destination for newcomers who like their ski holidays simple, car-free and centralized. In fact, that’s part of the pull of the place. 

A word of caution: The snow can fall fast and deep here. And then the winds whip across the Sierra crest. And the sky clears, as it always does, revealing an astoundingly scenic realm. So even if you fall headfirst into a Tahoe snowdrift while skiing in the unfortunate choice of blue jeans, consider yourself forewarned. Like that first love—the one you never forget—Tahoe gets under your skin.