It had been a couple of years since I last skied Sierra-at-Tahoe. And in an era of ambitious expansions, I was expecting noticeable changes at this lesser-known California ski area. Would there be an upgraded base lodge at the bottom of the slopes? New lifts? More importantly, would we have to pay for parking and schlep our skis up a long access road?
But as my friend Katie and I pulled into this South Lake Tahoe ski area on a sunny Saturday morning in early March, I was relieved to find the atmosphere as welcoming as I remembered it. Dennis, the parking attendant, greeted us with a smile and pointed us to a spot right near the mountain's base. The sun was beaming, skiers and boarders dotted the slopes, and Everybody Wang Chung Tonight blared over the PA. In other words, little had changed.
Located about 180 miles east of San Francisco, 85 miles from Sacramento and 12 miles from the south shore of Lake Tahoe, Sierra-at-Tahoe is a favorite destination for Northern Californians. Most out-of-town visitors opt to ski the larger resorts, such as Squaw or Heavenly, so Sierra remains a locals' gem hidden in a forest of ponderosa pines (which make for great treeskiing). Add plentiful powder, a friendly staff and excellent family programs to the mix¿plus a lot less wind than you find at other Tahoe resorts¿and it's no wonder Sierra has a loyal following.
The best way to start your day at Sierra is with a tasty breakfast burrito or a fresh-fruit smoothie from the Bake Shoppe and a shot of caffeine from The Front Porch Bagel And Brew, both in the base lodge. From there, you'll step out into an invigorating scene: Parents rubbing sunscreen on kids' faces, teenagers huddling together laughing, eager skiers fidgeting with zippers and boot buckles. With this assorted bunch of downhillers, snowboarders and tele skiers all heading up the mountain, liftlines can be packed on weekends. At least for some people. If you're a frequent skier, consider getting a Vertical Plus wristband, an electronic lift ticket that allows you to zip through short liftlines for members only. The wristband also tracks vertical feet gained and allows you to redeem prizes: The more you ski, the more you win.
For a warm-up run, take the Grandview Express chair and then wind your way down 2.5-mile Sugar and Spice, a beginner trail that ambles from the summit of 8,852-foot Huckleberry Mountain to the base area. If the run is crowded, keep your eye out for the short, beginner trail Ego, which takes you to Lower Main, an intermediate run that leads back to the base area.
From there, experts will want to head back up Grandview and make a beeline for one of Sierra's five new backcountry access gates¿if the weather cooperates. Last season, Sierra opened the gates for the first time, allowing skiers to reach hundreds of acres of steeper terrain and deeper powder. But the gates didn't open until late in the season and often had to be closed because of warm weather. The best way to explore the area is to attend a Backcountry 101 course: For $25 (plus a lift ticket), you'll receive a guided tour from a patroller, an avalanche beacon and a safety session. If the backcountry is closed, advanced skiers can tackle the steeps of Preacher's Passion, Castle and Eastabout to skier's right of the Grandview chair, or show off their stuff on Lower Dynamite underneath the lift.
Intermediate skiers should start the day in the groomed West Bowl, especially in spring when the afternoon sun can turn powder to slush. Served by the West Bowl Express and Puma chairs, the bowl offers an abundance of fall-line cruisers and a smattering of moguls. When you're ready for lunch, follow Upper and Lower Sleighride to the base area; then head to the Grandview Bar and Grill at the summit, the one spot at Sierra where you can enjoy views of Lake Tahoe. After lunch, try the backside, which is essentially a giant playground, especially on a powder day. Loosely spaced trees makee for great treeskiing, and terrain park features¿banked turns, loop-de-loops, tabletops and jumps¿are scattered throughout the trails. The slopes aren't overly steep, making the terrain fun even for treeskiing novices.
Sierra's only après-ski action is found at Sierra Pub in the base lodge, so most skiers head directly to South Lake, where you will likely be staying (Sierra has no on-mountain lodging). Try a Wet Woody at Garwoods or a beer at the Tudor Pub. No car? Sierra-at-Tahoe's free shuttles run daily during the winter from 40 properties in South Lake and depart four times a day from the ski area.
Once in South Lake, you will find plenty of hotels, motels, condos and homes¿from Caesar's Palace and other casinos at Stateline, Nev., to the romantic Fantasy Inn or the Embassy Suites in South Lake. With approximately 20,000 beds in the South Lake area, lodging choices abound, but you still may be out of luck if you don't make reservations. Dining options are equally robust, from fine dining at Dory's Oar to sushi at the new Naked Fish¿and reservations are equally necessary. If you still have the gusto to go out, there's live entertainment, gambling and dancing throughout town.
After a lively night, you'll need a hearty breakfast. Try Heidi's, the yellow gingerbread-style house off of Highway 50 in South Lake. (For healthier fare, visit Sprouts, less than a mile away.) Load up on carbs, and then head back to the resort for another ski day.
When observing your fellow Sierra guests, you'll notice families galore, probably because of the resort's popular children's programs. The Wild Mountain Children's Center and Day Care offers snow-sporting camps for kids ages 4 through 12. Day care is an option for younger children (18 months to 5 years), again offered in full- or half-day sessions.
Even first thing in the morning, you'll likely see both kids and adults getting geared up for a few runs on snowbikes and other snow toys. Snowshoe trails and rentals were implemented for the first time last season, adding yet another activity to Sierra's growing list of winter amusements. Especially popular is the 700-foot-long tubing hill at the base area, where I took a few runs to end my weekend. On my last ride, I found myself in the midst of a chain of tubers, who all grabbed hands to create a train ride to the bottom¿typical camaraderie at friendly Sierra-at-Tahoe.
Recreation will continue to be the focus of attention at Sierra, with money being spent on on-hill programs rather than real-estate development. Later this year, the area plans to expand its summer activities, including mountain biking, hiking, camping, backpacking and concerts. It also hopes to expand backcountry access, snowshoe trails and women's ski and snowboard clinics. What won't change is its welcoming staff and affable atmosphere.
Sierra ski ambassador Warren Spraque sums it up perfectly: "When you come here, someone greets you," he says. "You are the most important product." And I can say that I experienced exactly that.