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We hop from the snowcat and boot up the final 50 feet to the summit of Ellis Peak, the 8,740-foot mountain that rises above and beyond Tahoe’s Homewood resort. Our group of 10 has spent the morning bouncing turns through untracked glades and snowfields in the Homewood backcountry. Now it’s lunchtime. We flop down in the snow atop the treeless summit and munch steak sandwiches while taking in the views. Before us lies the vast blue mirror of Lake Tahoe, its surface reflecting the snow-covered mountains all around. “That’s crazy beautiful,” someone says. Everyone nods in agreement.
In the past, only hearty skiers willing to head out-of-bounds and skin up here could enjoy this Ellis Peak view. Now it’s available via snowcat, with the only effort being the short scramble to the top for lunch.
Homewood Snowcat Adventures serves more than 1,800 vertical feet and 750 acres encompassing Ellis Peak and its ridgeline shoulders, which lie just beyond the area’s boundary. While there are cliffs and couloirs for huckers and senders, the Ellis Peak area consists primarily of advanced-intermediate pitches through widely spaced trees and open bowls—perfect for anyone who can handle steep blue runs. “This is great terrain to give resort skiers who don’t feel comfortable going out-of-bounds by themselves a taste of the backcountry,” says Bryan Schilling, Homewood’s resort’s snowsports manager.
Our morning began with a safety review (guides provide beacons and packs), followed by a chairlift ride to the top of Old Homewood Express, where our cat awaited. From there it was a 12-minute ride up. On successive laps our guides led us through stands of snow-covered alpine hemlocks, over steep and punchy rollers, and into deep powder stashes. We skirted around Kent’s Cliffs and hit Secret Bowl and Cornice Bowl before skiing back into the resort and again boarding Old Homewood Express for another ride up to our awaiting cat.
“The cool thing is, this is all intermediate terrain in here,” said General Manager Kevin Mitchell, pointing out the window as our cat chugged uphill. “Groups who want to book a whole snowcat to themselves can do blue pow runs all day.” Surprisingly, Homewood Snowcat Adventures is a first for Tahoe. It’s the only resort-based cat service directly adjacent to the lake. (Kirkwood offers cat tours too, but it’s a 45-minute drive from South Lake.) “California doesn’t have many snowcat operations,” Mitchell says, “so we hope this attracts a wider audience of skiers and riders who have never visited.”
Homewood’s snowcat operation is the latest addition in a decadelong effort to upgrade this smallish area on the quiet West Shore, away from the bustling North and South Shore nightclubs, casinos, and crowds. With its multigeneration family cabins tucked beneath tall pines, the West Shore harkens to an earlier era. Partiers and swinging singles may want to lodge elsewhere. Black-bear sightings count as big excitement around here. In fact, residents must be sure to lock their cars lest the clever bears open the door and snoop around for a snack. “Some mornings I will leave the house and half the car doors are open on my street,” says local Kirstin Guinn.
With eight lifts and 64 runs spread across 2,010 acres, Homewood is no Heavenly or Squaw. It’s a Tahoe gem where newbies and visitors seeking a family-friendly setting will feel right at home. While the trees of Hobbit Land and the double-black steeps of 55 Chutes will satisfy experts, Homewood’s best asset is its abundance of broad blue boulevards with eye-popping views of Lake Tahoe.
Homewood is now poised for a new era of growth. Owner JMA Ventures plans to break ground in the summer of 2017 on a five-star boutique hotel with 75 guest rooms and 35 condominiums, a gondola to midmountain, and a new 15,000-square-foot midmountain lodge. I wrote about the redevelopment plans during my first visit to Homewood in 2007, soon after the resort was purchased by JMA. Lawsuits and regulatory approvals slowed JMA’s plans, but now the legal hurdles have been cleared and Homewood is set for its makeover. The plan is to showcase Homewood’s iconic views. “There are some nice midmountain lodges in the Tahoe Basin, but none of them have the views that we do,” Mitchell says.
In future years, JMA wants to rebuild the base area to include ground-level retail with residences above, creating a village center to serve West Shore residents who must now drive to Tahoe City to shop for groceries or hardware. “We want to offer a high-end luxury experience in a boutique resort setting, while also maintaining the classic Homewood feeling,” Mitchell says.
JMA, which also owns Red Lodge Mountain in Montana, is no slouch when it comes to tasteful development. The San Francisco and Tahoe–based firm has overseen many high-profile projects in the Bay Area and is now working on the new arena for the Sacramento Kings NBA team. Meanwhile, visitors this winter will enjoy a few other improvements: Workers have thinned trees beneath Old Homewood Express to improve the glade skiing, and they’ve also widened the Oar Cart run to make it easier for beginners to get back to the base. For drone fans, Homewood is among a handful of areas that have received approval to operate a drone video service.
Back on Ellis Peak, I snap a couple selfies with the lake as a backdrop before our group pushes off for another lap. Homewood’s biggest asset has always been its views. Now, thanks to the snowcat, more skiers can enjoy a front-row seat to the clear blue spectacle that is America’s largest alpine lake.
Eat: West Shore Café offers fine dining in an airy waterfront room with expansive windows overlooking the lake. Sunnyside, in Tahoe City, offers casual lakeside fare like Kobe burgers and mahimahi tacos.
Drink: If it’s a sunny day, the Big Blue View Bar is the place to be. Just a yurt, deck chairs, and a million-dollar view. Upstairs in the North Lodge, 89 Bar and Grill offers all the requisite microbrews plus some signature cocktails. A local favorite is the Mountain Mule, a variation on the Moscow Mule.
Sleep: West Shore Inn, which consists of eight rooms and suites above the restaurant and café, is one of the nicest waterfront lodgings in Tahoe. Wake up, grab breakfast downstairs, and walk across the street to the lifts. The quaint red cabins at Tahoma Meadows B&B are an affordable and fun option close to Homewood and set beneath
Ski: A full day with Homewood Snowcat Adventures costs $399 per person or $2,500 for an entire cat, which seats 10 people.