Sugar Bowl, Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood
Min. # of Days:
California: 800-427-7623; dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfoNevada:877-687-6237; nevadadot.com/traveler/roads
Insects are as multicolored on the inside as they are on the out, and if you don't believe me, you should drive through California's Central Valley in spring, when bug storms stand as proxies for snow until the next March miracle rolls down from Alaska and sweeps its deluge across the farms and meth labs and shiny Bay Area Volvos heading east for the weekend. Whatever happens here on the western edge of the Sierra, it happens with intensity. There are blizzards of legendary fury, sun that shines with Saharan radiance—and enough windshield kamikazes to feed a thousand migrating flocks.
The valley is like an airlock between city and mountains, but before long we get off the damn freeway, trade speed for character, and climb and twist as the haze thins and the bugs are left behind. My traveling companion, Sinuhe Xavier, and I are pining for the crannies and nooks of Tahoe, the high-profile skiing and gambling mecca of Northern Cali. Squaw and Heavenly may be the giant stars that warp the space-time fabric of the area, but they're not on our itinerary. Our plan is to explore some of the region's lower-key areas: Sugar Bowl in the north, then Alpine Meadows heading south, and Kirkwood at the end. The skiing's just as good—if not better—and there's much less attitude.
The ski areas are languid midweek, alive on the weekend. It's a full-on party Saturday at Alpine Meadows, with a reggae band, avalanche dog-training, and boom-boom huck-jam sessions on every little hit in the park. We blast slush bumps—and cook ourselves by lunch. Sugar Bowl on Sunday smells of Banana Boat and melted wax, spilled Red Bull and sizzling burgers. We ski till last chair and drink on the deck in the sun.
There's a flirtation with the speed limit that leads to a test of edges on the colder, pre-corn snow at Kirkwood on Tuesday morning. This high-altitude outpost is wide-open—and all ours. A patrol party rages atop Chair 2 in honor of visiting pros from Jackson. Army ski troopers with sunburned ears slide by in digital camo. The winch cats fire up their diesels to make the steeps safe again. It's simple stuff—Tahoe beyond the spotlight—but I can't imagine anything better, except for a fast car and another day on the road.