Ski Heaven in South Lake Tahoe
By David McKay Wilson
The snow kept falling during our spring break in South Lake Tahoe – on the shores and in the glorious mountains nearby North America’s largest alpine lake.
It flurried at Sierra-at-Tahoe during our warm-up day, as we floated through powder in a magical lichen-covered forest.
It snowed sideways at Kirkwood with the wind howling while we found powder over our boots in the open snow fields.
And when we awoke to 10 inches of fresh powder on our last day in the Sierras, I declared were in heaven.
Actually, we were at Heavenly – at the sprawling resort in the Sierras that straddles the California and Nevada line. That morning we awoke at our mid-mountain unit at the Ridge Resorts for one of those memorable days with my sons and nephew on our annual Mancation in the mountains.
It’s a trip we’ve taken each year out West since 2011, sampling the best skiing North America has to offer.
There’s nothing like spending a week in the alpine heights with the boys, including with one son who’d moved to the Bay Area, bought an Epic Pass from Vail Resorts, and had already skied Heavenly on day trips on the bus from Oakland with Tahoe Ski Trips. We opted to go car-free on our trip as well, taking the South Tahoe Transporter from the Reno airport, a free shuttle up to Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Uber for short trips at the resorts.
South Lake Tahoe, with about 10,000 beds, has accommodations for everyone. There are well-appointed rooms at the Nevada casinos, economy motel rooms starting at $69 a night along Route 50, and the upscale lakefront units, like the one we enjoyed for three nights, at the Lakeshore Lodge & Spa.
We also spent two nights on the mountain at Ridge Tahoe in a two-bedroom hilltop condo, at $249 a night.
Each place had its allure.
The Lakeshore features 34 condo units and 41 hotel rooms, all set back from Route 50, and facing the lake. Our two-bedroom unit has a bonus third sleeping room off the upstairs bathroom. It’s within walking distance of several restaurants, including our favorite breakfast spot, Heidi’s, and the Brewery at Lake Tahoe, a pizza and beer joint, one of the many microbreweries that have sprung up around the lake.
At Ridge Tahoe, we stayed in a sparkling two-bedroom, two-bath unit with marble bathrooms, a cozy living room and glorious views of the Carson Valley. We ate at the nearby Fox and Hound, where the fried pickles and State Line BBA feast – with a half a chicken, pulled pork, half a rack of ribs, and sausage – fueled the hungry lads after a long day on the slopes.
Both had spectacular outdoor hot tubs – my favorite place to relax at the end of a long day on the mountain, soaking in the soothingly warm waters, with a jacuzzi jet massaging leg muscles pushed to the limit on the hill. At the Lakeshore, we soaked at the tub by the beach, watching night descend as billowing clouds rolled in under the big sky.
Up at the Ridge, the hot tub was on the roof, where you looked down to the Nevada desert below, and felt the wind swirling from the alpine peaks above. One night, with a snow squall in full swirl, I donned a wool hat and my swim suit, and experienced the storm from the roof, in the warmth of a bubbling tub.
If you are looking for a ski area with a funky down-home feel, Sierra-at-Tahoe is for you. It’s the closest major ski area to Sacramento, just 90 miles away. Lift tickets are less costly, with the well-groomed runs and powder-filled woods offering terrain for all level. The on-mountain food was surprising good, with an Asian Fusion restaurant called Solstice stoking us with veggie banh mi sandwiches for lunch. The mountain has serious cred with the snowboarding crowd, with Olympic gold medalists Jamie Anderson and Hannah Teter calling it their home hill.
There’s 2,000 skiable acres at Sierra-at-Tahoe, including huge expanses of dreamy skiing in its glades. My favorite terrain was in the woods off Upper Castle, where old-growth red firs were spared the lumberjack’s saw during the 1870s when most of the other trees were cut down to supply the nearby Comstock Lode silver mines. There was an other-worldly feel in the grove, with the soaring trees draped in luminescent, feathery green lichen that thrived in the moisture-filled alpine air.
While Sierra-at-Tahoe is owned independently, both Kirkwood and Heavenly are owned by Vail Resorts, with the popular Epic Pass drawing skiers from across the nation.
We headed up to Kirkwood on our second day with Stuart Maas, the fast-skiing Scotsman from the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. It’s a 30-mile drive from the lake, ascending through winding roads to where Tom Cruise filmed Top Gun 2 in 2018. Kirkwood is known for its powder, and with 22 feet of snow falling in the month of February, the base was deep when we arrived in late March, with the snow still falling.
It’s a commanding mountain, mostly above timber line, with wide expansive bowl stretching along a long ridge. It’s a place for wide-open cruising, and challenging steep chutes through red-rocks protruding through the snow.
We found the best snow in Sentinel Bowl, and Palisades Bowl, with the windblown powder settling in.
And boys being boys, they sought out precipices from which they could soar.
“Watch me launch off this one!” crowed one son, reminding me of him as a 10-year old, with a penchant for catching air.
On the morning we awoke to 10 inches of Heavenly powder, we got out early on the Nevada side, laying down lines of fresh tracks through the Aires Woods. Our early arrival paid dividends as we skied to California. We prospected for fresh fluff down a trail called ‘49er – and quickly found a lode of untouched power in the crisp blue morning. The pitch was perfect for our long lines of esses.
With the mountain deep in powder we took a few laps on the summit lift, where snow from the snowy season stood 15 feet deep, with just the trees tops to show at 10,000 feet. Afterall it had snowed 20 of the past 28 days. There was seemingly no bottom to the snow, so we played our way down through the tree tops, floating on the untracked snow down Skiway Glades. And then we skied down past the lifts, all the way down to the base, by the lake.
We skied all the way down, taking the double blacks down East Bowl, sticking to the trees where the powder was up to our knees in spots.
There, we found the Tramway, and took it up for lunch at the Lakeview Lodge, eating elk burgers smeared with Brie and onions and chicken polenta corn chowder. By afternoon, were back over to Killebrew Canyon on the Nevada side. It was another harrowing pitch, but buffeted by the piles of snow that had barely been skied.
By 3 p.m. on our final day, I was beat, but determined to stick it out. I could feel it in my knees, so I dialed it back, made my turns smaller, more deliberate, at a meandering pace. It brought me back to the days when I followed my Dad down the mountain, matching his graceful turns on the groomers on days he’d proclaim it was time for some ballroom skiing.
I remembered those days. And I cherished the time on the slopes with my sons, enjoying ourselves on our Heavenly alpine adventures. By 3:30 p.m., we were done. We climbed 43 steps to the funicular, and headed back to the Ridge, where the rooftop hot tub awaited.