For most travellers, California conjures images of sand, sun and surf. Many are surprised to discover the USA’s Golden State has world-class ski resorts offering record-breaking snowfall, exciting après-ski activities and a variety of lodging options to fit all budgets. There’s no doubt California is home to some of the country’s best ski slopes. And Lake Tahoe’s winter wonderland has the largest concentration of ski resorts anywhere in the USA.
The varied terrain of the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountain range offers fun on the slopes for all levels, from gentle slopes for beginners to thrilling back country skiing. And terrain parks with steep slopes, chutes and mogul fields.
Then there’s the novelty of skiing in both California and Nevada on the same day. The slopes have breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe’s stunning alpine lake framed by snow-capped peaks. And to top it off, 300 days of sunshine and an average annual snowfall of 10.67 metres just about guarantees a fantastic time on the snow.
Best for panoramic views – Heavenly Lake Tahoe
California’s largest ski resort straddles the Nevada-California border offering skiers the unique opportunity of skiing in both California and Nevada on the same day. Heavenly Lake Tahoe’s slopes are ideal for intermediate skiers but also offer challenging black runs, steep areas, moguls and lots of terrain parks for advanced skiers.
On the California side, the sapphire-blue waters of Lake Tahoe surrounded by snow-capped peaks are a page from a picture-book. The Nevada side is great for skiing through forests of giant snow-covered pines while the sunburned desert lies in the valley below; the contrast of wintry alpine and harsh desert vistas is a sight to remember.
Tired of skiing? Then take in the views from the Heavenly Gondola or zip down the mountain at 80 kilometres an hour on the exhilarating Heavenly Flyer ZipRider; at 1000 metres long it’s the longest zip line, or flying fox, in continental USA.
And when the sun goes down, cross the border for 24/7 gambling at Harrah’s, Harvey’s or one of Nevada’s many casinos.
Best for après ski – Northstar-at-Tahoe
89 ski trails criss-cross 1175 hectares of snow; there are terrain parks and snow sports such as alpine and telemark skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tubing. And high-tech geocaching treasure hunts where guests use GPS (global positioning system) handheld devices to search for caches of prizes.
When the sun goes down, Northstar-at-Tahoe is one of the best places to trade in the skis or snowboard boots for dancing shoes. The après skiing scene at Northstar’s village is vibrant with live bands, special events, festivals and loads of parties. Head for Butterbox where the DJ booth has two limited-edition 24K gold Technics turntables and a busy calendar of DJ parties throughout the winter.
The picturesque village is centred on a year-round skating rink with luxury condominiums, stylish boutiques, art galleries, cafes and restaurants around it. The new one- two- and three-bedroom luxury villas are located in the heart of the village only steps from the ski lifts.
The cosy fire pits by the skating rink are the perfect spot to roast mouth-watering s’mores (creamy melted marshmallows sandwiched between chocolate squares and graham crackers).
Best for Olympic fans – Squaw Valley USA
World famous for its role as the host of the VIII Olympic Winter Games held in 1960, Squaw Valley offers steep scenic skiing and lots of winter activities for non skiers.
Olympic Games fans can swap skis for ice skates and glide around the Olympic Ice Pavilion, or pay tribute to the Winter Olympic champions at High Camp’s Olympic Museum. During these games, Jean Vuarnet became the first Olympian to compete on metal skis, a pair of Allais 60’s, winning gold for France in the Men’s Downhill. And the USA won their first gold medal in ice hockey.
Squaw Valley USA’s 34 lifts, including North America’s only Funitel and an aerial Cable Car, access six peaks and 1618 hectares of terrain suitable for all abilities. And there’s a new high-tech ticketing system using SmartCard technology to shorten the queues.
This is the only place in Lake Tahoe that offers night skiing. For the convenience of a private on-property triple chairlift with convenient ski-in, ski-out access to Squaw Valley’s slopes, stay at the Resort at Squaw Creek.
Best for families – Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort
There are no fancy villages or luxury amenities at Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. Here you’ll find an authentic old-fashioned family holiday vibe.
Lift ticket packages are competitively priced for families. And family friendly offers make it easy for families to stay and play. There are family meal deals and family private lessons. The 3-Pak lift ticket allows families to ski together at competitive prices and the Parent Predicament Lift Ticket is great for parents who want to take turns to babysit and ski on the same ticket. The Parent Zone at Thunder Gultch allows parents to watch their children learning at the ski and snowboarding school.
Most runs, including intermediate, advanced and kids’ zones, lead to the base lodge. So the layout of the mountain is really convenient to for family members of various abilities to meet for lunch or hot chocolate breaks.
The kids will love checking out weather patterns and following storms in real time with Sierra’s interactive applications over the internet. And the new mobile web site caters for iPhone and smartphone users with touch-screen design, live feeds reporting daily conditions, weather, news and events.
Best for adventure addicts – Kirkwood Mountain Resort
Black diamond skiers take note. At 2377 metres, Kirkwood Mountain Resort has the highest base in California and an annual snowfall of around 15 metres.
The snow here is light and dry, making it a top spot for deep-powder skiing. There are plenty of challenging chutes, cliff drops, and high-pitch bowls and glades offering some of the best advanced and expert terrain in the country.
The backcountry education program offers courses on snow safety, avalanche terrain awareness, and transmitter and transceiver use. Those who want to experience the thrill of camping out overnight can join a new snow-camping class to learn gear and site selection, packing strategies and cold-weather cooking.
California’s only resort with a cat skiing operation offers skiers the opportunity to seek out fresh powder on the Powder Cat Tour to Martin Point and Red Cliffs.
Recent facility upgrades include two new lifts and a new Wonder Carpet lift in the Timber Creek beginner’s area. And construction is underway on two lodges which will offer ski-in, ski-out facilities, spa, fitness centre, wine bar and store by December 2009.
Best for guided programs – Alpine Meadows
From backcountry guided tours to children’s day camps for four-year-olds, Alpine Meadows has lessons and tours for skiers of every skill level. And with 971 hectares of terrain served by 14 lifts and more than 100 trails, there’s plenty of skiing for everyone.
Last season saw the introduction of new multi-day Steep Camps for advanced skiers and a new partnership with Burton Snowboards, using the Burton Learn To Ride snowboard beginner equipment and instructional technique for both children and adults. There’s a new series of women’s multi-day ski and snowboard camps along with a new telemark ski camp.
First timers can sign up for a comprehensive guide to the basics including how to dress and choosing the right skis. And there’s an adaptive ski school for disabled skiers and snow boarders.
For Women By Women camps offers skiing with female instructors, video analysis, advice on choosing and fitting equipment, après ski and lunch.
There are over 70 lodging options around the mountain, from value-conscious to the lake-side luxury of the five-star Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe.
Best for the budget conscious – Mount Rose Ski Tahoe
Although not strictly in California – Mount Rose Ski Tahoe is just across the border in Nevada – it offers fun on skis for the budget conscious. With Reno just 25 minutes by road, skiers have access to a huge choice of city accommodation options served by a twice-daily shuttle bus.
The resort offers creative ski packages such as 2 for Tuesdays, offering two full lift tickets for the price of one, Over the Hill $35 Wednesdays for over 50s, Ladies Day Thursdays where ladies ski for $29, competitive weekend passes and family packages.
But even though it’s so close to a major city, Mount Rose has the highest base elevation of all Lake Tahoe’s resorts and the views are out of this world. You’ll often find good powder skiing and the chutes adds a new dimension for serious skiers and riders. And with three dedicated beginner lifts, it’s a good spot to learn.
Looking for more mountains to ski in North America? Have you tried skiing in Canada?
Lake Tahoe is 780 kilometres from Los Angeles, around eight hours driving time.
Alpine Meadows, tel: +1 530 583 4232
Heavenly Lake Tahoe, tel: + 1 775 586 7000
Kirkwood Mountain Resort, tel:+1 209 258 6000
Mount Rose Ski Tahoe, tel: + 1 775 849 0704
Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort, tel: +1 530 563 1010
Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, tel: + 1 530 659 7453
Squaw Valley USA, tel: + 1 530 583 6955