Family Skiing at Lake Tahoe
This is a guest post by K. Pearson Brown. Photos provided courtesy of Pearson and Ski Lake Tahoe.
No such thing as too much snow
Storm after storm this winter kept Lake Tahoe resorts under blankets of snow, with the Sierra Nevada Mountains getting buried in more than 50 feet of powder. After several dry winters, this place needed snow, and it has been an incredible bounty for vacationing families.
The skiing this year is stupendous, and the season promises to extend far into spring. On a recent trip to Reno and Tahoe, our family hit five – yes five – of the resorts, one each day, on a blizzard of a vaca of skiing and family fun. It was a most excellent way to spend time with the family and brush up on our skiing and snowboarding skills.
Family friendly Mt. Rose
Our first stop was Mt. Rose, which is so close to the airport – about a 25-minute drive – that the resort offers discounted lift tickets for those who show their same-day airline boarding passes. The resort is known for its spectacular views, its family friendly atmosphere and mellow attitude. The resort features terrain for all levels as well as the longest continuous vertical in North America; and at 8,260 feet elevation, Mt. Rose is Tahoe’s highest base resort, which means the resort often has the best conditions even on the warmest spring days.
Lots of families choose Mt. Rose because of the excellent kid’s program, the policy of courtesy to others on the slopes, and the general easy-going attitude of the staff, which I witnessed firsthand at guest services. I was standing in line behind a sad young boy and his father as they explained to a staff member that the boy’s snowboard ankle buckle had broken, so they asked if they could get a refund on their lift tickets. The clerk sympathetically looked at the broken binding and said she would gladly refund their money, or she would comp him a rental snowboard, if he wanted to stay. “Would you like that?” she asked the boy, who burst into tears of gratitude. I thought his father would cry too, and I myself got a little misty eyed at the gesture.
Skiing large at Squaw Alpine
Our second day we spent at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadow, now known as Squaw Alpine since the two neighboring resorts merged in 2012. The resort is massive in size, boasting a combined 6,200 acres and 43 lifts and 270 trails, attracting 6000,000 skiers a year. Although lift tickets and amenities are interchangeable, the two resorts features distinctly different feels to visitors.
Squaw, known as the site for the 1960 Olympics and recently voted as the top resort in North America by USA Today, is a high-energy resort that attracts many professional skiers, though it has a variety of terrain, including 25 percent beginner’s slopes. Alpine Meadows is known for its down-home and approachable hospitality and its easy-riding progression parks and wide-open bowls, with terrain for all levels of skiers.
Because of Squaw Alpine’s size and resources, it has amazing offerings. From tubing and snowmobiling, to dog sledding and ice-skating, there’s just about no snow sport you can’t do there. There is also a lovely village at Squaw with terrific dining and shopping and generally except for holiday weekends, it’s not too crowded.
Our experience as was a bit higher stress that usual, because we chose a holiday weekend day to hit the slopes. We arrived at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows later than recommended, in the early afternoon, and we paid the price. The normally uncrowded slopes were packed, and I made the mistake of going down the Funitel at the end of the day.
This infamous run, which some say is the most harrowing of all ski trails in America, and at the end of the day when many of the runs close, everyone on the mountain is literally funneled to this one narrow run. As boarders zipped by me and skiers were so close behind and beside me, I almost had to straight-line it down the mountain. I felt lucky to have landed at the bottom without a bad spill. I heard one father at basecamp saying he made his kids ride the chair lift down rather than tackle that run, as its reputation for accidents is well-known.
It’s a good thing there were so many après ski options for a drink – and some fine appetizers — after our day on the mountain. In fact, the eateries at and around Squaw Alpine are renowned for their culinary excellence. Recently Mountain Roots brought their immensely delicious menu to the line-up with a pop-up location at the base village and will soon be a permanent member of the Squaw Alpine restaurant family.
Northstar of wonder
On day three we hit Northstar California, aptly named for its location on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. The resort is part of the Vail Group which also includes the Tahoe resorts of Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood, which all have the reputation as resorts dedicated to a premier visitor experience.
It was a bit of a drive from Parc Foret, about an hour and half, but we were glad to make a day of our venture to this luxury destination. Northstar features a Ritz-Carlton and other upscale accommodations and dining for visitors who like their skiing experience made easy. On-mountain dining includes the popular Zephyr Lodge, accessible by tram for pedestrians, which makes mincemeat of the standard chili and hot cocoa lodge fare with gourmet cuisine, which of course comes at a cost, but the typical Northstar clientele are not too concerned about a $25 lunch.
Northstar prides itself in its laid-back luxury, which is exactly what it sounds like. You’re treated like a VIP, but the tenor of the staff and the vibe in the village is definitely not uptight. The resort features amenities such as a valet who will carry your skis to the snow’s edge, though if you are staying in the luxury accommodations in the village, there’s hardly a reason for such a service, since the slopes are about 100 feet from your door step. In true ski-in-ski out fashion, one of the gondolas actually travels underneath the village condominiums.
The village has plenty of upscale shopping, with high-end ski apparel boutiques, a quaint toy store and even a make-your-own pottery studio, as well as a skating rink that gets pretty lively around 3:30 pm when the kids come out to make s’mores by the firepits.
Treasure of Sierra-at-Tahoe
As a storm came in, we rushed on our second to last day of vacation to Sierra at Tahoe. Unfortunately, the only road up to the mountain was bumper-to-bumper with other vacationers on the holiday weekend with the same idea. We spent more than 90 minutes edging up the hill for the last 7 miles to the top. The situation got a little desperate after morning coffee, forcing us to make an unscheduled stop behind a snow mound for a potty break.
The lumbering ride up to Sierra-at-Tahoe is worth the trip though. Having the only half-pipe on the south shore, Sierra is popular with snowboard riders, and because of its focus on value and affordable lift ticket packages, it draws many day users, making base camp a vibrant place to hang out. Being on the south shore, Sierra is also close to the night life and casinos, so it has become a favored resort of the party crowd.
In keeping with their theme of fun in the snow, Sierra’s kids lessons and the Smart Terrain classes for all ages are led by qualified instructors, upon whom the resort has bestowed the Certified Unserious badge, a designation that guarantees, among other things, that staff are dedicated to guests learning in a fun environment suited for their skill level.
Heavenly Can’t Wait
Our last day was at Heavenly Mountain Resort, which in my experience skiing there for more than 25 years has always lived up to its name. Despite the holiday crowds and stormy weather, the resort managed to open several major runs, and the powder was fantastic.
As the resort with the highest elevation of the Lake Tahoe area resorts, with a peak elevation of 10,067 feet, Heavenly has some of the most magnificent vistas. For skiers who like their terrain raw, Heavenly has no shortage of intense backcountry terrain, along with plenty of varied terrain from wide-open cruisers fo plunging 1,600-foot chutes. While they didn’t need it this year, Heavenly owns the largest snow-making system in the area, so even during dry years, they usually have decent conditions.
Our last journey down the mountain was on Roundabout, a winding narrow intermediate trail that traverses the mountain at a leisurely pace, sometimes where we had to use our poles to push ourselves. It’s a good thing the mellow terrain allowed us to catch our breath, as it would have been taken away by the spectacular views we got to enjoy all the way down.
Parking it at Parc Foret
After our days on the slopes, our family crashed in Reno, where we enjoyed ultra-luxurious accommodations at the Parc Foret at Montreux. If you haven’t heard of it, this enclave of the Montreux master-planned development of luxury family homes, just 30 minutes from the Reno-Tahoe airport, is a family oriented community with year-round appeal.
The facilities for kids include a playground and sports courts for basketball, tennis, volleyball and pickleball, youth programs including camps, crafts, movies, swimming and tennis lessons, and outdoor activities known. For the grown-ups (and some kids), the community is also well known for its world-class golfing, along with fitness classes including aerobics, Pilates, yoga, spin, and TRX.
The custom-built homes in the Montreux development impressed us with both their grandeur and design. We were lucky enough to experience the Stay and Play package, whereby potential homeowners are invited to reside a few days in the community – a clever marketing tactic, because that’s all it takes for visitors to fall in love with the place. We felt very at home at Montreux, and we were tempted to hang out there all day, but we didn’t want to miss a minute of skiing.
Our Hotel Becket
We changed our accommodations our last two nights to the new Hotel Becket, a Joie de Vivre property. It was quite a switch from our three-bedroom luxury home, but we expected and got a different experience at this uber cool millennial lodging spot. Directly across from the Heavenly Village of restaurants and bars, and sporting its own Ten Crows Restaurant, this happening hotspot is social central.
While the weekend we visited the hotel was freshly opened and getting out glitches, the management handled our every request with aplomb. The hotel has everything a guest needs for a quick and comfortable slumber, wide screen TV, Wi-Fi, spa services, etc., and guests’ choice of rooms, either the rustic alpine charm of the Sierra-style Woods rooms, or the newly renovated and contemporary Village rooms, with architectural details such as reclaimed barn wood doors. But honestly, the target clientele of this hotel does not spend much time holed up in a hotel room, no matter how luxuriously appointed.
Easy rent, easy go
What usually is the most aggravating part of the skiing experience, returning rental equipment, was made easy by our newfound friends at Tahoe Dave’s. Getting our gear there was much smarter than renting at each resort. We kept the gear overnight and saved ourselves the hassle of waiting in lines to rent and return gear each day. The folks at the shop were highly knowledgeable and helpful. They are also great salespeople, as they convinced us to buy the top-of-the-line ski goggles with chroma-pop lenses, which we were glad we did when we skied in heavy snowfall yet the goggles amazingly sharpened the definition of the contours on the terrain.
In case you ever wonder how these ski resorts get along after the snow melts, I was surprised to learn that the summer season is equally fantastic for them. Many have summer programs and attractions, such as scenic gondola rides and even a mountain coaster at Heavenly, as well as mountain biking, hiking, camping, ropes courses and ziplines, river boat tours, fishing adventures, and water sports on the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe bring a boon of year-round business.
While for ski resorts generally the rule is there can’t be enough snow, the 2017 season has been a challenge. Some resorts ended up bringing in snow melting equipment from New York so that they could clear parking lots that were lost to the mountains of snow cleared by plows. Also, because of the fierce storms and winds, many chairlifts were grounded and slopes opened late or not at all due to dangerous weather conditions. The good news of course is that a 600-inch pack will be slow to melt, and spring skiing will continue to be awesome, likely into summer months.
Disclosure: Accommodations, activity passes, rental equipment and meals were provided by Ski Lake Tahoe, Parc Foret at Montreux and Tahoe Dave’s in exchange for consideration in this article.
About K. Pearson Brown: Writer, blogger, PR pro — traveler, tech geek, health and wellness believer, parent. Wrote my first book at age 5, still living my dramatic autobiography.