LAKE TAHOE, Calif.—What we East Coasters lack in natural endowment for skiing and snowboarding, we make up for in enthusiasm.
Ice skiing on man-made snow at Hunter and Windham? No problem. Driving five hours to Vermont to ride a 4,400-foot “mountain”? We do that. We also spend a lot of money flying to the usual destinations—Aspen, Park City, and Whistler.
Here’s what most people don’t know: There is another, more intriguing alternative for high-quality skiing, in a state usually associated with surfing—California.
Edwin Matskovich of New York City is ahead of the curve. “I came here in December and spent the whole winter here at Lake Tahoe,” he said, from the chairlift at Heavenly Mountain Resort earlier this year.
He has an arrangement with his business partners that allows him to work remotely from South Lake Tahoe for a couple of months every winter.
He has been to Aspen but chooses instead to spend his time at Tahoe, where he can ride at seven resorts that together offer more than 500 trails around the lake.
All of the resorts are within an hour’s driving distance of each other, depending on where you start, and all their peaks stand at least twice as tall as Killington in Vermont, with Mt. Rose being the tallest at 10,800 feet.
In terms of snow, Tahoe comfortably competes with Colorado and even Washington’s record-breaking Mt. Baker. At the end of last season in April, Tahoe Donner had a summit depth of 175 inches, ranking it in the nation’s top five.
John Wilkins, from Lake Placid, New York, said: “I fell in love with the mountains here at Tahoe when I first came here for a United States Ski and Snowboard Association competition when I was 13 years old.” He attended Sierra Nevada College and now works for the The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.
But what about the rest of us who can’t spend four months working remotely in Tahoe or get a job at The Ritz-Carlton? Is it worth going all the way to California to ski down Heavenly, with its magnificent views of Lake Tahoe, if you only have a couple of days or a week of vacation time?
For New Yorkers, JetBlue solved this problem in May last year by introducing a direct flight from John F. Kennedy airport to Reno, Nevada, which costs as little as $240 and takes 6.5 hours. This is only a little longer than driving to Vermont or flying to Salt Lake City. We all like JetBlue’s terminal at JFK the best, and the Reno airport is small, new, and not very crowded.
From there, pick up your rental car and enjoy a scenic drive through the Sierra Nevada to get to any destination at Lake Tahoe in less than two hours.
South Lake Tahoe
So given all these options, where should you go? That depends on your preference.
Do you like a more flexible, do-it-yourself journey? Then head for South Lake Tahoe and stay in a classy motel-style accommodation, like the recently refurbished The Coachman Hotel, which offers good value for money near Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Visitors from the Bay Area also recommended the Fireside Lodge, a bed and breakfast offering log-cabin style accommodations. If you like camping, the lakeside Camp Richardson Resort & Marina is a good option.
The South Lake slopes have much to offer. Two French visitors (one who flew in from Los Angeles, the other one from Mexico City) commented favorably on the skiing at both the Sierra at Tahoe and Heavenly Mountain resorts, even when compared to the French Alps. Sierra has beginner slopes and two nice terrain parks. Heavenly has advanced trails with impeccably groomed slopes, a great view of the lake, and some variable off-piste terrain, if conditions permit.
In terms of après-ski, South Lake Tahoe has a great deal of variety. Enjoy craft cocktails and Mexican cuisine at Azul Latin Kitchen, right at the bottom of the Heavenly resort gondola, or get a few happy hour drinks at the Sierra Pub & Deli after hitting the nearby slopes.
And if you’re in the mood for something extra, watch a magic show after dinner at The Loft theater and lounge, or have a few pints at McP’s Irish Pub. Both places are open until 2 a.m.
For a more formal dining experience, Beacon Bar & Grill at Camp Richardson, on the south shore, sports an amazing view of the lake and offers excellent food—think oysters Rockefeller and grilled lamb lollipops—and live music.
And don’t leave without sampling beers brewed right in Tahoe at the Cold Water Brewery & Grill, close to the city center.
Debbie Brown, who founded and built the brewery and restaurant from scratch, said she brewed 101,000 gallons of beer in 2015.
Businesses like Cold Water Brewery and the Sierra at Tahoe ski resort are privately owned and operated, giving them an independent feel and unique style that many visitors appreciate.
One couple from California, who spent the weekend at Lake Tahoe as a gift from their son for their 38th wedding anniversary, said they preferred the smaller, private, independent experience over a five-star resort, even if it means driving 20 to 30 minutes from each hotel to one of the ski resorts.
If you prefer a resort-like vacation, the next step up is the Village at Northstar. The small village of time shares and rental condominiums offers stylish accommodations and all amenities within walking distance. Grab a quick coffee and breakfast at Starbucks, and be at the top of one of the mountain’s three lifts 15 minutes later.
Northstar also has a great view of the lake, groomed slopes for every skill level, and some nice, mellow tree runs that are neither too steep nor too dense. George, who retired to the north shore of Lake Tahoe, skied almost 90 days this past season. At over 80 years old, he cannot get enough of those runs.
Another resident, John Wilkins, spends most of his time in one of the three world-class terrain parks. Like everybody, he does this at his own peril, as he tore the cruciate ligaments in his knee when he landed flat on the ground after taking off from a 50-foot jump. “It comes with the sport,” he said laconically.
What also comes with the sport is hearty mountain cuisine, which can be found at the Zephyr Lodge (with burgers and build-your-own Asian bowls) and The Summit Deck & Grille (known for its smoked barbecue), which are both a bit pricier than the Mexican spots at Sierra but do offer better views.
At night, have a filet mignon and a beer at the farm-to-fork restaurant Tavern 6330′, then grab more beers and watch the game at TC’s Pub, if you don’t mind missing the first tracks in the morning.
If that’s not enough action, you can go ice skating or take private lessons at the skiing or snowboarding academies. All the amenities are right at your fingertips. The same is true for equipment rental—which you can pre-order online—as well as tuning services and an array of shopping options.
Top of the Range
If you want the most inclusive option and have the budget, The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, right on the Northstar slopes, is highly recommended. Located just above the first gondola that comes up from the Village, the resort offers everything and does everything for you.
While you enjoy the view of the sunrise over the valley with the first espresso in your room, the staff have already prepared your skis and boots, waiting to be picked up right at the slopes. The Ritz-Carlton also has its own rental and tuning shop, offering the same necessities as The Village, which you can reach via a short gondola ride.
But before you ski down a couple of feet to the chairlift that takes you right to the top of Northstar, you can have another coffee and a snack on the property at Café Blue or a hearty breakfast at Manzanita, the resort’s signature restaurant.
When you’re done for the day, the staff takes care of your equipment while you go down to the spa to relax in the hot tub, steam room, sauna, or outdoor heated pool. Top it off with an excellent massage to be extra fit for the next day.
For dinner, head back to Manzanita, which features indoor and outdoor dining, with a focus on seasonal ingredients—from an indulgent torchon of foie gras from La Belle farms served with curried Asian pear and Sauternes gelée, to the Durham Ranch bone marrow crusted filet mignon with black trumpet mushroom and béarnaise sauce.
Afterward, you can go down to the Village to party, or for a quieter night, opt for room service and enjoy a glass of wine and a movie in your room.
As with the skiing at Tahoe, the choice is yours.
This trip was arranged by Visit California. For more information, see VisitCalifornia.com
Where to Eat and Drink
The Village at Northstar
Where to Stay