Overview of Lake Tahoe, California
Written by Greg and Heather Burke • Last updated Sep 21, 2017
Fly to California for skiing? Isn’t Colorado or Utah the place to go for snow? A recent trip to Lake Tahoe sure changed our view. Do you like glorious sun, gorgeous scenery, lots of ski areas and tons of snow?
Turns out Lake Tahoe’s got all that, 300-days of sunshine, the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America, and snow measured in feet not inches. But my reason for loving Lake Tahoe is Lake Tahoe itself, the brilliant blue centerpiece at the heart of all this sun and snow-soaked peaks.
Northstar is an ideal place to start your ski tour, on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. Passing through the stunning mountainside Village, make note of après ski wine tasting, and ice skating for the kids on the centerpiece rink surrounded by inviting outdoor couches. From the sophisticated Village, the gondola launches you to Northstar’s 70+ trails and six high-speed quads, or to the slopeside Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe at Northstar.
Northstar is the most eastern like area with trail skiing amid towering lodge pole pines, a beautiful intro to the High Sierra ski scene. A young family could stay at Northstar for the week, engrossed in their award-winning lesson programs. Our teens loved Northstar’s plentiful terrain parks, including the nature-inspired “Stash,” built by snowboard-inventor Jake Burton. I loved our first bright blue view of Lake Tahoe from Northstar’s Summit Deck at 8,610-feet. My husband Greg enjoyed lunching al fresco in California sunshine (not something we do in Maine frequent. The Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe at Northstar offers sophisticated on slope lodging and a ski valet.
Alpine Meadows was our next mountain. The antithesis of Northstar’s destination resort and tree-lined skiing, Alpine is 80% above tree bowl skiing, with a decidedly local “vibe.” There’s no slopeside lodging, and the best terrain is out of bounds and legal with a most liberal backcountry policy. Alpine’s multi-faced mountain offers steep chutes and snow filled gullies on the front side, then sun-soaked bowls and Lake views on the back. Mid-mountain, The Chalet is a charming spot for a homemade lunch, with mostly outdoor seating (another indication of the desirable western winter weather).
Après ski is obvious from Alpine Meadows - follow the locals, the access road and the Truckee River to The River Ranch Lodge, a wonderful watering hole since 1888 with fascinating memorabilia as proof. The River Ranch was the hot spot during the 1960 Olympics. Now it’s a must for Alpine or neighboring Squaw Valley skiers, the resort rivalry makes for great banter over beers, hanging out over the rushing river.
Our next stop was Heavenly, truly. The queen of the South Shore, Heavenly is the largest and highest resort at Tahoe, with 4,800-acres of skiing from California to Nevada. We expected Heavenly would be scenic and sizeable, with 30 lifts and four separate bases in two states. Sure enough, as we skied from the 10,040-foot summit, the sapphire hue of Lake Tahoe was an omnipresent optical oasis.
What surprised us was the unbelievable tree skiing at Heavenly. When you tire of Lake views, blue sky, and blue square cruising, you can cash in on the snowy caches of glades. I can see why Glen Plake took the “job” as Heavenly’s “Ski E.O.”
Vail Resorts purchased Heavenly in 2002 and has been upgrading the lifts and grooming ever since, building three new on-mountain lodges poised with Lake views. The Gunbarrel Grill is the place to lunch overlooking the Lake 2,000-feet below.
Heavenly’s South Shore at the gondola base is like “vertical Vegas"– with casinos, chain hotels, and clubs so you can après ski Tahoe style - dine, roll the dice, drink and dance at 100 bars.
35-miles south of Heavenly is Kirkwood, on Tahoe’s map with the highest base elevation affording it the deepest, driest snow. Kirkwood’s location and double black diamond terrain thin out the crowds. Kirkwood is known amongst experts for serious steep and deep including the legendary “Wall.” Kirkwood has ample lower mountain terrain to lure families to the 2,300-acre ski area.
Tips to ski Tahoe
Tahoe is getting serious snow right now, so go now to extend your ski season, and transition from turtleneck to t-shirt tan. April vacation week should be epic.
Fly into Reno or Sacramento airport, and rent a 4WD vehicle, The Tahoe Basin is legendary for large snow dumps (up to 600-inches annually) and you want to be able to make it to the mountains in snowy road conditions.
Travel clockwise around Lake Tahoe (72-miles total) affording uninterrupted views of the brilliant blue water.
Drink lots of H2O, the arid western climate and the altitude are dehydrating. Tahoe, meaning “lake of the sky” in Native American, is 6,200-feet above sea level, one of the deepest lakes in the world at 1,645-feet, so it never freezes and retains its alluring blue hue. Keep sunscreen and sunglasses on hand, and dress in layers, ready to shed.