In the 1950s, alpine skiing in America was a fringe, foreign sport and Squaw Valley an unknown rocky seam in the Sierras, high above Lake Tahoe. Then Squaw founder Alex Cushing implausibly launched—and even more implausibly won—a bid to host the 1960 Winter Olympics, a move he later admitted was little more than a marketing stunt for his fledgling ski area. Those Winter Games became the Sierras’ coming-out party, showing the world that America could more than rival the Alps. Skiers discovered that the saw-toothed range ringing Lake Tahoe ponies up more altitude than Innsbruck and way more snow than Chamonix. It also offers a north-south dichotomy nearly as distinct as the Swiss–Italian border, and a breezy, laid-back vibe that doesn’t exactly run rampant in Austria.
While we heartily endorse a trip across the big pond for a ski vacation, you can’t go wrong with a trip around the big lake, either. It’s just an hour from the Reno–Tahoe International Airport—and gets our vote as the most spectacular body of water on the planet.
TRUE NORTH: TRUCKEE
The Nevada–California state line splits Lake Tahoe into east-west halves, but it’s really the north and south shores of the 22-mile lake that give Tahoe its split personality. South Lake Tahoe and Stateline anchor a lively region where shiny casinos rise up alongside ski runs, while the north end harbors small towns tucked among pine forests.
Consider Truckee the gateway to this quieter, less developed side. Located 15 miles north of the lake along Interstate 80, this rustic railroad town embodies the north’s funky Cali vibe with its covered sidewalks and slightly dog-eared Victorians. Locally owned restaurants and shops like Spirit Gallery long ago replaced the red-light district without sacrificing the town’s authentic bones. Cottonwood Restaurant offers fine yet unpretentious dining in a historic hilltop ski lodge. Bacchus and Venus pours tastings from California’s best boutique wineries at its gleaming cedar bar.
BIG, BOLD SQUAW
Squaw Valley USA never looked back after those 1960 Olympics. It’s one of the nation’s leading ski areas, with 4,000 acres of steep bowls and granite knobs just six miles from Tahoe’s northwestern shore. Its precipitous runs have appeared in so many ski movies that the region has earned the nickname Squallywood.
But really, Squaw has everything. A network of more than 30 lifts leads to loads of sunny cruisers and intermediate tree skiing, too. You can glide to a mid-mountain ice rink at lunch, and at day’s end practically ski right into a steaming hot tub (if you happen to be a guest at the Resort at Squaw Creek). Then nab a table at the Six Peaks Grille, where chef Chad Shrewsbury uses molecular gastronomy techniques similar to those pioneered in Europe’s top kitchens. Luckily, you don’t need to understand his craft to enjoy it.
UNHERALDED ALPINE MEADOWS
Just two miles south of Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows sits in its big sister’s proverbial shadow, with fewer lift lines and plenty of elbow room. This is the locals’ favorite ski area, and it seems content to stay out of the spotlight: Its day lodge is utilitarian, and its biggest stars are the ski patrol dogs that are trained for avalanche rescue. They’ve become such popular icons that patrollers hand out baseball cards with canine stats: Bridger, a 62-pound golden retriever, “likes powder, practicing my search-and-rescue techniques and rolling in the snow.”
Alpine Meadows skis big, with short traverses leading to huge expanses of terrain that you didn’t even notice on the trail map. There’s also plenty of inbound terrain that’s accessible via short hikes along the ridge. “What’s really great about Alpine is that only about the middle third of it is lift-served,” says local Paul Ehreewil as he glides off the Summit chairlift. “There’s about a third that way, and another third that way,” he notes, waving his arms to both sides. “Don’t be afraid to just get out and explore.”
NORTHSTAR PUTS ON THE RITZ
Tahoe never had the ultra-luxe lodging of, say, Aspen or Vail. But that changed when Northstar-at-Tahoe opened the mid-mountain Ritz-Carlton Highlands. Nestled in a grove of ponderosa pines, the surprisingly unobtrusive hotel is patterned after grand mountain lodges like Yosemite’s Ahwahnee, with a soaring central “living room” that fuses beams, stone and natural light. Sunny patios are just steps from Northstar’s slopes, which offer everything from wide groomers to hard-charging bumps.
The Ritz-Carlton is the centerpiece of an ambitious expansion plan that also includes a gondola to shuttle guests from the hotel to a new pedestrian village at Northstar’s base. The village is a perfect fit for this pleasantly mellow ski area: an idyllic family gathering spot with casual restaurants, shops and gas “bonfires” clustered around a skating rink.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Spirit Gallery: 10009 W. River St.; 530-587-0948
Bacchus and Venus: 10118 Donner Pass Rd.; 530-550-9800
Resort at Squaw Creek: 800-403-0206; squaw.com
Alpine Meadows: 530-583-4232; skialpine.com
Northstar-at-Tahoe: 800-466-6784; northstarattahoe.com