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.
THE SOUTH'S HEAVENLY VIEWS
Skiers and snowboarders line up like slalom poles along Heavenly’s California Trail to pose for snapshots. Perched 3,500 feet above the south shore, this run delivers the most glorious view: glittering blue Lake Tahoe, laid out in its entirety before you. Put simply, Heavenly Mountain Resort is huge. Its 4,800 acres of terrain stretch across Nevada and California and offer base areas in both states (when’s the last time you saw a “Welcome to California” sign tacked to a slope-side tree trunk?). Most folks seem content with Heavenly’s ample cruisers (meticulously groomed to wide-wale corduroy), which leaves areas like Milky Way Bowl—with its perfectly spaced pines and chalky snow days after a storm—blissfully empty even on a busy afternoon. Save some time in your ski day to check out the mid-mountain tubing park, one of the speediest and friendliest in the West.
THE SIERRA STRIP
It wasn’t so long ago that the south shore was synonymous with tacky lingerie shops and strip-mall sprawl. But that’s changing in South Lake Tahoe, with upscale lodging, a pedestrian shopping and entertainment village and a gondola that carries visitors to Heavenly’s slopes. Families gravitate to the ice rink, while après crews like to hit up Fire and Ice for drinks on its sunny, south-facing deck.
On the Nevada side, a trio of big-name casinos—Harrah’s, Harveys and Mont Bleu—delivers nightlife sizzle and occasional big-name acts. On the California side, great dining hides in unlikely spots like Nepheles: a tiny cabin with an inventive wine list and fish and game on the menu. After dinner, go for a soak in the private hot tubs next door.
A TASTE OF OLD TAHOE
Generations of families have spent their vacations at Camp Richardson Resort, a 1920s log lodge with cabins on Lake Tahoe’s south shore. You can rent cross-country skis or snowshoes at the Mountain Sports Center to explore the grounds, now National Forest land. It’s remarkably peaceful just minutes from the highway, wandering along the broad shoreline and through old-growth cedars and pines. Continue on to the grounds of Tallac Historic Site, a 150-acre property with three turn-of-the-century estates (closed in winter) that still house elegant boathouses and ballrooms. It’s a sight straight out of the Old Country—right here in the American Alps.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
Heavenly Mountain Resort: 800-432-8365; skiheavenly.com
Fire and Ice: 4100 Lake Tahoe Blvd.; 530-542-6650
Mont Bleu: 888-829-7630
Nepheles: 1169 Ski Run Blvd, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150; 530-544-8130
Camp Richardson Resort: 1900 Jameson Beach Rd South Lake Tahoe, CA 96152; 530-541-1801; camprichardson.com
Mountain Sports Center: 530-542-6584
Tallac Historic Site: Heritage Way and Hwy 89 South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150; 530-541-5227