Think Tahoe in winter and what comes to mind? Skiing at Heavenly? Casinos? Headliner shows?
Ah, but there is another Tahoe … less intense, gentler, slower and yes, more family friendly.
The thing about Tahoe is it’s never been 100 percent about skiing in winter (or hiking, kayaking, whatever in summer). In a way, Tahoe is a bit like Europe, where skiing is only a fraction of the experience with inns on the ski hills and long, leisurely lunches and so much more to do besides keep track of your vertical on your wrist GPS.
So … enter North Tahoe, which is oddly what folks call stuff along the west side of the lake. And Bleu Wave’s yacht ferry. And Homewood. And Granlibakken. And, well, yes, a very special kid-wow run at Alpine Meadows.
Ski Via Yacht
The start of all this was via a slick yacht-ski package started last season by Bleu Wave. We arrived at the dock in South Lake Tahoe to board the ferry, which is actually a rather upscale yacht, at 8 a.m. We were dressed for skiing. As we pulled away, we munched on breakfast, which was a decent continental affair … muffins, fruit, yogurt, hot chocolate, coffee. But the star of the morning was Lake Tahoe’s scenery. Jagged, snow capped mountains rose around us, reflected in the still dawn water of the deep blue lake.
An hour later, we pulled up at the foot … and I do mean very foot … of Homewood Mountain Ski Resort. The runs seem to spill down onto the beachfront. And actually, they do end just a hundred or so yards away from where you dock.
Though we were transferring to stay on this side of the lake, others were there for the day package, which for $99, gets you a shuttle from your hotel, round trip ferry, lift ticket, and discount on lunch. And though Homewood might seem smallish compared to say, Heavenly, its 1,260 skiable acres and 1,650 vertical, with everything from beginner runs to expert trees, provides more than enough fun for a day.
The stunning lake views are what sets this place apart. You’re so busy gawking, it’s almost dangerous. The dropoff along Rainbow Ridge just after Mid Mountain Pavilion (it’s the white tube tent with the picnic chairs) will blow your mind. A friend once said the drop on some of Tahoe’s lake view runs make you think you need to wear a life jacket. This is one of those places.
There are hefty plans for expansion. Some half a billion dollars of condos, base lodges, restaurants and lifts are expected to stretch to 2020. But meanwhile, Homewood is nice and laid back for a day of something different.
Our lodging was at Granlibakken, a resort that meanders up a thickly wooded hill with 200 hotel and condo rooms and a main lodge that reminds you of those family-owned resorts of the Northeast where generations would spend their holidays. The name, by the way, is Norwegian for “a hillside sheltered by fir trees,” and ski history in this area goes back nearly 100 years.
This is about as family friendly as it comes. There’s a small ski hill (300 vertical with two poma lifts), swimming pool, trails through the woods and a treetop adventure with rope bridges and platforms.
From Granlibakken, we day skied at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Squaw has the reputation, the Olympic history, and the crowds. Alpine Meadows has Hot Wheels Gully.
If you are on the west side of the lake you, of course, have to ski Squaw. This is where the big guys go, along with enough waist high future racers to make your head swim. While the Lake Tahoe area has dreams of a new Olympic bid for 2022, it’s interesting to remember a bit about the original one in 1960.
The Olympic venue back then wasn’t supposed to be in Squaw Valley, but while the Olympic committee argued over which European ski hill should be the spot, Alex Cushing, owner of what there was of Squaw, pointed out that maybe, since the Olympics were supposed to be a ‘world’ activity, it was time to hold them in North America.
Those Olympics included an amazing list of firsts … first use of instant replay (courtesy of grainy videotape), first use of skis that weren’t all wood, first athlete’s village, first really blow-out opening ceremony. (Walt Disney, himself, designed it with Disneyland-style statues and fireworks much to the whining from Europeans). Oh yes, and first sale of exclusive broadcast rights … to CBS for $50,000m which led to a young, new hire Walter Cronkite at CBS hosting it.
For those with inquiring minds, London’s 2012 Olympic broadcast rights went to NBC for $1.1 billion … that’s with a B.
Alpine Meadows: Hot Wheels Gully
Okay, now on to Alpine Meadows. It’s smaller than Squaw, a bit more intimate, but definitely one of Lake Tahoe’s ‘big seven’ ski resorts, which include Heavenly, Northstar, Squaw, Alpine Meadows, Mt. Rose, Sierra at Tahoe, and Kirkwood Meadows.
You can get hairy chutes and mellow groomers just about anywhere in the Tahoe area. But only Alpine Meadows has Hot Wheels Gully.
I was leaving the base area at the end of the day when a 10-year-old bounced by me, calling to his father.
“We skied the funnest thing of my whole, entire life. The FUNNEST!” he yelled while literally jumping up and down (in skis).
It was called … Hot Wheels Gully!”
The run traces a narrow riverbed that twists and drops through the forest … not for anyone on long skis and, honestly, best enjoyed by someone about 4 1/2 feet tall. You slingshot from side to side like in a mini halfpipe and, at one point, actually hit a short drop. It is, honestly, a pre-teen’s dream run.
The week we were in Tahoe, it was hot and sunny. Perfect spring skiing. But snow was on the way and within a couple of days, four feet of fresh had fallen. Sigh. We figured we’ll just have to go back.
If you want a true giggle on the mountain at Alpine Meadows or Squaw Valley and you have either an iPhone or Android phone, go to your online market and download the free interactive apps for those two resorts. It’s more than just a map, it even shows you where you are on the mountain along with a real time list of what trails are open, where the restaurants are, weather, real-time webcams, some amazing thing that lets you find your friends on the hill and, best of all, a real time record of your own personal stats (speed, vertical, lifts and more). You need to activate your GPS and, as I found out the hard way, if you turn your GPS off at the end of the day to save battery, your personal stats will reset to zero. Just don’t try looking at it WHILE skiing.
– by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski Editor
Check out Yvette’s favorite Tahoe after-ski snack, West Shore Café and Inn’s Mushrooms with Dipping Sauce.