Not quite sure what to do or where to go when the snow flies in the Truckee Meadows? This year’s winter guide will give you a couple of ideas.
It’s November in the Truckee Meadows.
All through the valley and up into the hills, eyes turn toward the peaks, dreading that patina of white. Cozy inside the home, basking in the warm, blue glow of the 36-inch television, some folks’ fingers nervously twitch on the remote control as the various meteorologists furrow their brows at the fronts moving down from Alaska. Cub reporters, too, look toward the hills, knowing that when the first really big winter storm comes in, they’re going to be sent to Interstate 80’s Donner Summit to play high-wind-and-blowing-snow stunt reporters.
Hereabouts, there are other people whose hearts skip a beat when the sky turns gray. They wait for the 60-mile-an-hour winds from the west that often herald a major dump in the higher elevations. They wax their boards, making sure the edge will slice tissue paper. They’ve had their Goretex laid out since September, checking to make sure their shells are unbreached, gloves are in pairs and season passes are at hand.
Finally, there are those in the middle. Maybe they’re new in town or their summer diet shed enough pounds that the idea of a day on the slopes or in the backcountry no longer makes them double-check to ensure they’ve got St. Mary’s Emergency Room speed-dialed on their cell phone. They’re ready to make the leap but don’t have a clue about where or how to do winter sports.
We’re here for you, baby. This year’s winter guide takes a look at the various snowy-time sports, laying out hot and cool spots to take the guesswork out of your winter recreation, so there’ll be nothing to worry about. Now, if we could only remember: Do you take your foot off the brake or slam it down when your four-wheel-drive SUV goes into a fishtail in the Spaghetti Bowl?
The latest thing
Like many things fun, underground and alternative, snowskating started small. It began as a skateboard minus the wheels, trucks and unforgiving cement. Some innovators have made more-technical versions with a deck and one to four skis beneath. Still having trouble picturing it? Picture a skateboard with small skis instead of wheels. They typically don’t have bindings, you just ride them like a skateboard.
This stepson of skateboarding and offshoot of snowboarding can be executed with less snow, less slope and a lot of backwoods creativity (even backyard creativity, if you live at an elevation where your yard gets snow). It’s unnecessary to buy $50-plus lift tickets at a resort, as snowskating can happen in any setting with a foot of snow.
Even though the major snowboard manufacturers like Gnu, Burton, Salomon, Santa Cruz and Sims all carry a small line of snowskates in their hardgoods quiver, the sport still goes unrecognized in the mainstream media—even though it’s been around for about eight years.
Some resorts have snowskate rentals and an exclusive park to ride them in—like Northstar-at-Tahoe. Plus you’re usually within sight of a lodge where your loved ones can watch while you stroke your ego sliding and riding metal obstacles.
One of the parents of this nascent sport was Andy Wolf, an ex-pro snowboarder and Mt. Hood camp director for more than a decade, who experimentally added some neoprene rubber to the surface of short kids’ model snowboards and with his friends began terrorizing the streets and driveways near his winter home in Utah in 1995.
In the summer of 1998, he brought a few boards up to Mt. Hood, Ore., and his campers ate the activity up. He soon founded his company, Premier. Premier created the mold for others to follow with the grippy foam-rubber topsheet and the more skateboard-looking (edgeless and waterproof) fiberglass-and-wood composite snowskate that’s most common today.
Paul Elkins is another person who’s designed a line of snowskates. He started by experimenting with bindingless boards in 1994. Then he put everything on hold for a snowboarding career.
After a knee injury ended his career in 1998, he went back to the drawing board. Elkins founded his company, Fuse, in Truckee about four years ago. His idea of using skis below the deck improved upon Wolf’s concept, giving the rider a snowboarder’s or skier’s ultimate edge control.
An early test was a night hike on the slopes of Kirkwood.
"[It] was the real acid test and proved flawless instead of fatal when I reached speeds upward of about 25mph,” Elkins said. “I just edged the turns in instead of washing out like my previous test models.”
His design employs four skis guided by a skateboard truck. “It actually works like a skateboard on the snow, thus enabling you to control your speed and even execute modern-day flip tricks.”
Many snowboard companies offer a snowskate design called the bi-level. The bi-level (even better than an ‘80s hairdo) features just one ski for turning with trucks and a fully foamed deck on top. Although not as sophisticated as Elkins’ design, it works quite well.
David Rogers is another leader in snowskating innovation. He is the perfect example of an amazing backcountry snowboarder now addicted to pushing the limits of snowskating. He spent the majority of his last five winters tinkering, inventing and traveling with his dual-ski version. He claims to have produced fewer than 10 of them to date.
“I just wanted to build my own board with a unique truck-like steering system,” he said. “I have a fun time riding it around with friends wherever I am. It’s perfect for when the conditions for optimum deep powder snowboarding don’t exist.”
The thing cool about snowskating is it miniaturizes your rideable landscape. In comparison to falling on a 60-foot snowboard kicker, it’s much more negotiable for the entry-level rider. Snowskates being offered today average about 30 inches in length, cost anywhere from $75 to $200, and come in a variety of different graphics.
There are still no exclusive snowskate professionals. Maybe it’s a sign that the ultra-hyped (used to be underground) action-sports world is slowing down a bit, ready to recoil and have fun again. Snowskating’s a small-time activity right now, but the big question remains: Is the snowskate a profitable and marketable activity for corporate America?
Not really sure, but the important thing is, you should try snowskating if you haven’t. It’s an affordable, less-populated activity in the wintertime.
Downhill all the way
The Lake Tahoe area offers the largest concentration of downhill ski resorts in the United States, 15 in all. That means variety, which makes Tahoe a heavenly destination for expert, intermediate and novice skiers.
Tahoe ski areas also boast stunning views, breathtaking natural beauty, outstanding weather—four of every five days are sunny—and a long winter season with an average snowfall of 400 inches per year. Many resorts have lowered their prices this year.
For ease of explanation, it’s helpful to break Tahoe ski resorts into two categories: large and smaller. In general, the larger resorts have more variety of terrain and more amenities like restaurants, stores and lodging and offer more packages and specials. Smaller resorts have a more personal feel and are less expensive.
Heavenly is the granddaddy of ski resorts, offering the most skiable acreage at 4,800 acres. Though a little intimidating for the first-time skier, Heavenly has made efforts to boost its customer service and become more beginner-friendly. And Heavenly’s expert runs, about 35 percent of its terrain, challenge the skills of the most advanced skiers.
Snowriders who want challenging terrain look to Squaw Valley. Famous as the site of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, Squaw serves up extremes that’ll thrill the best skiers. But Squaw isn’t for the faint of heart. Though there is a smattering of beginner runs at the top of the mountain, this resort is better suited for intermediate and expert skiers. Squaw is off Highway 89 between Truckee and Tahoe City.
Next door, one valley closer to Tahoe City and also off Highway 89, you’ll find Alpine Meadows. Where Squaw and Heavenly are big and showy, Alpine is a little smaller and laid-back. With steep drops and an abundance of natural obstacles, Alpine can test the skills of any level of skier. And its open-boundaries policy means options are truly endless.
Though a little out of the way, Kirkwood is worth the drive. Just outside of South Shore off Highway 88, Kirkwood’s 2,300 acres of skiable terrain are as beautiful as they are challenging and welcoming. And with a high-top elevation of 9,800 feet, you can bank on great snow. The only downside: Chairlifts run a little on the slow side.
Mount Rose is another great choice for high elevation (peaking out at 9,700 feet) and great overall terrain for all levels of skiers. Its location, just off of Mount Rose Highway, makes it a convenient choice for those traveling from the Reno area.
Northstar offers enjoyable, if not the most hardcore, terrain and helpful employees and services. The back side of the mountain has the more challenging runs, but it’s a fun place for every level of skier. And, on stormier days, Northstar stays open when resorts like Squaw and Alpine may be closed due to high winds.
If you’re looking for a mellower experience, check out the smaller resorts, including Boreal, Sugar Bowl, Diamond Peak and Homewood. These resorts are less intimidating but still offer a wonderful ski experience. They are generally good for beginners, easy to navigate and even offer a selection of more challenging runs. Boreal and Sugar Bowl are just off Interstate 80. Boreal prides itself on being the first resort to open each season. Nearby Sugar Bowl is a family-oriented resort with great customer service.
Diamond Peak and Homewood are on Lake Tahoe, the former just outside of Incline Village, the latter on the West Shore in the town of Homewood. Each offers spectacular views of the lake, but their lower-base elevations may mean not-so-great skiing in low-snow years.
Smallest of all, there are a few areas that offer a chairlift or two and a handful of runs. These places—Granlibakken, Soda Springs, Tahoe Donner and Donner Ski Ranch—are nice for beginners and families and those just looking to have a little fun in the snow. On the more advanced end of the spectrum, Pacific Crest Snowcats shuttles skiers into the backcountry with a professional guide to ski untouched powder between Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl.
With all it has to offer, Tahoe is a skiing paradise. This year had a great start with a good storm on Halloween. Another dump or two and this winter will be a great one.
Heavenly Lake Tahoe, Stateline, (775) 586-7000
Squaw Valley USA, 1960 Squaw Valley Road, Olympic Valley, Calif., (530) 583-6955
Alpine Meadows, Tahoe City, Calif., (530) 581-8225
Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, 2222 Mount Rose Highway, 849-0704
Northstar-at-Tahoe Ski Resort, Truckee, Calif., (530) 562-1010
Boreal Mountain Resort, Interstate 80, near Donner Summit, (530) 583-6955
Kirkwood Mountain Resort, Kirkwood, Calif., (209) 258-6000
Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, Norden, Calif., (530) 426-9000
Diamond Peak Ski Resort, Incline Village, (775) 832-1177
Homewood Mountain Resort, Homewood, Calif., (530) 525-2992
Granlibakken, Tahoe City, Calif., (916) 583-4242
Soda Springs Ski Area, Truckee, Calif., (530) 426.3901
Tahoe Donner Alpine Ski Area, Truckee, calif., (530) 587-9400
Donner Ski Ranch, Norden, Calif., (530) 426-3635
When it comes to winter sports, snowshoeing is one of the easiest, most tranquil options available. Here in Reno, less then an hour’s drive from Tahoe, there are a multitude of nearby trails ranging from very simple to steep, deep, technical ascents and descents in the backcountry.
If your idea of snowshoes is the creaky wooden and leather pair hanging on the wall of the après-ski bar, you’ll be surprised to learn snowshoe technology has reached a level comparable with skiing and other high-tech winter sports. Most modern snowshoes have a lightweight aluminum frame, a durable plastic decking, stainless steel crampons and cleats, and easy-to-use binding systems similar to those found on snowboards.
There are three classes of snowshoes: recreational, runners and hikers/trekking. Employees at any winter sports store will help pick the style that is right for you.
After the snowshoe, the boots are most important equipment. Again, selecting boots depends on the activity you plan to do. If you are going running on packed snow, you can probably use a high-topped running shoe. For day-hikes, Sorels or waterproof hiking boots are a couple of the favorite options. A third option is snowboard boots, which are especially convenient if you are snowshoeing up into the backcountry to snowboard down.
No matter what type of boot, it’s wise to wear a wool or synthetic blend sock. Though more expensive, these fancier socks wick sweat away from the skin, keeping you drier. Gaiters are another way to stay dry.
For clothing, layering is important. Start with a base of thermals, a mid-layer of fleece and an outer pant and shell to ensure that you can regulate your temperature. Shed layers to cool down when you heat up, or add layers if the weather cools or for rest periods.
Some people use poles while snowshoeing. Many have easily removable baskets, so they can be used for probing, to determine fresh snow depth and to check for avalanche danger.
The Tahoe Meadows are an excellent place to learn. Mountain bike trails, such as the Flume Trail or the Tahoe Rim Trail, are also good places. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back.
The best book listing places to snowshoe is Snowshoe Trails of Lake Tahoe by Michael C. White (Wilderness Press), which has directions and maps of 45 trails around the lake area.
Reno Mountain Sports is a good place to rent snowshoes. A pair of snowshoes and poles costs $9 a day. A pair of your own will cost anywhere from less than $100 up to $300 and higher.
Reno Mountain Sports, 155 East Moana Lane, Reno, 825-2855
Strap on the motor
Icy wind burned my face, causing warm tears to melt down my rosy cheeks. The fused scents of crisp winter air, pine trees and gasoline filled my nostrils, and as we rounded each slope, my grip tightened on my father’s down jacket. Sharp turns kicked up sheets of white, and the snowmobile engine purred as it zig-zagged through the snow. I felt like I was floating on the machine.
It was a small golf course with an enclosed, snow-coated grass lot, and the snowmobile just circled repeatedly. But, at age 6, the ride felt like an adventure.
Snowmobile companies in the Lake Tahoe area are opening for the season, and they offer unique guided tours tailored to different abilities. They range from untracked powder adventures for the avid snowmobile rider to groomed trails and tracks for beginners. Standard tours for an hour to one and a half hours cost $75-$95 for a single rider, $100-$135 for doubles. Private, customized and group trips are available, and tours last from one hour to three days.
If you or your traveling partners aren’t bold, most tours provide tame, scenic trips aimed at backcountry sightseeing. Early morning twilight rides are offered by Lake Tahoe Adventures, and its most popular choice with beginning riders is the Summit Tour on groomed trails. The two-hour trip has rest and photo stops.
However, for the more courageous, Eagle Ridge Snowmobile Outfitters takes groups on two- and three-night tours. By the end, you should be able to climb mountains, read snow and turn in deep powder.
Northstar at Tahoe offers three-night snowmobile tours during the full moon of each month.
Zephyr Cove Snowmobile Center combines an M.S. Dixie Paddlewheeler cruise on the lake, including a winter menu, and a snowmobile tour in one day. Like Zephyr Cove, it is common for resorts to provide package deals for winter activities, which can offer price breaks and shuttles to departure points.
Snowmobiling isn’t recommended for children under 4 but for the most part is an all-age sport. Some companies allow 15-year-olds to operate the machines, but some require a driver’s license. Some tours also require that persons under 18 have parental consent before driving.
Reservations are recommended for all snowmobile tours. You’ll receive orientations and instruction of safety basics from experienced guides.
Helmets are required and provided. Come prepared for the cold.
Eagle Ridge Snowmobiles, Inc., www.tahoesnowmobiling.com (530) 546-8667
Lake Tahoe Adventures, www.laketahoeadventures.com (530) 577-2940
Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Tours, www.laketahoesnowmobile.com (775) 831-4202
Northstar at Tahoe, www.northstarattahoe.com (800) 466-6784
Reindeer Lodge, (775) 849-9902
T C Sno Mo’s, www.snowmobilelaketahoe.com (530) 581-3906
Zephyr Cove Resort, www.tahoedixie2.com (775) 588-6644
Enjoy the silence
If quiet, snow-filled landscapes, fresh air and a rigorous-yet-soothing full-body workout are what you seek, then it’s time to go cross-country skiing. Tahoe offers an abundance of cross-country opportunities complete with stunning scenery.
Choose from flat short loops to challenging day-long adventures to back-country multi-day excursions; from fully-groomed trails and comforting amenities to ungroomed trail systems, on which you bring your own hot chocolate.
There are several large cross-country centers in Northern Nevada that offer miles of groomed trails, warming huts, lessons, rentals and more.
Spooner Lake XC, just off of Tahoe’s East Shore, is a magnificent area for all levels but is exceptionally rewarding for intermediate and expert skiers. Spooner also offers two wilderness cabins for overnight stays; the minimally furnished facilities are accessible only by XC skis or snowshoes in the winter, so you are certain to experience peace and quiet.
The grand spread of Royal Gorge—the largest XC ski resort in North America—offers 203 miles of groomed trails on 9,000 acres. It’s just off of Highway 80 down near Donner Pass. It also has a full host of services, including 10 warming huts, four trail-side cafes, surface lifts and plush lodging options.
Down the road a short distance, just outside Truckee, you’ll find Tahoe Donner XC, which boasts 68 miles of well-groomed tracks and a large variety of terrain. With five warming huts and a day lodge where you can experience fresh, healthful food, Tahoe Donner is another XC gem.
Venture out of Truckee and up Highway 267 to Northstar-at-Tahoe, which doubles as a downhill resort, where you can experience the wilderness on its 40 miles of groomed trails.
Far off on the other side of Lake Tahoe, just off its south shore, Kirkwood offers 49 miles of groomed trails for all levels of skier. It’s at the highest elevation of all the cross-country centers (7,800 feet), so you are certain to experience great snow as well as breathtaking views. Beginners can explore the beautiful meadows, but it’s the intermediate and advanced skiers who will find the most here. Ridge-top trails and challenging climbs await the adventurous. Kirkwood also features warming huts and a day lodge and allows dogs on designated trails.
Another dog-friendly XC area (dogs are allowed only on designated trails) is the north shore’s Tahoe Cross Country center located just outside of Tahoe City. With 65 kilometers of groomed trails, two warming huts and stunning lake views, this is a lovely and easily accessible XC center for all levels of skier.
Want a more rustic and challenging adventure? Check out the Sierra Club’s hut system—all four of which are accessed via ungroomed trails.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re looking for an easy (and inexpensive or free) jaunt onto the snow, check out some of the smaller XC offerings like Camp Richardson, Squaw Creek XC and Sugar Pine Point State Park.
Lake Cross Country, Lake Tahoe, (775) 887-8844
Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, Soda Springs, Calif., (800) 500-3871
Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area, Tahoe City, Calif., (530) 583-5475
Camp Richardson Resort, South Lake Tahoe, Calif., (530) 542-6584
Squaw Creek XC, Olympic Valley, Calif., (530) 583-6300
Sugar Pine Point State Park, South Lake Tahoe, Calif., (530) 525-7982
A cautionary tale
In seventh grade, I found myself at the base of the Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort strapped to a rented snowboard and wearing an oversized jacket and a blue ski bib. I don’t remember much of my first day of snowboarding, primarily due to the concussion I suffered, but I do remember walking back to the car with two swollen wrists, a splitting migraine and two sets of numb cheeks.
As a freshman in college, I worked as a snowboarding instructor at Mt. Rose Ski Resort. When I wasn’t giving lessons to vivacious 7-year-olds, I was barreling down the mountain. Mt. Rose had a lot to offer, from vicious moguls to backwood tree-bashing terrain.
I soon started exploring other mountains. Alpine Meadows Resort and Boreal Mountain Resort were hip to the college scene. On any given Friday, I could run into 20 or more friends.
At $39 a day, Alpine was one of the best deals around. As a mid-sized mountain less than an hour from campus, it was the ideal spot for the college crowd. Despite the rocky terrain beyond the tree line, the snow was almost always pure, with few patches of ice or layers of crust.
The smaller mountain of Boreal also attracted college students with its $10 Fridays (with student ID). In the heart of the snow season, the mountain became “Club Boreal.” While Boreal was well worth the $10 Fridays, it was hardly worth the $36 dollar full-price pass.
For $2 more and an additional hour of driving time, I could have gone to Kirkwood Mountain Resort, a much larger mountain. Kirkwood had an abundance of tree-bashing potential and backwoods terrain. Primarily geared toward skiers, this resort was a haven for mogul jumping and powder runs. The only specific memory I have of Kirkwood is being pummeled by a skier as I was strapping on my bindings. The tip of his left ski ran up the crack of my ass just as he drove his knee into the back of my neck. It was an intimate moment for both of us and, for reasons of sheer terror that we might meet again, I have yet to return to that mountain.
But by far my most vivid memory of snowboarding takes me back to Sierra-at-Tahoe. The sky was dark gray, and the wind was picking up. My first few runs were magnificent. I rode to the top of the mountain and down the back side into the snowboard park. The weather had become fierce; it was as though the wind were blowing the snow off the mountains and back up to the clouds. Between my foggy goggles and the snow racing in front of my face, my visible range was no greater than 10 feet. The strength of the wind made it difficult to determine my speed.
I hit the first table top at a good velocity, sending me up and over and onto the backside. There was a larger replica of the previous jump approaching rapidly, and at the last minute, I swung my torso to the right, pulled my knees to my chest and grabbed the backside of my board. It was a frontside 360 heel grab, and it was the smoothest I had ever pulled off.
I could feel that I was going too fast, but before I could slow, I felt the nose of my board lift as I rose up the front of the next jump. My mind told me there was a backside to this jump. My mind graphed out the parabola my path followed and told me I had flown the landing, which meant brace for impact. I remember hitting the ground and hearing thuds. There were two of them: one from my board as it hit the ground and the other—well the other lasted for about six hours. It was the sound of my head and back simultaneously slamming into the ice.
It was the worst concussion of my life. Too dazed to call an ambulance, I needed nine hours to make the hour and a half drive home because I kept passing out. It ended my season, and it ended my fearlessness.
Given the right circumstances and the right attitude, any resort can make for perfect memories, but it can just as easily make for the worst. Ride safe and respect the laws of physics.
Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, 2222 Mount Rose Highway, 849-0704
Sierra-at-Tahoe Snowsport Resort, Twin Bridges, Calif., (530) 659-7453
Alpine Meadows, Tahoe City, Calif., (530) 581-8225
Boreal Mountain Resort, Interstate 80, near Donner Summit, (530) 583-6955
Kirkwood Mountain Resort, Kirkwood, Calif., (209) 258-6000