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Where to Ski: Lake Tahoe

Posted October 24, 2013 @ 1:28pm | by Gordon Bombay

East-coasters often overlook Lake Tahoe--it's far away and it's an annoying journey. If you’re really lucky, and you book late, then you get to fly to San Fran and then backtrack to Reno. So sick... Psyche.

Utah and Colorado are so much easier to get to and its no wonder that hardcore east coasters choose Park City and Aspen over Tahoe. But make their loss your gain. You’ve probably read tons of blogs and magazine articles proclaiming Tahoe to have the heaviest, mushiest, most concrete-ish snow out there. Don’t believe the hype until you go---it dumps here---on the regular---and the heavier snow sticks to steeps out there opening up more terrain. The vibe is different too. Ever felt out of place in Aspen or Park City? I have, every time. Buck the trend this year and go on the most low stress, semi-low budget ski excursion you’ve ever been on.


You need a rental car if you go to Tahoe ----it’s a 45 minute drive from the Reno airport to South Lake Tahoe and you’ll be sorry if you skimp out and grab that cheap Toyota Corolla. Roads are routinely closed in the winter, even I-80. If they are open, you need 4WD or chains. Putting chains on a car during a snowstorm is one of the most not fun experiences you will ever have. Pay the money for the 4WD.

The best thing about Tahoe is the abundance of cheap motels surrounding the casinos in South Lake. You can get 2 beds for around $50 and walk to the Heavenly gondola. North Lake is much more expensive. If you plan to hit Squaw, Sugar Bowl, or Northstar, (which you need to do) just drive from South Lake to North. The drive is amazing and you really wont find any cheap lodging in Truckee or Tahoe City on the North side. The casinos give South Lake Tahoe a trashy vibe---embrace it. You're a ski bum. If you wanted steaks and trendy mixed drinks and window shopping you would’ve went to Aspen.

March is the month to hit Tahoe. It starts to warm up a little bit but you can still get some storms. January and February can be brutal. It might snow for ten days straight with 100 mph gusts on the ridges. You won’t be skiing during these storms.


Northstar Ski Area Trail Map, Lake Tahoe


Northstar went through a complete makeover since I first went there in the early 2000s. They built a top-notch village at the base with tons of new condos. It looks great. The mountain is different than most of the other huge resorts in Tahoe since it lacks the wide open bowls and above tree line skiing that make Tahoe great. If you love tree skiing and more of a family vibe then NS is for you. NS isn't a cakewalk but there is more challenging terrain to be found in Tahoe. Don’t sleep on the parks at NS, though. They consistently have some of the most original and difficult features that you will see and have seen in the movies----probably the best collection of parks outside Mammoth that I’ve seen.

Squaw Valley Ski Area Trail Map, Lake Tahoe

Squaw Valley

The king. Still the best mountain I’ve ever been to ever in history. Endless terrain. Hit KT-22 in the morning before it’s skied out for some steep lines right under the lift. Hit Granite Chief for some of the best tree skiing you will ever do in your life. If you are lucky enough to be at Squaw when the Silverado lift is running, you’re in for a treat… A legitimate backcountry terrain park. This is the most insane terrain that I’ve ever seen that you can access right off a lift. The lift probably runs for 20 days a year. You need TONS of snow to make it work. Head over there if you can---this is not for the faint of heart. Also, the Red Dog lift all the way to left of the mountain is the scariest lift ride you will ever take. You have never been this high off of the ground on a chairlift before. It’s a thrill ride and the trees over there aren't too bad either.. This is Squaw---non-stop thrills. Bring your health insurance card.

Kirkwood Ski Area Trail Map, Lake Tahoe


Right up there with Squaw. The lack of crowds makes this place a hidden gem. Drive 45 minutes south of South Lake through some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain in the Sierras to get there. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There's no town, no nothing. Catch this place after a dump and it might be your new favorite mountain. Sentinel Bowl starts above tree line and ends with a crazy run through some trees. Same thing with Palasades Bowl, the Wall is one of the hairiest rides you can get in Tahoe. It’s steep. There are skull and cross bones signs everywhere. It’s awesome. Hit the backside of Kirkwood on Thimble Peak and you’ll find more uncrowded, probably untouched terrain. Trees, bowls, natural half pipes, no crowds---The ‘Wood has it all.

Heavenly Ski Area Trail Map, Lake Tahoe


The most convenient mountain to get to if you stay in South Lake has the best views of the Lake that you’ll get in Tahoe. It’s also massive. Heavenly has terrain in Nevada and in California. It’s weird to cross state lines on a Burton Custom X. Heavenly sits at lake level and though they don’t get as much snow as the other more secluded resorts, they still have some world class terrain. Gunbarrel is a long, steep run that will make you wish you hit the stair master more before you flew out there. The gates at Mott Canyon are as steep as anything you’ll find in Tahoe and the tree skiing off the base of the Nevada lodge is all-time. Heavenly is just something you have to experience---the views, the two states thing, all that stuff.

Sugar Bowl Ski Area Trail Map, Lake Tahoe

Sugar Bowl

Somehow people don’t associate Sugar Bowl with the Tahoe experience. They should. SB lacks the sprawl of Squaw but has steeps that are unmatched in Tahoe. It sits way up in North Lake near Donner Pass (RIP) and gets the most snow out of all the Tahoe resorts. Don’t forget about this place. Sisters is a world class area. Palisades will make you really scared. I always got the feeling that the Tahoe rippers would hit Sugar Bowl after a big dump early and save Squaw and the other spots for later. This place has a small resort feel but has terrain that can match up with the big boys and probably beat the big boys on some days too. Don’t sleep.

Maybe Tahoe always meant something to me because I’m a snowboarder---Tahoe was one of the first places to embrace snowboarding and most of the early Standard Films Totally Board movies were filmed in the Tahoe area. But if you want to switch it up a little bit for your next trip and get that rustic, ski bum feeling back then Tahoe might be for you. It’s the type of place that you’ll never forget. It’s a place that you’ll try to explain to your friends and they just won’t get it unless they’ve experienced it. Words can’t explain that view of the Lake from the top of Squaw. See you on the hill. 

The Ski Monster

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