Heavenly and Squaw Valley are the big names that dominate Lake Tahoe’s international ski market – and rightly so. But three others that are relatively unknown have some remarkable skiing. Now’s the time to ski Lake Tahoe and find out.
Kirkwood – steep and gnarly
Kirkwood is the king of them all, a mini-Chamonix tucked away in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe. At weekends, this is where you’ll find the local powderhounds – along with half the population of Sacramento which is only 90 miles away. Its remote location means that Kirkwood has no high-tension power lines and therefore no high-speed ski lifts. While this is an important contribution to the retro atmosphere, it means long lift lines on high days and holidays. The wise ski here Monday to Thursday and head for Heavenly – the nearest mainstream resort – at weekends.
If you enjoy Jackson Hole, Val d’Isere or Verbier you’re going to have a ball in Kirkwood. That’s not to say that you’ve got to be a steeps specialist to come here. Yes, it sure helps, but there’s sufficient beginner and intermediate ski terrain on the lower mountain, particularly around the Timber Creek base area and off Iron Horse and Sunrise lifts at the opposite end of the resort. They claim that 50% of the 2300 acres is suitable for intermediates…that depends, of course, on your definition of intermediate.
Walls and cornices
Steep, did we say steep? The fact that this is a venue for the Freeride World Tour says it all. The skull-and-cross-bones warning at the bottom should have given us a clue. When you get to the top of The Wall lift, the only apparent way down is to drop off a pretty scary cornice and on to The Wall. This a vertigo-inducing stretch of bowl where any unarrested fall is going to result in a mighty lpmg tumble. Eventually it eases in gradient as you reach the treeline unless your are suckered into a narrow couloir. The rock walls are so close that a slithering sidestep sends sparks flying from the skis. The alternative is to straightline it.
In fact, a push along the ridge line from the top of The Wall takes you to the lip of Sentinel Bowl, a still steep but much less demanding alternative. This is our favourite run in the whole resort and takes you all the way down through 600m vertical to Timber Creek. Expedition:Kirkwood provides private guides and snow cat skiing.
Vail Resorts bought the resort in 2011 but plans to make virtually no changes, at least for the present. The townhouses and condos are of a surprisingly high standard. There’s not a whole lot to do here in the middle of nowhere apart from ski – but hell, that’s what you come for.
The choice of restaurants is small. Outback Mountain Grill at the base of the Sunrise chair has a daily barbecue when the sun shines. However, much the best cuisine here is served in front of a log fire at the quirky Kirkwood Inn. The wooden pub was founded in 1864, which by the Californian timescale makes it positively medieval.
Mt Rose – even steeper
Mt Rose, back from the north shore, has the highest ski area around the lake and is the closest one to Reno which is just a 25-minute drive away. Unfortunately the casino city has lost its ski shuttle service, so a rental car is essential.
At first encounter, Mt Rose appears to be little more than a local hill with the Main Lodge housing a rather limited rental shop and a good bar. Don’t be fooled by this initial illusion. You are in serious skiing country. Eight lifts serve more than 1200 acres of pretty wild terrain of which 50% is either black diamond or double-black diamond.
The 10% of truly expert stuff is in The Chutes, a near vertical stretch of forest which houses some of the steepest tree-lined couloirs we’ve ever encountered. Runs like El Cap and Yellow Jacket border on extreme skiing. Two modern six-packs also serve some challenging but less heart-stopping runs. We particularly enjoyed the tree-skiing from the Blazing Zephyr 6 lift.
Skiing v casinos
Lunch in the all-glass Winter’s Creek Lodge on the Slide Mountain side of the pistes is surprisingly good. The same can’t always be said for the giant casino hotels of Reno. These seem to be populated 24 hours a day by a strictly non-skiing clientele who gaze in open-mouthed astonishment when you head for the lift at the end of day with helmet, skis, and boots in hand.
The majority don’t look as if they can afford what they are losing on the tables and in the ever-present slot machines. Still, the high profits from cards and dice mean that the lodging at hotels such as The Peppermill is quite extraordinarily cheap. Crystal Ski runs package holidays here, as well as to other destinations around the lake.
Northstar – the other heavenly body
Northstar above the north shore is, after Heavenly, the second most convenient place in which to base yourself while exploring the varied resorts of Lake Tahoe – and you need a full week in which to do this. Since it was purchased a couple of years ago by Vail Resorts, Northstar has come into its own as a genuine family star of California with a Ritz-Carlton heading up some pretty impressive accommodation and a village that somehow reminds us of a friendly Aspen Highlands.
This is a big and mainly intermediate ski area in a beautiful setting with views of the lake. A total of 20 lifts serve 3170 wooded acres. Most of the steeper runs are on Lookout Mountain reached by the Martis Camp Express quad. But neither here nor off the backside of Mt Pluto is there anything potentially heart stopping – just long runs at a good pitch, and there’s an easy way down from every lift.
The terrain park is one of its strongest features with a 25-foot super-pipe designed by Shaun White. The new Zephyr Lodge is one up of the average North American mountain lunch spot – try the Asian wok. Down in the village the Mikuni Japanese restaurant has some of the best and freshest sushi around Tahoe.
Crystal Ski offers packages via San Francisco with a choice of five hotels in Heavenly and one in Reno.