North Lake Tahoe
Once you’ve been there, it’s easy to think of skiing around North Lake Tahoe, Calif. in terms of superlatives, complemented as well by the beauty of its deep-blue lake and surrounding mountains and forest. We’re not just talking about the astounding number and scope of trails, but also of the superb grooming, marvelous terrain and often a “looong” Thanksgiving-intoApril season. Add terrific facilities and professional, friendly staff, and it’s hard to match.
Statistics can be important to skiers. Last winter around Tahoe, they were vital to trip planning, since after years of drought, Donner Summit, Calif. (northwest of the lake and home to both the Auburn Ski Club Training Center and Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort) received 800 inches of snow. Oh yeah, and it had 30 inches of rain too.
All of this relates to the sheer scale of cross-country skiing locally. Put it this way: Tahoe has 72 miles of shoreline (more since those big storms). Sooooo, it’s big and takes a long time to drive around. But if you skied every groomed trail north of Tahoe, you’ll have gone the equivalent of four times around the lake.
Just the four “biggies” (Tahoe Cross Country, Tahoe Donner Cross Country, Northstar Cross Country and Royal Gorge) amass 400 kilometres – plenty to keep you in shape and justify innumerable desserts. Day tickets start at approximately $30, but, as you’ll see, are worth it.
Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort is “iconic”; there’s no better word for it. Since 1971, it’s evolved from a tiny day area to a world-famous destination on par with Vermont’s Trapp Family Lodge.
It’s not just that the 200 kilometres of connected groomed trails are probably rivaled in size in North America only by the Methow Valley in Washington and Mont-ste-anne in Quebec. The resort, spread over 6,000 acres, has also pioneered deep-snow grooming with a fleet of snowcats, introduced the concept of a day hut system and operated the legendary ski-in/ski-out (later sleigh-in/ski-out) Wilderness Lodge until fire swept through the building in 2003.
Royal Gorge is sometimes infamous for its weather. In the winter of 2016-2017, so many relentless storms passed through the area that industrial-size snowblowers, such as those you see clearing superhighway
mountain passes, couldn’t unclog parking lots because the banks were just too high.
But much snow assures that many guests can ski the 88 trails (three for dogs), usually from late November to mid-april. There’s 1,000 feet of vertical to play with, all double-tracked with a skate lane, supplemented by two surface tows. Royal Gorge habitué Leland Gee, a retired accountant from Santa Rosa, Calif. (three and a half hours away), has skied all around Tahoe and explains that size and terrain just “supplies a steady amount of fun,” plus it’s the first place to open locally.
This is beautiful rolling country with a wilderness feel, with volcano-like Devil’s Peak dominantly thrusting up toward the west end of the trail network. Most of the forest is lodgepole pine, interspersed with meadows and frozen lakes. You may see a surprising number of birds and animal tracks, mostly such small critters as chipmunks and raccoons, but also pine martens, coyotes and the occasional mountain lion.
Director Jojo Toeppner is friendly, innovative and very experienced, and staff at the day lodge (rentals, retail, beer and wine, bathrooms, cafe, and so on) reflects her attitudes. Instruction can include video or ipad. Guests can overnight on site at the Sugar Bowl on the east end of the trail network.
Tahoe Cross Country
Tahoe Cross Country is a Classic – and classy – locals’ area, the “Mom and Pop” operation of the region and very near Lake Tahoe. The 65 kilometres of track-plus-skate lane are about equally divided between easy, intermediate and more advanced trails, making it inviting to the entire gamut of skiers.
Two-way trails give you even more of a sense of variety, winding through fir, pine and cedar forest. Three warming shelters greet you with propane stoves.
Working mother Nikki Aronhalt lives approximately a mile from the trailhead. She’s skied everywhere around Tahoe, but has had a season pass at Tahoe Cross Country since 2003. She loves the way its trails “allow access to the wilderness,” as well as the area’s sense of community, where you see neighbours and friends – I suspect even dogs one knows – on the trails.
One drawback is that you have to climb from the elderly but pleasant day lodge to get to easier terrain; conversely, there’s a long descent to return to where your car is parked.
A generous donor has given Tahoe Cross Country the historic Schilling Lodge, which will have to be moved into place. Much larger than the current building, it will likely be in a new location to avoid that hill, provide a flat ski-school area plus much more parking, and allow you to ski right onto easy terrain. It will be great for starting races, while not bothering recreation skiers. There may even be snowmaking around the lodge.
Tahoe Cross Country recently added a satellite operation at the Tahoe City Winter Sports Park, with four kilometres of groomed golf-course trails, snowshoeing, sledding, fatbiking, ice skating, even food and a bar at the Café Zenon.
I chatted last March with Sally Jones, Tahoe Donner’s cross-country manager, in a break between storms. People were smiling, kids were rushing around the lodge, the skiing was fantastic. In the midst of this, she grinned and said, “The sun is the real hero here.” It was that kind of winter – great to have snow after years of drought, but you have to treasure blue sky too.
Tahoe Donner Cross Country is a major area by any standard. There’s 100+ kilometres of trails, the magnificent 10,000-square-foot Alder Creek Adventure Center with cafe and bar, instruction (video available), nine kilometres of dog trails, snowshoeing and fatbiking. Add four warming huts
as incentive to ski just that “leetle” bit farther, acquisition of a square mile of land for more trails, and prospects for a modest snowmaking system around the lodge. It’s fun and amazing!
Last winter, “atmospheric river storms” (I’d never heard of them before) dropped way above average snowfall – and Tahoe Donner sees 30 feet in a typical year. It was hard to deal with, but the resort still made a practice of grooming every day.
The trail network has in the neighbourhood of 1,200 feet of vertical change. Approximately three-quarters of the trails are a delight for beginners and intermediates, while advanced skiers can enjoy such routes as White Lightning and Ambush – altogether a wonderful mix of meadows, climbs and rolling terrain meandering through pine, fir and aspen groves, even along a burbling creek. Everything is groomed for both Classic and skating, and most is two-way. Higher altitude, mostly advanced routes have gorgeous views of the Sierra Crest.
The Alder Creek Center, built in 2015, has a wax room, locker rooms, rental shop and showers. The cafe uses locally-sourced ingredients. It’s all part of a vast real-estate development where you can also try tubing and downhill skiing. And for real novelty, you can take a laser biathlon clinic.
Any longtime Nordic skier can probably name marvelous Nordic skiing affiliated with downhill resorts, for example, Silver Star, B.C.; Bretton Woods, N.H.; and Mount Bachelor, Ore. I’d suggest adding Northstar Cross-country Center to your list. All ski trails are open to fatbiking, plus there’s approximately nine kilometres of dedicated snowshoe routes.
Northstar is everything it should be, with terrific terrain and grooming (all trails, every night, with a mix of one- and two-way, groomed for both skating and diagonal stride), amiable staff, excellent snow and vast views.
Guests take a gondola up to the 7,000-foot level (easy to get on and off), then it’s a short hike to the Center building, where you can arrange top-quality instruction and find good rentals and conversation. Manager Aaron Pearlman, a passionate telemarker, is cheerful, mid-40s, with an elfin grin. He’s an excellent instructor and guide (and patient, as he proved skiing with me). Come summer, he’s a charter-boat captain in Hawaii.
There’s only one egress/access route from the Center, and those first three gentle kilometres of Sawmill Flats get “punished” by skiers and bikers. Then a bunch of trails diverge, mixing easier with intermediate trails and just three, short advanced runs.
The Northstar staff is a kick to talk with. Camille Bishop, who’s worked there since 2013, loves Nordic skiing for the endorphins, plus it “brings out the best in everybody.”
For convenience, you can stay at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Center.