North Lake Tahoe

SkiTrax - - Contents - by Jonathan Wiesel

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

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.

Tahoe Don­ner

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.

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