Long Island Jewish World

December 5, 2000

Taking time out at Tahoe


It's four o'clock on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, and the sun is setting over the pine-blanketed hills of northeastern California. I'm barreling down I-80 in a little red Ford, on my way to the Sierra for a week of skiing and relaxing after a two-month stint working in San Francisco.

After zipping through the farthest of the Sacramento suburbs my car starts the climb through the foothills of the Sierras, the motor straining as the highway's incline grows steeper with every twist and turn. The towns that line the road grow fewer and farther between, and elevation signs begin to appear to my right, where asphalt meets earth.

4,000 feet.

5,000 feet.

7,000 feet.

The air here is thin and cold, and I reach for the parka lying on the seat beside me, pulling it over the faded polo shirt that had been adequate cover just two hours before in the San Francisco sun.

Wisps of snow begin to appear out of nowhere, swirling like ghosts between the speeding cars in the orange glow of the setting sun. What had been dirt on the side of the road is now snow; signs bearing the names of rural California towns have given way to posts advertising ski resorts, and the slow-moving fruit trucks in the right lane have been replaced by crawling salters with flashing orange lights.

Ahh, California. The enchanted land of contradiction, where sand-swept desert plains abut snow-capped mountains, where the bright yellow lights of big cities end abruptly at the edges of a vast darkness that extends like a sea over the nation's most populous state.

This is where I had come to go skiing, and I could have chosen no better place than Lake Tahoe, which sits on the California-Nevada border, nestled in the Sierra mountains 6,600 feet above sea level. Surrounded by the highest concentration of ski areas in North America and only 35 miles from the Reno airport, the 72 miles of shore around the lake play host to vacationers from all over the world, who come to ski, hike, gamble, or simply escape from the sprawling metropoli they call home to a quiet cabin nestled in the woods of the Sierras. Almost invariably, every year the region gets over 30 feet of snowfall at elevations above 7,000 feet.

With roughly 20 ski resorts, the options for downhill skiers, snowboarders, cross-country skiers, and professional hot-chocolate sippers are virtually endless, ranging from family-oriented places like Northstar-at-Tahoe to the steep slopes and snow bowls of Squaw Valley, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.

With just a few days to spend in the Sierras and a hankering for some good shussing before heading back to the concrete jungle of New York that I call home, I decided that a small sampling of what the Tahoe area has to offer would have to do, at least for now.

I started off the week at Northstar-at-Tahoe, which, with a myriad of trails for just about every kind of skier, is a delightful place to get oriented to Western skiing and the beauty of the Sierras. Located just a few miles from the north shore of Lake Tahoe and about 40 miles from Reno, Nevada, Northstar is an 8,600-foot mountain with a vertical drop of about 2,300 feet and over 60 trails.

Trails aside, when the snows get deep at Northstar you can meander off the beaten path and ski between the trees. Marking your own trail in the fresh snow between the towering pines can be an intensely beautiful experience, or a great place for an outdoors pit stop.

When the sun begins to sink in the sky and your muscles start to ache, there's no better place to go to at the end of the day than a hot outdoor Jacuzzi, bubbling under the stars. Many of the resorts around Tahoe have outdoor Jacuzzis and swimming pools, and while at first it may seem a bit strange (and cold) to step out of a temperature-controlled locker room into 30-degree weather wearing nothing more than swimming trunks and flip flops, once you slide into that steaming pool it'll feel like heaven.

If you're looking for a little after-hours culture, the city of Truckee, a 10-minute drive away from Northstar, still has the feel of an old California mining town, with 19th century-style Western storefronts lining the main street, a railroad running through the center of town, and a mix of quaint restaurants, saloons and century-old hotels filling the city's center. The train from San Francisco to Chicago still passes through here every day, stopping traffic on its way through the mountain passes of the West.

Though the casinos of Reno, Nevada are not far away, there's plenty to do in town to keep you busy, especially if you plan on getting a good night's rest for skiing the next day. Northstar has its own cozy cabins for hiding away at night, and they can be rented for weekends, seasons, or just a single night. Hidden between the trees and out of sight of the base of the mountain, the cabins offer the convenience of close proximity to the mountain and all the comforts of home.

There's a good reason the 1960 Winter Games were held at Squaw Valley USA, on the northeastern side of Lake Tahoe. With over 4,000 acres of mountain and some of the most challenging terrain in the Southwest, Squaw Valley is a magnet for Olympic hopefuls, many of whom took their first cautious slides in the Squaw's foothills and snow basins.

The mountain has six different summits-the highest reaching 9,050 feet into the air-and 25 lifts but not a single marked trail. There are so many different folds in the mountains at Squaw that skiers head off into every imaginable direction when they get off the lifts.

Occasional signs warning skiers against performing airborne somersaults are no joke; Squaw has the kind of deep drops and jutting rocks that are regular fare for the kinds of skiers and snowboarders that appear on stunt videos and television commercials. The mountain's distinctly Western-style terrain makes it an ideal challenge for experts who have tired of what passes for black diamond trails on other mountains. At Squaw, skiers often must navigate trees and jump boulders just to get down the mountain.

If you're staying at Squaw for a few days, the Resort at Squaw Creek is a perfect place to spend your nights. Only half a golf course away from the main base of the mountain, the resort even has its own chair lift, so when you get up in the morning you can simply walk out the door, put on your skis, and go right up the mountain. Then you can come back in the afternoon and take a dip in one of their outdoor Jacuzzis.

If you're really a die-hard skier-and you know who you are-you might even head back to Squaw in the evening for a little night skiing. Or perhaps you'd prefer to cuddle up with your loved one for an old-fashioned sleigh ride on the resort's double-bob sleigh, pulled by a team of bell-wearing horses.

Of all the mountains around the lake, Heavenly Ski Resort offers by far the most breathtaking views. With peaks reaching a staggering 10,100 feet, skiing at Heavenly is as much about marveling at nature's wonders as it is about going down.

Spanning two states, Heavenly covers a total of 4,800 acres and has a 3,500-foot vertical drop, the largest in the Tahoe area. Riding up the chairlift on the Nevada side of the mountain on my first day at Heavenly, I continually found myself swiveling around in my seat to take pictures of the cold, blue lake and the brown Nevada desert-viewable all at once.

Heavenly is to northern California what Killington is to Vermont-the region's skiing machine. With 82 runs and 27 lifts, the mountain has become the vacation destination of choice for countless Californians, and the slopes can get quite busy on weekends and holidays.

But there is plenty of snow for everybody, and the trails consist of long, interesting terrain with plenty of places to stop and take pictures of both the Golden State and the Silver State. For those spiritually inclined, the trees between the cleared trails are a great place to do a little California-style meditation or commune with God: The sweeping views of the lake and the desert tempt one to wonder if God actually meant this to be the Promised Land.

If you find the days skiing at Heavenly wearing, the Inn at Heavenly, just a mile or so from the mountain's California base, is a perfect place for rejuvenation. A short drive from downtown South Lake Tahoe, the city on the southern side of the lake, the Inn offers a warm and cozy alternative to the motel and casino strips in the small city.

The Inn at Heavenly has a personality all its own, with thematically decorated rooms that have names like Antique Abode, Olde Schoolroom, and Birdhouse. Guests gather in the main lodge in the evenings to watch TV, play games, sip coffee, or chit-chat. For those less socially inclined, the inn has an extensive video library and an indoor Jacuzzi.

Those looking for a little more action might want to take a short ride to downtown South Lake Tahoe a few miles away, where there is a proliferation of casinos right over the Nevada state line. If Reno is a miniature version of Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the country, then South Lake Tahoe is a miniature Reno. The casinos are a bit smaller and the neon lights a bit less loud, and the view is much, much better, since this small city is right on the lake.

While gambling may be a year-round sport, skiing is not. The best time of the year to go to Tahoe is December through late April, when tens of feet of snow have already fallen but before the white stuff really starts to melt. Unlike in the East, you can ski at Tahoe wearing little more than a sweater over your shirt, and it's not unusual to see people on the slopes in T-shirts. If you go in January or February, however, bring warm clothes; though the daytime temperature under 6,000 feet may be in the high 40s or near 50, it'll be below freezing up on the top of the mountain.

Getting There

Though the Tahoe area has long been a popular vacation destination for people from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, you don't have to live in the Southwest to have easy access to Lake Tahoe. There are flights from all over the country into Reno, Nevada, which is only a 45-minute drive from the resorts at the north part of the lake, and if your business takes you to Silicon Valley, Tahoe is a perfect place to spend a weekend far from the urban masses. Flights from San Francisco to Reno go early and often, and there are plenty of busses from Reno to the towns and small cities that surround the lake. If you're already in the Southwest, you can fly directly into the South Lake Tahoe Airport, which is only a few minutes from the ski resorts at the south end of the lake, including Heavenly, whose mountains straddle the California-Nevada state line.

If you choose to rent a car, make sure it's winterized: Tire chains or 4-wheel drive vehicles are required on many of the roads when it starts to snow. I discovered this the hard way and almost got stranded in Tahoe.

Contact Numbers

The mountain and resort at Northstar-at-Tahoe can be reached by calling 1 800 GO-NORTH; Squaw Valley is reachable at 1 800 736-9740; Heavenly Ski Resort is at 1 800 2-HEAVEN. You can also check out the resorts on the web at www.skilaketahoe.com. Northstar's lodging facilities are reachable through Northstar's main phone; the Resort at Squaw Creek is at 530 583-6300; the Inn at Heavenly is at 1 800 MY-CABIN. Lodging and lift ticket prices vary depending on the time of year and of week.

Uriel Heilman writes frequently about travel and travel destinations. He lives in New York City.