Tahoe double take

Find challenging slopes and places to cruise at north and south lake resorts

January 25, 2009|By Randall Weissman | Randall Weissman,Chicago Tribune

I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole Earth affords," Mark Twain wrote of Lake Tahoe in 1872. More than 136 years later, Twain's words still ring true, especially for skiers at the resorts that ring the lake like a crown. But gorgeous views of the lake, lots of snow and great vertical drops are the only things that the North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe resorts share, and no two resorts better epitomize the differences than Heavenly Resort in the south and Squaw Valley in the north.

Squaw Valley is an aggressive skier's mountain, with 75 percent of its terrain rated intermediate or higher, but it skis even more difficultly than that proportion if there has been no fresh snow recently. Because of the mountain's topography, there are few trails cut among the trees and lots more open-slope skiing.

Despite having one of the steepest runs in the country (Gunbarrel), Heavenly is more of a cruiser's mountain, with lots of trails cut among the pines.

Heavenly sits right at the shore of Lake Tahoe, and its adjacency to the Nevada border helps foster a more playful, boisterous attitude. Bars and casinos make for a very lively apres ski scene, which can run into the wee hours. Squaw's post-skiing scene is more laid-back, reflecting its smaller village and its more isolated location five miles from the lake.

The drive from Reno's airport to Heavenly resort takes an easy 45 minutes, with just one relatively low mountain pass as you go from the arid flatlands of Nevada into the alpine terrain that cradles the lake.

By the time I arrived to start my weeklong comparison, it was too late to hit the slopes, so I spent the afternoon getting used to the 6,000-foot altitude at the base, choosing among South Lake Tahoe's many restaurants for dinner and planning my days on the slopes. With more than 4,800 skiable acres, a 3,500-foot vertical drop and 95 trails, I knew I had a lot of skiing ahead if I was going to cover the mountain in just three days before heading north to Squaw.

My first day on the slopes was nearly ideal - clear skies, lots of soft snow from a storm a few days earlier and minimal crowds. I headed straight for what is probably the most popular run at Heavenly: Ridge Run down from the top of the Sky Express lift. It is a fabulous cruising run and a great spot to start the day. If there is a trail with a more spectacular view than Ridge, I haven't seen it. Its only downside is the need to dodge all the skiers who stop to whip out their cameras. It was the only truly crowded run that I found in the first two days of my trip.

Trails such as Liz's, Jackpot and High Roller are other outstanding options for intermediate skiers on the California side of the mountain. For more of a challenge, try Ellie's Run, an advanced trail but one a strong intermediate can handle, especially on days it has been groomed. Ellie's is made for speed. It is wide enough to make sweeping turns, and the black diamond rating keeps the timid skiers away. This season, the resort opened three new gladed runs to the California side, two rated advanced and one intermediate.

After spending the morning in California, I skied across Skyline Trail to the Nevada side of the resort. That rather flat traverse took about 10 minutes, but the wealth of terrain made it worth the effort. Also new this season, Skyline has been regraded to make the trip to Nevada more skier-friendly.

The Nevada side's treasure-trove of varied skiing - from wide-open cruisers to pine-dotted glades to expert-only chutes - was my favorite part of the mountain ... even if I skipped the chutes. I managed to only scratch the surface on Day 1, but I spent most of Day 2 dodging through the trees or choosing among the 15 or so runs served by the Dipper, Comet or Olympic Express lifts. These range from cruisers such as Orion or Big Dipper to the tree runs of Aries Woods or The Pines.

Day 3 got off to a rough start when high winds forced the closing of almost all of the lifts and most of the mountain. Even in the afternoon when the mountain opened, skiers stayed off the peaks. This was a day when Heavenly's tree skiing was a blessing. I headed over to the area of the Nevada side served by the Galaxy lift, one of the mountain's last old-style lifts. The relatively slow lift speed tends to turn off some skiers, so the Galaxy and Perimeter runs stay uncrowded, and I had the runs pretty much to myself. Still, even these tree-shrouded trails had suffered a bit from the wind, so I didn't feel too sorry to cut the day short so I could pack and get ready to head for Squaw Valley.

Good weather meant that I could make the twisting, scenic drive to Squaw Valley along the lake in about an hour; the route frequently is closed when storms pass through. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to reach Squaw if you take the northern route directly from the airport.

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