Lake Tahoe: Whizzing Through A Winter Wonderland
I remember my beginnings on skis well — mainly because I was not on them so much as my butt. But a good yard-sale (a crash so thorough that skis, poles, gloves, hats, and maybe a jacket go flying) is the mark of passage of any never-ever (ski lingo for a first-timer), and I got to do it all over again when I took on snowboarding. Luckily, I did all of that on the East Coast, so I could totally pull off my “Mr. Slick” routine at Lake Tahoe and no one would be the wiser.
Now that the rest of your year is carved up into reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, making count what little quality time winter affords for you as a family takes planning so meticulous you many just want to head for the hills. So why not do just that?
An electric sapphire set in the emeralds of the Sierra Nevada’s ponderosa pine forests, the Arthurian beauty of Lake Tahoe is outdone only by its magical ability to whack out perfect powder every year. So reliable are the snows that if Lake Tahoe’s resorts have any downside, it is that their kid-friendly pursuits tend to get trampled by hoards of rampaging snow bunnies. Pay close attention and you’ll notice some particularly small skis carve a good chunk of the tracks.
Not that its reputation as the winter habitat for the rich, famous and plastered isn’t well earned. But unless you favor après-ski over the slopes, you can barrel through a week at any number of Tahoe resorts and be as chaste coming out as you were going in. (But if you are slope dopes, slat rats, or even forest fairies — all nicknames for skiers — with kids in tow, focusing on the North Shore over the glitzy, casino-laden south makes life easy.)
And if you or your and-baby-makes-three are new to shredding, bonking, death cookies, and a dozen or so other terms you will have to get your head around, Northstar does indeed make life easy. For one, it is remarkably “for kids,” with both skiing and snowboarding classes for newbies. For two, it is remarkably “multitask-y.”
The Village at Northstar not only serves as base camp for its own slopes, but also for other resorts, such as the Ritz-Carlton, further up; parents have a veritable grab-bag of runs and rooms to call their own. It also makes the Village something of a self-sustaining city-state and a nexus of activity — when everybody has had one bono (hitting a tree at full-speed) or ass-pass (falling on your rear while going so fast you don’t stop) too many, the central ice skating rink can keep the young-uns busy while the dads cozy up to the sidelines with a glass of wine. And maybe an aspirin.
Faster, Higher, Stronger
But for all of you hunting for cachet, you cannot beat the street cred of next-door neighbor Squaw Valley; when you are getting your ski-legs on the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, you are in the presence of the mighty. It’s been a veritable galaxy of star power ever since; the whole geologic feature it is in, also called Squaw Valley, goes by “Squallywood.”
But even Olympic legends started out as tiny tales. Under the tutelage of true kung-fu masters of ripping, carving, and shredding, the Teaching Tykes program starts off beginners — of all ages — on kinder, gentler slopes ... and leave the screaming velocity of the 5-diamond pistes for another day. Or never!
Or maybe you just like things flat. Planners clearly had crowd control in mind with Squaw Valley, since the Village at Squaw Valley is virtually devoid of grand-scale sporting venues — they are all at the summit. With the distant indigo of Lake Tahoe sparkling to the south, and the Olympic Rings overhead, Squaw Valley’s High Camp revolves around the skating rink where American David Jenkins performed a flawless triple axel 23 years before another skater landed one in competition — a feat celebrated not only for its history-making caliber, but also because he pulled it off 8,200 ft. above sea level.
So while you and your kids shake off the altitude sickness (not exaggerating), enjoy the attractions that have nothing to do with snow. The tram ride up affords a view downright unearthly, and dotted with rock formations such as “the Walrus” and “Clifford” of red-fur fame. The mountain-top museum preserves the actual podiums the medal winners stood on, flags of countries that no longer exist (including the Union of Soviet whatsits), and shows just what a spectacle the Olympics now are: only 30 nations competed in 1960.
Like Northstar, Squaw Valley is open all year; when the skis are packed away, the mountain bikes are dusted off (Lake Tahoe is nothing if not outdoorsy). Unlike Northstar, there is a good chance you will see “somebody” at Squaw. I took a summertime outdoor yoga class and ended up next to Robert De Niro.
The Biggest Little City
Depending on flight times and weather conditions, spending a night across state lines in Reno has its plusses (and the airport). However, while they are clearly the most conspicuous of the cityscape, Reno’s casinos are, like most, not for the Shopkins crowd — even the deceptively named Circus Circus.
That might be why the conscientious creators of the Whitney Peak Hotel switched out slots and leggy cocktail waitresses for climbing walls and tightropes. Dead-center in Reno but as athletic-minded as anything in the mountains, the Whitney takes up your little Olympians-in-the-making where the slopes left off, all while eschewing gambling of any sort. For the more the little mind more cerebral, the National Automobile Museum and the kid-friendly science experiments at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum provide distraction.
Between them and the ski runs, your charges will be tuckered out just in time for that red-eye back home.