"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. Skiers at these resorts are the Cubs and White Sox fans of the Sierra.
Squaw Valley is an aggressive skier's mountain, with 75 percent of its terrain rated intermediate or higher, but it skis even more difficult 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 5 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 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.
For the 2008-09 season, the resort is opening 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. For the 2008-09 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, but 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.
This is the resort that helped bring skiing to the attention of mainstream Americans when it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and CBS first televised the Games. In some ways, Squaw hearkens back to the early days of skiing; only about 15 percent of the skiable terrain is covered by snowmaking, and even that is seldom used after December. Fewer than a quarter of the lifts are the high-speed models, and grooming is less pervasive than at many resorts. This is challenging skiing where skiers need skill and confidence to handle a variety of conditions.
But Squaw is home to some of the most pulse-boosting terrain in the country. Many of the extreme skiing movies are filmed on its runs, if you can call a 10-foot-wide patch of snow between sheer rock faces a ski run. The runs off Granite Chief and the famed KT-22 are for only the best skiers.
After checking in at my hotel, I went straight to the area served by the Shirley Lake Express lift. Six tree-lined, intermediate trails fan out from the top of the lift. These are relatively short, easy runs without radical changes in pitch. It was a fine way to spend a few hours yo-yo-ing among them and getting reacquainted with the mountain after a nearly 20-year absence.
The next morning I headed for the areas served by the Emigrant and Siberia Express lifts. They offer terrain rated intermediate, but the open, high alpine aspects meant a lot more challenge.
I could pretty much pick my line down Siberia Bowl, for instance, but with only about 30 percent of the skiing on defined trails, it was easy to find yourself on a pitch that is far steeper than anticipated.
It was easy to see that when the snow is plentiful and soft, any good intermediate skier will be able to carve exhilarating turns down the face of the bowl, but when I was there in early March the bowl was wind-blown with pockets of deep, sticky snow alternating with bare, icy patches. The afternoon sun turned the conditions a bit slushy. Despite the uneven conditions, this was high alpine skiing to gladden any skier's heart.
The Cornice II, Headwall and KT-22 lifts serve the advanced terrain that is Squaw's trademark. Although the easiest way down from each lift is groomed daily, skiers should not assume this means that way down is easy. If you aren't ready for the steep stuff, stick to other areas of the mountain.
For strong intermediate skiers, the Cornice II lift is the best option among the advanced lifts. It provides skiers with a fabulous view of KT-22, and the ridgeline at the top is groomed. Ski off to the left toward the Saddle (which is always groomed) and then down to Mountain Run for a taste of rugged, big-mountain skiing. The full run is a bit more than 5 miles, and the grooming makes it a great experience for skiers of less than expert ability.
On my last day, I headed over to the Snow King area, which has some of Squaw's best views on runs such as Lake View. This area is a cruiser's paradise, and it is the portion of the mountain with the most relaxed skiing.
Unfortunately, the previous five days of sun and wind had a major impact on snow conditions. The runs froze solid overnight, and the minimal grooming performed did little to soften them. It wasn't until 10:30 or so that skiing became more fun than work. The resort could have made things much more pleasant by making a little snow to cover the ice.
The easiest solution was to sit in the sun, drinking coffee at the base area until the sun softened the snow. And another four hours of cruising put an exclamation point at the end of a fine week of skiing.
Two areas, two different experiences--each satisfying in its own way.
Tips on visiting Tahoe
GETTING THEREReno, Nev., is the gateway for all of Tahoe's resorts. American Airlines has one daily non-stop flight from O'Hare, and Southwest has one daily from Midway. Several other airlines have connecting flights. Both Heavenly Resort and Squaw Valley are approximately one-hour drives from Reno, the former around the south end of the lake; the latter, the north.
WHERE TO STAYAt Heavenly Resort, the options are myriad, ranging from glitzy casino hotels to small B&Bs. I split my stay there between the Embassy Suites hotel on the main strip and the Black Bear Inn, a B&B with five rooms and three cabins. The Embassy Suites was more convenient to night life and skiing; it was an easy walk to both casinos and the gondola. The Black Bear was much quieter, and its owners provided a welcoming ambience. The Embassy Suites is offering a number of ski packages for the 2008-09 season. Embassy Suites prices start at $209 per night, but packages add value to that rate; www.embassytahoe.com; 530-544-5400. Black Bear Inn prices start at $225 per night; www.tahoeblackbear.com; 877-232-7466. For other lodging choices, check www.skiheavenly.com/plan_your_trip.
In Squaw Valley, the Plumpjack Inn is one of the Valley's original properties and housed athletes during the 1960 Olympics. All of its 61 rooms and suites were remodeled about 10 years ago. The rooms on the second floor are much quieter than those on the ground floor. Rates start at $209; packages are available. www.plump jack.com; 530-583-1576. For more luxurious accommodations, try the Resort at Squaw Creek. This is a more modern, luxury ski lodge with ski-in/ski-out access to the slopes. Rates start at $329; www.squawcreek.com; 530-583-6300. Other options are available through Squaw valley central reservations: www.squaw.com; 800-545-4350.)
WHERE TO EATHeavenly's visitors have a wealth of fine dining choices. Among the best are The Summit (775-588-6611),which offers a spectacular gourmet tasting menu with a fabulous view from the 18th floor of Harrah's, and Cafe Fiore (530-541-2908),which serves sophisticated Italian fare in an intimate atmosphere. Both are expensive and reservations are suggested, but well worth the cost. For a lighter impact on your budget, try McP's Pub, which serves a fine version of pub grub, or Chevy's for Mexican food. The options for dining at Squaw are less numerous than at Heavenly, but no less intriguing. The Auld Dubliner (530-584-6041) is a great spot to enjoy Irish stew or shepherd's pie along with a glass or two of one of the 14 beers on tap. The Plumpjack Cafe (530-583-1578) serves exquisite modern California fare accompanied by a superb wine list and excellent service.
Each resort had far more intriguing restaurants than I could sample in three or four days. This list includes only those I sampled.
SKIINGLift ticket prices are slightly lower at Squaw than Heavenly. For example, a two-day ticket costs $134 at Squaw and $20 more at Heavenly. Skiers frequently can save money if they purchase lift tickets as part of a package or online ahead of their scheduled arrival date. Equipment rental is available for all activities.