At California’s Sugar Bowl ski resort, a 75-year run of rustic charm

Sugar Bowl in Norden, Calif.
Skiers and snowboarders headed down an intermediate slope at Sugar Bowl in California’s Sierra.
(Mark Lorenzen)

In the 1941 Walt Disney cartoon “The Art of Skiing,” Goofy slips and slides out of the shed-roofed Sugar Bowl Ski Resort lodge, where he’s bunking, and heads to the slopes for several spectacular spills. In the background, there’s occasional melodic yodeling performed by resort founder Hannes Schroll, an Austrian ski racer and instructor who also spent time at Yosemite National Park.

The yodeling has declined markedly since the ski area opened 75 years ago, but the still privately owned resort and lodge looks much as it did in 1939. Moreover, the black-diamond runs remain as challenging.

In the last few years, Sugar Bowl has invested $20 million in upgrades, such as adding the Crow’s Peak lift. Sugar Bowl also acquired the nearby 6,000-acre Royal Gorge cross-country ski resort and is investing $750,000 in improvements. With additions and changes, Sugar Bowl now has 102 trails spread over 1,650 acres, with 13 lifts and slopeside parking at the foot of the Mt. Judah Express.

Disney, an early investor and an avid skier, as well as the many other Hollywood luminaries who frequented Sugar Bowl in its early days, would still feel at home in the resort’s car-free core. Most homeowners at the resort were members of prominent San Francisco families, but film stars such as Robert Stack, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe also skied at Sugar Bowl.


There are other Disney connections at Sugar Bowl as well, including the renamed Mt. Disney (known before 1939 as Hemlock Peak), which rises to nearly 8,000 feet. The Donald Duck run, off the Disney Express chairlift, is an expert slope between the Eagle and Pony Express pistes. Not a bad return for an initial $2,500 investment by Disney, who skied at the resort several times with Schroll and fellow Austrian Bill Klein, who directed the ski school until 1957.

The resort, which is on the west side of Donner Pass and gets as much as 500 inches of snow each winter, was the first in the Sierra to have a chairlift (a single-seater). For years, it was the site of the Silver Belt ski race, which drew top competitors from around the world.

Today, Daron Rahlves, who won 12 World Cup races and competed in four Winter Olympics for the U.S., is one of the resort’s ambassadors — which means he skis with the public on occasion. On March 14 and 15, the resort will host the Rahlves’ Banzai Tour at Sugar Bowl with a race down the famed Silver Belt Gully as part of the resort’s 75th anniversary.

I first visited Sugar Bowl in the mid-1980s and was charmed by the village’s Tirolean chalets, some of which have colorful, whimsical paintings and ski club shields on their sides. Like Goofy, I stayed at the Sugar Bowl Lodge and found it cozy. I even tumbled down a few slopes, à la Goofy.


I’ve returned a few times since then with family members and friends. Because I visited during last season when the skiing was sketchy, I can’t wait to return in the middle of a 500-inch winter.

Nancy Bechtle, chair of the Sugar Bowl Ski Corp., has been skiing for nearly 70 years, ever since her late father began taking the family to the Sierra by train.

“Sugar Bowl was rustic back then,” she said. “We’ve kept the character of the resort but brought in state-of-the-art equipment because nobody likes to stand in long lift lines.”

Today, three generations of the Bechtle family often ski at the resort at the same time, and three grandchildren are on the Sugar Bowl ski team.

“If I could sum up Sugar Bowl,” Bechtle said, “I’d say we are a small resort with a mountain that skis big — and has a wonderful family feeling.”

Mark Lorenzen, a San Francisco-based photographer, is a relative newcomer to Sugar Bowl, at least compared with Bechtle. He first skied at the resort 40 years ago and said he was “awe-struck” when he first saw the resort after a heavy storm.

“I was new to skiing and didn’t know what I was doing,” said Lorenzen, who became an accomplished telemark skier. “But I thought it was a winter wonderland. It has great terrain for all levels and great access to the backcountry. This winter, my family [including kids ages 10 and 14] will be renting a cabin near Sugar Bowl and getting a family season pass. We can’t wait.”

Rob Kautz, Sugar Bowl’s chief executive, began skiing at Sugar Bowl in the 1970s. He became a ski patrolman before working his way to the resort’s top management spot. Some of his favorite runs are off the Crow’s Peak chair, especially on stormy days.


Kautz recalls sitting with Schroll in the resort lodge and being regaled by the Sugar Bowl founder, who loved to tell stories.

“One evening, he was telling some of us about that trip down to Burbank in the late 1930s to see if Walt Disney wanted to invest in the resort,” Kautz said. “Disney and Hannes got to chatting about Austria and yodeling, which Disney liked. So Hannes yodeled for him. Disney was greatly impressed and called in his sound guys to record Hannes. That’s what ended up in the Disney cartoons.

“And Hannes always said, ‘You know what? I was never paid a dime for that!’”


If you go


From LAX, Southwest, American and United offer nonstop service to Reno; Delta, American, United, US Airways and Southwest offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $196, including taxes and fees. Southwest, American, Delta and United offer nonstop service to Sacramento; United, American, US Airways and Alaska offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares from $184. Sugar Bowl Ski Resort is on Donner Summit off Highway 40 about 42 miles west of Reno, Nev., and 96 miles east of Sacramento via Interstate 80.



Lodge at Sugar Bowl, (866) 843-2695, Rooms from $210 midweek; weekends and holiday rates are higher. Slopeside lodging with ski-in/ski-out access. Rental homes and condominiums also available.


Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, (530) 426-9000, Lift tickets, per day: $95 for adults ages 23-64; $78 for young adults ages 13-22; $55 for children ages 6-12. Sugar Bowl will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a series of season-long events, beginning with the Dec. 12 Backcountry Ball to benefit the Sierra Avalanche Center.

Royal Gorge, (530) 426-3871, All-day trail pass; $32 for adults ages 23-64; $27 for young adults ages 13-23; free for children 12 and younger.

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