Downhill Racer

Featured Photo Courtesy of Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows.
Downhill Racer

It’s easy to take our ski resorts for granted. You glance up and see a snow-covered mountain on the way to the grocery store and it barely registers, let alone strikes you as jaw-dropping. Or you—and your kids—have been skiing here since the age of 2 or 3, so it feels familiar, like your own backyard, as opposed to awe-inspiring.

But the reality is the 400-mile Sierra Nevada range provides some of the best ski runs in the world, and attracts tourists, employees and athletes from every part of the globe. It also produces home-grown Olympian skiers who are legendary, of course, many of whom choose the Sierra over other training facilities—Stacey Cook, Maddie Bowman, David Wise and Travis Ganong, to name a few. In fact, Olympians even opt to stay here after they retire from competition—opening businesses, training kids or working for local ski resorts—such as Julia Mancuso, Jonny Moseley, Tamara McKinney and Kristin Krone.

So the fact we can make a short drive, strap on some skis and follow in the paths of Olympic glory is impressive if you stop to think about it. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a whole lot of fun. Here’s where to head now.

1960 Squaw Valley Road, Olympic Valley, CA
800-403-0206 •

Squaw Valley was the site of the 1960 Olympics and has been a North Shore destination for skiing, snowboarding and winter activities ever since. In 2012, Squaw Valley joined with Alpine Meadows and is one of the largest ski areas in the United States. Combined, the resorts offer 43 chair lifts, more than 270 ski trails and the only funitel/aerial tram in the U.S.

Squaw/Alpine boasts 177 ski runs: 25 percent beginners, 45 percent intermediate and 30 percent advanced.

The resorts have programs for novice to expert skiers and snowboarders, as well as lessons specifically designed for children, family groups and people with disabilities. Private lessons for ski, snowboard and telemarking are also available.

This year’s winter deal is the Tahoe Super 4: four lift tickets, good any day of the season, including holidays, for $369. Also, joint lift tickets and single season passes are available, with a free shuttle between resorts.

Squaw/Alpine has many options for non-skiers or those who want additional activities after hitting the slopes. Some ideas? Celebrate the aerial tram’s 50th anniversary by taking a ride up to High Camp where you can enjoy 360-degree views of Lake Tahoe, shoot some photos and grab lunch or a drink at several serious-view restaurants. Or try snow tubing at the SnoVentures Activity Zone, rent a mini snowmobile at Squaw Valley Adventure (for kids 6–12), join a Vinyasa flow class at Wanderlust Yoga Studio, and—when the sun goes down—take a romantic moonlit snowshoe tour to the mid-mountain chalet at Alpine and dine on an “Alps-inspired” dinner in an intimate setting.

The resorts’ calendar is also chock-full of special holiday events in December and January. A few standouts are horse-drawn sleigh rides, mini Polar Express train rides, storytelling with Santa, jazz for the holidays (featuring the Reno Jazz Orchestra), ski-and-ride with Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley, and the annual New Year’s Eve family celebration (with fireworks and a ball drop at 9 p.m., following a performance by Apple Z).

For on-site lodging, check out The Village at Squaw Mountain View, Olympic Village Inn, and Resort at Squaw Creek. (Rates are higher on weekends and around holidays—$249–$499—but start midweek at $229; also look for couples’ getaways and wine/dine/shopping specials.)

Along with being one of the largest ski areas, there are plenty of dining choices after a day on the slopes, like PlumpJack Café, where you can warm up by ordering a Frost Control—citrus oil Ketel One and St. Germain with a twist of lemon—followed by the bucatini pasta.

Fun fact: Beginning December 2018, Squaw/Alpine will transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, resulting in a 49 percent emissions reduction in their total carbon footprint.—K.V.

Northstar California Resort
Photo Courtesy of Northstar California Resort

5001 Northstar Drive, Truckee, CA
800-466-6784 •

Also on the north side of Lake Tahoe, Northstar opened in 1972 and has always been known as a family resort, even before The Village at Northstar added kid-friendly activities galore.

Skiers and snowboarders can spend their days schussing the 3,170 skiable acres, over half of which are intermediate. With a peak elevation of 8,610 feet and nearly a third of the terrain rated as advanced, experienced skiers will also find their thrills. There are smooth-as-glass groomed runs, family zones and ample tree skiing for the agile. The longest run, Loggers Loop, extends 1.4 miles.

In addition to the Burton Academy for snowboarders, there are Ultimate 4 Lessons, where group sessions are taught with a 4-to-1 ratio. There are also Her Mountain Lessons, designed by women for women, and Her Mountain Retreats, two-day getaways with first tracks, champagne and yoga. The Kids Adventure Zones are designed to encourage learning in a comfortable environment as well, with family-friendly areas situated on slopes flowing toward interactive play structures.

This year, there’s also snow tubing at the Overlook above the Village, plus 1,400 square feet of groomed trails at the Mid-Mountain Cross-Country Ski and Snowshoe Center (which offers fat biking and telemarking, too). In the Village, there is plenty to keep you occupied: yoga at Tahoe Spa and Wellness, ice skating on a 9,000-square-foot rink, new releases at the Village Cinemas, and a candle and pottery shop where kids and adults can create their own candles or mosaics.

Dining choices range from food trucks to fun restaurants like Petra (order a cheese and charcuterie platter and a flight of paired wines to taste). For lodging, consider The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, which offers ski-in/ski-out and mountain concierge services. All the hotel’s guest rooms and multi-bedroom suites have gas fireplaces, oversize tubs, terrycloth robes and floor-to-ceiling windows framing views of the valley or the mountain. (Rates are $239–$2,600.)

Additional winter activities include Mountain Family Dinners with cocoa and stargazing at the Lodge at Big Springs; daily afternoon tõsts with complimentary bubbly or cider off the East Ridge Run; Platinum First Tracks, where guides give tours of the mountain before the lifts open, followed by breakfast; S’morey Time overlooking the ice rink; stargazing snowshoe tours; and Friday Fun Nights with disco music to ice skate by. The holidays bring Noel Nights when the Village turns into a winter wonderland with horse-drawn sleigh rides, Santa and s’mores, as well as Silent Nights when holiday movies play on the Village stage.—K.P.

4080 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA
775-583-7000 •

Straddling California and Nevada in South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly is aptly named, given its stellar views of both the lake and Carson Valley from the resort’s 10,067-foot elevation, the highest in the area. It also has the most skiable acres (4,630), with the added fun of skiing across the state line.

Heavenly Mountain Resort
Photo Courtesy of Heavenly Mountain Resort.

Heavenly opened in 1955 and today has 97 ski trails, ranging from open courses to plunging “chutes,” and 28 chair lifts: 8 percent beginner, 62 percent intermediate, 25 percent advanced and 5 percent expert.

The ski school offers lessons for children and adults, with a special Ultimate 4 package, like at Northstar, which puts first- or second-time adult skiers in a small group, designed to help them gain confidence for skiing more challenging terrain (there is also a women’s-only Ultimate 4 option). Private half- and full-day lessons are available for skiers of all ages, too. Buy lift tickets for $96 or an Epic Pass that gives you unlimited access to both Heavenly and Northstar for $589.

Don’t want to ski? The 500-foot tubing hill, open seven days a week from 11 a.m.- 4 p.m., has a “magic carpet” that puts you back on top after your slide. (An adjacent mini tubing hill for littler kids is open on holidays and weekends.) You can also take the 2.4-mile scenic gondola ride to the observation deck, where you can grab a hot chocolate and a snack—or go up for happy hour, 3:30–5:30 p.m. Monday– Thursday, and the Unbuckle Après Party on Friday and Saturday, to enjoy live music and half-priced drinks.

During the holiday season, Heavenly Village is transformed by twinkling white lights, giant snowflakes and a 40-foot Christmas tree. Enjoy ice skating (10 a.m.–8 p.m. every day), Saturday morning breakfasts with Santa, a cookie-delivering Polar Express train, and a family New Year’s Eve celebration that includes a gondola drop and fireworks at 9 p.m. (midnight EST).

There are more than a dozen restaurants in the Village, such as California Burger Co., where the Cordon-Bleu-trained chef serves only free-range, hormone-free, grass-fed beef. It also has outside tables with fire pits, live music, treats for dogs, games for kids and more than 100 whiskeys on the bar menu.

The restaurant is conveniently located near the Grand Residences by Marriott, a good choice for lodging, just steps from the Village gondola. Reserve a guest room with a fireplace and whirlpool tub, or a “residence” with a full kitchen, living and dining areas, and multiple bedrooms. (Rates range between $175 and $659.) Or book The Landing on Lakeshore Drive, smack on the beach, and just a five-minute shuttle ride from the ski resort. All rooms there have fireplaces, heated bathroom floors and cozy throws; the three-bedroom suite sleeps six and has a full kitchen. (Rates are $255–$1,009.)—T.M.R.

1210 Ski Way, Incline Village, NV
775-832-1177 •

Renowned for its panoramic views of Lake Tahoe, Diamond Peak Ski Resort has been considered one of northeast Tahoe’s “hidden gems” since 1966. Located above Incline Village in Nevada, the affordable, family-friendly resort has 655 acres and 1,840 vertical feet of terrain for skiing and snowboarding that beginners and experts alike can enjoy.

Diamond Peak Ski Resort.

Diamond Peak offers professional instructors and a dedicated children’s learning area with gentle slopes for the kids to enjoy. In fact, the Child Ski Center provides a safe and fun learning environment for kids ages 3–6. Lift tickets and rental equipment are included with all lessons and children are fitted for their gear inside the center. Choose the March of the Penguins group lesson or the Diamond Pete half-day private lesson (all packages come with lunch, playtime and snacks).

There is also a ski and snowboard school for ages 7 and up with group, private, and semi-private lessons for all ability levels looking to improve their skills.

Groups of 15 or more can save up to 20 percent per day on group tickets, rentals and lesson packages this winter. The resort also has a trail system designed for an easy return to the Base Lodge, where the bar awaits with happy hour drink specials after a day of shredding the slopes with a crowd of friends.

Those looking to stay and ski multiple days will find lodging extremely close by. For example, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort is located just about a mile away. (Rates are $179–$803.) The Hyatt offers lift tickets, complimentary shuttle service from the hotel, and ski valet service. The in-house Hyatt Sport Shop is fully stocked with winter essentials, equipment rentals and Diamond Peak lesson packages so guests can be ready for the slopes before leaving the hotel.

Return for dinner to the Hyatt’s Lone Eagle Grille, which has floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the private beach and the lake. Treat yourself to the Angus beef short ribs and a Pigeon Head IPA, while your kids scarf down personal-size pepperoni pizzas, then decorate their own cookies.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Santa and Penguin Pete visit and greet kids of all ages on the slopes of Diamond Peak. Catch these two lovable characters in and around the base area as well as on the slopes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Also, guests can take advantage of the guided interpretive ski tours or the moonlight snowshoe hikes to Snowflake Lodge.—W.V.

1001 Minaret Road, Mammoth Lakes, CA
800-626-6684 •

The Sierra Nevada is internationally known for having some of the best skiing and snowboarding terrain in the world, but as the name might suggest, none of the other lodges in the area do things quite as big as Mammoth Mountain, which was founded in 1942. With 3,500 skiable acres, year-round flights directly to the nearby Mammoth Yosemite Airport, and one of the longest ski seasons in North America, Mammoth Lakes has something for skiers of every skill level.

Mammoth Mountain Resorts
Photo Courtesy of Mammoth Mountain Resorts.

Located just east of Yosemite National Park, visitors to Mammoth Mountain can find ample dining and lodging in the alpine town of Mammoth Lakes—known for its proximity to the slopes and vibrant après atmosphere. Large groups might consider options like The Village Lodge or The Westin Monache Resort for on-site shopping and dining features, while families might appreciate the Juniper Springs Resort for its ski-in/ski-out access and on-location ski school. The Tamarack Lodge also offers a rustic charm for lovers of the old school. (Rates range from $150–$250 for rooms at the hotels; a cabin at the Tamarack is around $100.)

While Northern Nevada residents can expect about a three-hour drive south to experience Mammoth’s slopes, United Airlines offers daily flights from population hubs like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver. (Groups of 10 or more are eligible for special airfare packages at certain times and dates.) Upon arrival, skiers can choose between eight unbound terrain parks, challenging chutes near the mountain’s 11,059-foot summit, as well as both groomed and mogul runs for different skill levels.

The ease of access and vast range of experiences are what has made Mammoth a favorite to some of the biggest names in competition skiing and boarding—like Olympic medalist Shaun White, who often visits Mammoth’s Unbound Main terrain park to practice and compete.

Of course, Mammoth doesn’t just cater to Olympians—or even solely skiers. Those who aren’t bound for the slopes can grab group discounts for activities like snowmobiling through the High Sierra, or scenic gondola rides to the summit (order a steaming Asian noodle bowl at the Eleven53 Café). Kids of all ages are welcome at Woolly’s Tube Park, where they can ditch the boards or boots for a high-speed run down the groomed slopes on specialized inner tubes and hot cocoa on a heated deck.

The 2016-2017 season recorded the second heaviest snowfall on record, earning Mammoth the reputation as a reliable adventure option long after other lodges in the area have closed up shop. Powder hounds, families, class reunions and even large wedding parties can all find space on one of California’s biggest mountain playgrounds.—M.B.

Yosemite National Parks, Yosemite, CA
209-327-1000 •

The Sierra is full of mega ski resorts that provide dozens of high speed lifts, as well as a plethora of dining and lodging options. But if you are looking to slow down the pace and feel like you are going back in time, head to Yosemite Ski and Snowboard. It provides a relaxing, affordable downhill experience without the crowds, and is geared toward introducing the family to the joy of sliding down snow. After you ski, you are in Yosemite! Go explore one of the world’s most spectacular parks.

Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area
Photo Courtesy of Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area.

Folks have been skiing the slopes of Badger Pass since 1935, beginning with the Up-Ski, the first mechanical ski lift in the western United States. Now, the area has five chairlifts and 10 runs, with 35 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate and 15 percent advanced terrain.

Ticket and lesson prices are about half the price you would pay at one of the larger resorts. Yosemite also provides tiered pricing. If you are a beginner and only want to ski the easy lower lifts, you pay half the normal price: about $30.

The Badger Pass Ski School was established in the 1930s and produced some of the region’s most noted instructors, including Nic Fiore and Luggi Foeger. Today’s Yosemite ski school even has a guaranteed ski package: If you can’t figure out this skiing thing in the first day, come back for another try at no cost.

At Yosemite Ski and Snowboard, it’s really all about playing in the snow. When Mom and Dad want to enjoy a beverage on the sunny deck, the kids can go play on the tubing hill. For those who want to eschew the lifts, the ski area sits right at the beginning of the Glacier Point Trail. This trail heads out to the Glacier Point Hut, where you can spend the night at one of Yosemite’s most iconic viewpoints of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. The trail is groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, or you can make your way there via backcountry skis on the 90 kilometers of marked trails.

And of course a winter trip to Yosemite must also include a trip to Yosemite Valley. The bottom of Yosemite Falls becomes a giant snow cone in the winter, there is ice skating at the Half Dome Village Ice Rink, and you can wander around the valley and enjoy views of Half Dome and El Capitan without the crowds.

Stay overnight in the valley at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel or Yosemite Valley Lodge, with rates between $210 and $1,032. And don’t miss Christmas dinner, which is served at both hotels, followed by a pianist playing Christmas carols.—T.H.