Friday, October 8, 2010

Starting at the top

Driving south from Reno, we came to the top of a high mountain pass and laid our eyes on what we had crossed a continent to see: Lake Tahoe, an immense oval of blue ringed by mountains of wintry white, stretched out below.

Three times the size of the Sea of Galilee, Tahoe is America’s largest alpine lake and was described by Mark Twain as “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Straddling the California-Nevada border more than 6,000 feet above sea level, it would be a must-see no matter what, yet skiing is what always comes to mind when you hear its name. The slopes above Tahoe are home to seven world class ski resorts and the towns surrounding it produce droves of Winter Olympians -- and when you combine that with its penchant for attracting well-heeled international jocks, you might think it is not the best place for a couple of past-their-twenties Floridians to take their first stab at skiing. Fortunately, you would be mistaken.

Although Erika and I hadn’t skied before, we had taken enough winter vacations to know that the geographical stereotype about snow -- that it tends to be icy in the East and powdery in the West -- is largely true. Armed with that knowledge, it made sense to go out West for our first ski trip because we were sure to spend a lot of time in the following position:

Once that decision was made, it was easy to choose Tahoe because every consideration put a check in its column instead of its competitors’. For starters, getting to it is easier than getting to any of the West’s other ski areas because there is an international airport only 45 minutes away and a regional one less than four miles away. And with so many resorts close together, you can visit a different one every day instead of anchoring your entire vacation to just one. Plus, competition among them means you are sure to find good beginners’ programs and better prices than you would at stand-alone destinations like Breckenridge or Taos.

Another advantage of Tahoe’s clustering of towns and resorts is the variety and affordability of lodging you can find. Rather than stay on-property at one of the resorts, we stayed in the town of Tahoe Vista at a place called Rustic Cottages. Across the street from the water, it offers 19 different rentals ranging in size from studio cottages to full-blown houses, and at prices ranging from $74 to $399 per night. We went with one of the cheapest and even it included a wood stove, refrigerator, microwave, and furnished porch. Here is a picture of the lakeshore across the street:

Based solely on an article I had read in the Tampa Tribune, we decided to take our first ski lessons and ski runs at Northstar-at-Tahoe, and could not have been happier. The instructors were helpful and down-to-earth and the slopes were fast. After the lessons we made several downhill runs, burned through calories, then scarfed down lunch under a cloudless sky before hitting the slopes again. Afterward, we downed a beer in a bar near the base of the gondola.

Unfortunately, as focused as were on learning how to ski, we left our camera in the car and got no pictures that day. Two days later, we made sure to avoid that mistake when we went to Soda Springs. Whereas the “Big Seven” resorts I mentioned earlier feature self-sustaining villages filled with bars, restaurants, condos, and shops, Soda Springs is an old-fashioned ski lodge with nothing more than lockers and a cafeteria and, therefore, low prices. We purchased lift tickets for roughly half the price of Northstar’s and were able to ski a lot more because the lines were short.

In addition to skiing, Soda Springs has become well-known for excellent snow tubing, so we gave that a try between runs. Below is a picture of the “moving carpet” that takes you to the top of its tubing hill. The conifers towering above make it look so small that you barely notice it:

On the day between our outings at Northstar and Soda Springs we opted for a laid-back, unscheduled approach by driving part of the Ring Road, which takes 71 miles to circle the lake; going to some shops in Tahoe City; walking beside the Truckee River, where Erika stepped in a weak spot and sank thigh-deep into the snowpack; and having a blast at North Tahoe Regional Park, where we built the snowman pictured below and got into a one-on-one snowball fight.

While at the park we also went sledding on a groomed hill, taking advantage of the fact that Rustic Cottages has plenty of sleds and allows you to borrow them for free. Here is Erika leaning against one of those sleds with Lake Tahoe in the background:

Although you will create memories to last a lifetime no matter where you go around this beautiful lake, there are some things worth knowing before you plan your trip. For one, the towns on the California shore tend to be quaint and peaceful compared to those on the Nevada shore, where gambling is legal and nightlife more prevalent. For another, the town of South Lake Tahoe is by far the biggest. And of the “Big Seven” resorts, Heavenly has the most skiable acreage while Mount Rose is the only one from which you can see both the lake and the Reno skyline.

When it comes to skiing, we learned that people are telling the truth when they say it’s harder to get on and off the ski lift than it is to ski. And we learned that after you fall, getting yourself back into a standing position while wearing skis is also harder than the actual skiing. But most of all we learned that this world-famous destination is just as ideal for novices as it is for experts.


1. Due to a contract dispute/airline bankruptcy, Lake Tahoe Airport (the one less than four miles away) is currently in the unusual situation of not having any commercial flights. But I wouldn't expect that to last forever, and you can still get here easily because Reno-Tahoe International Airport is busy as ever.

2. Don't take my description of Soda Springs as having "nothing more than lockers and a cafeteria" to mean that it lacks a rental shop and gift shop. It does have those things and it also offers ski and snowboard lessons, including private lessons starting for as little as $45.

3. Here is a link to another one of the area's ski spots that is not one of the "Big Seven." FYI, the lake you see from it is Donner, not Tahoe.