The best snow in California can be found in South Lake Tahoe
There are far worse problems to have than being stuck in California for a weekend. But if you find yourself hanging around the Golden State with some time to kill, then you can do worse than check the snow conditions in nearby Lake Tahoe.
I found myself in such a predicament last January, and so booked into the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel on the water’s southern edge. This historic holiday and skiing destination in the Sierra Nevada mountain range draws tens of thousands of visitors annually from Nevada and California, whose state lines it straddles. To the east are the scorched deserts of the Great Basin, to the west a California ablaze, but at 2,000m above sea level, Tahoe records sub-zero temperatures monthly and is infamous for its blizzards.
I cruised into town on US Highway 50 from the Nevada side, which is illuminated by bright and flashing casino lights. Cross the state line into California and the gambling vanishes, the highway instead lined with classic Americana – motels, shopping malls, diners – as well as the gondola station.
The Lake Tahoe area has a few resorts dotted around to pick from. I chose Heavenly, the biggest, promising good intermediate skiing and tantalising off-piste terrain that unfortunately was a touch bare when I visited. The famous images of skiing through bottomless powder through the trees come from resorts like Heavenly, snapped when they have a proper winter coat on. But this season the resort is decidedly under-clad, so piste skiing was the order of the day.
Heavenly has stunning views over the lake on one side, and with a turn of the head, the desert of Carson Valley. The other remarkable feature are the trees, which stretch all the way to the top of the resort at 3,000m. In the Alps you would be surrounded by rock and ice at this altitude.
These Jeffrey Pines have also kindly spaced themselves out to make them perfect for skiing through. All the more frustrating that the snow gods had not played ball.
During prohibition, the bar took advantage of its location straddling three counties by propping the building up on wheels. When the sheriff from one county was spotted they would quickly roll the whole bar over the county line.
This was my first taste of skiing the US for over 20 years and I was pleasantly reminded of the some of the cultural differences. Unlike in Europe the lift attendants greet every chair cheerfully, a staggering endurance feat in itself. They even take your skis out of the gondola for you, which is the kind of cordial service culture that simply doesn’t happen on this side of the Atlantic. Surprisingly the lift infrastructure itself isn’t as good as I had expected, with mostly slow speed lifts (unheard of in the major European resorts) and none with footrests.
Rather than another day on blues and reds I headed to Kirkwood where I heard the snow might be a little better. The 50-minute drive proved well worthwhile. Kirkwood has a slightly more hip, laid back atmosphere than Heavenly and a day skiing with some locals was the highlight of the weekend. The local knowledge helped eke out the best the resort had to offer in terms of skiing as well as a quite sensational barbequed burger.
For a wonderful reminder of the history of this part of the world I would recommend a stop at the Kirkwood Inn & Saloon. The independent, frontier-town ethos shared by many in this part of the US is encapsulated by this inn. During prohibition, it took advantage of its location straddling three counties by putting wheels on the bar. When the sheriff from one county was spotted they would quickly roll the whole bar over the county line.
Thankfully such evasive manoeuvres are no longer necessary, and – save for after you’ve had too many whiskeys – the room now mostly stays put.