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In another, more benign sign of climate change, mountain resorts in the U.S. Rockies make history by extending ski season to July 4th.
For the first time in history, mountain resorts in Lake Tahoe , the ski area that straddles the California-Utah border, have officially extended their ski season through July 4th weekend. After several dry winters, the Lake Tahoe resorts saw their snowiest season on record, reporting 700 inches of snow - approximately 300 percent more snow than a normal season. While the Reno-Tahoe area has always attracted many year-round visitors, for art and culture events and outdoor activities on the mountains and Lake Tahoe, this year visitors will enjoy an epic après-ski.
For anyone who didn’t make it yet to Tahoe for the 2016-17 ski season - or for those who didn’t get enough - excellent powder and no crowds make this a perfect time to visit. And that’s just what a couple of my besties and I did, on a blizzard of a vacay of skiing, dining and lounging, hitting five resorts, in five days.
Parking it at Parc Forêt
Our posse met up in Reno, where we enjoyed ultra-luxurious accommodations at the Parc Forêt at Montreux. If you haven’t heard of it, this enclave of the Montreux master-planned development of luxury homes, about 30 minutes from the Reno-Tahoe airport, is a high desert oasis with year-round appeal, known for its 300 days of sunshine, world-class golfing, nearby casinos and nightlife, and of course, its proximity to the mountain resorts.
As we arrived at Parc Forêt and got directions from the guard at the gatehouse to our abode, we kept looking for the landmark of the clubhouse, but we got confused, because we mistook every gigantic, eight-bedroom manse on the street as the clubhouse. “Oh, there it is; no, that’s a house. Now I see it - oops, that’s another house…”
The custom-built homes in the Montreux development impressed us with both their grandeur and design. We were lucky enough to experience the "Stay and Play" package, whereby potential homeowners are invited to reside a few days in the community - a clever marketing tactic, as its pretty impossible not to fall in love with the place. Our "modest" (7,200-square-foot!) house featured an open floor plan on the first level with a full kitchen and marble bar that opened into an enormous family room with a long, wall-to-wall gas fireplace, a perfect for gathering place to hang after a day on the mountain. Each of us had our own grand master bedroom and bath, and there was plenty of space to spread out, from the downstairs game room and bar to the sunny deck overlooking the snowy woods. We also enjoyed lounging around our outdoor fireplace, right outside the front door. We felt very at home at Montreux, where we were taken in at the clubhouse by the residents with whom we made fast friends, dancing the night away at a private party, as the DJ played surprisingly current rap and hip-hop. We were tempted to hang out there all day and skip the skiing, but the mountains kept calling our names.
Looking at the Slopes through Mount-Rose-Colored Glasses
Our first stop was Mount Rose, which is so close to the airport – about a 25-minute drive - that the resort offers discounted lift tickets for those who show their same-day airline boarding passes. The resort is known for its spectacular views and its mellow attitude. The resort features terrain for all levels as well as the longest continuous vertical in North America; and at 8,260 feet elevation, Mt. Rose is Tahoe's highest base resort, which means the resort often has the best conditions even on the warmest spring days. As far as amenities, Mt. Rose is pretty much hardcore skiing, with not a lot of frills, but this may all change soon as the owners plan to develop it soon into a luxury resort.
Skiing Large at Squaw Alpine
Our second day we spent at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadow, now known as Squaw Alpine since the two neighboring resorts merged in 2012. Now the resort is massive in size, boasting a combined 6,200 acres, 43 lifts, and 270 trails, attracting 600,000 skiers a year. Although lift tickets and amenities are interchangeable, the two resorts feature distinctly different feels to visitors.
Squaw, famed as the site for the 1960 Olympics and recently voted as the top resort in North America by USA Today, is a high-energy resort that attracts many professional skiers, though it has a variety of terrain, including 25-percent beginner’s slopes. Alpine Meadows is known for its down-home and approachable hospitality and its easy-riding progression parks and wide-open bowls, with terrain for all levels of skiers. Because of Squaw Alpine’s size and resources, it has amazing offerings. From tubing and snowmobiling, to dog sledding and ice-skating, there’s just about no snow sport you can’t do there. There is also a lovely village at Squaw with terrific dining and shopping and generally except for holiday weekends, it’s not too crowded.
Wishing Upon Northstar
On day three we hit Northstar, California, aptly named for its location on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. The resort is part of the Vail Group, which also includes the Tahoe resorts of Northstar, Heavenly, and Kirkwood, which all have the reputation as resorts dedicated to a premier visitor experience.
It was a bit of a drive from Parc Forêt, about an hour and half, but we were glad to make a day of our venture to this luxury destination. Northstar features a Ritz-Carlton and other upscale accommodations and dining for visitors who like their skiing experience made easy. On-mountain dining includes the popular Zephyr Lodge, accessible by tram for pedestrians, which makes mincemeat of the standard chili and hot cocoa lodge fare with gourmet cuisine, which of course comes at a cost, but the typical Northstar clientele are not too concerned about a $25 lunch.
Northstar prides itself in its laid-back luxury, which is exactly what it sounds like. You’re treated like a VIP, but the tenor of the staff and the vibe in the village is definitely not uptight. The resort features amenities such as a valet who will carry your skis to the snow’s edge, though if you are staying in the luxury accommodations in the village, there’s hardly a reason for such a service, since the slopes are about 100 feet from your doorstep. In true ski-in-ski out fashion, one of the gondolas actually travels underneath the village condominiums.
Treasure of Sierra-at-Tahoe
As a storm came in, we rushed on our second to last day of vacation to Sierra at Tahoe. Unfortunately, the only road up to the mountain was bumper to bumper with other vacationers on the holiday weekend with the same idea. We spent more than 90 minutes edging up the hill for the last seven miles to the top. The situation got a little desperate after morning coffee, forcing us to make an unscheduled stop behind a snow mound for a potty break.
The lumbering ride up to Sierra-at-Tahoe is worth the trip though. Having the only half-pipe on the south shore, Sierra is popular with snowboard riders, and because of its focus on value and affordable lift ticket packages, it draws many day users, making base camp a vibrant place to hang out. Being on the south shore, Sierra is also close to the night life and casinos, so it has become a favored resort of the party crowd. In keeping with their theme of fun in the snow, Sierra’s kids lessons and the "Smart Terrain" classes for all ages are led by qualified instructors, upon whom the resort has bestowed the "Certified Unserious" badge, a designation that guarantees, among other things, that staff are dedicated to guests learning in a fun environment suited for their skill level.
Heavenly Can’t Wait
Our last day was at Heavenly Mountain Resort, which in my experience skiing there for more than 25 years has always lived up to its name. As the resort with the highest elevation of the Lake Tahoe area resorts, with a peak elevation of 10,067 feet, Heavenly has some of the most magnificent vistas. For skiers who like their terrain raw, Heavenly has no shortage of intense backcountry terrain, along with plenty of varied terrain from wide-open cruisers to plunging 1,600-foot chutes. While they didn’t need it this year, Heavenly owns the largest snowmaking system in the area, so even during dry years, they usually have decent conditions.
Our last journey down the mountain was on Roundabout, a winding narrow intermediate trail that traverses the mountain at a leisurely pace - sometimes to the point where we had to use our poles to push ourselves. It’s a good thing the mellow terrain allowed us to catch our breath, as it would have been taken away by the spectacular views we got to enjoy all the way down.
We changed our accommodations our last two nights to the new Hotel Becket, a Joie de Vivre property. It was quite a switch from our Parc Forêt three-bedroom luxury home, but we expected and got a different experience at this über-cool millennial lodging spot. Directly across from the Heavenly Village of restaurants and bars, and sporting its own Ten Crows Restaurant, this happening hotspot is social central.
The hotel has everything a guest needs for a quick and comfortable slumber, wide screen TV, Wi-Fi, spa services, etc., and guests’ choice of rooms, either the rustic alpine charm of the Sierra-style Woods rooms, or the newly renovated and contemporary Village rooms, with architectural details such as reclaimed barn wood doors. But honestly, the target clientele of this hotel does not spend much time holed up in a hotel room, no matter how luxuriously appointed.
Rent and Go
Hands down the most aggravating part of the skiing is returning rental equipment, but our newfound friends at Tahoe Dave’s made it a breeze.
Getting our gear there was much smarter than renting at each resort. We kept the gear overnight and saved ourselves the hassle of waiting in lines to rent and return gear each day. The folks at the shop were highly knowledgeable and helpful. They are also great salespeople, as they convinced us to buy the top-of-the-line ski goggles with chroma-pop lenses, which we were glad we did when we skied in blowing snow and the goggles did their job of amazingly sharpening the definition of the contours on the terrain.
You’ll be Comin' Year-‘round the Mountain
Even if you don’t want to hit the slopes for summer, there are plenty of warmer-weather attractions that will be in full swing during the overlap of spring skiing and summer season, such as scenic gondola rides and even a mountain coaster at Heavenly, as well as mountain biking, hiking, camping, ropes courses and ziplines, river boat tours, fishing adventures, water sports on the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe - and fun events like Squaw's Peaks and Paws dog swimfest - bring a boon of year-round business.
While for ski resorts generally the rule is there can’t be enough snow, the 2016-17 season was a challenge. Some resorts brought in snowmelting equipment from New York to clear parking lots. Also, because of the fierce storms and winds, many chairlifts were grounded and slopes opened late or not at all due to dangerous weather conditions.
The good news, on the other hand, is that more than 60 feet of snow is slow to melt - and so for the first time ever, après ski will include Fourth of July fireworks!