Cerca: Winter's best outdoor experiences surround Lake Tahoe

Every year, the mountains flanking Lake Tahoe are blessed with dozens of feet of snow, making it one of our nation's best winter destinations. Recreational opportunities seem endless; outdoor lovers not only have access to a dozen world-famous alpine resorts for skiers and snowboarders, but also to hundreds of miles of cross-country, snowshoe and snowmobile trails.

On our last winter getaway, we decided to take advantage of all this variety and headed north to spend six days in Lake Tahoe. My family and I have skied a slew of slopes in many a state, but found this area offers an especially large diversity of resorts all within easy driving distance from each other. This is one of our favorite types of holidays, as we find skiing is not only invigorating but is also a great way to enjoy family time together. Spending time outdoors on the slopes getting exercise on varied terrain and snow conditions, as well as always meeting new people, make for excellent family memories.

The entire Lake Tahoe area, which is in both Nevada and California, offers plenty of excellent choices in lodging. Accommodations range from economy motels, to condominiums, cabins, high-end hotels and destination resorts. For our visit, we decided renting a house would be best. This allowed us to make all our own meals and do a little entertaining.

On our first day skiing, we headed for a ski-and-snowboard resort called Diamond Peak, a locals' favorite. Although quite small by Tahoe standards, it offered 655 acres with more than 30 runs featuring a variety of terrains. The mountain was groomed to perfection and a great place to get acclimated to the higher elevation before venturing onto a bigger hill, as we planned to do the next day.

While the skiing was marvelous, the views from the mid-mountain restaurant, Snowflake Lodge, took our breath away. Spread before the soaring slopes of the Sierras was Lake Tahoe, which has 72 miles of shoreline, much of it visible from our vantage point. At an elevation of 6,225 feet, you'd expect the lake to freeze in winter, but most of it does not because of its great depth of 1,645 feet, making it one of the deepest lakes in the United States. The lake is fed by more than 60 streams and two hot springs.

If you intend to try a variety of resorts during your visit, as we did, you can save money by purchasing the Ski Tahoe North Interchangeable Lift Ticket. Starting with a minimum three-day purchase, you can use it or share it with someone else at any participating resort. Some of the largest and most popular resorts -- including Alpine Meadows, Diamond Peak, Homewood Resort, Mount Rose-Ski Tahoe, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Squaw Valley USA and Sugar Bowl -- take part in this program.

The big plan for our second day was to head over to Alpine Meadows Ski Resort to meet friends from Reno for a day of skiing and an apres-ski get-together. We woke up that morning to high winds and heavy snow, officially a blizzard. Since we had a four-wheel-drive vehicle and were looking forward to skiing fresh powder, we headed out anyway. But our friends couldn't make their longer drive, and to make matters worse, the resort was temporarily closed because of high wind.

Not willing to be stopped by an inconsiderate blizzard, we headed up the road a few miles to Squaw Valley USA. In 1960, the VIII Olympic Winter Games were here. The first Olympic Games to be televised, they brought national and international attention to the area's vast winter recreation opportunities, and made Squaw Valley one of the most famous of all ski resorts.

Squaw Valley boasts more than 170 trails over six peaks and 4,000 acres, accessed by 34 lifts. Once there, though, the wind and snow were blowing so fiercely, we reluctantly postponed skiing these storied slopes until our next visit.

That afternoon, we went looking for a good place to go snowshoeing. On advice from a local, we drove up through the pine forests outside of Incline Village along one of the main routes to Reno, the 19.4-mile Mount Rose Highway. This is the highest all-season highway in the Sierras and takes you up a mountain pass at 8,991 feet in elevation. We found a likely spot at Tahoe Meadows, an all-season recreation area, but even in blowing snow, throngs of other folks had the same idea to take advantage of the new snow. Even so, we found a good spot to park, headed into the trees, and were immediately submerged in the silent solitude of a snow-filled forest.

Another popular activity in the Tahoe area is snowmobiling. Eagle Ridge Snowmobile Outfitted Wilderness Tours seems a good way to start. Experienced guides teach you how to properly and safely use the machines, then lead you into the backcountry. Depending on your interests, abilities and available time, tours usually last from two hours to a full day. But they also offer moonlight excursions and overnight trips. They use a 200-mile trail system including snow-covered forest service roads and open meadows, and take you to some of the finest scenic vistas on 650 square miles of forest service land.

Although we did miss out on skiing the day of the blizzard, we more than made up for it the next day at Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort. This family-friendly mountain boasts 3,000 skiable acres, 92 trails, seven terrain parks and 19 lifts, including two gondolas.

This resort makes everything easy, starting the minute you arrive. You drive up to the circular guest drop-off area where you can unload all your gear and passengers at the entrance to the Village, the mountain's hub. They have at-the-ready enormous utility wagons into which you can pile on all your families' ski gear, then pull through the paved Village area, over to the lifts or your lodging accommodations. The Village area not only offers lodging and other standard visitor services, but is home to 35 shops, restaurants and bars. It is also where you start your ski or snowboarding day by hopping on the Big Springs Express Gondola, which takes you up to mid-mountain.

Mid-mountain is the jumping-off place for the rest of the ski lifts and the majority of the downhill trails for skiers and snowboarders. It is also the place to access a tubing area and a Nordic center. The Cross-Country, Telemark + Snowshoe Center at Northstar offers 1,500 acres of terrain with 40 kilometers of groomed trails of all difficulties including those for track, skate, snowshoe and Telemark skiing. They have lessons and rental equipment and even sleds if you want to pull small children along.

At mid-mountain, you also will find Tahoe's first five-star luxury hotel, the Ritz Carlton Highlands, which opened in December 2009. The ski-in, ski-out property has 170 guest rooms, including more than a dozen suites, 23 private residences and a Destination Club. The Ritz also has a 17,000 square-foot spa and fitness center.

We focused on skiing all the trails that had untracked powder, until our legs couldn't take it anymore and then spent the rest of the day on more forgiving trails. At the end of the day, we skied back down to the Village. We found the place packed with people and an uplifting atmosphere of skiers and boarders relaxing after a great day on the mountain.

Those who still have energy to burn can take a few spins around the 9,000-square-foot ice skating rink. But most people I saw seemed content to sip hot chocolate, or maybe something stronger, relax on a cushioned chair, roast a marshmallow on one of the fire pits and dream about which of a dozen more Lake Tahoe resorts they would next enjoy.

Contact Deborah Wall at deborabus@aol.com.


Location: Lake Tahoe, on the border of Nevada and California, about 60 miles west of Reno and about 469 miles from Las Vegas.

Directions: From Las Vegas, take U.S. Highway 95 north for about 382 miles. Turn left onto U.S. Highway 50 west and follow for about 62 miles. Go left onto U.S. Highway 395 south/U.S. 50 west, follow for 3.3 miles and merge right onto 50 west. Continue about 10 miles to Nevada Route 28 and the Lake Tahoe area. Go right for about 12 miles to Incline Village.

Southwest Airlines: Numerous flights daily between Las Vegas and Reno, starting at $128 roundtrip. www.southwest.com.

North Lake Tahoe Express: Daily transportation between Reno-Tahoe International Airport and Lake Tahoe destinations. Service runs from 3:30 a.m. until midnight, $75 roundtrip with discounts for groups of two or more. (866) 216-5222, www.northlaketahoeexpress.com.

Lodging: Ritz-Carlton Highlands at Northstar-at-Tahoe ski area, (530) 562-3000, www.ritzcarlton.com/laketahoe. Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino, 111 Country Club Drive, Incline Village, (775) 832-1234, www.laketahoe.hyatt.com. The Village at Squaw, (866) 818-6963, www.thevillageatsquaw.com.

Some notable slopes: Northstar-at-Tahoe, (530) 562-1010, www. northstarattahoe.com; Diamond Peak, (775) 832-1177, www.diamondpeak.com; Squaw Valley, (530) 583-6985, www.squaw.com; Alpine Meadows, (530) 583-4232, www.skialpine.com.

Ski Tahoe North Interchangeable Lift Ticket: Best way for out-of-town visitors to save on lift tickets. Good at Alpine Meadows, Diamond Peak, Homewood Resort, Mount Rose-Ski Tahoe, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Squaw Valley USA, Sugar Bowl. Available for three or more ski days starting at $222. Delivered to your home, or with proper ID pick up tickets at Visitor Information Center, 380 North Lake Blvd. Tahoe City, Calif. (530) 581-6900, (888) 434-1262, www.gotahoenorth.com.

Eagle Ridge Snowmobile Outfitters: Guided tours, (530) 546-8667, www.tahoesnowmobiling.com.

Incline Village Visitor Center: 969 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village, (775) 832-1606, www.gotahoenorth.com/

Tahoe City Visitors Information Center: 380 North Lake Blvd. Tahoe City. (530) 581-6900, www.gotahoenorth.com/

North Lake Tahoe Visitors and Convention Bureau: Plan your entire vacation from lodging to lift tickets. (888) 434-1262, (530) 581-8703, www.gotahoenorth.com.

Winter driving updates: Roads are often subject to chain controls, snow tires or four-wheel-drive requirements. Recorded messages on road conditions. California Department of Transportation, inside Calif. (800) 427-7623, outside Calififornia (916) 445-7623. www.dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo. Nevada Department of Transportation, (775) 793-1313, www.nvroads.com.