Skiing in California? Yes, it is true. Let me take you to Lake Tahoe and explore some of the best California ski resorts.
This post is brought to you in partnership with Visit California
We started this trip immediately after Christmas and did go to Newport Beach and Santa Monica for a couple of days to see the many friends we have in the area. It is one of the things I love about California – we actually have more friends based there now and can never see all of them on each trip. So we keep going back.
Visit California suggested two things I could do on a winter trip: skiing in Lake Tahoe and drink wine in Sonoma. Add a bit of shopping and it had the making of another perfect California road trip.
How to get to Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is located approximately 3 hours from San Francisco by car and about 9 hours drive from Los Angeles. You can easily drive it in one day, or fly, of course, but we chose to drive and break it up by staying a night in San Jose, which is about 3h30 drive from where we went in Lake Tahoe.
The lake is bordered by both California and Nevada and is marketed as north or south, so just to make things clear, we stayed in North Lake Tahoe, in the California side of it.
Where we skied in Lake Tahoe
Well, the way mountains work in this part of California is rather different from what we are used to in Europe. When I was planning the trip, I thought I was going to be bound to one resort town/village and I did not understand the mobility the region offers. You know what I mean – if you ski in Val d’Isere or Verbier, you stay there for the duration of your stay. You may ski across to another resort, but you wouldn’t go for dinner at all (because the drive up and down the mountain would make no sense). Well, skiing in California can be a little bit different!
We didn’t expect that the motorway from San Francisco went to maybe 10 miles distance to Squaw Valley, where we based ourselves during this part of the trip. Remember the hour (or more) windy drive from the base of the mountain to the resort we normally get? Not at this California ski resort!
Each ski area (or mountain) is owned by a different company (or owner) – and sadly, no one markets the area as one, with a ski lift pass that would allow you to mountain hop. You can ski 3 different mountains in 3 days, but you need to buy 3 different lift passes. The maximum you can get together is 2 of the mountains – but not the 3 I skied.
Squaw Valley is where we stayed during our inaugural Lake Tahoe trip and I personally think it was a very good base as it was a very ‘central’ location.
You may have heard of Squaw, which is known for some of the best skiing in the area and also for hosting the Winter Olympics in 1960. The current village is a bit over 10 years old, with quite a few options to eat and shop (all the usual American ski brands are there).
We stayed at the Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn which is also home to one of the most (almost too) popular bar in the area and ‘upscale’ (in American speak) dining. Our room was huge (albeit quite dated) and we enjoyed our stay. We found service to be very friendly, the wine list incredible (think half bottles of Taittinger at $33) as they are also wine merchants and known to sell wine at retail price and the food was good.
We weren’t so keen on how the bar area became a children’s playground from 5pm as everyone from everywhere came to have dinner in the bar area and you’d almost have to stand against a wall to hold a drink. America usually does all day dining very well, and something there didn’t quite work.
We have been told that the current building will be imploded soon and a new Plumpjack will be unveiled in 2020, so watch this space. I would still recommend it as an option to stay.
We hired our skis from the main rental place in Squaw (and took them with us in the car to the other ski resorts, as otherwise we would waste more time each day.
We enjoyed skiing in Squaw (I couldn’t quite believe that I skied after bring on crutches the day before, but the ski boot somehow helped me) – and yes, the ski-in ski-out Starbucks isn’t a myth.
Lunch at the ‘canteen’ on top of the mountain didn’t look like our cup of tea (something that surprised me with this being in California), so we came down the mountain to the village and had a burger and a grilled cheese at Rockers.
We booked a massage at the Trilogy Spa which was excellent. Priced at $130 for 90 minutes, it was also good value – and I am very grateful that the therapist understood my sprained foot and really helped me.
We had our first dinner (the evening we arrived) at the Plumpjack dining room (dinner for 2 was $215 excluding service) and on the second night, we went to Tahoe City (15 minutes drive away) and went to Wolfdale’s, which is known to be one of the best places around.
We found it quite old school (which is absolutely fine), but not as inspiring as we thought, except for the Caesar salad (epic) and the Baked Tahoe desert which was excellent (a version of what ‘we’ Brits call Baked Alaska). Dinner for 2 was $170 (excluding service).
Lift passes cost from $89 (advance purchase) to $179 per day (if bought at the resort).
Northstar is the most upmarket of all resorts in Lake Tahoe (owned by Vail Resorts) and where we were going to be based initially (with the Ritz Carlton being the place to stay). We went on an exceptionally busy week (first week of January) and there was one room available at $1600/night (normal rates are around $300-400, and at Plumpjack, we got the very last room for around $550/night, with its rates being around $250-350).
But things happen for a reason and I still think Squaw was a great base.
We were told we had to park and ride in Northstar, but walking wasn’t easy for me (nor was I interested in parking and riding). When we drove all the way to the centre of the resort… we had one of those ‘only in America’ moments, when we realised we could valet park our car right there. These were the best $60 spent all day.
We queued quite a bit to get our ski passes – we felt Northstar was much busier than Squaw. We really enjoyed the skiing, but were quite let down by lunch. We wanted to try lunch ‘on the mountain’ as it made no sense for us to come all the way down to the village and have a meal (as we were just skiing there for one day and only really got on the slopes just before noon), and went to this massive school-style cafeteria. Lunch wasn’t a bargain at $87 (for real) and I really hope the offer can be improved as skiers do deserve better. And this is California (where we eat always so well).
Apres-ski in Northstar was quite fun – we had our coffees spiked with Baileys (and then looked at everyone drinking coffee in a completely different way), and had a lovely glass of wine and crudité platter at Petra (which I am sure would make for a great venue for dinner).
Our plans were different as we left the main resort and made our way to the Ritz Carlton North Lake Tahoe where we changed for dinner and got to see what whole marshmellow experience was all about (which was very popular). It was interesting to see how different apres-ski was there. Also their lunch (BBQ) looked pretty good, so this is an option for sure on a future trip.
We had cocktails (the best dirty martini of the trip) and dinner at Manzanita – and I have to say, complete redemption in the culinary stakes at dinner. We had a whole fire roasted stripe bass (I love being surprised) and a meal to really remember. Dinner and drinks for 2 were $240 excluding service.
Lift passes at Northstar cost from $143 per day (advance purchase) to $163 (bought on the day).
Homewood was the absolute wildcard of the trip – and I have to say, a place that stole my heart. If you would consider both Squaw and Northstar as proper ski resorts, Homewood would be the opposite. It was as basic as it gets – but wonderfully pure, in a way I have never seen a mountain like this in my life.
There’s a (free) car park, there’s a shed where you get your lift passes and a coffee and some huts which are the ski school. There’s a chairlift up and once you get up there – you will be greeted by some of the most beautiful views I have ever experienced in my life.
Lake Tahoe is there for you to enjoy. I did not ski much – my foot was killing me, which was not a bad thing as my husband got to ski ‘for real’ (without me slowing him down) with Laura, our ski guide.
They dropped me at the Big Blue bar (well, a tent) where I sunbathed a little and absolutely enjoyed the views before lunch.
I took the chairlift down and couldn’t quite believe that they had no hand rail bars – going up was interesting, but going down not so much.
Lunch took place at the West Shore Café, across the road from the car park, also owned by the same company who owns Homewood Mountain and it was lovely. It was good to see a table with a white table cloth and hands down the best ‘mountain meal’ we had, which was made up of American classics such as Caesar salad, crab cakes, fish tacos and calamari.
The views were incredible. Lift passes cost from $49 (advance purchase) to $109 (bought on the day)
For our final dinner, we went to Truckee, which is a lovely town between Squaw and Northstar (kind of). It looked incredibly unique (like in the old American films) and it is home to Trokay, where we had the best meal of our trip. We chose to go a la carte instead of the tasting menus (which was very reasonable at $105/person for the 5-course prix fixe or $210 for the chef’s 7-course menu) – but we couldn’t do 5 courses. If you are in the area, you can’t miss dinner here. Dinner for two was $250 excluding service.
Thank you Lake Tahoe
Never ever had I considered skiing in California – and I am so glad we got the chance to. The quality of the snow was excellent, we loved being able to ski in different places – and I still cannot get over the views of Lake Tahoe.
The area has had incredible amounts of snow – we escaped a huge white out which came the day we left for Sonoma and if you are starting or ending a California roadtrip in San Francisco, I would absolutely recommend a visit. I would actually like to go back in the Summer as I could really see the potential.
As I said before, California is the gift that keeps on giving for us…
Until the next time
Disclaimer and Fact box: this trip was funded and sponsored by Visit California and I would invite you to begin your California trip planning at their website, which actually is quite useful.
Find out more about North Lake Tahoe by visiting its website.
With regards to lift passes, you can get one through Vail for Northstar and Alterra Mountain Co for Squaw which allows you to ski the other resorts within Vail’s and Alterra’s collection. But you will need 3 different passes for those 3 resorts I visited.
British Airways flies to San Francisco and San Jose in Northern California (which are 3-4 hours drive away) and you can fly London Heathrow from £1800 in business class, but average fares are around £2500-3000. The most local airport is Reno.
We hired a car with Avis (if you are a fellow BAEC Gold, use N744400 as your AWD). Our SUV was $50/day including all taxes.