A bit of Nordic heaven surrounds Lake Tahoe
By Tim Hauserman
For many adventure seekers, winter at Lake Tahoe means grabbing “first chair” rights and making tracks at Squaw Valley, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Alpine, Northstar or one of the other ski resorts surrounding America’s largest (and most beautiful) alpine lake. For others, the perfect adventure is skinning up to the top of a backcountry peak like Mt. Tallac, with solitude and incredible views rewarding hours of thigh burning effort.
Lesser known is the fact that Tahoe is also home to the largest concentration of cross-country ski trails in the United States. Five major Nordic resorts—Royal Gorge, Tahoe Donner, Tahoe Cross-Country, Kirkwood and Northstar—provide nearly 500 kilometers of groomed trails within an hour’s drive of Lake Tahoe. There’s a time and a place for riding the lifts, but cross country ski buffs know there is nothing quite like gliding across a meadow or ascending a ridge on skinny skis, and then pausing to sip hot cocoa in silence outside a remote hut. All this while getting the world’s best workout far away from the crowds.
Come to Tahoe and spend a week exploring all the different resorts, or zero in on a favorite spot and enjoy the friendly, “just having fun” atmosphere. For the most part the crowds and parking lots are small, so a trip to a cross-country ski area is just the ticket for those seeking a peaceful weekend in the snow.
9411 Pahatsi Road, Soda Springs
Located atop Donner Summit, where the heavy snow flies, Royal Gorge boasts nearly 200 kilometers of trails, making it North America’s largest cross-country ski resort. Several different trail systems provide a variety of skiing experiences from level jaunts through the woods, to spectacular ridgeline romps. Plan on skiing there a few days, as there is too much terrain to capture in just one day trip.
It takes some pretty good climbing to get there, but once you do, Razorback lives up to its name, sitting on the top of a narrow ridge with expansive views of the mountains of Sugar Bowl to the east, the Pacific Crest to the south and Castle Peak to the north. Go here in the spring when the north facing slopes keep the snow in prime condition.
> Point Mariah
360 degree views await you at the Point Mariah vista including a 4,000 foot drop into the Royal Gorge itself. Bring a lunch and sit for a spell in the sunshine.
> Stage Coach
Gaze across the canyon to knife-edged Devil’s Peak from this fun, rolling trail.
> Van Norden
The Van Norden trail system provides access to the flat terrain around Lake Mary. This low lying area holds the cold air, making for excellent snow conditions, and the flat terrain make it a good way to work out the early season kinks.
Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area
925 Country Club Drive, Tahoe City
Tahoe XC is a fun place to ski every day with great rolling terrain, awesome views of Lake Tahoe, and a relaxed and convivial atmosphere. The trail system offers scenic, diverse terrain for all abilities. State-of-the-art grooming machines ensure the best possible skiing conditions each day.
It’s steep, but short, with the views at the top of Lake Tahoe well worth the climb.
> Gold, Bronze and Silver
It’s a long steady ascent, and you will feel like an Olympian by the time you’ve climbed to the top of Gold, but then comes Bronze. It’s a roar of a descent with twists and turns that finally end with a long, gently descending straightway to the Silver Trail. More downhill through the trees brings you the Silver Hut, where the lakeview and a picnic bench will entice you to hang out.
Tahoe Donner Cross Country
15275 Alder Creek Road, Truckee
Truckee’s home town Nordic resort provides trails for every level of difficulty. You can go for a long relaxing skate through a spectacular valley surrounded by high peaks, or climb up, up, up to the crest of a mountain. Much of the terrain is treeless, providing awe-inspiring views.
> Last Roundup
If it’s your first trip to Tahoe Donner, take the Last Roundup trail to circle Euer Valley. The views are sublime, and it’s a great place for a long warm up skate, then get your workout by heading up the expert-rated Mustang Sally to the top of the ridge lookout. Be ready for the fun descent and be sure to save some energy, as any trip into Euer Valley ends with a long, gradual climb back out.
> Crazy Horse
If climbing is your primary goal, start from the lodge by taking the Sundance trail to Crazy Horse, which eventually leads to the top of Hawks Peak and the Drifter Hut at the crest of the ridgeline. It’s a long ascent with glorious views of Euer Valley far below. If you are ready for some serious downhill, head all the way down to Euer Valley on the steep descent that is the I’m Ok, You’re OK trail.
Kirkwood Cross Country Ski Area
Highway 88, Kirkwood
(209 ) 258-7248
While it is a bit of a jaunt from the rest of the Tahoe region’s cross-country venues, when it comes to dramatic mountain views, it’s hard to beat Kirkwood Cross-Country. Given its high elevation, Kirkwood is a place to go when there is not enough snow elsewhere.
Kirkwood boasts three trail systems: The short ups and downs through the junipers near the lodge, a few level loops through the meadow near the downhill resort, and my favorite, the Schneider Trail system, which can be accessed from the main lodge through the Agony and the Ecstasy Trails, or via a short drive from the lodge to the Schneider Trail system.
> Schneider to Last Round Up Trails
From the Schneider Trail system trailhead, take the Outpost, Sierra Vista and Last Round Up Trails, which bring you past an old cabin that is part of the Schneider Cow Camp. It’s a long climb, but these south facing, largely treeless bowls feature spectacular views of Round Top Mountain, Elephant’s Back, Caples Lake, and the Kirkwood Resort.
Northstar Nordic Trails
Off Highway 267, Truckee
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Northstar are the Northstar Nordic trails. While the trail system shrunk after the construction of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel a few years ago, Northstar still provides a pleasant trail network that dishes up views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains.
> Timbuktoo and Roundabout Loops
Skate away from the downhill crowds and head for the views of Lake Tahoe via the Timbukto and Roundabout Loops, then return on the Zunigas Zen trail. Or try the Ponderosa Trail to the Swiss Hut.
Caveat: There is a good Nordic skiing at Northstar on well groomed, lightly used trails. The problem is that you have to make your way through the downhill resort maze first. This means parking in a huge lot, walking or taking a shuttle, boarding a gondola that you slowly ride to the top, and then skiing through the crowded mid-mountain area to get to the trails. If you are skiing with a group in which some want to ski downhill and others want to cross-country ski, Northstar is an excellent option.
The Nordic Center at the Resort at Squaw Creek
400 Squaw Creek Road, Squaw Valley
There are a few hills, but it’s mostly level terrain, and the access from the Resort is quick and easy. If you are visiting Squaw Valley, take an hour and enjoy the views. In recent years the trails have become a favorite for dog sled teams. While the teams are fun to watch, them little doggies can do a number on the trail conditions.
Lake Tahoe Community College
1 College Drive, South Lake Tahoe
Five kilometers of trails are set to be groomed around the grounds of Lake Tahoe Community College. The Nordic Ski Center Program is operated by volunteers. Donations help to support the start-up and operations of this exciting venture.
Tahoe City Winter Sports Park
251 North Lake Blvd., Tahoe City
Located on the grounds of the Tahoe City Golf Course, the Winter Sports Park provides groomed cross-country skiing and sledding right in the center of Tahoe City. It’s a great place for beginners, and on low snow years it doesn’t require much snow to open.
Cross Country Fun Outside of Tahoe
Bear Valley Cross Country
1 Bear Valley Road, Bear Valley
While Bear Valley is a long way from Lake Tahoe, it’s not too far from the central valley and the Bay Area, and well worth the trip. The terrain is rolling ups and downs with beautiful mountain views, perfect for Nordic skiing. The resort has taken full advantage of the rolling ridgelines by providing a wide variety of trails for every level of ability. For the kids, they also have a popular sledding and tubing hill located adjacent to the skiing.
> Scenic Vista
Loop your way through the Aspen Forest, Walden Meadow and Cut-Off trails and Headwater to find beautiful groves of aspens, entertaining rolling sections, and excellent mountain and meadow vistas. For views head to the Scenic Vista, Osborne Ridge, and Ridgerunner trails for amazing top of the ridge and top of the world views.