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Not far away, the snow falls, whitening the mountains and lacing the streams with ice, just waiting for visitors to arrive, tucked tight inside their parkas, insulated boots and warm woolen beanies. They come bearing skis and snowboards or with simply a hankering for a steamy drink beside a roaring alpine fire.
First of all, it must be said: Will we have enough snow? As each drought-parched year goes by and we hear reports of a 500-year “snow fail” in the Sierra Nevada, it’s easy to wonder. But faith—and history—must prevail. The Sierra has always gotten at least some snow, and the Sacramento region enjoys perfect proximity. We’re not shoveling it ourselves or chaining up our tires to back down our driveways, but we can throw some skis on the car, a bag in the trunk, and see white in no more than about two hours. Lake Tahoe beckons with ski resorts, sledding hills, toasty resorts and its different personalities, depending on the shore. Farther south, Yosemite awaits, a quiet winter escape, while up north, Mount Shasta rises over a snowy landscape.
South Lake Tahoe
The drive up Highway 50 peaks, literally, at Echo Summit, where comin’ around the mountain, you’ll gasp at the view and head down, down, down into the Lake Tahoe basin. On the slopes rising behind the towns of South Lake Tahoe and Stateline, skiers, snowboarders and sledders can have a great day out. Even those who aren’t into snow sports will love riding the gondola that swoops 2.4 miles up the mountainside at Heavenly. The observation deck halfway up—at an almost 9,200-foot elevation—affords great photo ops: the powder-dusted trees, the lake, the towns below. With 4,800 acres of ski and snowboard terrain, Heavenly is the largest resort in the Lake Tahoe area; it also climbs to the highest elevation (10,066 feet—are we out of breath yet?), and skiers can glide across the state line on the California and Skyline trails. The Shops at Heavenly complex, at the gondola base, now has an eight-screen movie theater, an ice-skating rink and lots of shops and restaurants, including BaseCamp Pizza, Azul Latin Kitchen, and a couple of wine tasting spots.
Other worthy stops right near Heavenly: Hansen’s Tube and Saucer Resort, which draws families and other adventure seekers to career down groomed hillsides on their keisters (waterproof pants highly recommended), and Borges Sleigh and Carriage Rides, where a horse-drawn sleigh takes riders over hill and dale along the Pony Express Trail. (Borges also runs sleighs out of Sand Harbor on Lake Tahoe’s northeastern shore.)
South Shore also is famous for its gaming casinos and nightlife, and anyone looking for a new one should check out Hard Rock Hotel, which took over the old Horizon in Stateline. Reviews of the hotel have been mixed as some kinks get worked out, but there’s guaranteed fun in pulling slots and bellying up to tables in the busy casino and ogling the music-inspired displays throughout the property, including Michael Jackson’s white glove and a red gown worn by Madonna.
Get out on wintertime water by boarding the M.S. Dixie II paddleboat out of Zephyr Cove for a daytime or dinner-and-dancing cruise into Emerald Bay. It’s an icy wind on deck, but winter brings vibrant sunsets, too. For a different type of cold-weather fun, sign up for an evening snowshoe cocktail race at The Beacon in Camp Richardson. Serving its signature fruity Rum Runners year-round (watch out, they’ll sneak up on you), The Beacon sits beachside, and during this free monthly event (starting in January), snowshoers clomp along the shoreline while balancing trays of drinks. Snowshoes will be provided.
EAT—South Lake Tahoe teems with great restaurants, including the fancy places gracing the top floors of the casinos, where somehow the steaks always shine. (Be aware: 19 Kitchen & Bar at Harveys is closed till Dec. 21.) Some other standouts include Riva Grill, right on the lake at Ski Run Marina, or Evan’s American Gourmet Cafe, in a little cabin and serving creative fare such as an apple-porter glazed pork chop or chili cheesecake topped with Maine lobster salad. Gulp down a beer or two at The Brewery at Lake Tahoe and, if breakfast is required, pop into Rude Brothers Bagels, where they promise “bagels with an attitude” and a hearty selection of cream cheese blends.
SLEEP—Reserve a premium lakefront suite at The Landing Resort & Spa—beautiful and luxurious with stone fireplaces, heated floors and jetted tubs. Another option: Black Bear Inn, with cozy rooms in the lodge and lovely private cabins with walk-in showers, tubs for two and river rock fireplaces—all reservations include a full, decadent breakfast. (Think stuffed French toast, pancakes, eggs Benedict.)
North Lake Tahoe
Snowhounds seeking a quieter experience than South Shore flock to North Shore, where the lake practically laps the roadway and the businesses remain largely locally owned. Incline Village’s ski resort, Diamond Peak, has stunning views and a modest, peaceful vibe, with just six chair lifts, one terrain park and minimal crowds. After a long day on the sticks, take the shuttle into Incline Village for a late-afternoon massage at Aloha Spa, where a hot-stone massage and cupping treatment will fix you right up, and a sauna or a soak in the hot tub will only add to the bliss.
Tahoe brims with microbrew options, and the North Lake Tahoe visitors bureau publishes a map of the “ale trail,” matching some of Tahoe’s great hiking and mountain biking trails with nearby beer stops. While the trails might be snowed in (let’s hope!), the watering holes remain accessible: Five spots in Incline Village alone make the list (including the newest addition, Alibi Ale Works), along with two in Kings Beach and several more along the West Shore.
At the North Shore state line, two casinos light up the minute you leave California: Tahoe Biltmore and Crystal Bay, low-key options compared to the high-rises on the South Shore. These two have a throwback, Golden Age ambience and sport the usual casino lineup: slot machines and tables, entertainment, bargain breakfasts (of course)—$2.22 for eggs, bacon, toast and coffee at the Biltmore—and, like all casinos it seems, cigarette smoke. Also right there, the famed Cal Neva resort, once owned by Frank Sinatra, has been undergoing renovation for the past couple of years and is expected to open this year.
One of the best spots in Incline Village just might be the outdoor fire pits at Lone Eagle Grille, which is on the Hyatt Regency compound. The fireside drinks menu includes a chocolatey coffee and spiced rum concoction called Captain’s Prayer and a rum and Tuaca hot apple cider, sure to rosy up your cheeks and toast your fingers.
EAT: If sandwiches factor into your day, hit Tahoe Central Market in Kings Beach for Dagwoods built on Truckee Sourdough with Boar’s Head meats and organic veggies. A hidden gem, the French-inspired Le Bistro in Incline Village is a bit hard to find and only serves dinner, but what a supper it is: Go for the five-course prix fixe and you might enjoy a silky leek, potato and pumpkin soup, duck liver mousse or beef tenderloin tournedos. Another must-stop restaurant on North Shore: Gar Woods in Carnelian Bay, where the decor celebrates Lake Tahoe’s wooden-boat era (1930s and ’40s) and the menu includes a killer French onion soup, lots of seafood and a long list of Wet Woody rum drinks with, um, interesting titles.
SLEEP: Hyatt Regency Incline Village has it all: lake views, gaming, a spa, a Starbucks in the lobby, a grown-ups-only fitness area with a hot tub under the stars—and the aforementioned Lone Eagle Grille across the street. For a more freestanding situation, at Cedar Glen Lodge in Tahoe Vista, reserve your own cabin with a stunning view and full kitchen.
Reserve a room at Lake Tahoe’s West Shore Inn, where the suites overlook the lake and Homewood Ski Area awaits practically on-site. After a day on the slopes, take a guided full-moon snowshoe tour at Sugar Pine Point State Park, just a few minutes down Highway 89. To bring some Tahoe spirit home with you, hit the shops in Tahoe City—Cabin Fever, a store selling lodge furnishings and wilderness decor, stocks bears galore. For dinner, West Shore Cafe, right there at the inn, serves a mean cioppino, perfect with a plush red wine on a chilly night. Or in Tahoe City, try River Grill, where the short ribs will melt on your tongue.
Near Kirkwood Ski Area and Grover Hot Springs, Sorensen’s Resort sits tucked into the woods off Highway 88, with cozy log cabins and cottages. It’s tempting— and you’re allowed—to snowshoe or cross-country ski; the meadows stretch out, white and pristine, and a glide between the aspens brings thoughts of a European vacation. But a fire, a mug and a book might be all you need, for a Sorensen’s cabin is a retreat like no other.
This gateway to the Lake Tahoe region is a wintertime destination all in itself, with Donner Ski Ranch, Tahoe Donner Ski Area, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows and Northstar providing all manner of snowsport options. With two ice rinks (one at Squaw, the other at Northstar), ski slopes ranging from starter to advanced, miles of snowboard terrain and plenty of snowshoeing opportunities, the area can pack an athlete’s day full. Some different ways to enjoy the wilderness: Fly across whitewashed meadows in a snowmobile—several rental outfits serve the area. Or for something really different, climb into a sled pulled by a team of dogs—huskies, mostly—with Wilderness Adventures Dog Tours in Olympic Valley. Musher Brian Maas leads a good ride. Another thrill: On a crisp, clear night, head for Squaw Valley for a night ski. High-pressure sodium bulbs light the slopes, and it’s an unforgettable journey, gliding down the mountain under the moon and stars.
Off the slopes and rinks, wander through the shops and galleries in Truckee, where you’ll find antiques, gifts, home decor, cookware, clothing and jewelry, and in one store, Tahoe Oil & Spice, so much olive oil, balsamic and honey to taste that you can almost skip lunch. Off Donner Pass Road, visit Emigrant Trail Museum, which details the chilling tale of the Donner party, complete with exhibits about snow depth (22 feet) that fateful winter. You’ll also learn about the railroad and other transportation passes through the Sierra, as well as about the Native Americans who lived there. At High Camp in Squaw Valley, check out Olympic Museum, which celebrates the winter games held there in 1960 and includes Team USA uniforms and other memorabilia.
EAT: While in Truckee, order a Train Wreck at Burger Me. (Cheddar, onion rings, chili and a fried egg top the patty.) For a tremendous wine list and some out-of-this-world housemade veal meatballs, go to Pianeta for Italian. Pop over to Moody’s at the historic Truckee Hotel for after-dinner drinks (a nice gin martini with a plump olive, perhaps?) and live music. The restaurants at the resorts are some of the area’s best, including PlumpJack at Squaw, Manzanita at The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe and the lovely Zephyr Lodge at Northstar, where the Mountain Table Dinner Series brings food, drink and entertainment together by partnering with wineries or breweries and live musicians.
SLEEP: Stay at The Ritz-Carlton, splendid and plush, and located midmountain at Northstar. It makes skiing so easy: Just step into your skis outside the door and head for the lifts. Or build your trip around a Truckee home base, where the green Cedar House Lodge Sport Hotel welcomes dogs. It also holds cooking classes and “underground dinners” through its Stella Culinary program.
About three hours’ drive north, this scenic destination sits in the shadow of Mount Shasta, the mystical volcano that emerges from the Cascade Range and is surrounded by artesian springs, caves, rivers and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
The small towns of Dunsmuir, McCloud and Mt. Shasta lie at moderate elevation and don’t always see much snow, but as Highway 89—just off Interstate 5—climbs, the white stuff turns up. Backcountry skiers flock to this area, and the Mt. Shasta Ski Park draws skiers and snowboarders. Dogsled Express runs tours led by huskies and hybrids, jetting past views of meadows and forest, Castle Crags and the big mountain itself, while Snowman Hill, at Highway 89’s summit, brings out the kids and saucers.
Buzz around on skates at the outdoor Siskiyou Rink at Shastice Park, drink from the headwaters of the Upper Sacramento River (in the city park) and visit the main street shops of Mt. Shasta. In Dunsmuir, visit the railroad turntable and depot and admire the photos and other memorabilia amassed by the Dunsmuir Railroad Depot Historical Society.
EAT AND SLEEP: Some notable restaurants: Lilys and the vegetarian Maruti Indian Restaurant in Mt. Shasta, Cafe Maddalena in Dunsmuir, and Siskiyou Brew Works (where the pizza gets rave reviews) and Floyd’s Frosty in McCloud—the Logger Burger (double-double) at Frosty’s is the one to order, along with an Oreo shake. The McCloud River Mercantile Hotel, which also houses The White Mountain Fountain restaurant, is a historic gem dating back to 1897. It’s not to be confused with McCloud Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast inn that serves lemon ricotta pancakes and something called a poached egg stacker. McCloud Hotel opens to the public for dinner with a limited menu.
The crowds that plague Yosemite National Park in the summertime are nowhere to be found come winter, and the valley lies white and peaceful beneath sugared pines and between the stately granite walls. Many of the park’s concessions close for the season—but not all. For example, the Village Store stays open and carries groceries, sundries and souvenirs—and has an ATM machine—and some Curry Village vendors keep the doors open, too. The Ansel Adams Gallery and gift shops near Yosemite Falls lure chilly folks indoors to see the famous photography, page through books and purchase jewelry made by local artisans. The nearby Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and Yosemite Museum provide a sturdy education in Yosemite’s history and the park’s evolution into a national treasure. The Ahwahnee hotel, also in this area, stokes up its grand fireplace—taller than a Kings player—and provides an ideal spot to warm your tush and sip a soothing coffee or brandy.
To partake in the great white outdoors, spend a day up at Badger Pass skiing, snowboarding, tubing or snowshoeing. Also, the Curry Village ice-skating rink, in the shadow of Half Dome, stays open until 9:30 p.m. on weekends—mighty cold out there, but the star-twinkle and pine-whiffed air make it oh so worthwhile. Near the south end of the park, snowshoers or cross-country skiers can trek to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. It’s several miles on foot to get into the grove, but the payoff is huge, literally.
EAT AND SLEEP: Several hotels stay open throughout winter, including The Ahwahnee, historically beautiful with soaring ceilings, Native American decor, floor-to-rafter windows in its common areas, and white-tablecloth-and-candelabra dining. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls has lodging options for families, and its casual but upscale restaurant, the Mountain Room, serves excellent ribs and steaks. Just a few miles outside the park’s south entrance, Tenaya Lodge is a resort in itself, with lodge rooms and cottages, five restaurants, a spa, an ice-skating rink and horse-sleigh rides.
AHWAHNEE: KRISTAL LEONARD