Time for a Lift

hiking lift

Tahoe ski resorts take visitors sky high in summer.

Summer hiking season is here, and for many of us, that means pointing the compass “up the hill” toward Lake Tahoe. It also means adjusting to an altitude change of 6,000 feet or more—and when it comes to hiking, that can require a couple of days huffing and puffing while lungs and body adjust.

There’s a quicker way to get acclimated: Treat yourself to a lift.

Four Tahoe resorts run chairlifts and/or gondolas in summer, and each offers an array of recreational opportunities up top. This past winter’s epic snowpack will keep Sierra Nevada peaks frosted all summer, adding drama to scenic vistas best seen from on high.

Resorts are set to kick off their summer activities in mid-June, snowmelt providing. Here’s a look at where a lift assist can take you.

Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows

Squaw’s iconic stand-up tram whisks visitors far above the base village to High Camp, a recreation complex at 8,200 feet. It’s a dramatic ride over squeezed granite formations with Lake Tahoe winking in the background, drawing lots of oohs and aahs from first-timers. Hiking opportunities in the panoramic landscape up top are limitless, ranging from loop treks through wildflower-strewn meadows to strenuous climbs up surrounding peaks. There’s even a connection to the 2,560-mile Pacific Crest Trail running from Mexico to Canada.

Graig Gelber, a geologist by profession, is also a North Face Mountain Guide and naturalist who leads some of the free hikes offered daily in summer at 11:20 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. through August. While the route can vary a bit, most treks traverse the 1.5-mile High Camp Loop Trail, rated easy, that takes in fields of wildflowers and stunning scenery and has only a 200-foot elevation gain.

squaw valley gondola lift
Squaw Valley gondola

“I talk about the geological history of the Sierra Nevada, the formation of Lake Tahoe, the wildflowers, the trees and animal life we have here,” he says. “We gauge the route based on the group, which can be anywhere from one to 30 people.”

How to find your way around on your own? There’s an app for that, of course. The summer version is loaded with hiking maps and trail descriptions, and there’s also plenty of on-mountain signage to show the way.

One of the most popular DIY routes is the 4-mile trek up or down Shirley Canyon alongside Squaw Creek, which cascades into bigger and bigger waterfalls on its 2,000-foot tumble to the base area. The hike up is fairly tough, requiring about three hours for a person of average fitness to complete, while the hike down takes a bit less time. (Hike up, and you can ride the tram down for free.)

Whether you hike or not, other treats await at High Camp, most notably a pool and hot tub complex perfect for soaking off sore muscles and dust. It’s ringed by a colorful umbrella bar, a poolside restaurant, an Olympic-size roller rink and viewing decks. Indoors, the Olympic Museum (free) commemorates the 1960 games that put Squaw on the map.

Skiers, take note: Due to the heavy snowpack, Squaw will keep running a handful of lifts on weekends through Fourth of July. Note, too, that the tram and High Camp hiking trails are dog-friendly. (Dogs must be leashed until well away from developed areas.) Several pricing packages are available that combine scenic lift rides with pool and/or skating passes.

Good to know: Ikon pass-holders ride free. squawalpine.com

What’s a Via Ferrata?

A European craze, the “via ferrata” (“iron road” in Italian) climbing experience made its debut last fall on the tram face at Squaw Valley and will reopen for summer in late June. In a nutshell, it’s a protected climbing route with permanent steel anchors and cables that keep participants connected to the rock throughout the half-day, professionally guided experience. And it’s not just for hard-body types.

“We’ve had 7-year-olds and an 81-year old,” says Sam Kieckhefer with Alpenglow Adventures, which operates the attraction. “It allows someone with no climbing experience to go about 50 feet up the wall. The most technical aspect is about like climbing a 150-foot ladder. It’s more adventurous than going on a hike, but not fully rock climbing.”

Climbers are transported to the starting area in a flatbed truck (nicknamed “The Beast”) converted into a troop-carrier-style vehicle that accommodates 12 clients plus a guide to Tram Tower 1 via a resort access road.

“It’s really a great opportunity to get people in the outdoors, or for someone who spends a lot of time at Tahoe and wants something new,” Kieckhefer says. “All of our guides are trained by the American Mountain Guide Association—they’re really over-trained for this experience and very good at helping clients get over their fears.”

The half-day Tahoe Via Ferrata experience tour is $149. tahoevia.com

Heavenly Lake Tahoe

Heavenly’s high-profile gondola departs from the main drag (Highway 50) in South Lake Tahoe and ascends along 2.4 miles of cable to aptly named Adventure Peak, 2,800 vertical feet above lake level. The highlight in the view department is a mid-mountain observation deck with picnic tables, a snack bar and panoramic vistas of the lake, perfect for selfies and other photo ops. (Stop on the way up, because the gondola doesn’t pause on the way down.) Up top, hikers can set off on three main hiking trails or ride the Tamarack Express lift to the Sierra crest for more options and views of the Carson Valley as well as Big Blue.

The main attraction at summertime Heavenly, however, isn’t hiking. It’s an alpine theme park called Epic Discovery, part of parent company Vail Resorts’ push to develop and rebrand its ski mountains as four-season resorts and get urban dwellers into the outdoors. The multifaceted spread, intended to provide an all-day “ultimate playground” experience, includes a climbing wall with a 35-foot free-fall feature, a 500-foot tubing chute for kids, a four-line Hot Shot zip course, a kids’ zip line and four ropes courses with features at progressive levels. The most extreme zip line, called the Blue Streak, sends riders screaming downhill for over half a mile at speeds up to 50 mph.

Heavenly Lake Tahoe
Heavenly Lake Tahoe

Hands-down the family-favorite attraction is the Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster, a roller-coaster-type ride that sends guest in individual sleds up a 300-foot incline, then sets them loose for a gravity-fed race down a track that tilts, twists and corkscrews around trees and boulders. The whole thing takes about two minutes at a top speed of 25 mph, but it feels much faster. On the tame side of Epic Discovery are interpretive hikes led by “eco-rangers and narrated “summit adventure tours” that transport guests in UTVs (utility transport vehicles) to panoramic viewpoints showcasing mountain geology and ecosystems.

Good to know: Tamarack Lodge, an architecturally gorgeous facility at 9,156 feet, is open for food and beverage service in summer. (Treat yourself to a Mountain Mary, a meal in a glass that has to be the best bloody mary at Tahoe.)

Epic Discovery was scheduled to open June 21. A variety of passes are available, from an all-day adventure pass to a zip-tour option, family adventure packs and a “scout sampler” for kids. (Heads up: Some attractions cost extra.) Or purchase a lift-only ticket and go hiking or choose an individual experience. Current Epic pass-holders ride the lifts for free. skiheavenly.com

Northstar California

This north Tahoe resort is best known in summer for its lift-served mountain-bike park, largest in Northern California with access to about 100 miles of trails. The signature run, Live Wire, boasts 45 jumps along its 2-mile length and is watered daily to keep down the dust. Advanced “freeriders” get their thrills on Gypsy, an adrenaline-producing downhill run with lots of trick features. On weekends, the queue of cyclists outfitted in Darth Vader-style body armor waiting for bike-toting lifts can stretch 50 deep.

No bike? Bring your dog along for some fresh mountain air. Three of the four lifts Northstar operates in summer accommodate pets in enclosed gondola cabins, and the resort’s 39 miles of hiking trails and access roads also are dog-friendly. Hiking options range from a kid-friendly, 2.2-mile loop around Sawtooth Lake to strenuous treks to the summit of Mount Pluto at 8,610 feet. A popular 6-mile loop trail leads from the top of the Vista or Zephyr lifts to pretty Lake Watson on the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile, multiuse pathway encircling the Tahoe Basin. For sightseers and novice hikers, free guided hikes are offered daily on the mile-long Sunset Loop Trail at the top of Zephyr.

Northstar will kick off its summer activities in mid-June. A variety of pricing options are available to cyclists, while hikers can purchase a lift-only ticket or lift-and-lunch package providing a meal at the Big Springs Lodge at mid-mountain. For something more upscale, check out the dining options at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe, located at mid-mountain and accessed either by hiking or via the Highlands Gondola that takes off from the Northstar base village. northstarcalifornia.com

Kirkwood Mountain Resort

Kirkwood’s appeal has always been seated in the off-the-beaten track ambience of its setting high on Carson Pass, and that semi-remote feeling also carries into summer. Two lifts run Thursdays through Sundays in July and August, carrying hikers high up the mountain for glorious views. On weekends, the Kirkwood Bike Park operation is in full swing, transporting cyclists to 12 miles of trails that include log rides, a pump track and other terrain features. (You can rent a bike if you don’t bring your own.) There’s no downloading by chairlift at Kirkwood; it’s strictly hike or ride down. Opening date for summer lift operations depends on the snowpack; generally, the bike park and trails are accessible July through August.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort
Kirkwood Mountain Resort