I drove toward the moon, a full and brilliant orange globe suspended above the horizon in a March sky. Pockets of fog clung to the pavement of Route 50 as Sacramento faded in the rearview mirror. Ahead, in the darkness, lay the mountains that define Tahoe, where I planned to hopscotch through five ski resorts at the 191-square-mile lake.
The serenity of the moment, the guiding light of the pumpkin-colored moon and the promise of the days to come almost made me forget the very real fact that, while I had successfully made the trip from Washington, my luggage including all my ski gear had not.
As any skier or snowboarder will tell you, a successful winter-sport outing largely depends on the whim of always fickle Mother Nature. One year, she can deliver record-breaking snowfall, like the time in 2011 when 16 feet fell across Lake Tahoe in nine days so much snow that it buried the ski lifts.
But she can just as easily force you to trade the snow-covered slopes for the hotel pool, staring in disbelief at the bare mountain.
In short, its a gamble.
SLOPE AFTER SLOPE
You can, however, stack the decks in your favor.
That bounty of snow that swallowed the Tahoe ski lifts fell in March, rescuing an otherwise dismal season. Last year, when I set out for Tahoe, intermittent storms all through the winter had built up a decent base of snow, and the area typically gets mid-spring dumps. Another record-breaking storm was a long shot, but the odds were good.
I visited five of Lake Tahoes seven world-class resorts; three on the southern side near South Lake Tahoe and two in North Tahoe. And from the beginning, it was clear that this visit wasnt going to be long enough. Instead of an extensive tour, it became a Tahoe primer.
Heavenly is the big boy on the block, with the most acreage and longest vertical drop. It also offers lake views that make you feel as if you could launch off a jump and splash into its glittering surface. At the only resort to straddle the California/Nevada border, you find a heady mix of both gob-smacking natural beauty and a Vegas-on-the-slopes vibe best typified by the Unbuckled happy hour at mid-mountain, complete with go-go dancers wearing strategically placed fur.
The resorts proximity to South Lake Tahoe also makes it one of the easiest to reach from a variety of accommodations, whether theyre casino resorts or private lakeside vacation rentals or old motor motels converted into hip boutique hotels.
FOR LOCALS AND US
More than 30 miles south of Heavenly, Kirkwood trades lake views for a more iconic alpine landscape. The mountains stare down at you from the parking lot, issuing a quiet dare thats reinforced when you see a handful of lifts marked with skull-and-crossbones signs that indicate that all youll find are expert-only runs at the top. About half the resort is rated for intermediate skiers and riders, but locals anxious to test their skills and torture their legs gravitate to Kirkwood, hiking across the expansive ridgelines of the 2,300-acre resort before winding down with a can of beer on the expansive village patio.
Sierra-at-Tahoe also caters to the locals, with prime tree skiing when the snow is deep enough. Sierra also has a defined cred among freeskiers and snowboarders, a rep thats likely to continue thanks to the Burton Star Wars Experience. This full-day program uses characters from the iconic movie to help budding Shaun Whites, ages 3 to 12, learn how to ride in a kids-only camp.
The smallest of the three South Tahoe resorts I visited at 2,000 acres, Sierra eschews the more grandiose resort elements for a relaxed mom-and-pop vibe. The typical development news here isnt the construction of new hot tubs, said Steve Hemphill, the resorts communications manager. Its getting more local beers on tap.
Head west out of South Lake Tahoe and drive north for an hour on scenic Route 89 along the western coast of the lake, and you reach North Tahoes Squaw Valley. Hardly any of the terrain in this 3,600-acre resort is off-limits; if you can see it, you can try to ski it, as some of the best skiers in the world have demonstrated.
Like Kirkwood, the six-peak resort almost smacks you in the face with its sheer, steep topography. The exposed ridgeline also means that if the winds pick up, the lifts may close. Surprisingly, only 30 percent of the resort is rated for experts, with almost half the 170-plus runs ideal for intermediates.
Come spring, its best to start late and let the sun warm the hard pack and ski until the snow softens into the infamous Sierra cement, a sticky composition thats more sludge than snow. Then retire to Squaws High Camp pool and hot tub near the mountains summit just wear your bathing suit under your ski gear.
If Squaw feels wonderfully carnival-like, Northstar, just to the northeast, embraces the more refined, family-friendly skiers experience. Its geographically sheltered from the prevailing winds that can cause the Squaw lifts to close and boasts robust snowmaking coverage the ace in the hole against a dismal ski season. The gentler pitches on the resorts 3,170-acre mountains make for easygoing runs, though adventurous skiers can find tight, exhilarating lines through the trees when the snow is plentiful.
Northstar had delivered textbook spring skiing: few crowds, dazzling sunlight and forgiving snow on the marked slopes that got softer as the sun crawled across the sky. The trees could have used more coverage but resorts can always use more snow.
I sat on the resorts back deck bathing in the warm sun. Soon, Id have to make the drive to Sacramento and crash near the airport before my early flight back to Dulles. The less exciting necessities of travel.
But at that moment, with the late-March sun warming my skin as I watched a few skiers getting in a few last turns on the mountain, it was clear that my gamble spring skiing in Tahoe had paid off big.