Skiing is a great individual sport. But we've discovered in recent years it's also a great focus for a family holiday. In March we had the opportunity to indulge our new-found passion in the Lake Tahoe area of Northern California.
Ski resorts surround Lake Tahoe, among them world-class Heavenly, Northstar and Squaw Valley, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. These are all fantastic in their own right, but more by luck than prior planning we chanced upon Sierra-at-Tahoe.
Sierra is three hours drive from San Francisco and 30 minutes from South Lake Tahoe. By comparison with its glamorous neighbours, Sierra is a smaller field more frequented by locals than international tourists. And in comparison with New Zealand, it is superb.
Sierra caters for families with basic, comfortable facilities, 46 groomed runs, and treed skiable terrain about the size of Whakapapa. About three-quarters of the field is green and blue runs. Snowmaking is minimal because the field captures on average 12 metres of snow every season, and retains powder for days on end.
There are only 12 lifts but they can shift 15,000 souls up the mountain every hour. Day passes were US$190 (NZ$230) for a family of four, comparable with top fields in New Zealand. US$330 buys the same family a multi-day pass, valid for any two days out of three, and there are other options.
Amongst all of Sierra's open contour runs is Sugar 'n Spice, a trail which stretches from the top of the resort at Huckleberry Mountain (2698m), to the bottom at Base Lodge.
The trail is about 4km long and descends over 670m through gorgeous snow-clad forest scenery. Such is its quality, we had no qualms about letting our 10 and 8-year-olds let rip with a “We'll see you at the bottom”.
For more advanced skiers there is the opportunity to jump from the main trail and try out your skills on a number of blue and black side runs of varying difficulty. Having conquered them, you can rejoin the main trail and continue on the groomed boulevard.
In particular, Sierra is noted for the quality of its tree skiing. At the end of the 19th century, the Tahoe area was being rapidly clear cut, with loggers taking all the pine and spruce that could be harvested. The red firs of Sierra were left in place - their waterlogged state made for poor timber quality. The legacy is perfectly spaced old-growth forests for skiing and riding, which means you always know where you are, and where the main trails are.
For experts only, the Huckleberry Gates give access to 100ha of cliff drops, cornices, rock chutes, open bowls, gladed runs and powder pillows in Huckleberry Canyon. The steep, deep terrain is classified as extremely challenging, but is recognised by locals as some of their best and most accessible backcountry terrain.
Sierra has a reputation as the resort where Tahoe natives learn to ski, and where they now take their own families. The atmosphere is relaxed and any queues are short, well-managed and good-natured.
For Kiwi families, a direct flight from Auckland to San Francisco, then just three hours along great American roads to a fantastic skiing experience is a holiday combination hard to beat.
- The Dominion Post