In good years, the blanket of pillowy white snow covering the trees, trails and shores of Lake Tahoe practically demand that residents make the best of the winter conditions and hit the slopes and cross-country trails. Not so much this year.
While mountain resorts with high-altitude terrain or snow-making capabilities are weathering this unseasonably warm and dry winter better than others, the lack of snow at lake level (6,224 feet) is presenting residents and visitors with more summerlike recreation options, while financially challenging some resorts. Friday brought record high temperatures in the region, including in South Lake Tahoe.
It was 65 degrees at Lake Tahoe Airport, beating the 57-degree record set in 2011, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures in downtown Sacramento reached 77 degrees, breaking the 2006 record by 3 degrees, according to the weather service.
Earlier this week, the warm temperatures prompted Matt Lund of Kings Beach to grab his fishing pole and hit the lake for a paddle.
He said even during plentiful winters, he’ll take to the lake in his kayak, but the warmer weather has contributed to him hitting the mountain less often. In a typical year, he’d have 50 days on the slopes by this point of the winter. This year, he’s at around 20 days.
“It keeps everybody recreating, just in a different way,” Lund said of the warmer temperatures and drought conditions.
Resorts with strong season-pass programs are somewhat insulated financially from a downturn but lose out on refreshment sales and rental transactions. It’s a mixed financial bag for regional cross-country ski areas. While Royal Gorge cross-country area opened 20 of its 83 trails Friday, Tahoe XC, which is closer to the lake, remained closed due to lack of snow.
Sports recreation businesses that ring the lake are also hurt by a warm winter.
“We’re still in 100 percent ski mode, but at this point of the season, the ski stuff isn’t paying the bills,” said Drew Smith, manager of West Shore Sports in Homewood.
He described this winter as “kind of a seasonal purgatory.”
In response – for the first time in the shop’s history – workers fetched some of the summer gear from storage in Reno and started marketing kayaks, bikes and paddle boards at the same time as skis, snowboards and snowshoes.
Ski resort officials are quick to point out that there is plenty of snow at higher elevations and that there is plenty of winter left.
“The higher you go, the better the snow,” offers Heavenly Mountain Resorts’ Sally Gunter, repeating an old adage. She said the recent storm – delivering 14 to 16 inches of new snow at around 8,500 feet – reminded people that winter is still here.
“There is a lot of season yet to be had and the winter to go,” Gunter said.
Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, said although the winter hasn’t produced a “banner year,” the snow is still really good.
“When there is no snow at lake level, people start thinking about other sports,” he said, but people are still “jonesing” for winter.
Danielle Brooks of Carnelian Bay said she’s enjoying the best of both worlds.
“I went snowboarding yesterday, then went running in the afternoon,” she said. “I almost forget what powder days are like, (but) it’s nice not to shovel (snow).”
Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.
Bee Staff Writer Richard Chang contributed to this report