Sure, you drive to Lake Tahoe in the winter for its excellent white stuff. But you keep going back up for its vivid blueness, do you not? After all, the West has scores of excellent resorts where you can ski and ride. Yet of them all, only Tahoe can award a visitor the awesome vista of an aquatic sapphire that’s 22 miles long and 12 wide.
Whenever the sky turns clear, its vivid, high-altitude indigo colors reflect and refract as they infuse the surface of our continent’s largest alpine lake. Tranquil blue isn’t the lake’s only mood, of course. It can shiver with patches of gray, purple and black under the lash of storms, or be tinted with a gentle blush by alpenglow at sunrise.
Admiring Lake Tahoe isn’t difficult. Your only problem is figuring out the nicest vantage points to accomplish this. For my money, the best spots aren’t casino balconies, but ski slopes. Of the great winter resorts scattered around the lake, a half-dozen offer the most spectacular views. Tracking down these “viewsheds” gives any visitor a fine excuse to fully tour most of the lake rim resorts, not simply repeat at one or two of them.
We’ll just have to begin with the big dog. Although Heavenly has the highest peak elevation (10,400) and most trails (97) of any Tahoe resort, the lake can be viewed from only a few of them. That’s OK, because a steadily widening lake vista unfurls during the 12-minute, 2.4-mile-long gondola ride up from the Stateline base area on the Nevada side. It also gives you a chance to hop out at an observation deck and soak in that view. This experience is replicated to only a slightly lesser degree by taking the aerial tramway up from the California Lodge base.
Once on the hill, go to the summit of Monument Peak on the Sky Express and enjoy lake vistas all the way down Ridge Run as it bends north. The view improves and gets closer on Mombo run. Or go back up to the summit via the Powderbowl Express and Sky Express lifts and turn east on the Sky Line Trail to find another vista right at the Nevada state line. The lake appears through a wide canyon “V,” with weathered Jeffrey pines in the foreground.
There are also great lake views just above the base on the California side, from the East Bowl and Gunbarrel runs – but most people, if they choose the latter, will be far too busy negotiating the bumps to look up much!
Some aspects of this west shore resort are modest, like its size (1,260 skiable acres) and vertical (1,650 feet, rising from a 6,225-foot base elevation). Yet some assets are spectacular, like its tendency to hoard powder, its tree runs and its nearness to the lake (a mere 600 feet away from the base), as well as the world-class views it wins by virtue of that propinquity.
Resort lifts currently top out with Ellis Chair (a cat-ski program can take you higher), and that’s where glimpses of the shimmering lake begin. Go south on Noonchester Traverse to play peek-a-boo with lake views that finally burst into full view at the top of Hidden Vein and The Shoulder runs. Or go east from Ellis on the Rainbow Ridge run until you hit a viewshed hotspot where Shaft, Cradle and Chute runs all intersect. Nearby is the site of the current Big Blue View Bar, which lives up to its name by providing food service, brews and views. (These temporary facilities are slated for a major upgrade soon.)
The two best vistas are scored at The Face run just above the North Lodge, and the Double Trouble run above the South Lodge site. Zooming down both of these runs will make skiers or riders almost feel like they’re pilots attempting to land float planes right on the lake. The South Lodge, by the way, is the one that burned down in December. Some services are still present on the site, such as the children’s instruction program, but you’ll need to buy lift tickets at the North Lodge. Don’t be too concerned; fire just adds incentive for the owners to launch their $400 million redevelopment of this resort in spring.
Heading north toward Truckee on Highway 89, tucked into a valley of its own, one discovers a resort once marketed as “the locals’ favorite,” because of a laid-back attitude and its high bowls as well as varied and intricate topography. Though Alpine’s closest peak to Lake Tahoe is more than 4 miles away, its aptly named Lakeview Chair takes you to a ridge that affords a sprawling vista. (You’ll need to take Roundhouse and Scott lifts first to get to the base of Lakeview.)
Experts can hunt down other views by riding the Summit Six chair up the ridge between Alpine and Wolverine bowls. Bear left and either herringbone up Ward Peak or drop into Alpine Bowl and bear east, wrapping around the 8,637-foot summit for a high traverse into Sherwood Bowl. Below that traverse, on the shoulder of Ward, enjoy the perspective from Lower Saddle and Our Father runs. The lowest perspective is Ray’s Rut traverse.
Alpine’s nearby sister resort, just a mile further from the lake, can also provide some terrific views that include Tahoe. Get to one of them, the 7,550-foot summit of Snow King, via either the Red Dog or Squaw Creek lifts. An expert vantage point is won by a traverse around the south side of the 8,200-foot summit of KT-22. The Headwall run below Squaw Peak awards views for practically its entire length. Wider panoramas are scored along the rim of Siberia Bowl, ranging from Emigrant (8,700 feet) to Squaw Peak (8,900 feet). Furthest north, the summit of Granite Chief (9,010) not only presents lake views to the east, but on the clearest days it is claimed that the westward views can extend as far as distant Mount Diablo.
This modest resort has a number of things to be totally immodest about, and one of them is its spectacular lake views. Essentially, the resort is one long ridge with an array of valleys and ridges on its north slope. But that grand ridge tops out at Diamond Peak, at 8,540 feet. Ride the Crystal Express there to score a view of Nevada’s Washoe Valley to the east, and a panorama of Lake Tahoe to the west. Then launch yourself down the broad, 2.5-mile-long, thigh-burning, intermediate-level Crystal Ridge run. This route looks like it bids fair to ultimately drop you onto a beach by the side of the lake. That doesn’t happen. But what you can do instead is go to the Snowflake Lodge, a full-service mid-mountain bistro perched on a knoll. To get there, drop off the ridge on Battleborn (expert) or Sunnyside (intermediate), then glide down Lodgepole (beginner) to the base of the Lakeview Quad for the ride up to Snowflake. But the very best way to reach Snowflake is to attend one of the resort’s Last Tracks wine- and beer-tasting events, to be held on Saturday afternoons from Feb. 4 through the end of ski season. Last Tracks tickets are $44, and include a lift ticket for rides from 2 to 4 p.m., followed by a final lift up to Snowflake Lodge for the tasting, appetizers and a final run to base down a newly groomed trail. (To participate, you need to be at least 21, and an intermediate skier or rider.)
This Nevada resort is some 7 miles east of the lake, as the raven flies. Which means that to find lake views, a visitor needs to work a bit. However, the rewards are great, because the summit – at 9,700 feet, atop the Northwest Magnum chair – is indeed a crow’s nest. It’s only near the peak of Mount Rose itself, though, so when you get off the lift, hop onto Upper Ramsey’s run, a relatively easy black diamond. Another balcony is the the long, intermediate Lakeview run, which is accessed by the Lakeview chair – appropriately enough.
After the Slide Bowl (east side) opens, experts can take the Zephyr chair to the top, and boot or herringbone up to the summit knoll of Slide Mountain (a sister peak of Rose) or traverse around it for the boundary run called Wild Card, both of which offer grand views that include the lake.
Your lake view treasure hunt ends on the north shore, where this large and heavily forested resort offers peekaboo glimpses of Tahoe. At this point, a visitor is about 4 (air) miles away. However, the 8,610-foot summit of Mount Pluto does provide a vantage point. Take the Comstock Express lift up to where the Summit Deck & Grille is located, and turn left, looking down the East Ridge run for your vista. Other views are gained intermittently as one slides down the intermediate East Ridge. But be aware, there are only two intermediate routes off the slope – the end of the ridge, and Flume to Lower Grouse. All other routes off are short black diamonds.
That’s the tour! Every grand sapphire deserves a good setting, and in this case, Tahoe is situated perfectly among the prongs of platinum peaks.