Late-season is Lake Tahoe’s sweet spot
California’s abundance of atmospheric river storms this winter has not only been a boon for a state desperately in need of rain, but it also has boosted Lake Tahoe snowfall numbers higher than the past five seasons.
While Mammoth Mountain is often the California resort that comes to mind when dreaming of skiing until the Fourth of July, Lake Tahoe resorts are taking advantage of the big snow totals by staying open through April, May and even June.
The good news, in short: more skiing. But even better than that, it means you can take advantage of the extra snow days to do more than ski or snowboard. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, an extended ski season opens the winter world to allow cherished time on the slopes as well as plenty of other activities that, if attempted during the height of January, might make hard-core ski nuts question your dedication.
Spring skiing doesn’t have to adopt the pace of the earlier part of the ski season. As winter ends, powder dumps become rarer, and bell-to-bell skiing isn’t necessary unless you’re trying to get in every possible minute of slope time before the snow melts.
Warm California days and cold Sierra nights make for ideal corn snow conditions in the spring. The large-grained, rounded crystals are formed from repeated melting and freezing of the snow. At the right time of day — between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the snow is soft and forgiving, but not yet slushy — it can be the Goldilocks of snow conditions: just right.
If you’re not jumping out of bed to hit the first chair to carve turns in the firm snow, what do you do until the Goldilocks time? Take advantage of the slow pace. Wake up late, and instead of hustling to get to the resort right away, grab breakfast with friends at top spots like Truckee’s Squeeze In, Tahoe City’s Fire Sign Cafe or South Shore’s Red Hut Cafe.
Now that you’re properly fueled, you can hit the trails as long as the snow holds. A springtime classic run, Smoothie at Squaw Valley is open only in spring, and when it is open, it’s only for a maximum of a couple of hours, when the corn snow is best. Accessed off Granite Chief, the traverse to Smoothie is long, and while the actual run may feel short in comparison, it’s a worthwhile spring excursion.
When the snow gets slushy and sticky in the afternoon, apres celebrations start early. But instead of shivering in the winter cold with your cocktails, it’s time to reapply your sunscreen, shed some layers and enjoy the sunshine on the deck. Most open resorts have weekend live music through their closing dates, and the pool and 50-person hot tub at Squaw Valley’s High Camp is especially popular in spring. There’s no reason to go indoors.
It’s often said that a quintessential element of the California lifestyle is that (if a day is planned optimally) someone can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. It’s certainly not impossible, but there’s no need to brave the traffic to get to the coast when springtime in Tahoe means you can get the best hours of snow and then sunbathe, kayak or stand-up paddle at the lake.
Nobody says you have to dive right in. If the water’s still a little too bracing, take the time to enjoy the landscape from an afternoon picnic on a beach towel, as you watch the sunlight sparkle on the water. Plenty of restaurants and bars with stellar lake views (like the Riva Grill, Gar Woods Grill & Pier, Beacon Bar and Grill, Edgewood Restaurant, Lone Eagle Grille, Christy Hill, Moe’s Original BBQ, and Sunnyside Restaurant) allow you to ditch the picnic if you’d rather skip straight to table service.
While some paddle sports rental shops don’t open for the season until May, South Tahoe Standup Paddle has kayaks and SUPs ready for you right now, in case you want to chase that California snow/water sports standard. Getting out on the water this time of year affords a little more serenity than in the summer high season, when you have to watch for the wake caused by speedboats towing water-skiers.
The late-season snow means that hiking and biking trails may be soggy or still a bit snow-laden into late spring, but while those are laid up you can still get in a swim at the Truckee-Donner Community Swimming Pool, hit the skate park and trampoline zone at Woodward Tahoe, or wait for the snow to melt on the bocce courts at the Truckee River Winery.
It’s also acceptable to draw the line at outdoor activities after the early ski day is over and spend some time at the spa. Newly opened this season at Northstar, Tahoe Spa & Wellness offers a number of apres treatments as well as yoga classes. But regardless of your location around the lake, a handful of day spas will give you plenty of opportunities to relax and get some “me” time.
The recent few shorter ski seasons didn’t give skiers the opportunity to enjoy extended spring skiing, and now that the days seem to spring ahead into summer, a wealth of resort events still ensure that you can divide your time among diversions.
This season is the fourth time since 1962 that the resort will be open on the Fourth of July, and live music and theme days will be held every weekend until then, with themes ranging from Denim Day to America to “Hot Dog … the Movie.” The two historic spring events at the resort are the annual Snow Golf Tournament at Alpine Meadows, and the annual Cushing Crossing at Squaw Valley (held April 8 and April 22, respectively).
Because of the lack of snow, the pond-skimming event at Heavenly hasn’t been held since the 2009-10 ski season but, thanks to Mother Nature’s boost this season, is now scheduled for Saturday, April 8. That works in nicely with Heavenly’s Spring Loaded event, which runs from March 25 through April 9 with live music at Tamarack Lodge, DJ Cat afternoon concerts and Unbuckle apres parties.
During the height of winter, there never seems to be enough time to enjoy non-downhill resort activities, like guided snowshoe hikes, cross-country ski trails and fat-tire biking excursions. Now that you have more time this year for snow sports, that also means extra time to take advantage of a different way to enjoy the resort’s vast terrain. It’s even OK if you have fun. None of your ski friends needs to know.
Jill K. Robinson is a Half Moon Bay freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter and Instagram: @DangerJR
Season closings 2016-17
Tahoe Donner: April 9
Boreal: April 16
Diamond Peak: April 16
Homewood: April 16
Kirkwood: April 16
Northstar: April 23
Sierra-at-Tahoe: April 23
Sugar Bowl: April 23
Heavenly: April 30
Mount Rose: May 29
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows: July 4 (depending on snow, may limit to weekends or close during some days before July 4).
Tahoe winter snow history
While this winter season has been impressive to date in snow totals, it’s important to put this year in perspective with Lake Tahoe’s snow history. According to Bryan Allegretto, partner/snow forecaster at OpenSnow, the 2016-17 season still has 90 inches of snow to acquire (at Donner Summit) before Tahoe reaches 600 inches for the season. That’s 50 feet of snow.
The most recent snow accumulation at Donner Summit in excess of 600 inches was in the winter of 2010-11, and according to snowfall and snowpack measurements since 1879, Donner Summit has reached or exceeded 600 inches in snowfall about 10 or 11 times. Up to 10 individual ski resorts around the Lake Tahoe region have surpassed 600 inches to date this winter.
It’s not uncommon for snow to keep falling into the spring months, so the numbers may grow even larger. But even the way things stand now, there’s no reason to stay home. Get out and enjoy the last remnants of winter.
— Jill K. Robinson