by Louis Bignami

Sierra at Tahoe, back in the days when it was called Sierra Ski Ranch, was a great spot to escape the holiday crowds at Heavenly Valley, Squaw, and other better known Tahoe Basin ski resorts. It's still the "backyard" resort for Sacramento area residents, and one of the closest resorts to the Bay Area. Popular with families and students, Sierra at Tahoe serves up a classic 25 to 50 to 25 percent mix of green, blue, and black tracks.

The separation of skiers by ability levels in wonderful wooded terrain doesn't leave the beginners in a slope base slush ghetto; everyone can enjoy Lake Tahoe and Sierra views from the top. Three huge terrain parks, a pipe, and a pro-size Superpipe attract bags of boarders, too. The number of deals and discounts, free lessons in afternoons, and other attractions add up to an exceptionally good value at this resort, which is easily accessible up Highway 50 or from South Lake Tahoe.

Like Mt. Bachelor, there's no on-slope lodging at Sierra at Tahoe, as the resort operates by license of public land. Skiers use the excellent shuttle bus system to the casinos, restaurants, shops, and 12,000 beds in South Tahoe. There's no snowmaking, but with over 480 inches a year, it's not usually needed, and some judicious shoveling and snow cat bits keep the transfer points white.


Après-ski at Sierra at Tahoe shuts off early, as visitors scramble to make the shuttle buses to South Lake Tahoe or get off the hill before the roads ice up after dark on typically temperate Tahoe days. Food on the hill is better than average if rather expensive, and the shop seems very reasonable. This probably relates to the fact that most visitors are either day skiers, or overnight down in South Tahoe where there's every kind of restaurant, discount outlet, mountain shop, and club known.

South Lake Tahoe cooks hottest in the winter, when night arrives early. Spring and fall slows the action, as visitor numbers crash and locals take over. Summer isn't that big for nightlife; when it's light until 10, the dining scene tends to move out onto lake view decks or the backyard barbeque.

Performing arts are an interesting mix of life summer theater, Shakespeare on the Lake, and all sorts of musical offerings. Local theater groups and community colleges add their bit, and the casinos check in with loss leader buffets (offering heaps of food at a low cost with the fond anticipation that the chummed-in diners will bite on the gambling), club acts, and headliner entertainment. It's not quite Vegas, but they're working on it, to the occasional vocal objections of the green groups

Dining Out

At the base of the lifts, the Bake Shoppe offers breakfasts and home-style cooking - some claim that's the reason so many eat out. The Aspen Café runs to grilling and garlic, with the usual barbecue on the deck where some have complained about $2.25 fries and $3.50 sodas, but others find the food reasonably affordable. The best deal on the hill is their budget burrito. There's a pub and coffee option, too. Up on the hill, snacks come to blue slope skiers on the picnic tables in West Bowl Express Snacks, and the Grandview Bar and Grill offers "million dollar views" and short lines, plus burgers, tortilla wraps, and a bar.

With good planning, you can have breakfast in South Tahoe somewhere like the Rude Brothers Bagel and Coffee Haus, Café Chamonix, or, for the veggie types, Sprouts Natural Food Café. Stock up with sandwich makings and such one day and you can save the cost of a modest fanny or backpack. Note that a bota bag full of beverage is a lot more comfortable to fall on than a calliope of cans.

The resulting brown bagger's savings will certainly be enough to pay for one of the big casino buffets in Stateline on the Nevada side. Carnivores will enjoy the Le Grand Prime Rib Buffet, and there's usually a Friday and Saturday night seafood buffet somewhere, too. Every fast food outlet known to man is located in South Tahoe. However, locals line up at Izzy's Burger Spa or Bob Dog Pizza. Beatles fans can always get lunch makings at the Yellow Submarine.
Some of the best values in the $10 to $20 range are Italian food spots such as Primavera at Stateline or Passaretti's, with Mama's Red Tomato - with and without Mama's Bar - as the pasta pick. Café Fiori is a local favorite as well, and big eaters do wonderfully well at Tep's Villa Roma, offering an all-you-can-eat antipasto bar. The Waterwheel, in Stateline, has an all-you-can-eat sushi bar as well as Chinese food and a 30-year track record.
Several Mexican spots such as Los Mexicano's, the Cantina Bar & Grill, or Chevy Fresh Mex serve the kind of Mexican food common in California. On the upscale end, Josh's and the Sage Room in Stateline, the Eagle's Nest at Zephyr Cove, and the Summit deserve a look. The buffet cruise on the M.S. Dixie II cruises deserves a try, too. Most of the casinos offer food 24 hours a day, with the Aspen Lodge a best bet. On the budget side, at least for those who stay away from the brews, Mulligan's Irish Pub and Restaurant advertises "no entrée over $12."
Nepheles Creative California Cuisine may be the "California flavored" choice here, with wonderful game and duck and all sorts of other delights. It's been open since 1977; some claim the full-service bar and the hourly private hot tub rentals are a major draw. Locals also favor the Swiss Chalet Restaurant in South Tahoe for fondue, veal, and European delights such as rosti; it's been run by the same chef for over 45 years.


At the Base Lodge, Bake Shoppe suits those who forgot to load up in South Tahoe at spots like Café Chamonix, or who aren't staying in a B&B or resort where breakfast, however continental, is included. At South Tahoe, try the rustic, super-sized pastry and better lunch makings in Ernie's Coffee Shop, or Rude Brother's Bagel and Coffee Haus for the Danish delights.
At Stateline, try Club Cappuccino or check out the breakfast buffets. On Sunday, the special buffet at Camp Richardson near the junction of Highways 50 and 89 offer pig-out possibilities and a lake view. South Lake Tahoe veterans also approve of Beacon Café Bar and Grill in Camp Richardson. The hot time of the year is winter, but the cafés and pastry shops offer major attractions year-round; things just start earlier during trout season. 

Clubs And Bars  

Stateline casinos offer continuous club, bar, and showroom action. Spots such as the Aspen Lounge inside Horizon Casino Resort, Center Stage in Harrah's Lake Tahoe, or Cleo's Lounge or Nero's inside Caesar's Tahoe all over live entertainment. Prices, given the gambler's subsidy, are usually lower than in clubs in South Lake Tahoe. Some venues like Club Z in the Horizon Casino run everything new to retro, including blues, acid, cool and New Orleans jazz, big band swing, Hibernian rock, and more. Chain club fans will find a Hard Rock Café inside Harvey's Casinos.
Outside the casinos, clubs and bars fight back with specials nights that offer lift passes and other prizes, with budget food and special events. The Tudor Pub at Dory's Oar has live music several nights a week, darts, and a confusion of English ales. Turtle's Sports Bar and Dance Emporium dances up nightly, with food specials at happy hour and specials on drinks from nine to the 2:00 a.m. closing.
A whole series of clubs offer Sierra at Tahoe promotions, with giveaway goodies like tickets and such from 9:00 p.m. until midnight, save for Chevy's Fresh Mex 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. Fridays. Everything cooks on Friday and Saturday nights, so locals often wait for the great jazz at Mama's Bar on Thursday and Saturday, or special nights at Mulligan's Irish Pub, Restaurant, and Nightclub. 

Frankly, as the skiing population ages and the California economy slows, South Lake Tahoe and Stateline clubs and bars become more and more competitive and offer - particularly during the week - more and better deals.  It never hurts to ask about specials. 


The Horizon Stadium Theater in South Lake Tahoe is the nearest big movie destination, with eight screens with 100 to 200 friendly seats each; seats are "friendly," as they recline and the center arms fold up. South Lake Tahoe also offers the Lake Tahoe Pioneering in Film Festival. Squaw Valley opens their season in the middle of November most years with their Squaw Valley Winter Film Festival. There are at least another 10 screens in the area.
Aside from that, every video and DVD known to man is for sale someplace in South Tahoe, where the locals also buy more than the usual number of books to hole up when the weather gets bad, as is the case about one day in five or six during the winter. 

Performing Arts  

There's more theater down in the foothills where a string of theater groups along Highway 49 run to musicals, melodrama, reviews, and serious theater. Over the grade in Carson City, the capital of Nevada, there are active music and theater groups and touring musicians like the Argenta Quartet from Reno's University of Nevada, offering string quartettes and more. Visitors to Nevada's historic Virginia City might stay late or stay over to enjoy a performance at the historic Piper's Opera House, which offers a varied playbill that might include both The Music Man and classical ballet.
Pop and rock draw, too. Planet Hollywood, Full Body Rock at Harvey's Resort, the Carnival Cabaret at the Horizon Resort, and all sorts of jazz, rock, funk, and other musical modes are everywhere around the lake all year. During the summer, Shakespeare at the Lake near Heavenly Valley offers the Bard al fresco. West down Highway 50, Placerville, Roseville, and the Gold Country and Northern Mines have more theatrical and musical events than most cities. 



In December 21 - January 06, when you are planning to travel, the average high temperature is 38 oF and the average low temperature is 20 oF. 


Lowest lift: 6,640 feet/2,024 meters
Highest lift: 8,852 feet/2,700 meters
Vertical drop: 2,212 feet/674 meters
Altitude sickness isn't a problem at Sierra at Tahoe, and the wonderful tree runs are wide enough to keep all but the most inattentive from kissing a massive Jeffery pine. There's a good mix of open bowls and tree runs, and a perfect mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced trails with wonderful views of Lake Tahoe from up top by way of the aptly named Grandview Express Quad Chair.

Who Should Go?  

College-aged singles do well at Sierra Tahoe during weekends and school holidays. Older singles don't do as well here, as the resort is aimed at students and family groups, and with no lodgings near the slopes, chance-met friends may be logistically improbable. However, the active social scene in South Lake Tahoe offers opportunities.
Romantic inns in South Tahoe or the lovely elves cabins over at Sorenson's Resort on Highway 89 are the romantic choices, but this resort isn't known as a couples' getaway.
Given transport, the 20- or - more realistically - 30- to 40-minute drive into South Tahoe or other lodgings isn't a complete bar to groups of friends. The big draw here is the wonderful spread of trails, from the nicest green cruisers through West Peak's Blues and decent blacks below Huckleberry. Things are more compact, so you can find your friends in a single lodge.
Sierra at Tahoe is one of the best family resorts in the Sierra. Great greens, wonderful boarding, a mountain that lets parents ambush stray kids, and isolation that precludes escape to video game machines offer outstanding options, with the sacrifice that there are no lodgings on slope. The holidays, as everywhere, can crowd a bit.

If groups can arrange mid-week visits, there are few better mountains than Sierra at Tahoe. Otherwise, moving from lodgings to the slopes can get a bit complicated. Some clubs use effort to help with special races, food, and more. 


There are no lodgings at the resort itself, but there are 12,000 or more beds in South Lake Tahoe just 39 to 40 minutes away, and nearer rustic alternatives like the old Strawberry Lodge with its 31 rooms, decent dining, and full bar. It's a nice place to stay, with a fireplace in the lobby and splendid views. Sorenson's at the junction of Highways 89 and 88 right next to the Hope Valley is another traditional choice, with wonderful cabins from "elf-size" up to three-bedroom lodges that might sleep six to 10 and top out at $200 to $350 a night. Reservations are required for traditional spots.
Overall value packages run $45 to $65, standard packages run up to $150, and premium packages can top $150. Most spots include shuttles to Sierra at Tahoe and the casinos, or you can avoid the latter and stay at Horizon Casino Resort and others like the top-of-the-line Caesar's Tahoe, with four stars and four diamonds. Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge and Spa offers all lakefront lodgings at the premium end of the scale, with kitchens and fireplaces and a full-service day spa.
Some lodgings offer breakfast buffets or breakfasts, spas, and much more. Other options include the many private cabins and condos that range from incredible to meager. Then there are the bottom line super budget choices such as RV parks and hostels like Doug's Mellow Mountain retreat at $13 to $15 a night in South Lake Tahoe, or the Monaco Blue-Zu Hostel just behind Harvey's Casino at $15, which is convenient to the Sierra at Tahoe Shuttle and a host of local watering holes and restaurants. At the absolute least expensive end of accommodations, there's camping in both snow and early and late in the year, on bare ground along the lake. 

Travel Time  

The nearest airport is at South Tahoe, adjacent to South Tahoe Lodgings, and there are puddle jumper flights from the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. Reno International Airport is 50 miles away, Sacramento International is but 50 miles via Highway 50, and the San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose International Airports are 200 miles away. Each offers advantages. Anyone who hasn't visited San Francisco should consider three or four days in the Bay Area and look at alternative flights sometimes available at big savings into Oakland or San Jose. Rent a 4WD, and it's four or five hours drive depending on road conditions via Highway 50.
Flying into Sacramento offers a chance to visit Sutter's Fort, wonderful rail and Ford museums, and visits going and coming to Gold Country towns like Placerville. Expect a two-hour drive except on Fridays, when it might take an hour more. Reno is only 50 miles away from South Lake Tahoe, and offers a traditional Western as opposed to Vegas-style gambling atmosphere, some wonderful Basque food, and an easy route via Highway 395 and then up and over the pass from Carson City.
However you arrive, always stick a bright bandana on antennas when you park for a day or two so you can find a car more easily should a big snowfall occur and, hopefully, keep the rotary snowblowers off side panels. Don't consider 2WD or a white vehicle that disappears when the snow sheets in.
Other options include rail and Amtrak to Reno or Truckee and Tahoe Area Rapid Transit (TART), or the South Tahoe Shuttle. Greyhound buses also visit South Tahoe, and ski bus chargers are sometimes available from Sacramento, too. 


Three Dopplemayr express quads do the "heavy lifting" up to West and Huckleberry Peaks, while the third express quad serves the big beginner area at the base, with one of the fastest "slam, zoom, off" cycles in the Sierra, plus some amazingly athletic lift attendants who sort things out in a sometimes Warren Miller slapstick mode. Why an express quad that barely has time to drop and raise the bar? Simple; it teaches beginners about high speed lifts in a very controlled environment so, after a lesson or two and a run or six, beginners can confidently mix with more advanced skiers up Grandview Express to one of the better views of Lake Tahoe and what may be the best - and longest - green track in the Sierra, Sugar N' Spice. Then, as novices progress to blue runs, they can move on to the high-speed quad up West Peak.
The triple chair and double parallel the two peak quads and are a great choice when weekend crowds build, offering short lines as you ski down, climb on and rest, and immediately ski down for maximum vertical and leg-resting sitting time and minimum lines. The rest of the doubles access backside and out-of-the crowd lifts, while the quads do the heavy lifting. Children have their own "Magic Carpet" surface lift and a tow, and the "tube-types" have their own drag up the hill.
Save for good weather weekends and the big holidays, lift lines are unusual. Since there's no lodging here, Sierra at Tahoe seems rather a weekend resort, although locals know that the mid-week skiing can be amazing, and that the big Jeffery pines can permit lifts here to operate in weather that would close big, open bowls.
Lifts are open on weekends and holidays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and remain open half-an-hour later on weekdays. The tubing lift runs from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. seven days a week. Everything does, of course, depend on natural snowfall, but the usual season runs from mid-November through mid-April. 

Lift Tickets  

Sierra at Tahoe seems a particularly good value when you consider the long runs for all ability levels, the general lack of crowds, and the endemic discount options. Locals, of course, line up for the early season Sunday through Friday passes at $199; these gradually increase in value as snow draws near. Local fourth and fifth graders with straight A's don't have to line up as they get free season passes. Visitors to the basin who plan on skiing a number of areas should check on multi-resort passes; the same owners run Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sierra at Tahoe.
There must be someone who gets the adult day pass at "retail" at $48 for adults, $38 for young adults, $10 for kids (six to 12), $27 for seniors ($60 to $67 and $10 for seniors 70 and over). Afternoon passes run $7 less, and kids to age six always ski free.
Morning tickets with an afternoon credit seem a good deal for beginners at $13 for adults, $10 for young adults, and $7 for seniors only. For longer stays, two- of three-day passes and three- of five-day passes save you about a third.  There are special corporate passes, discount deals from South Tahoe and other shops, and enough other options to make booking an airline ticket online look easy, even excepting those who don't troll for promotional tickets at South Tahoe bars and restaurants. Plastic's okay all year, and summer lifts can suit mountain bikers.
There's also a "vertical plus" membership with an electronic wristband for $59, with $7 a day off tickets on weekends and holidays and $20 off on weekdays. Vertical is recorded, and price vouchers that include food and services or 50 percent gear discounts repay dollars spent and vertical skied. 


Sierra at Tahoe has 700 snowboards and 1,400 pairs of skis for rent, with Dynastar skis and KW boards and Original Sin boots, plus high performance demo boots, demo skis, and demo boards.  For the 2000-2001 season, package rates run $25 for adults, $13 for kids for skis, and $30 adults and $30 kids for boards. Ski or boot only and board and boot only options are $17, $18, $25, and $14 respectively. High performance skis run $27, boots $20, and boards $32, with boots $15.
Selection, sizing, and binding adjustments seem reasonably fast, but can eat up some slope time the first day. Renting gear in Sacramento or the Bay Area over the weekend or taking advantage of South Lake Tahoe Rentals can save some money and slope time, and these savings compound over school holidays and on holiday weekends.
In South Lake Tahoe, how can anyone pass up a spot called Don Cheepos, right in the middle of the rental action on Lake Tahoe Blvd? This venue offers rental cross-country skis, snowboards, snowshoes, sleds, saucers, coats, bibs, and gloves, along with the standard downhill stuff. On the same street, Paramount Ski and Snowboard Rentals is but a long jump away, as is The Village Mountain Surf and Sports. Comparison-shopping for rentals seems in order here. And it pays off to ask about senior, family, and other discounted rates. Deals get better towards the end of the season as demand slows, and rental gear gets sold at amazing discounts after Easter. 

Snow Conditions  

Snowfall averages 480 inches a year at Sierra at Tahoe, and as elsewhere in the Tahoe Basin, the dump is short and heavy; December/January and February offer three out of four days of sunshine. The average snowpack is a solid 20 feet, with a usually wet base that both clings to the hill and tends to hold up well even in the typically warm late season days.
Icy trails aren't unknown, especially since there's no snowmaking here, but a judicious selection of runs keeps good corn underfoot most of the day. Cats and shovels keep the crossovers and run-outs white well into April. 


Ski instruction at Sierra at Tahoe seems more personal and fun-focused than is sometimes the case at more famous hills. Most of the skiers here come in from the Tahoe Basin, Bay Area, or even Sacramento for the day skiing, and when asked about the resort typically say, "I ski at Sierra at Tahoe" rather than respond, "I've skied at Sierra at Tahoe."
First-time packages start with The Get Good Quick beginner's program, which uses "pocket skis" designed to easily turn and boards with step-in bindings. They'll teach you the basics of slowing and stopping, and getting ready to turn. Perhaps most important, the focus - after safety - is on having fun and, finally, preparing for the next snow day. First-timer's two-hour lessons cost $60 and include the beginner's Easy Rider and Rock Garden lifts after lessons in the special Smart Terrain area. There is a $400 deposit required for snowboard rental.
Breakthrough Packages push a beginner boarder or skier up to the next level during 1-½ hours of instruction ($30), with optional equipment and an all-day pass ($80.) These offer individual feedback. Groups at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. are sorted by skill levels to focus on the specifics needed to improve.
Private Clinics include neither equipment nor a lift ticket, and are available daily by appointment at $65 per person per hour. Extra hours cost $40. Extra persons, if at similar ability levels, run $25 each per hour. Demo Deluxe Private Clinics cost $85 and are a chance to use a pair of hot demo skis or a board and get input from a pro on how the choice suits. 
There are a host of other options for downhillers, freestylers, and slope and park boarders. A special $280 Family Pack teaches the whole family to ski or snowboard - if parents can keep up with the small fry - during a two-hour lesson with beginner lift access to the first four family members. Note: after four family members, it's $60 each. Special children's lessons, from the snow play and snow fun level up to competitions, are options, too. There's a Family Tips package at $120 for four - $30 each after that - with a private coach for an hour for those with gear and lift tickets. Note: these don't allow mixing skis and snowboards.
Finally, it gets no better than free Vertical Improvement Clinics, which offer 1-½-hour lessons on a first-come, first-served basis for skiers and boarders 13 and up who can handle groomed black runs. 

Tourist Information  

Sierra at Tahoe offers all the usual ski resort day services, save accommodations. Checks, cash, and plastic are acceptable, and there are post office boxes in the area. South Lake Tahoe, 30 to 40 minutes down the hill, is a major town with casinos that can manage in any currency and probably find a translator for any language.
There are at least 20 general or resort Web sites and several chambers of commerce that offer information on Sierra at Tahoe and the dozens of attractions, hundreds of restaurants, and thousands of beds within an hour's drive of the skiing.
In fact, old time locals complain that South Tahoe's simply too crowded and convenient for too many when compared to "the good old days." New visitors can realize that today will be the "good old days" in 20 years. 


It's safe and relatively easy to move from Sierra at Tahoe to Sorenson's and other nearby lodges or the thousands of beds in South Lake Tahoe. Shuttle buses run down to South Lake Tahoe casinos and lodgings. A 4WD vehicle opens up other ski resorts and some wonderful excursions for those who drive their own or rent.
Expect traffic on weekends and holidays, and prepare for delays with shuttles or automobile when storms blow in.  

Overall Safety  

Sierra at Tahoe is one of the safest ski resorts in California, as it's easy to overlook and is so isolated that "getaways" could be a problem. Since it's a day resort, there's no nocturnal crime. This isn't to stay that goggles, gloves, or skis left out won't stray now and then; chances for such minor incidents increase slightly on weekends and holidays. 


Mountain rescue and ski patrol teams at Sierra at Tahoe are first class. There's medical attention at the resort, and Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe has full services. Some of the world's best orthopedic and sports medicine doctors live in the area, and Tahoe Urgent Care can handle any other problems. Medical evacuation is available to Reno or Sacramento as needed.  

International Media  

English is the language of choice at Sierra at Tahoe, with the odd ski instructor or ethnic restaurant owner or employee who can handle French, German, Italian, Spanish, or even Japanese (there's even a Japanese Tahoe Web site). Cable TV does offer some Spanish, international sports coverage, and the odd news show in other European languages.  

Level of Crowds  

Sierra at Tahoe, given the lack of lodgings, is close to empty during the week, outside school vacations. On typical weekends, it can be crowded enough that locals hide on the slower lifts up the hill and ski the blacks or backside. On big holidays it's very crowded on weekends, but less crowded than resorts that package up week-long stays.
The resort also tends to draw crowds when it gets windy enough elsewhere in the Tahoe Basin to start closing lifts, and the runs in the shelter of the big Jeffery pines offer protected skiing in all but the worse conditions.  

Rent a Car  

Admittedly, there's a good shuttle system to South Lake Tahoe that starts Stateline Casino runs at 8:00 for about a 50-minute run total, and starts the Highway 50 Corridor at 7:50 for a 40-minute run. Returns start at 2:30 and run every hour until 5:30 on Monday through Friday, with the last run on weekends and holidays at 6:00. Given there's no lodgings on the hill, this shuttle system solves the transport problem neatly without a car rental - at least for those who only want to ski Sierra at Tahoe, Heavenly, or Kirkwood with South Tahoe Shuttles.
However, if you want to get to and from lodgings on your own schedule, are considering a multiple resort downhill pass (an excellent way to include Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, and Northstar-at-Tahoe), or add in some special cross-country, a 4WD vehicle is an excellent idea. It can save money for a family of four over shuttle buses from Reno or Sacramento, as well. Parking will, however, be a problem at Christmas, on big holiday weekends, or during major snowstorms.