The Weekender: North Tahoe

Like to play in snow? The less glitzy side of California’s most famous lake is a skier’s promised land

Grinding glaciers, molten rock, violent seismic heavings—the pristine beauty of Lake Tahoe and the valley basin it occupies didn’t come easy. The lake itself is the second deepest in the nation, its waters lapping at California on one side and Nevada, with its craps tables and nickel slots, on the other. Some 18 ski resorts ring the basin. To ski all the mountains and visit all the villages in the region would require more than the laid-back spirit here calls for; you’ll have plenty to see and do by sticking to North Tahoe, where historic Truckee serves as a picturesque base camp. Settled in the 1840s and filled with clapboard and masonry storefronts, the town is centrally located yet far enough from the crowds that you never get that hemmed-in feeling common to other alpine fun zones.

Food always tastes better at 5,900 feet. If you arrive early, you may avoid waiting for a table at the Squeeze In (530-587-9814), a ’70s-flavored Truckee institution. Ten feet wide, its walls barnacled with bric-a-brac and drenched with the happy scrawl of Sharpie-wielding customers, the restaurant offers 60-plus omelettes throughout the day. Snow falls thick in these parts. When George Donner and the 90 other people in his wagon train creaked toward Truckee in 1846, they didn’t realize that an early snowfall would leave them cannibalizing their way into history. You can learn about them at the Emigrant Trail Museum (530-582-7892) in Donner Memorial State Park. Several small ski areas (Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch, Boreal, and cross-country-centric Royal Gorge) lie just beyond Donner Lake, and 20 minutes south of Truckee are the famous steeps of Squaw Valley USA (530-583-6955). The mildest descents loom thousands of feet above the Village at Squaw Valley, a woodsy Grove-like development at the mountain’s base. For less commercialism, day-trippers prefer to drive another five miles to Alpine Meadows (530-583-4232) and its broad range of terrain.

Flickr is filled with aerial shots of Lake Tahoe taken by skiers and boarders on the vertiginous peaks. Don’t settle for distant views. To appreciate the lake, go to its shores. Even in deep winter the famously pellucid waters don’t ice over. From Tahoe City, the lakeside town nearest Squaw, you can peer across 12 miles of blue to the sylvan Gomorrah of the Nevada shore. Tahoe City’s main drag is lined with shops and restaurants—including Wolfdale’s (530-583-5700), a popular dinner option, and the Gear & Grind Cafe (530-583-0000), a bike store-coffeehouse hybrid where townies drop in for mochas and ice cream. But the historic core of Truckee, with its turn-of-the-century bones, has more charm by far. Though a Sierra vacation probably isn’t the time to shop for kitchen gear, the town’s Cooking Gallery (530-587-8303) may change your mind. Stroll the sidewalk, buy a block of fudge from Sweets Handmade Candies (530-587-6556), and try not to eat it in one day. Nearby is Bacchus & Venus (530-550-9800), a newish wine bar, but if you prefer cozier digs, walk to the Pour House (530-550-9664), a backstreet bungalow with a four-stool bar and hundreds of bottles on the shelves. There’s coffee across the railroad tracks at Truckee Book & Bean (530-582-8302), which is in the basement of a stone-clad building from 1899. The Cedar House Sport Hotel (866-582-5655; $150-$370) became a media darling when it opened a mile up the highway a few years ago, mixing modern lines and rough-hewn wood siding. The interior is true to the Euro aesthetic that the hotel proclaims: efficient but comfortable and stylish.

It’s a quick drive from the hotel to the Drunken Monkey (530-582-9755) for sushi and Asian small plates. Chef Sam Okamoto used to work at Dragonfly (530-587-0557), a tasty pan-Asian restaurant in downtown Truckee. Though not as kid friendly as the other spots, Moody’s Bistro and Lounge (530-587-8688) gets the most acclaim in town, with its farm-driven menu and dishes like the lamb trio and the Big Ass Pork Chop. Or for more of an après-ski scene, follow Highway 267 ten minutes to Northstar-at-Tahoe (800-GO-NORTH), the area’s most chichi resort (and home to a new Ritz-Carlton). The mountain is fairly small, with lots of mild, tree-dotted trails. In the prefab village, a fancier version of Squaw’s, spent snow folk loll on lounge chairs sprinkled along the concourses. The resort caters to families, but there are throngs of adults sliding around the ice rink and crowding the nearby bars. Back at the Cedar House, Jeff Baird, who owns the place with his wife, Patty, can be found pouring wine at the teeny bar. Grab a seat, and he’ll tell you where to find the powder tomorrow.

North Tahoe in 60 Seconds
In season:
Snowfall tends to peak in January. Getting there: The Reno-Tahoe airport is 35 miles from Truckee; the Sacramento International Airport, two hours away, is cheaper, but the highway is subject to snow closures. Mountain pass: Can’t decide where to go? Buy an interchangeable lift ticket online ( for access to seven mountains. Blades of glory: The rink at Northstar is swell, but Squaw Valley USA’s mountaintop Olympic Ice Pavillion (530-583-6985) has the views. Useless fact: The surface of Lake Tahoe loses 1.4 million tons of water to evaporation each day.

Photograph courtesy Flickr/Peter DaSilva