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Firsthand Report: Surprise Weekend Getaway at Northstar-at-Tahoe
By James Chen, DCSki Columnist
January 30, 2011

Sometimes the skiing gods smile and you get a chance to ski where you’ve never been before. This happened to me earlier in January when I was able to get away for a quick two day weekend at Northstar-at-Tahoe in the north section of the Lake Tahoe area. Having never skied the Sierra Nevada range, I was not sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful scenery and the abundant snow. The Sierras had received near record amounts of snow fall in December. Although the snowfall had not reappeared for January, there was still plenty left over even several weeks after the Christmas holiday.

The view towards the east from Northstar. Photo provided by Jim Chen.

Located near Truckee, California, Northstar is about a three hour drive from San Francisco. Laid out over two upper peaks and a lower valley, the resort boasts 3,000 skiable acres with over half listed as intermediate runs (blue), about one third advanced (black) and the remainder beginner (green). Fortunately, Northstar has not succumbed to the temptation of rating inflation and black diamonds are the highest rating (i.e., no “double black” runs).

That is not to say there are not challenging runs! Unfortunately, I made the mistake of renting standard skis. Two runs on the advanced runs on Lookout Mountain (the lower valley area) and I realized the skis were not keeping up. A quick trip back down to the base and a very easy swap out (paying only the difference in cost between standard rentals and “demo” rentals), and I was back in business. The tech at the demo shop definitely got me on the right skis (Nordica Dobermann Spitfire EDTs) as I went back to the same area and was able to finally keep up with several friends that had joined me for the quick getaway. The skis performed so well, I was never tempted to swap out for another set of demos - a nice bonus option that comes free with higher end rentals.

View from the Martis Camp Express Quad. Photo provided by Jim Chen.

The second day of skiing ended up warmer than the first with plenty of sun and incredible snow. Unfortunately, it was also a very crowded holiday weekend day and it seems that everyone in the Northern California/Reno, Nevada region had the same idea as the crowds were unbelievable! Even the singles line seemed like a bad spoof of the Disney theme park lines with several layers of winding skiers and boarders waiting their turn.

There really were only two ways to combat the lines - get out early and head to the Backside runs before the crowds or purchase the FastPass for $20 extra. Having paid nearly $100/lift ticket, I decided that waiting in line for ten minutes after fabulously long runs wasn’t so bad. In fact, my earlier plan to head in early also evaporated as the long steep runs seemed to make the lines a welcome chance to catch my breath.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the incredible glade skiing available at Northstar. Unlike tree runs in Colorado that can get very tight very quickly, the glades at this Tahoe resort were spacious enough to choose a multitude of paths, yet close enough to provide a true forested feel. In fact, the combination of steep runs and glade skiing was captivating enough that I missed the trail I needed to catch back to my car several times! Fortunately, I was able to catch the right lift back up near the end of the afternoon to make it back to where I had parked.

The crowds at mid-mountain at Northstar. Photo provided by Jim Chen.

From there it was a quick drive back down to Reno, Nevada (35 minutes) where the Best Western at the airport provided the perfect place to recuperate before flying home the next day.

Backside trail overlooking Lake Tahoe. Photo provided by Jim Chen.

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robbieA
7 years ago
Great report! I was headed here last year when a snow storm trapped me at the RIC airport for two days.
dcsnark
7 years ago
Northstar is good if you: have large amounts of non-skiing family who will hang around the insanely built up / tourist trap base lodge, never get off groomed blue runs, enjoy waiting in lift lines, want to pay excessively, need to stay at a ritz carlton.

Alpine Meadows, Squaw or Mt. Rose are better options in North Tahoe for smaller crowds, lower prices, superior conditions and terrain - all about the same distance from RNO.
JohnL
7 years ago
If the Nordica Dobermann Spitfire EDTs were a good ski those days, conditions must have been pretty firm by Tahoe standards. Your pictures seem to indicate that. Still, some nice, but IMHO not great, terrain at Northstar.

On a really crowded weekend: Homewood.
Jim
7 years ago
@ dcsnark - yes, I had heard the derogatory nickname for Northstar, but honestly, I found some pretty steep runs. Certainly steeper AND longer than anything here in the Mid-Atlantic. I also think you’re being unfair in your characterization in that Northstar didn’t strike me as any more tourist-trap-like than many of the more popular western resorts like Vail, Breckenridge, Whistler, etc. As for excessive prices - I think you can say that about EVERY ski area these days!

@ JohnL - yup, a bit firm due to some cold temps at night. There was that whole freeze-thaw-freeze thing was going on. Some of the glade skiing was downright slick! Nothing us Mid-A skiers are unfamiliar with, though. I’m told by a friend that there has been more snow recently so the base is better than when I was there.
JohnL
7 years ago
Jim,

Tahoe has that reputation. Epic dumps often in tens of feet followed by weeks of no snow. Two drastically different skiing environments. (I’ve experienced both.)
Sharpen your edges. And pencils.
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