With a reputation for terrain that intimidates, the undisputed king of the North Shore ski scene is Squaw Valley USA. Located seven miles north of Tahoe City and 12 miles south of Truckee off Highway 89, Squaw Valley came into prominence when it hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Today it is one of the largest ski resorts at Tahoe, and has some of the priciest lift tickets.
Squaw's summit elevation is 9,050 feet at Granite Chief, and it features more than 150 possible runs covering more than 4,000 acres of terrain. The mountain’s runs are spread out in sprawling, wide-open bowls rather than funneled into narrow trails. Six mountain peaks are accessed by 34 lifts, including an aerial cable car and North America's only high-speed Funitel, a speedy, six-person gondola. Freestylers have a wide choice of places to play, with three terrain parks, two standard half-pipes, and two superpipes.
Everybody has their own reason to explain the magnetic draw of Squaw. Some local hardcores spend their whole season on the notorious steeps of KT-22, the mother of all Tahoe expert runs, named for the number of kick turns its takes to get down from the top. (The run was built for the women's downhill and men's giant slalom in the 1960 Winter Olympics.) For others, Squaw’s allure is the powder-filled woods of Granite Chief, or the daredevil challenge of the mountain’s craggy outcrops and unforgiving moguls (Warren Miller has shot several ski films here.) Squaw is a serious mountain for serious skiers, but there’s ample terrain so that beginners and intermediates can have a fine day here, too.
Squaw is not a place for skiers who shun crowds; on winter weekends, this is always the busiest resort on the North Shore. It helps if you know where to go. Beginners should head to the lifts at High Camp, with its large, open bowl and great views of Lake Tahoe. Lower on the mountain, the Papoose Learning Area is also a good place for novices to get a feel for the mountain. On the other end of the skills spectrum, the slopes of KT-22, Granite Chief, and Broken Arrow offer only expert terrain. Intermediates will do well in the Snow King, Shirley Lake, and Emigrant Peak areas.
Squaw's success is not just due to the size and variety of its terrain (although that certainly helps), nor is it the fact that there is almost always abundant snow (an average 450 inches fall here per year, plus the resort has an advanced snowmaking system). It's the fact that the resort is an entire industry in and of itself. Visitors could easily spend a couple days at Squaw Valley and never put on a pair of skis. At High Camp at elevation 8,200 feet, accessible via a thrilling cable car ride, there’s a swimming lagoon (open during spring skiing season), a climbing wall, bungee jumping, and an Olympic-size skating rink, plus the white-tablecloth Alexander’s Restaurant and an outdoor bar made of ice. The Gold Coast day lodge complex at the top of the Funitel has large outdoor decks, a restaurant, bar, ski-check area, and ski repair shop. At the bottom of the mountain, the Village at Squaw beckons with its boutiques, dining spots, a full-service day spa, and frequent live music and events. Those who want to play in the snow but don’t want to ski can snowshoe or go for a dogsled ride.
The clientele at Squaw is generally more upscale than at other North Shore resorts, and its lodging options reflect that. Suite-style hotels include the Squaw Valley Lodge, the Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn, and the Tyrolean-esque Olympic Village Inn. A short distance away is the Resort at Squaw Creek, a ski-in/ski-out hotel with its own ice rink, four restaurants, and a huge swimming pool. Spending the night at any of Squaw’s lodgings saves a lot of driving and parking hassle, and also makes it easy to take advantage of the resort’s night skiing. Squaw is the only resort at Lake Tahoe that has a lighted ski trail, the 3.2-mile, intermediate Mountain Run, which is open from 4-9 p.m. most evenings. The run is lit up by a 1000-watt, color-corrected floodlight system, designed to allow easier vision on the snow. Dinner at High Camp followed by an evening glide down the hill is a memorable way to end a memorable day at Squaw.