Let it Snow!
Despite the dry winter we’re having, there is still plenty of snow in the Sierras. With the long February holiday weekends looming, it’s time to shake out those musty ski togs and start planning your annual snow trek. Things may have changed for your family since last year. You may have had another child. Your oldest is probably ready for steeper terrain. Perhaps you are bringing grandparents this season.
Here’s the latest on the best slopes appropriate for beginners to Olympic hopefuls. While these resorts tout hills for all skill levels, we’ve selected ones that stand out for superior services. Take note that classes, activities and private lessons require advance registration. Rates are subject to change.
Daycare needed? Look no further than Mammoth Mountain, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Dodge Ridge and Squaw Valley USA. These licensed daycare facilities feature a cheerful ambiance, well-organized programs and thorough safety measures for checking tots in and out.
There’s good news for parents of infants at Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierras. The resort’s Small World Childcare takes in newborns through 8-year-olds. You must sign up for a full-day program, $99 booked in advance. Individual childcare runs $25 per hour.
Mammoth’s newborn-through-2-year-old program provides a 4-to-1, child-to-caregiver ratio. With cribs, rocking chairs and toddler toys, Small World is equipped with a nurturing nursery and breast-feeding area for moms. Older kids have indoor and outdoor playtime, along with arts and crafts. If ski lessons are part of the package, the price increases from $99 to $165.
Over at Sierra-at-Tahoe, in Twin Bridges, diapered tykes as young as 18 months are welcome at Wild Mountain Day Care. Kids, 18 months to 5 years, can stay for half or full day and enjoy indoor activities along with outdoor snow play.
Northstar, in Truckee, offers a Minor’s Camp childcare center for kids 2 to 6 years old. They do not have to be potty trained, and the camp takes kids for full or half day. As a safety measure, parents receive pagers so they can be alerted if something urgent arises. Parents can also park their cars in front of the childcare center, purchase their own lift tickets there and take the shuttle to the lifts.
New at Dodge Ridge, near Sonora in the town of Pinecrest, is a Snowplay Program for potty-trained kids ages 3 to 5. For $89, kids stay from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and get meals, snacks, equipment rental and lift tickets. The half-day program runs $76.
The Squaw Kids Children’s Center at Squaw Valley features a 12,000-square-foot day-camp lodge for ages 3 to 12. A full-day program includes ski lessons, snacks, lunch and indoor playtime for $119 and $159 during holidays. A half-day session runs $86 and $116 during holidays. Parents can park their cars at the children’s center and also purchase their lift tickets.
Young Skiers and Beginners
Hideaways such as Homewood Resort, Badger Pass, Tahoe Donner, Dodge Ridge and Granlibakken are small, hospitable resorts where thousands have learned to swish down the hills at a young age. The good thing about small resorts is that they are often less intimidating and less crowded than the larger ones. Many begin teaching kids to ski as young as 3, and experts recommend parents wait until their children are 7 before signing them up for snowboarding.
Homewood is proud of its Snow Rangers Academy Center with instruction that emphasizes safety, fun and learning. Kids 4 to 6 are designated Snow Rangers and can be enrolled in an all-day or half-day program that includes ski lessons and indoor play. Snow Rangers have exclusive access to their own ski run, so parents don’t have to worry about their kids being bowled over by overzealous snowboarders. The 7-to-12-year-old set has the option of learning how to ski or snowboard. Full-day sessions for both camps run $105 and half-day $85.
Meanwhile, Yosemite’s Badger Pass, with 35 percent beginner runs, offers a Badger Pup ski class for ages 4 to 6. There are just 10 runs and five lifts in all. Parents of 3-year-olds will have to sign up their kids for babysitting at $8 per hour in the Pups Den. Children must be potty trained.
Not far is Dodge Ridge, a medium-sized resort near Sonora with 59 runs and 8 lifts. Novices have their choice of three chair lifts that service beginner terrain, a rope tow and magic carpet for the gentlest slope. Unique to this resort is its first-timer teen program, a two-hour class for ages 13-17. Private adaptive ski and snowboard lessons are also available to those with special needs for $75 for two hours.
Another favorite is Bear Valley Ski Resort, located in Bear Valley between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. It operates eight chair lifts and one magic carpet lift. Like Dodge Ridge, it also provides private 90-minute lessons for children or adults with special needs. The cost is $87.
In Truckee, Tahoe Donner features 40 percent beginner runs and 60 percent intermediate slopes with two chair lifts and two conveyor belt lifts for beginners. With a manageable 120 skiable acres, Tahoe Donner focuses on first-time skiers with great family bargains. Children 6 and under and seniors over 70 ski for free daily. If families come on a Tuesday, a full-day child’s lift ticket gets a parent in for free.
You can also head to Donner Ski Ranch in Norden. The resort bills itself as a place that offers “close, affordable fun.” There are six lifts, 500 acres, plus a new beginner’s learning area.
Granlibakken Resort & Conference Center in Tahoe City represents one of the best bargains around for beginners. With lift tickets only $21 for adults and $13 for kids, skiers and snowboarders have all-day access to the resort’s two ski areas. One is a rope tow, the other a disk-bar that also tows riders to the top of a gentle slope. Group lessons start for children at age 7 for one hour at $35.
Guests also can choose from a variety of other activities, such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing and a $9 snow play area. It is also a central location where you can drive to other resorts within minutes.
Not to be outdone, Mt. Shasta Ski Park, in the Cascade Mountains, provides 425 acres of skiable terrain and 30 runs for beginners and intermediates. It primarily attracts families, not the college crowd, and one of the benefits is that you avoid going through Donner Pass. As a result, drivers do not have to deal with snow on the road until they reach Mt. Shasta. Highway 5 is usually always open. “If kids are in the car, that makes it more attractive to come up here because you don’t have to worry about road closures,” says Mt. Shasta resident James Keith.
When your kids become more advanced, be willing to venture out to resorts with more complex runs. Consider Alpine Meadows, Sierra Summit, Northstar, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Sugar Bowl.
Tahoe City’s Alpine Meadows delivers a whopping 2,400 skiable acres and 13 lifts, with 75 percent of the slopes designated for intermediate and advanced skiers. Popular with snowboarders, Alpine Meadows prides itself on three terrain parks: Shreadows, Kangaroo Ridge and the Tiegel Kid’s Terrain Park.
Sierra Summit, northeast of Fresno in Lakeshore, divides its slopes into low intermediate and regular intermediate, giving participants ample opportunity to pursue lots of runs and improve over their stay. More than 60 percent of its runs are in the mid-ability category.
Meanwhile, you’ll find 62 percent of the Northstar hills set aside for intermediates. With 17 lifts and 89 trails, there are plenty of runs to choose from.
Boasting 2,000 ski acres, Sierra-at-Tahoe considers 50 percent of its trails most appropriate for solid intermediates. It rates high among snowboarders, for the resort maintains six terrain parks of varying levels of difficulty.
Nearly 50 percent of the runs are intermediate at Sugar Bowl, in Norden, and the 1,500 acres of white stuff features 12 lifts and four terrain parks for the freestyle skier and snowboarder. Sugar Bowl also attracts families with its Mountain Sports Learning Center, a dedicated kids’ center stocked with video games, a kitchen, cubbies for coats and mittens, and more.
Advanced Skiers and Snowboarders
If you have kids ripe for advanced slopes, look to places likes Diamond Peak Ski Resort, Squaw Valley and Heavenly to deliver the adrenaline rush.
In South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly offers 29 lifts and 94 runs and tops the other resorts with the highest peak at 10,067 feet. The runs are steep, and even the beginner slopes can be scary.
Over at Incline Village, the folks at Diamond Peak agree that the mountain is a sweat breaker with more than 80 percent intermediate and advanced terrain. The seasoned skier and snowboard lover will be exuberant with the open bowls and access to two terrain parks. And if it’s your birthday during ski season, you can get a free lift ticket upon showing proper ID.
Squaw Valley touts a cool camp for teens exhibiting intermediate and advanced skills. Kids enrolled at the Squaw Sessions Teen Camp for ages 13 to 17 spend the day skiing and snowboarding under the guidance of a camp leader who can show them freestyle tricks and techniques. Squaw is one of the few resorts offering free night skiing when you purchase that same day’s lift pass.
In South Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood Mountain Resort offers the Expedition program, the only one of its kind in the state. The course enables strong skiers to explore the rest of the mountain with confidence. A series of clinics and camps are available to train agile skiers and snowboarders while teaching them about safety in the backcountry.
With aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents in tow, you need terrific all-around properties with activities to please everyone.
Northstar Resort and Village gives families everything from a kids’ daycare to a place where grandma and grandpa can hang out near the fire pits on cushy outdoor seating. New options, such as ice skating, bungee jumping, shopping and lots of dining on the premises, provide something for everyone. For additional chill thrills, you can go snow tubing, cross country skiing and geocaching.
Heavenly Resort also takes top honors with lodging, restaurants, shopping and ice skating close at hand. While skiers go to the top of the hill, non-skiers can go to the top on the gondola and walk around the mountain perimeter platform to see the lake. New is the 3,300-foot Heavenly Flyer zip line, dubbed the longest in the United States. Two people ride down a cable side by side in the open air for 80 seconds and land on a platform. Heavenly also offers tubing and sledding for siblings 6 and under.
Squaw also covers the age-gap bases with a fantastic gondola ride to the top of the mountain. Once at the top, you can start skiing, and non-skiers can enjoy the views from the lodge. Beginner skiers and snowboarders can take advantage of the new Papoose Discovery Center, an outdoor area with a slight slope. Just for newbies: a comfortably padded, slow-moving double chairlift.
At Squaw, the Children’s Center for ages 3 to 12 is a great place for kids to play and learn some basic skiing maneuvers in a supportive, fun atmosphere. A climbing wall, cross-country skiing and tubing are equally action quenching. Foodies will get their gourmet palates satiated with options that range from tapas to deli food.
Badger Pass scores high on the awesome scale because of Yosemite’s national park status. You can downhill ski, cross country ski, play in the snow or snowshoe. On ground level, take a tram tour through the rest of the park, go hiking or drive to Glacier Point to see winter’s splendor on Half Dome. Yosemite offers a number of lodging and dining options and operates a small ice skating rink.
With escalating carpets for preschool learners and chutes for advanced jumpers, you’ll find a resort that’s perfect to suit every ability level and pocketbook.
Kathy Chin Leong is a frequent contributor to Bay Area Parent and is executive editor of BayAreaFamilyTravel.com, an online publication for families.
For more information, check out these Web sites of ski resorts in Northern California:
- Skipark.com (for Mt. Shasta)
If you want to stay in Central California, here are the Web sites to check out: