As a ski journalist, I have to say California has some of the tallest and most spectacular peaks in the lower 48, not to mention the earth's most beautiful ski weather: four out of five sunny days, winter daytime temperatures of 25 to 35 degrees, and the most snowfall in North America four out of the last six years.
But I was on Heavenly's slopes over Valentine's Day (2000) during a howling storm and little sun. Great powder though! With all that powder, ski season lasts well into May.
But if California is great for skiing and snowboarding, Heavenly Valley is the crown jewel. With pounds and mounds of powder, it is one of the best areas I have ever succumbed to. It helped that the storm system moved in the day we arrived and dumped tons of fluff on the slopes. There are so many trails, and there was so much powder, that after three days, my knees hurt.
There are 36 ski resorts in California in five major regions, with each region different from the other in scenery and skiing terrain. But nothing tops Heavenly, reminiscent of the Austrian Alps, with quaint resorts, and full-blown casinos. Squaw Valley was the host of the 1960 Winter Olympics. That's is when Tahoe was noticed worldwide by ski fans. Tahoe is also the largest cross-country ski area - at Royal Gorge. Tahoe offers it all, dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice-skating, downhill, snowshoeing, cross-country, and even inner tubing. All they need now is a fast luge, but in the mean time, fast snowboarding is the name of this game.
Heavenly Valley is the country's largest ski mountain and it crosses two states - California and Nevada. This is the first season (2000) for the snowboard park, snowboard cross course, and a half pipe, but the resort offers 100% of its mountain to snowboarders. Terrain features include awesome spines, rolls, flattops, hair-raising steeps, powder filled bowls, picture book tree runs, and wide open groomed boulevards.
But hey, enough of that, here is what I did on my snowboarding vacation:
Day 1 - The first day we arrived in a snow blast, causing slow driving up the hill, but 4WD handled it. There was talk of road closures through the pass from Reno up to South Lake Tahoe, but an hour later we arrived at our hotel. We checked in and wandered around town, shopping and sightseeing.
Day 2 - We ordered room service, had our breakfast, and then suited up in our snowboard gear. A short walk up the boulevard we entered the newly opened Heavenly Gondola. We received our lift tickets and rode the 12-minute ride to the top of the California side of mountain. The snow fell heavily, visibility was poor, but amber goggles fixed that.
We took the Tamarack chair up to the top; it was wide open with very few people around.
My girlfriend and I rode the fresh powder, and surprisingly, with all of this snowfall, there were several exposed rocks and small tree trunks on the open runs. We loved it because it tested our "tree dodgin]" riding skills. After a couple of Tamarack runs I lost my girl friend, so I went down the ever-long California Trail. It seemed to go on forever, to a point where I had to rest my knees from riding so long. I read somewhere on a brochure that the longest decent was 5.5 miles, and I think I found it!
When I reached the mid-mountain terrain, I rode several runs at the lowers. I looked at my watch, remembering a sign that said: "get to the Gondola by 4:00 p.m." I had to take two chairs up, cross over to another, and traverse the Skyline Trail, where visibility was less than zero. I mainly had to walk most of the trail, because snowboards have a little problem propelling uphill. When I reached the end of Skyline, I still had to take one more chair up, and then ride down to the Gondola where I just made it with a few minutes to spare. I went back to my hotel where I found my girl friend all warmed up in the room!
Day 3 - Another day of big snow dumps, again with poor visibility, but there was nice wide-open terrain, with very few people or excess traffic on the hill. We went up the same way, via the Gondola, to the top, and vowed not to lose each other. After jumping on the California Trail we flew down to the lowers. We found a sweet tree run down a black diamond powder run. I took the tree run, dodging trees and ditches, rocks and stumps, nailing a few small jumps and carving fresh powder trails under the chair.
My girl friend took the diamond runs on open face terrain and hit a new personal speed record through the moguls. After about 4 hours it was time to hit the Skyline Trail to the top, and back to the Gondola. Only this time visibility was even less than zero. Silhouettes of ghost skiers flew by as well as the occasional snowboarder.
My goggles froze on the inside, my beard stiffened with ice. With the goggles off the term snow blind was live and real. It turns out we could have boarded most of the trail, but it looked up hill. We found the Gondola and headed down the mountain, with no view to speak of as the weather up top turned ugly. We went back to the hotel, made dinner reservations, and then to the Bob Marley's Wailers concert. Lots of dreads and hippies poured out of nowhere to see some great Reggae!
Day 4 - Our last day to board: A perfect sunny day with all chairs running and the entire mountain OPEN! We hit every run possible, at least once, and the best runs several times. There was no waiting at the chairs. All the runs were wide open, with beautiful powder, great visibility, picturesque views of the lake... a pure Kodak moment. Heavenly is exactly that.... Heavenly.
We were so caught up in the day that we lost track of time. We asked the chair lift attendant if we had enough time to get to the Gondola. He said yes, of course, but we didn't. We traversed over to the final chair, which was closed, with an employee taking down the caution flags. We were told to take "WayHome" to the Nevada base, so we started with a brief walk, and then we strapped in and started down the path. A few ski patrol guys came in behind us to guide us down. I must say this was certainly the longest run I have ever been on. It seemed to never end. One big hill after another. My turns started to get shaky, losing a little control, as my legs weakened, so I slowed down and did some mellow carves, with a short break here and there. It was thirty minutes of straight downhill riding, with no signs of an ending... until finally the Nevada Lodge.
We passed a couple of beginner skiers, but we were the last two on the mountain. We thought we were stranded. The shuttle bus finally arrived. The runs were big and steep, but nothing prepared me for the bus ride down the hill. This driver drove the bus like it was a four wheelin' truck, cutting curves on ice covered roadways; nothing could stop him.
Gladly, we hit the hotel, not literally, and leaped out of the bus. We went up to our room, and celebrated Valentine's Day. The rest is top secret.
Day 5 - We took our sweet time and packed to leave this great resort area of gambling and snowboarding. It was a great time: the Wailers, my new $80 snowboard jacket that I wear everyday since the trip. I called valet to get our 4 wheeler, and headed back to Reno to catch our flight.
Tahoe is a perfect way to spend a snowboard vacation, with unlimited runs at Heavenly, I spent three days boarding and still I did not hit every run.. The half pipe was huge, the tree runs were a real challenge, the powder, the rocks, nothing a new coat of petex or wax won't fix, and of course the cheap food at the casinos. It suggests that virtually any budgets could afford a real first class trip. I will be back!!!