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South Lake Tahoe

Started: 2018-02-24 14:15:00

Submitted: 2018-02-25 14:07:11

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator stages a family ski trip to Sierra-at-Tahoe in the midst of a warm and dry winter

For President's Day, I hatched a plan for a family ski trip to Lake Tahoe. The local public school district moved their Lunar New Year holiday to the Friday before President's Day, making a four-day weekend; and Julian's daycare followed suit. Whatever we did, we'd need to come up with extra child care; so Kiesa and I might as well take the day off work and drive to Tahoe on Friday.

Kiesa found a list of ski resorts at Tahoe that offered child care, on the theory that she didn't want to take care of Julian all day, even though she wasn't going to be skiing. (She tried skiing once or twice as a kid, and has no interest in repeating the experience.) One of the ski resorts on the list was the modestly-sized (if somewhat oddly-named) Sierra-at-Tahoe. I found an Airbnb in South Lake Tahoe that would fit our family, and Kiesa made childcare reservations for Julian and ski school reservations for Calvin.

That was in January, and after we made our reservations (and sunk our costs) it stopped snowing. I refused to panic for several weeks leading up to the weekend, on the theory that there was nothing to do (besides, snow could come at any minute). The grim long-term forecast turned into a grim short-term forecast turned into grim weather (where "grim" in this context is "warm, sunny, and not at all snowy"). In the week leading up to our scheduled family ski trip weekend, in spare moments between my busy week on-call, I worried whether we'd have enough snow to ski on, weighed against the sunk costs of reservations we'd already paid for, and decided to go ahead with our plans.


Our drive to South Lake Tahoe on Friday, 16 February went well. We ran into the expected traffic in the expected places, stopped for lunch at Chipotle in Vacaville, and reached our Airbnb in South Lake Tahoe (a three-bedroom house in a neighborhood obviously filled with vacation homes) late in the afternoon. South Lake Tahoe had an ample selection of vegetarian-friendly restaurants; we ate supper at Sprouts Cafe.


On Saturday, we drove to Sierra-at-Tahoe. The ski resort had a nice compact base area with easy parking and convenient drive-up access to the daycare and ski school. We dropped Calvin off at ski school, dropped Julian off at daycare, and took Sasa (our au pair) to get her ski rentals for her half-day lesson, then had plenty of time to rent a helmet for Sasa and get coffee (at a coffee bar serving pour-over coffee, which is like regular drip coffee except it's made to order and a human pours the water over the coffee so it's more expensive).

Main chairlift at Sierra-at-Tahoe
Main chairlift at Sierra-at-Tahoe

My first ride up the main chair lift did not inspire me with confidence. Half of the ground under the lift was bare, and the snow cover on the other half showed trees and the occasional rock. Further up the mountain the snow conditions improved, but it still looked like a patchy spring day rather than the middle of February (which ought to be peak snow season). I took an easy blue cruiser to warm up, then dropped into one of the trails that fed the lift line. The top of the mountain was nearly perfect: packed snow around perfectly-sized bumps, with enough room to turn and no one else in my way. (Part of the trail was a bit steep but I had no trouble getting down.) The middle third of the mountain still had good packed snow, but it was a bit thinner, showing more obstacles (rocks and trees) in between the bumps; I had to pay more attention to where I was putting my skis and where I was going. The bottom third of the mountain was terrible: that was clearly where the mountain had melted on earlier days, and had frozen overnight, leaving ice behind. In some places the trail had melted except for a narrow strip of snow that had been built, one scoop at a time, with deeper snow elsewhere.

This was the part where skiing at a smaller resort like Sierra proved something of a liability. A larger resort is going to have more varied conditions, with a better chance for finding something with good snow. (My trails were, at least, open; some of the other sections, including the western expansion, were closed.) I skied one of the trails on the other side of the lift, and enjoyed the bumps in the top section, but the bottom section had melted entirely: the snow gave out on the gentle return to the base of the ski lift with a sign reading "no snow -- start walking".

No Snow! Start Walking
No Snow! Start Walking

I ate lunch, skied a bit more, then dropped my skis off at the tuning shop at the base of the lift, which advertised tuning the edges on skis (to improve their grip on ice). When I picked up my skis the difference was amazing -- I felt like I was immediately a better skier on the marginal icy snow. I skied the trail with the best bumps several more times, even though I had to walk at the bottom.

As the afternoon wore on, the snow began to melt at the bottom of the mountain, threatening to turn into a soggy mess (and, overnight, an icy mess). I called it a day after getting tired of the four trails that I found even moderately interesting and grabbed coffee in the lodge before making the rendezvous to pick up the kids.

For supper we tried to go to a Thai restaurant in town but found it packed, and ended up eating at Lake Tahoe Pizza Company.


On Sunday we arrived at the resort a bit later in the morning but still had plenty of time to get everyone to where they needed to be. (It helped that we knew where everything was and how to make it work.) The day was colder, with the promise of snow later in the day. All of the snow that had melted yesterday on the bottom half of the mountain froze overnight, and stayed frozen through the day. The one long blue cruiser run that I skied the day before started the day groomed, but as the day wore on the snow was pushed around, exposing ice below. I skied the same trails as the day before, but the trails were more icy and less fun than the day before.

I spotted Calvin in his ski class on my last run down and confirmed that he seemed to be doing well in the class, and appeared to be skiing better than many of the kids in the class.

I called it a day and retreated to the crowded lodge for coffee to wait for the end-of-day rendezvous.

After threatening snow all day, it started snowing just as I was securing my skis in the roof carrier box. We stayed at the Airbnb for supper. I lit a fire in the fireplace (after verifying that I knew which position of the flue lever kept the flue open), which did a good job of warming up the main living areas of the house.


We woke up Monday morning to an inch-and-a-half of snow on the ground and on the car -- when I realized that we had forgotten to bring a snow scraper for the car. (Kiesa found a plastic spatula in the kitchen that worked well enough.) I checked chain restrictions on the roads leading out of Tahoe and saw that chain restrictions had been lifted on US 50 as we were getting ready to go -- and the "M+S" endorsement for mud and snow on the van's tires were good enough to get around the first level of chain restrictions, but not the second two. (US 50 was still in better shape than I-80, which had been closed due to multiple accidents.)

We left the Airbnb by 10:45 and immediately ran into heavy traffic on the regional feeder road leading to US 50. It took us about an hour and a half in stop-and-go traffic (mostly stopping, very little going) to go the one mile to US 50, and another hour and a half to reach Echo Summit, the high point on US 50 before it begins its long descent to Sacramento.

Cars crowd onto the road in South Lake Tahoe
Cars crowd onto the road in South Lake Tahoe

The traffic was heavy enough that the light snow cover on the road had been melted, with some slush on the side; at no point did I feel the slightest hint of a slip or slide on the road. From Echo Summit we had little trouble with traffic before stopping for lunch at Noodles and Company in Folsom. Kiesa took over driving home from Folsom; from there, traffic was normal (with regularly-scheduled slow traffic in Sacramento (where I-80 merges with US 50), various patches around Davis and Vacaville, in Berkeley, and leaving the Bay Bridge in San Francisco). We returned home at 17:45, seven hours after we left our Airbnb -- six hours of driving, plus an hour for lunch.


What Went Well

  • Sierra-at-Tahoe is a compact resort with convenient parking, easy access to children's programs -- and (best of all) a daycare for Julian. When he turns three he can take advantage of the hybrid daycare/ski school that gets kids outside on skis for a few hours.
  • South Lake Tahoe has a good supply of vegetarian-friendly restaurants.
  • Given enough advanced planning, Airbnb has a good supply of vacation rentals in South Lake Tahoe, including three-bedroom houses suitable for our household.
  • Sierra-at-Tahoe's snowmaking and grooming capacity were sufficient to keep the easier slopes lower on the mountain in good enough shape that Calvin and Sasa were able to ski.

Where we got lucky

  • The approaching storm did not affect lift operations at Sierra -- unlike Heavenly, where the higher (and more exposed) lifts closed on Sunday afternoon due to high winds as the storm approached.
  • Sierra-at-Tahoe had a ski tuning tent at the bottom of the lift where I was able to get the edges on my skis improved so I could ski better on Saturday.

What went wrong

  • I made our travel reservations a month in advance so that we'd be guaranteed a place to stay and slots for our kids in their programs. This locked us into a particular course of action, making it difficult to react to marginal snow conditions by looking at other resorts that may have had better snow conditions. (It also deprived me the opportunity to do a good A/B test of how different resorts handled the marginal conditions; though what I saw about the open trails at Heavenly's website did not look encouraging.)
  • Snow conditions at Tahoe in the middle of February 2018 were dreadful across the board. I had trouble finding anything I wanted to ski.
  • Three inches of snow (at Echo Pass) were enough to slow our departure from South Lake Tahoe to an agonizing seven-hour slog.


I'm seriously considering flying to Utah next time I want to stage a family ski vacation, because it's closer than Tahoe.