Three Family-Style Sierra Resorts

Smaller, family-friendly ski resorts offer their own more-affordable charms at Lake Tahoe.

Cross-country skiing reigns at Tahoe-Donner; Soda Springs offers Planet Kids.

Granlibakken has snowplay, sledding and a modest ski slope.

You can’t say that California’s grandest winter resorts score all the media coverage – they just win most of it. Their dramatic terrain often forms a backdrop for the best sport photos and film clips.

Yet smaller, family-friendly venues display a charm of their own. They can be more affordable, offer a more personal touch and provide a less-stressful path into winter fun.

Here are three such resorts in the North Tahoe area.
Tahoe-Donner.

Fifty years ago, large ranches in California were eyed by developers as sites for residential communities built around a unified theme. One result was rustic Sea Ranch, built along Sonoma County’s rugged coast. Another is Tahoe-Donner, which occupies 7,000 acres of wooded mountains just north of Interstate 80 and the town of Truckee. Completed in the 1970s and now run by its homeowners association, Tahoe-Donner offers some major resort amenities – such as its snow play, downhill and cross-country ski areas.

In February, that latter operation was even chosen among the nation’s 10 best cross-country (or Nordic) ski resorts by readers of USA Today. Tahoe-Donner took third place, right behind spots in Vermont and Wisconsin.

“When the homeowners’ board asked me to run the Nordic center here in 2012,” director Sally Jones told me, “they said they wanted me to make it the world’s best. I thought, ‘Well now, there’s a job I can really sink my teeth into.’”

A Brit with a degree in recreation, Jones went to New Zealand to help launch its first cross-country center, then arrived in the United States to run a center for Auburn Ski Club at nearby Donner Summit for 16 years. Next came her invite from Tahoe-Donner.

Jones soon won a bonus assignment. Some $9 million was slated for infrastructure improvements that included a $6 million new Nordic lodge, which she could help design. The resort’s sprawling Alder Creek Adventure Center opened its doors Nov. 27.

The new lodge is a spacious, dark-wood chalet, with staff quarters on the north end, a gear rental shop, bathrooms and lockers in the south wing, and a large communal space and good cafe at its center.

On Presidents Day weekend, early arrivals flitted away on the groomed tracks on skate-skis (the most modern gear for Nordic skiing). They deployed on the resort’s 62 miles of trail just after sunrise, and I followed them on my Rossignol OT waxless skis, doing a duffer’s diagonal stride (old-school gait). The Tahoe-Donner trail system begins at a flat beginner’s meadow, then opens into a network of forested routes that wriggle a thousand feet up from the lodge (at 6,650 feet) to the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Drifter Hut – one of five warming huts located on the system.

Jones boasts that all ski trails are groomed daily. I did indeed find them formed to perfection. They were garlanded with skate-skiers zooming along on their aerobic workouts, as well as striders like me simply cruising the woods. I visited two huts using easy trails, but felt intrigued by the intermediate and expert routes and the vistas they seemed to offer. Back at the lodge, adults took gentle lessons in the meadows, and a mob of enthusiastic kids enjoyed a beginner class nearby. Tahoe-Donner prides itself on offering lessons for all comers, particularly youths.
My visitor’s verdict was that Tahoe-Donner deserves its high USA Today ranking, and provides a fine venue both for beginners and experts. Day-use passes are: $12 for children ages 7-12, $22 for seniors and teens, and $30 general. Learn-to-skate-or-ski packages on weekends and holidays include a 1.5-hour group lesson, full-day trail pass (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and rental gear.

In addition, the resort’s downhill ski area is just over a mile to the south as the raven flies, offering a 120-acre bald hill with 600 feet of vertical rise, a quad and a double fixed-grip chairlift, and three beginner lifts including a magic carpet. The focus here, again, is creating an excellent place to begin. Ski school director Dave Walker told me they offer group lessons to children as young as 3, and private lessons to any child able to walk. Lifts operate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; tickets are $23 for children and seniors, $43 for teenagers, and $49 general.

A new snow play area with tubing, sledding and a food truck lies just a little farther south and is open from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Fridays and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends. Entry costs $11 for children and seniors, $16 for teenagers, and $19 general; ages 3 and younger and 70 and older are admitted free.

Granlibakken

At the end of a cul-de-sac, in a shaded glen of its own near Tahoe City, lies a compact, 74-acre resort that can be used as a comfy base lodge for exploring the entire region. Alternatively, guests and visitors can enjoy what’s found right here: a sledding and snow-play area, and a modest but well-groomed ski slope with 300 feet of vertical that’s served by a fixed-grip chair and a Poma lift.

There’s a classic log cabin that provides gear rentals, lesson sign-ups and serves Mexican-style lunches. Granlibakken also offers a trailhead for Nordic ski excursions, with 1.5 miles of groomed track that connects to user-skied-in tracks along the Tahoe Rim Trail a few hundred yards to the west, and Paige Meadows a mile to the south.

Granlibakken’s name, meaning “hill sheltered by fir trees,” was conferred by a Norwegian sea captain who launched the modern resort here, building upon a base begun in 1928 when a snowplay field and an Olympic-trial ski jump were created. Today, it’s a tranquil conference center in summer, and popular snowplay destination in winter, owned and run by the Parson family. The site was shrewdly chosen. Despite a base elevation of just 6,350 feet, a shaded, north-facing slope cradles and preserves all the snow falling here.

“Our strategy is to keep prices low, and work it out on volume,” says marketing manager Annora McGarry. That translates to: $14 for snowplay and sledding all day ($7 for lodge guests); $30 (adults and teens) or $20 (children) for lift tickets; and a beginner package including gear, ticket and group lesson for $70. A striking new offering, “Bed, Breakfast & S’more,” starting at $99/person, includes lodging, a buffet breakfast, use of spa, and a $50 lift ticket credit to any one of seven top North Tahoe ski resorts.
McGarry’s top guest tip: For ease of parking when using the snowplay area, arrive close to when it opens each day, at 9 a.m.

More information: 800-543-3221 or granlibakken.com.

Soda Springs

Powdr is a mighty ski corporation, with famed resorts such as Killington, Vt., Mount Bachelor, Ore., and Copper Mountain, Colo., as assets. So why on earth did it bother to acquire tiny Soda Springs, a few miles west of Donner Pass in the Sierra?

“OK, we’re not all that big by Powdr standards,” admits operations manager Mike Spain. “However, we still have a ton of potential for serving families. Other places offer child care, so parents can drop their kids, go off and ski without them. Here, we turn that on its head, and try to create an opportunity so parents can ski or play all day with their kids.”

Soda Springs is found just off a spur road at Norden, and occupies the end of a north-facing ridge with a base elevation of 6,750 feet and a vertical rise of 550 feet. Its sunny 200 acres are served by two lifts and three moving carpets. Eight years ago it started its Planet Kids snowplay area; that turned into an instant – and crowded – success.
Planet Kids was moved to a safe and secluded corner at the resort’s west side (accessed by a Jeep-pulled tram), enlarged and enhanced. Today it includes a snowplay area with “volcanoes” (big snow piles for climbing and sliding); a mini-slope with a moving carpet where parents or resort instructors can teach tots to ski and snowboard; and a carousel where kids can plop into small tubes and get used to sliding around on snow. The area boasts its own new lodge, with snack shack and bathrooms. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; all-day access is $34 for one child age 8 and younger, plus a parent or guardian, and $10 for any additional adult.

Just to the east is Tube Town, presenting up to 20 lanes that run 400 feet, served by a moving carpet, and end in an upswept snowbank for a safe landing. On occasion, two lanes that go 500 feet higher are added, and the construction of a Tuber-Cross lane with terrain features could be on the way. Access costs the same as Planet Kids; but tubers must stand at least 46 inches tall.

Finally, back at the Soda Springs old main lodge are the lifts, a mini-snowmobile park and a Euro-style terrain park. Once each year, in March, a hand-dug half pipe is built for the Tom Sims Retro World Snowboard Championships. Lift tickets are $48 general, $44 for teenagers, and $39 for children; a ski or snowboard beginner package for ages 8 and up includes a limited-access ticket, rental gear and two-hour group lesson for $79.

The resort welcomes visitors who not only are new to winter sport, but strangers to snow – even loaning them weather shell garments, if needed.