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The West--It's Still Wild Out There

Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

The West--It's Still Wild Out There

Skiing the left coast means untracked glades, few pretensions, and plenty of space to spare
By Ron C. Judd

Invariably, you'll be upside down and three feet deep in Styro-dry snow on the flanks of a central Oregon volcano before the first two questions on skiing's Test of the West pop into your freshly planted head: Where exactly were you the day the ski-school instructor covered noggin extrication? And, more important, what is the likelihood that someone on the chair above is watching you?

Chances are good that you'll dig out, and they're equally good that no one will be the wiser. In the wide-open West, skiing still loiters on the outskirts of wild. Skiers spread out and go solo. When it comes to losing yourself, there's no place better: Here's a look at a dozen resorts where getting lost is best accomplished--with enough insider's wisdom to keep it a figurative, not literal, experience.

Whistler, British Columbia

The Big Picture: This place goes on forever. For years, that statement aptly described the thousands of acres of open, magnificent ski terrain of the intertwined Whistler and Blackcomb ski areas, 75 miles from Vancouver. Today, it's also a fitting description of the village--make that city--itself, which has grown into a true international destination full of Europeans, Japanese, local British Columbians, and hordes of U.S. alpine nuts.

Most ski mountains would be pulled down by the sheer weight of such multitudes. These two make you forget you ever cared. Skiers devouring the nearly 7,000 skiable acres leave with stupid grins, saying they never imagined a single destination could offer so much. Whistler and Blackcomb build high-speed quads the way most people make toast, and it's difficult to keep track of them--let alone ski them all in one visit. Whistler may be increasingly pretentious, but it's a stop every serious western skier must make at least once.

Unsung Runs: On a clear day, proceed directly to Whistler's Peak chair for one of the more memorable ski-area views in North America. For spectacular intermediate-to-advanced skiing above treeline, spend the rest of the day on Whistler's new Harmony Express quad on the mountain's backside. At Blackcomb, crowds tend to congregate on Seventh Heaven Express runs. Let them. Take the Glacier Express quad to the Showcase T-bar and the Blackcomb Glacier area, where hot dogs can try the double-diamond Garnet and Ruby bowls on for size.

R&R:Grand hotel bars and chain eateries each skim off their share during the après hours. Look hard enough, and you'll find it in Whistler Village. On the slopes, the top lunch spot is the view-rich Pika's, at treeline on Whistler.

Where to Bunk: Whistler Central Reservations (800-944-7853) sits on a keg of some 30,000 beds in every conceivable style and locale. Rooms range from the swank C.P. Chateau Whistler Hotel (doubles, $246 U.S.) to the more affordable Glacier Lodge (doubles, $100). The favorable exchange rate sweetens the deal.

Local Wisdom: Only fools and hopeless optimists book a trip to Whistler before January. Often forgotten in the excitement over the mountain's massive vertical drop is the fact that the base area is at a mere 2,200 feet. In recent years, early-season monsoons have left the bottom half of the mountain looking like the Colorado River.

Whistler Stats:
Elevation: 7,494 feet (summit, Blackcomb Mountain)
Vertical: 5,280 feet
Average annual snowfall: 360 inches
Trails: Whistler: 20 percent advanced, 55 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner. Blackcomb: 30 percent advanced, 55 percent intermediate, 15 percent beginner
Lifts: Two high-speed gondolas, ten high-speed quads, seven fixed chairs, 11 surface lifts
Lift tickets: $39
Information: Whistler, 604-932-3434; Blackcomb, 604-932-3141
Reservations: 800-944-7853

Kelowna, British Columbia

The Big Picture: This loose, laid-back mountain is where British Columbia powderhounds (including a fair share of Whistler employees) come to relax. Big White, a sprawling, sun-splashed hill above the Okanagan Valley town of Kelowna, leapt a step closer to skiing civilization several years ago with the opening of a new highway, the Coquihalla Connector, to western British Columbia. Suddenly, it was a quick trip from Vancouver. Just as suddenly, express quads began sprouting.

The mountain, which has major plans for expansion, is an intermediate skier's dream, with dozens of superbly groomed, delightfully uncrowded cruising runs. Lift lines are a rarity, as is the wet, heavy snow that plagues many of Big White's western neighbors.

Unsung Runs: Steep-glade fanatics should ride the Bullet Express to the Easter Chutes, or the Falcon chair to the double-diamond Grizzly Playground Bowl. Primo cruiser runs include Cougar Alley off the Black Forest Express, Sundance off the Bullet Express, and Serwa's off Ridge Rocket.

R&R: For lunch and après-ski, locals hang at the monstrous Loose Moose; at night it's Snowshoe Sams, where Gunbarrel Coffee (flaming Grand Marnier poured through a gun barrel into your coffee) is the drink.

Where to Bunk: The resort (central reservations, 800-663-2772) has 4,700 slopeside beds, ranging from hotel rooms at the Graystoke Inn (packages including lodging, lift ticket, and ski rental discount, $43-$85 per person per night) to three-bedroom condos, some with private saunas, at Mogul's (packages, $50-$72).

Local Wisdom: Pick a late January or early February ski week. You'll miss the biggest crowds and highest costs but catch Big White's most consistent powder storms.

Big White Stats:
Elevation: 7,606 feet
Vertical: 2,050 feet
Average annual snowfall: 265 inches
Trails: 24 percent advanced, 42 percent intermediate, 34 percent beginner
Lifts: Three high-speed quads, three fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $29
Information: 604-765-3101
Reservations: 800-663-2772

Mount Baker, Washington

The Big Picture: The mountain that nurtures the Northwest free-riding snowboard culture is hard to get to, offers no slopeside lodging, and can require a road map to navigate. So why bother? That's a question only those who've never stood atop Shuksan Arm on a clear day would be foolish enough to ask.

Tucked into the North Cascades between Mounts Baker and Shuksan, this small but feisty ski area has runs that will make even the most hardened extreme skier swallow hard. Recently improved intermediate terrain also makes Baker a favorite of cruisers drawn to the mountain's free-spirited persona and rugged, spectacular setting. That 750-inch annual snowfall is neither misprint nor exaggeration. In the chutes and woods, the snow seems to gather, keep its head down, and wait--deep and ungroomed--for your arrival.

Snowboarders making a pilgrimage to Baker will find many of the sport's original superstars (most notably nearby resident Craig Kelly) carving how'd-they-get-there tracks on Baker's out-of-bounds slopes. Fear not, skiers: Mutual respect is the local religion. Just don't show up in a $1,200 designer jumpsuit.

Unsung Runs: After a big dump, hot dogs with paid-up life insurance should hook up with a local who knows the terrain, ride the Hemispheres chair to the top, and hike the trail up Shuksan Arm, where miles of (unpatrolled) powder await. (Heed the sign: You or your heirs will be charged for a rescue.) Other mountain highlights include narrow, sculpted Razorhone Canyon, steep Pan Face, and tree-studded Stickey Wicket, all off chairs One and Six; and long, scenic cruisers such as Oh Zone, Daytona, and Otto Bahn off the Hemispheres chair. If none of that gets the competitive juices flowing, try--just try--to ski the stump- and cliff-infested fall line below Chair Five.

R&R:Don't miss the new White Salmon day lodge, a spacious stone-and-timber creation with a view of glacier-draped Mount Shuksan so impressive that mountain managers have to shoo away lingering lunchers. For world-class chicken gorgonzola where you'd least expect it, head for Milano's, 17 miles west in Glacier.

Where to Bunk: The closest lodging is the Snowline Inn near Glacier (condos, $65-$85; 800-228-0119), where condo units with kitchenettes sleep two to four people. A better bet is the Glacier Creek Motel & Cabins (doubles, $42-$74; cabins, $60-$135; 360-599-2991), 17 miles from the mountain. For centrally located private home rentals, call Mount Baker Chalet ($70-$175; 360-599-2405) or Mount Baker Lodging ($89-$250; 800-709-7669).

Local Wisdom: Flannel rules the mountain every Super Bowl Sunday, when Baker plays host to the snowboarding world's hottest riders at the Mount Baker Legendary Banked Slalom race. Boarders ride a high-banked natural creekbed that's more bobsled course than ski run. A great spectator event, surpassed only by the Huge Bonfire and Weenie Roast held in the parking lot afterward.

Baker Stats:
Elevation: 5,050 feet
Vertical: 1,500 feet
Average annual snowfall: 750 inches
Trails: 28 percent advanced, 42 percent intermediate, 30 percent beginner
Lifts: Eight fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $28
Information: 360-734-6771

Crystal Mountain, Washington

The Big Picture: Primarily a haunt of Seattle-area commuters, Crystal, 75 miles from the city in the northeastern foothills of Mount Rainier, serves up an impressive 3,100 feet of vertical and some of the most varied terrain in the Northwest. One side of the mountain is paved with long, mellow cruiser runs; the other, more unruly side is home to some of the West's wildest backcountry skiing.

Then there's the resort itself, where lift lines can be intolerable and managers seem indifferent. For years Crystal's patrons have cried out--begged, even--for more express lifts. Instead, they got whiz-bang electronic gates that measure vertical feet for those who shell out $25 for a special Dick Tracy decoder watch. Thanks anyway, say many former regulars as they drive right on by toward Mount Bachelor, Oregon. Still, if you hit Crystal after one of the mountain's sometimes unbelievable storms (65 inches of snow fell in one day here in 1994), the skiing is so fine you'll want to buy the mountain and run it yourself.

Unsung Runs: For loose, deep bowl skiing, experts flock to Snorting Elk Bowl, just north of the Green Valley chair, and Paradise Bowl in the North Back Country. A local favorite in the South Back Country is Brain Damage. Intermediates: Ride the Rainier Express, turn north, and bomb down into Green Valley, where the snow stays colder longer and lines for the double chair are nearly nonexistent. Before day's end, take a run down Queens, a long, tree-lined meanderer.

R&R: The Summit House at the top of Rainier Express serves up a mighty good bowl of chili and an even better view of Mount Rainier. At the base area, barkeeps at the Snorting Elk Cellar will pretend never to tire of your backcountry death-brush stories. And remember, this is Seattle: Anyone running on empty can down a quad-jammer latte at the Espresso Sled near the top of the Midway Shuttle.

Where to Bunk: Silver Skis Chalet and Crystal Chalet (one-bedrooms, $110-$200), both at the base of the lifts, offer comfortable condo units with combined kitchen/living rooms that sleep up to eight. Also on the mountain, the Village Inn (doubles, $80) will put you up in a standard hotel room. At the extensively renovated Quicksilver Lodge (doubles, $95), all the rooms are designated nonsmoking. Call 360-663-2558 for reservations at all properties.

Local Wisdom: Bump fans might consider asking mountain managers when their next round of employee drug tests are scheduled. A surprise test last year left a goodly portion of the grooming fleet suspended for two weeks.

Crystal Stats:
Elevation: 7,012 feet
Vertical: 3,100 feet
Average annual snowfall: 340 inches
Trails: 30 percent advanced, 57 percent intermediate, 13 percent beginner
Lifts: One high-speed quad, nine fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $33
Information: 360-663-2265
Reservations: 360-663-2558

White Pass, Washington

The Big Picture: Sure, White Pass went international two decades ago, when it was listed as the hometown of World Cup stars Phil and Steve Mahre. But it didn't truly begin enticing out-of-towners until last season, when a high-speed quad shook off its creaky-chair reputation. Other than that, don't expect a lot of frills. The bonus is the mountain's east-facing location, which provides far more dry, cold days than other Northwest areas, producing clean powder snow that stays soft for days. Tucked between Mount Rainier National Park and the Goat Rocks Wilderness, White Pass sits in terrain so pristine that plans to expand were recently shot down by environmental concerns. That's done little to dampen the enthusiasm of White Pass skiers, who rave about the mountain's uncrowded slopes, long, smooth runs, and magnificent Mount Rainier views. You leave White Pass feeling cleansed.

Unsung Runs: All things flow from the top of Great White, the new express quad. Intermediates will get hooked on Cascade and What?, two deliciously long, scenic runs down the north side. Bump skiers: Go straight off the top and hit Chair Run. Good tree and glade skiing can be found off backside runs such as Ptarmigan. Backcountry hikers and telemarkers go for the open-bowl skiing on the north side of Hogback Ridge, a short trip away on the Pacific Crest Trail.

R&R: Party central this isn't. The hangouts here start and end with the Summit House Restaurant and Lounge, where the Cascade Melt (roast beef, turkey, and melted cheese on grilled sourdough) keeps 'em coming back.

Where to Bunk: Directly across Washington 12 from the base area, the Village Inn (studios to one-bedrooms with lofts, $85- $140; 509-672-3131) rents out 55 privately owned, TV-free condos that sleep from four to eight people.

Local Wisdom: Visit the first weekend in March and you can race Phil Mahre. Seriously. The former World Cup champ and Olympic hero takes on all comers at the annual Winter Carnival, which raises money for a children's hospital. (Hey, you never know--he might catch an edge and face-plant.)

White Pass Stats:
Elevation: 6,000 feet
Vertical: 1,500 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 20 percent advanced, 60 percent intermediate, 20 percent beginner
Lifts: One high-speed quad, three fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $30
Information: 509-453-8731
Reservations: 509-672-3131

Mount Hood, Oregon

The Big Picture: Often overlooked by skiers who flock to the family-oriented Timberline Ski Area on the south side of 11,235-foot Mount Hood, Hood Meadows is blanketed with drier, consistently fine snow that collects like dryer lint on the mountain's east shoulder. Shrugging off its no-slopeside-lodging handicap, the resort has recently plunged headlong into the big time: Two upper-mountain high-speed quad lifts have been installed and a lower-mountain express is on its way.

Hood's volcano-forged topography serves up a challenging mix of gladed runs, plunging bowls, and football-field-wide cruisers. Added bonuses are Heather Canyon, a massive, rocky ravine on the area's north border, and Sno-Cat skiing in the Superbowl, the canyon's upper thousand feet.

Unsung Runs: Pick one. Bowl-bashers with no time to waste should exit the Mount Hood Express quad to the left, follow the ridgeline, and point their tips into One Bowl, Two Bowl, or any other numbered bowl up to five. Beware: They're far steeper than most bowls this low on a mountain. High-speed cruisers should make a beeline for the Cascade Express chair, which drops you gently at 7,300 feet. All runs are smooth, wide-open, and fast. Extreme skiers should turn right off Cascade Express and drop into Heather Canyon, where a string of five superbly steep bowls awaits.

R&R: Mix with skiers from at least two other ski areas 12 miles southwest at the Mount Hood Brew Pub (fine Oregon microbrews and inventive pizzas) in the village of Government Camp. Better yet, journey an additional ten miles up the mountain to Timberline Lodge, a must-see, 1930s wooden marvel with hand-carved furniture, Xanadu-size fireplaces, and absolutely the best coffee drinks ever placed in shivering hands.

Where to Bunk:The closest lodging is in Government Camp, where you'll find chain-style hotel rooms at the Mount Hood Inn (doubles, $95; 800-443-7777). Twenty minutes west, the Resort at The Mountain (doubles, $90; 800-669-7666) has 160 rooms, a fitness center, and an over-the-top Scottish Highlands theme. For spectacular views and an indoor lap pool, drive 50 miles northwest to the stone-and-timber Skamania Lodge (doubles, $85-$140; 800-221-7117), which overlooks the Columbia River Gorge.

Local Wisdom: This is primarily a weekend-commuter resort for rabid Portland-area day skiers. Plan to spend several blissful days at the mountain midweek, after all the Nike sneaker-pushers have returned to their tasks.

Mount Hood Meadows Stats
Elevation: 7,300 feet
Vertical: 2,777 feet
Average annual snowfall: 430 inches
Trails: 35 percent advanced, 50 percent intermediate, 15 percent beginner
Lifts: Three high-speed quads, six fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $32
Information: 503-337-2222
Reservations: 800-929-2754

Bend, Oregon

The Big Picture: Bachelor, a 9,065-foot extinct volcano in the Central Oregon high desert, looks so symmetrically perfect you almost hate to rip it up with those new GS skis. Rip anyway, or someone else will. Bend, the burgeoning community 22 miles east of the mountain, has within a decade gone from U.S. 97 truckstop to microfiber mecca, thanks to Mount Bachelor's cold, dry snow and progressive mountain management.

On a crisp, fresh-powder day, Bachelor is as good as it gets in North America. On a poor day, it's still better than most. Step off the Summit chair and the mountain is yours--with runs on literally 360 degrees of its slopes. With six high-speed quads, you can easily ski yourself out in a half-day. No worry: Bachelor's electronic ticketing system allows you to pay as you go, returning up to three years later to use up remaining ticket points.

Unsung Runs: When winds are calm and the Summit chair is running, head to the top. Experts can drop down double-diamond chutes into Cirque Bowl or traverse to the trickier, wind-packed West Ridge. In goggle-fogging storms, stay lower: Take the Pine Marten chair and head straight for the Outback. Ed's Garden, a long, luscious cruiser, is a Bachelor classic. Powder hounds also congregate on Grotto, a gladed run off the Red or Pine Marten chairs.

R&R: No need to lose undue elevation to down a lunchtime Bachelor Bitter. The Pine Marten day lodge, halfway up the mountain, is a full-service lunch spot with uncommon amounts of room for stretching out and a startling view to the northwest of the Three Sisters. At day's end, head to Deschutes Brewery in Bend, where the same guy who de-wanged your ski binding on the mountain earlier in the day will serve you a roasted-garlic burger and home-brewed Obsidian Stout.

Where to Bunk: Nowhere on the mountain itself unless you're an RV fiend--but there are two classy resorts nearby, each about 15 miles down the road. Studio-style condos with kitchens and fireplaces, plus access to hot tubs, a heated pool, and an outdoor skating rink, are what you'll find at the Inn of the Seventh Mountain (doubles, $99; 800-452-6810). At Sunriver Resort (doubles, $62-$89; suites, $94-$145; 800-547-3922), lodging ranges from basic hotel rooms to suites with kitchens and upstairs lofts; you can also rent private homes.

Local Wisdom: Bachelor's point-system tickets are transferable; if you only want to ski for a couple of hours some afternoon, share the cost of a ticket with a group of friends instead of buying your own.

Bachelor Stats:
Elevation: 9,065 feet
Vertical: 3,100 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 25 percent advanced, 60 percent intermediate, 15 percent beginner
Lifts: Six high-speed quads, four fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $35 for 200 points
Information: 800-829-2442
Reservations: 800-800-8334

Squaw Valley, California

The Big Picture: You can't warm your hands by the Olympic flame forever. Squaw Valley, having finally figured that out a few years back, has been racing to catch up to its higher-tech Tahoe competition. It's working: A single day last season brought thousands and thousands of skiers to Squaw, creating a truly memorable 5 P.M. scene in the parking lot.

Squaw Valley is a rarity in that it attracts a fair number of nonskiers to its beautiful high-mountain ice rink and spa. But the skiing can't be overstated. Squaw's black-diamond bowls humble hotshot skiers and instill a healthy sense of respect in beginners and intermediates. Squaw will up the ante this season, when the area's legendary KT-22 chair, which accesses some of the most notable expert terrain in California, is replaced by a high-speed quad. The ride time will be cut in half, which raises the question: Can mogul skiers' knees, destroyed bump-by-bump on the unbelievably steep West Face, really recover in half the time they used to? Only time--and perhaps reconstructive surgery--will tell.

Unsung Runs: Expert runs include Red Dog Ridge and the aforementioned West Face, both off the new KT-22 lift. Also consider Hogsback, on the Headwall. Intermediates often miss the enjoyable Squaw Creek Ridge run, which has plenty of places to jump off the track and shake yourself up in the trees.

R&R: Breakfast at Mother Barclay's is a sure-fire treat. Grand-view lunches are best at the Poolside Café or Alexander's, both at High Camp. The local drinkery is the Red Dog Saloon.

Where to Bunk: The full range is here, from hostel digs at $20-$25 a night to suites at the ski-in, ski-out Resort at Squaw Creek (doubles, $198-$280). The newly remodeled Squaw Valley Inn (doubles, $150), scheduled to reopen December 1, is within walking distance of the tram. If you're staying all week, try the Euro-style Olympic Village Inn (doubles, $165-$195), where units have kitchenettes. All properties are booked through central reservations (800-545-4350).

Local Wisdom: For the grand combination of a double-scoop mocha fudge and double-diamond slope advice, drop by Sierra Scoops, an ice creamery run by ski patroller Rich Andrews and his wife, Becky.

Squaw Stats:
Elevation: 9,050 feet
Vertical: 2,850 feet
Average annual snowfall: 450 inches
Trails: 30 percent advanced, 45 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: One cable car, one gondola, four high-speed quads, 22 fixed chairs, five surface lifts
Lift tickets: $45
Information: 916-583-6985
Reservations: 800-545-4350

South Lake Tahoe, California

The Big Picture: Finally, a reason for Bay Area cruisers to shed the rose-colored goggle lenses. Heavenly, the 4,800-acre complex straddling the California-Nevada border at South Lake Tahoe, is now getting what it has always wanted: a nasty reputation. Nasty is a good thing here, in the sense that this former haven of lower-intermediate gapers has added enough challenging terrain to give even the most serious cliff-dwellers a case of sewing-machine knee. Heavenly's Mott Canyon lift has opened up a new world of ultra-steep glade runs, precipitous cliffs, and tricky canyons--much to the delight of California skiers who thought they'd outgrown the area.

For the more mellow, things are as good as ever: mile after mile of impeccable corduroy trails skirting ridgelines with magnificent Tahoe views. When cloud cover turns these runs into relatively mundane ski highways, the glitz of casino life always beckons at the bottom of the hill.

Unsung Runs: Extreme screamers should proceed directly to Mott or Killebrew Canyons. The latter, less crowded and harder to get to, is reached by riding the new Dipper Express and following the traverse trail through Milky Way Bowl.

R&R: Deck lunches are far above average at Sky Deck and East Peak Lodge, where do-it-yourself outdoor grills allow you to burn your meat exactly to your liking. Monument Peak Restaurant, at the top of the tram, is a grand sit-down place. At night, choose your casino or escape to Dixon's, a locals' bar with 13 microbrews.

Where to Bunk: Four mega-casinos--all with shuttles to the lifts--crowd the Nevada side, including Harrah's Lake Tahoe (doubles, $119-$199; 800-427-7247), and Caesar's Tahoe (doubles, $105-$185; 800-648-3353). For bunking in a place where you might actually sleep, though, try the California-side Best Western Timber Cove Lodge (doubles, $98; 800-528-1234), right on the lake. For Nevada-side early risers, the Lakeside Inn and Casino (doubles, $59-$89; 800-624-7980) is far less expensive than the condos at the base. Ask for ski packages at all properties.

Local Wisdom: On average, 70 percent of skiers use the California side of the resort exclusively. Don't be average: Start the ski day at Stagecoach or Boulder Lodge on the Nevada side, where you'll find slopes laced with smooth boulevards and fine bowl skiing.

Heavenly Stats:
Elevation: 10,040 feet
Vertical: 3,500 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 35 percent advanced, 45 percent intermediate, 20 percent beginner
Lifts: One tram, three high-speed quads, 15 fixed chairs, five surface lifts
Lift tickets: $42
Information: 702-586-7000
Reservations: 800-243-2836

Northstar, California

The Big Picture: Skiing families seeking an easy-in, easy-out ski week would be hard-pressed to do better than Northstar, a gentle, self-contained resort at the north end of Lake Tahoe. Intermediates rave about the mountain's groomed cruising runs, and the Club Vertical electronic ticketing system (love it or loathe it) keeps things interesting. Like other Tahoe-area resorts, Northstar has done its part in the past several years to lure more expert skiers. The newish Backside Express on 8,610-foot Mount Pluto fits the bill, accessing a full spate of excellent steep glades.

In many respects, Northstar is like a deep breath of fresh Tahoe air. Compared to the competition, the pace is slower, the surroundings quieter, and the staff friendlier. Most lodging is in slopeside condo units, where families tend to stay close to the hearth at night. After last year's record-setting season, Northstar's boss flew the staff to--where else?--Disneyland.

Unsung Runs: Experts start and end the day on the Backside Express, which offers 1,800 feet of rapid descent on eight black-diamond runs, including the steep, oft-groomed Polaris and The Rapids, a major-league bump run. Strong intermediates will be happy almost everywhere here--but blue runs beneath the new Vista Express chair are mostly north-facing and tend to hold snow better. Don't miss Pinball's machine-carved beginner bumps--a hoot for rookie mogul runners.

R&R: The lunchtime barbecue at the Summit Deck & Grille, at the tip-top of Mount Pluto, is a fine place to sit down for a steak or fajitas--and never get back up. At the base village, Alpine is the hangout. And many a lasting friendship has been launched during the elbow-rubbing, family-style dinners at The Basque.

Where to Bunk: Choose from 600 hotel rooms or condo units (doubles, $149; studio condos, $139; 800-466-6784) in the village--most within walking distance of the lifts and equipped with kitchens and fireplaces.

Local Wisdom: Parents with skiing tots who haven't yet mastered lift riding will love Northstar's new Magic Carpet, an airport-style moving walkway that'll put Junior at the top of the bunny slope without the stress of a rope tow.

Northstar Stats:
Elevation: 8,610 feet
Vertical: 2,280 feet
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trails: 25 percent advanced, 50 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: One gondola, four high-speed quads, four fixed chairs, three surface lifts
Lift tickets: $43
Information: 916-562-1010
Reservations: 800-466-6784

Tahoe City, California

The Big Picture: Alpine's twin 8,000-foot-plus peaks, Scott and Ward, preside over a friendly 2,000-acre resort with a mellow, last-year's-colors-accepted atmosphere. Alpine loyalists love the area so much they've largely kept it to themselves: "At the request of our skiers, snowboarding is forbidden," resort managers say. That's a bonus for skiing purists--but good luck explaining it to the 15-year-old boardhead in the family.

The west-Tahoe resort's lack of slopeside lodging (most is ten minutes away in nearby Tahoe City) and its modest statistics--1,800 feet of vertical, most of which can be reached by three lifts--belie its thrill factor. The preferred haunt of many Tahoe-area locals, Alpine Meadows is home to some of the best and broadest open-bowl skiing in the region. Thanks to a preponderance of north-facing slopes, skiers who learn the lay of the land (and how to traverse it) can find fresh-snow caches even several days after a storm. Above all else, Alpine is reliable, with a hefty snowmaking system that keeps slopes open during drought years. Not that that has been a concern of late: Last season's record Sierra dumps kept Alpine diehards at it through the first week of July.

Unsung Runs: On powder days, experts race up the Summit chair to the D Chutes and Wolverine Bowl, the more secluded glades of nearby Peril Ridge, or the south-facing Sherwood chair bowls. Or leave the crowds completely and hike from the top of the Summit chair to serious double-diamond immersion in the corniced Beaver or Estelle Bowls. Intermediates love the open cruising terrain in Alpine Bowl (try Rock Garden).

R&R: Kealy's Alpine Bar & Grill and the Compactor Bar take care of on-mountain sustenance needs, or try the Meadows Cafe, a food-court smorgasbord. True nightlife is down the road in Tahoe City at Humpty's, where there's live music, or 30 minutes away at the North Shore casinos.

Where to Bunk: The River Ranch Lodge (doubles, $95-$115; 800-535-9900), three and a half miles away on the Truckee River, has 19 rooms filled with early American antiques and an après bar filled with locals. Best for families is the Granlibakken Resort in Tahoe City (doubles, $85-$125; 800-543-3221), a condo complex with 160 rooms and a hill for sledding. Straddling the state line in Crystal Bay is the Cal-Neva Resort (doubles, $69-$129; 800-225-6382), a nine-story hotel and casino with a weight room and spa.

Local Wisdom: Take advantage of major savings from opening day until Christmas with Alpine's Dawn of the Season package; $64 a day buys you a room at a nearby lodge (based on double occupancy), a big breakfast, and a lift ticket.

Alpine Meadows Stats:
Elevation: 8,637 feet
Vertical: 1,800 feet
Average annual snowfall: 423 inches
Trails: 35 percent advanced, 40 percent intermediate, 25 percent beginner
Lifts: Two high-speed quads, nine fixed chairs, one surface lift
Lift tickets: $45
Information/Reservations: 800-441-4423

Mammoth Lakes, California

The Big Picture: Mammoth, where much of southern California comes to ski, has 3,500 acres of gentle cruisers to please the weaker-kneed, plus enough near-vertical to placate adrenaline junkies. The choice of runs here is exceptional, with more than 150 trails fed constantly by 31 lifts--and a substantial snowmaking system. The mish-mash of terrain and lodging choices make this a good family destination, while four well-developed base areas help spread out crowds.

Unsung Runs: You'll need a road map to find your way around here, but can't-miss classics for experts include Cornice Bowl at the top and Dropout and Wipeout on either side of Chair 23. A prime locals' hangout when snow is deep is Fresno Bowl, off the backside of Chair 23. Powder fans head to the eastern boundary to poof around on Wahzoo or Dragon's Tail. Intermediates will be pleased with Chair 13 and 14 runs like Bristlecone and Roadrunner, or Downhill, a Chair 16 cruiser. For solitude, ski Ricochet and Gold Hill below Chair 9.

R&R: A sunny-day barbecue on the deck of the Chair 14 Outpost is a good way to spend your time. At the Yodler, brought over piece by piece from Switzerland in the fifties, ski stories are exchanged for Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and chili.

Where to Bunk: The Mammoth Mountain Inn (doubles, $80-$99) is the favorite, with 214 rooms across the street from the Main Lodge. The Mammoth Travelodge (doubles, $71-$90) is an economy motel in town. Call 800-228-4947 for both.

Local Wisdom: If you live, breathe, and dream expert terrain, this isn't a place to book a ski week three months in advance. When bad weather sets in, much of the mountain's top half is shut down.

Mammoth Stats:
Elevation: 11,053 feet
Vertical: 3,100 feet
Average annual snowfall: 335 inches
Trails: 30 percent advanced, 40 percent intermediate, 30 percent beginner
Lifts: Two gondolas, two high-speed quads, 25 fixed chairs, two surface lifts
Lift tickets: $43
Information: 800-832-7320
Reservations: 800-367-6572

Filed To: Snow Sports
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