Keeping the family happy doesn't have to mean sacrificing steep terrain and old-school cool
There's no denying that the adventure life changes when kids come along. Consider skiing: There was the kind of skiing you used to do before you had kids, and now there’s the kind you do with kids. Less of it, probably, for starters. And when you do travel, it’s hard to resist being sucked in by the big-daddy resorts with all the bells and whistles that make hitting the slopes en masse so much more pleasant. What’s not to love about ski valets and hot chocolate happy hour?
Maisy shreds toddler-friendly terrain at High Camp.
Tahoe views from the aerial tram.
Skiing and sledding at Squaw's SnoVenture Zone.
Tree skiing, Sierra style.
But sometimes you miss how it used to be. Simple. All about the skiing. Before our daughters were born, my husband, Steve, and I skied Silverton in southern Colorado, an un-resort with one chairlift, thousands of acres of stellar hike-to terrain, and some of the best steeps and snow in the southern Rockies. The base area is a quonset hut where you gather in the morning for beacon practice and reconvene après for beers poured from a keg on a plywood bar. We spent the night in a cheap, cold ashtray of a motel room that smelled of cigarette smoke and never got above 50 degrees. Who cared? We were there to ski.
Yeah, that kind of simple.
But keeping the family happy doesn't have to mean sacrificing steep terrain and old-school cool, as we discovered on a recent family ski trip to Squaw. One of a handful of resorts in the northern Sierra ringing Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley USA is a serious throwback in all the right ways. Hardcore steeps on the mountain, laid-back vibe at the base, renowned ski program committed to raising the next generation of rippers, and strong local ski culture. Olympians Julia Mancuso and Jonny Moseley learned to race at Squaw. People go grocery shopping in their ski clothes and line up early for first tracks on the "Funi" aerial lift—even when it's not a powder day. There's a word for what Squaw has: soul.
Not that Squaw is bare bones. At all. It has swanky, ski-in and ski-out hotels, a pedestrian village, and a reputation for attracting moneyed Bay Area skiers. But life on the mountain dictates life off the mountain. Simply put, it's all about the skiing.
We showed up in mid-February after a long dry spell. A storm from the Pacific had ricocheted off the Sierra the night before, teasing Squaw with four inches of snow. For a resort that prides itself on epic storms, this barely qualified as dust on crust. The majority of skiers arrive from San Francisco, a three- to six-hour odyssey, depending on traffic, via I-80. We took the easy way and hopped a flight to Reno and drove the 45 minutes west to Squaw.
We were staying with my sister, Amy, and her family in a three-bedroom condo a mile and a half from the base that they rent for the season. A typical Tahoe ski lease, with carpeted floors and a kids' bedroom with mattresses scattered across the floor, it set the tone for our Squaw weekend: unpretentious and relaxing. Not words you'd normally associate with a family ski vacation. It was so cozy we ate dinners in while the kids wrestled on the rug, and then stayed up playing Spades long after they went to bed.
Mornings had their own routine: We were out the door at 8:15 to drive the three minutes to the mountain for ski school drop-off. My sister's three children are on the ski team, which for young kids (they’re four, five, and seven) is a season-long ski school that runs both weekend days from December through April, plus one week in February. At that age, they're not breeding young racers as much as teaching kids to confidently ski the whole mountain (though my littlest niece, Anna, ran her first gates the weekend before we arrived). Local kids nine and up can specialize in race development, ski cross, and big mountain teams. For visitors, like our girls, there's Squaw Kids, which offers half-, full-, and multi-day private and group lessons. (Unfortunately, they don't offer daycare, so if your little ones are younger than three, you'll need to book your own babysitter through All About Kids-Tahoe.)
At Squaw you can practically drive right up to the lifts and ski school. Retro! The huge parking lot at the base makes it accessible to day skiers, unlike other big resorts where walking malls and ritzy hotels hog up prime real estate. Squaw doesn't keep the little ones sequestered on the bunny slope, either. The base area, and whole mountain, in fact, is crawling with kids, little bundled bodies and helmeted heads. I've never seen so many three-year-olds trundling around in ski boots, like they were born in them, with their skis criss-crossed through the back of their ski school vests to ride the Funi to mid-mountain to ski the blues and greens.
Steve, Amy, and I spent the morning scouring the mountain for soft snow, and found a few nice pockets off Granite Chief, Siberia, and Shirley lifts. The terrain off the infamous KT-22 Express lift, some of the steepest shots at Squaw, was pretty scoured but impressive nonetheless, and from there we did a couple of laps off Headwall before grabbing a late lunch at Soupa and cruising back to ski school for afternoon pickup. Our girls' instructors gave us full reports—Pippa was learning to make parallel finishes, Maisy was working on her wedge—but Amy's kids were already apres-ing at Wildflour Bakery, a locals' fave where parents can buy cookie passes at the beginning of the season (free for life if you win an Olympic gold medal), and kids can redeem them for hot-out-of-the-oven goodies. Squaw has the feeling of an old fashioned ski community where even the littlest skiers can roam free and don't have to carry cash and everyone looks out for everyone else.
The next day we took turns skiing with Maisy on the green runs near High Camp, while Pippa was tearing up the mountain with the rest of her Squaw Kids posse. (Say Squaw Kids fast enough, like my husband liked to do, and it starts sounding like squawkeds, which fortunately my girls did not do.) By the end of her second day, Pippa was making solid parallel finishes, and her instructor even spent a few extra minutes with me explaining their teaching methods (encourage large, looping turns, not quick ones, and finish each turn facing slightly uphill). I was impressed with her progress in just two days of instruction, but then, what else would you expect from the program that's taught Olympians how to ski?
My sister and her family had to leave early to beat the weekend traffic back to San Francisco, so we stayed to play in Squaw Village until dark. The girls caught serious air on the mountain bungee ($12), a multi-jump trampoline where kids two and up wear harnesses and bounce off springy platforms. They would have jumped 'til dark, but it was time for dinner at Fireside Pizza, a yummy find with stacks of wooden jigsaw puzzles handy to placate restless little diners.
The next morning, before leaving town, we took the kids to the SnoVentures Activity Zone, next door to Squaw Kids, where they scooted down the slide on the enormous snow castle and skied a few mellow runs off the magic carpet. The highlight for Pippa and me, though, was snow tubing—hurtling fast down long, rolling, snow-covered ramps while screaming with delight (her) and screaming with terror (me). For kids six and up, there's even mini-snowmobiling. We wanted to take the aerial tram up to High Camp to go ice skating and check out the huge views of Lake Tahoe, but we had a plane to catch. Next time.
IF YOU GO
Kids' lessons from $109; lift tickets, $99; tickets are valid at Squaw's sister resort, Alpine Meadows, about 15 minutes by car south. WHERE TO STAY: The swanky Plumpjack Inn has rooms right at the base; most family suites in the Village at Squaw Valley have their own kitchens. VRBO is a great source for weekend or weeklong rentals; prices are more reasonable down valley. Expect funky but homey Tahoe-style condos. APRES: KT Base Bar and Le Chamois. WHERE TO EAT: Traditional and gluten-free pies at Fireside Pizza, quinoa bowls and Thai noodles for lunch at Soupa, and seared ahi salad at 22 Bistro.