Passing Through: Truckee

Stay in Truckee or North Lake Tahoe to ski Sugar Bowl, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, and Northstar

The Palisades at Squaw Valley. PHOTO: Hank de Vre

The only way to get to Truckee—with the exception of a private jet—is to drive there on Interstate 80. Twenty years ago, the town was little more than a place to fill up your gas tank between Sacramento and Reno, or to merge onto another road and head southbound toward the ski resorts and Lake Tahoe, avoiding the place altogether. However, over the last two decades, the little town at the foot of one of the most infamous mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada has become a thriving hub for mountain people. Now, when you take the exit to Truckee, you’ll want to stay awhile.

Driving eastbound from San Francisco, the Soda Springs exit is the first you’ll come to. Pull off here to access the crest of the Sierra Nevada and a stretch of land rich with history, culture, and some of the best skiing in Tahoe, inbounds and beyond—a place called Donner Summit. Named after the snow-trapped settlers in the winter of 1846-47 who resorted to cannibalism for survival, this summit sits at the very point where moisture-heavy storms slam into the mountains and skiers at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort often reap the benefits of the highest snow totals in the region—without the same crowds you see at other ski resorts nearby. Sugar Bowl, operating since 1938, is also a jumping point to some of Tahoe’s best backcountry skiing, with skin tracks branching off from each side of the highway, traversing the Sierra Crest to the north and the south.

Keep driving on I-80, swoop down the mountain, past Donner Lake basin and the granite cliffs, and you’ll see a sign marking the exit for Highway 89 toward Tahoe City. That’s your exit for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.

There is a reason why Squaw Valley has spawned some of the greatest skiers in the last several decades—Olympians, World Cup racers, and big mountain legends, including, of course, Shane McConkey and Scot Schmidt. Alex Cushing, the founder of Squaw who famously said he was in the “business of uphill transportation,” designed the ski resort to give skiers quick and easy access to the steepest and rockiest terrain throughout Squaw’s 3,600 acres. This mountain is built for hot laps on technical, steep terrain. KT-22 is the most famous of Squaw’s peaks, but most days, the six-pack Headwall Chair skis a lot better, with bowls full of chalk facing north, east, and south. When the snow is fresh and deep, head to Granite Chief and Silverado where slow three-seaters keep tree stashes longer than anywhere else.

Looking south from the top of Squaw, you’ll see another network of chairlifts sprawling across an equally steep and featured mountain. That’s Alpine Meadows. And Squaw’s recent acquisition of Alpine means that your lift ticket works there, too. For now, you have to take a shuttle between the resorts. Although, as part of Squaw’s big development plans, Squaw Alpine CEO Andy Wirth announced plans to build a new gondola to connect the two resorts. Where Squaw was designed for hot laps, Alpine was built to hike for your turns. And that’s just the start of their differences. Though Squaw Alpine are united under one name and one lift ticket, the two ski resorts couldn’t be more opposite in their philosophy of skiing—and many locals ski one resort or the other, depending on their style. Alpine’s Summit Chair takes skiers to a hub with three options—hike the crest north to drop into one of several bowls, hike south for sunbaked goodness, or hike east toward the Palisades and steep, narrow shots in the trees. Or just ski under the chair. Your day will be full and plenty off Summit alone. But don’t forget about Scott chair, a triple that delivers perfect tree skiing.

Back on Interstate 80, the next exit takes you to downtown Truckee and, a little farther up the road, to Northstar Ski Resort, known for its family-friendly slopes, manicured groomers, and giant kickers in the park. Northstar also has the best snowmaking in the area, and in these past dry years, it has often skied better than anywhere else.

After the lifts close, ski down the mountain to find après in the one of the villages. Squaw’s Chamois bar, with its sun-drenched patio and picnic tables, opens only for après. Pro tip: A cookie from Wildflour next door goes really well with a pint of Bud Light. While there are plenty of food and bar options at the ski resorts, no trip to Truckee is complete without driving in to see Lake Tahoe. Tahoe City and Kings Beach are both seeing a changing of the guard, with younger skiers and entrepreneurs breathing fresh life into town, taking over local ski shops like Alpenglow and opening new restaurants and venues, like the Tahoe Art Haus and Cinema, the new spot to watch ski movies or the latest blockbuster. Go to the River Grill or Jakes on the Lake for happy hour. And Pete ‘n Peters for pool tables and salty locals.

Back in downtown Truckee, there’s no shortage of places to eat and drink: Uncorked for wine, Coffeebar for a cup of Joe, Mellow Fellow for beer, Moody’s for a good meal and good music, Cottonwood for the view, and the Pastime Club for a dive. If you can afford it, after a long day of skiing, rest your weary head at the Cedar House Sport Hotel. The Airbnb options are also a plenty. Or you can get back on the Interstate. After Hirschdale, Floriston, and Verdi, Reno and its 24-hour casinos are the next exit.