My first few years of skiing at Lake Tahoe were spent at the usual high-profile resorts, cruising the wide-open boulevards of Heavenly or testing my mettle on KT-22 and the upper reaches of Squaw Valley.
All the while, friends raved about other resorts nearby, out-of-the-way treasures on the north shore that offered cheaper lift tickets, sparser crowds and mountain accents you don't often see at today's ski resorts.
"The views!" they would gush.
"Untracked champagne snow!" they would beam.
Maybe it was snobbery or the adage that size matters, but at first I didn't give their enthusiasm much thought. After all, bigger is better, isn't it?
Not always. Some of the finest snow-riding experiences can come at lesser-known resorts. Not only are these smaller resorts a throwback to another era and great places to learn to ski and snowboard, but they also have terrain that's fuel for adventure.
"It's skiing the old-fashioned way," says Jim Budny, a Homewood Mountain Resort pass holder. "A safe ride up, a clean trail down and a hot chocolate afterward. Who needs Starbucks?"
Budny, a Tahoe City restaurateur, had been a season-pass holder at another, much-larger north shore ski area for 20 years before he found himself increasingly becoming turned off by the lack of care for the customer, ballooning prices and unfriendly competition on the slopes.
A couple of years ago, he'd had enough.
"You'd show up at 8 a.m. on a powder morning and find yourself 70th in line. It was a feeding frenzy," he says. "Homewood might have modest terrain; it doesn't have a village. But people are welcoming. The place skis big and it's affordable."
Davis resident Starr Walton was a 1964 Olympian on the U.S. women's alpine team. Although she annually guides ski tours throughout Europe, she finds herself drawn back each winter to Donner Summit's tiny Donner Ski Ranch.
"Smaller places such as 'the Ranch' are comfortable mountains to play and learn," Starr says about the resort that her father, Stan, built nearly 60 years ago. "I always take my new skis on its slopes to practice and learn how to make them work before going on to larger mountains that need your full attention to get down."
In a modern era in which snow sports have become consolidated, with cautious corporations committed to the bottom line, many of the nation's mom-and-pop operations have all but disappeared.
A closer look in the Tahoe area, however, reveals an array of little gems full of Sierra Nevada spirit with undaunted determination to survive. For decades, they have weathered the unpredictability of Sierra winters, becoming landmarks of unassuming dignity where one can still find the affordable lift ticket, homespun friendliness and intriguing slopes that prime us for the beauty and winter waltz of the Tahoe Basin. Here's a rundown of five favorites.
Many winter enthusiasts are discovering this west shore sleeper, which offers incredible beauty and hard-to-beat value. Homewood has eight lifts spread over 1,260 acres.
Its lakeside location is both blessing and a bane: It makes for the best views, but environmental concerns hamper attempts to upgrade its '60s-style facilities. As a result, the resort has no high-speed chairlifts or polished amenities.
But what Homewood lacks in luxury it makes up for with some of the best powder skiing in the region. With 8,740-foot Ells Peak to block high winds, Homewood's snow typically comes down loose and fluffy rather than crystallized. Much of the resort's terrain faces north or northeast, so the snow stays cold and dry. From the top of the mountain, skiers can cruise the Rainbow Ridge and Glory Hole.
More than half of Homewood's terrain is tagged for intermediates, but particularly beefy steeps on Quail Face and Hobbit Land satisfy thrill-seeking appetites.
Riders are drawn to Homewood's terrain parks, such as the Shredwood Forest Park, which has hosted World Cup and national competitions. Kids 4 to 12 stay happy in the beginners Snowstars Program and in Supersliders, an inexpensive group-lesson program for more experienced skiers.
Best of all, lift tickets are free for accompanied children 10 and younger. When it's free, who needs amenities?
What's new: Quail Triple chair; a Magic Carpet for the kids at the South Side Children's Center.
A good deal: $27 adult lift tickets, Monday-Thursday (non-holidays).
Dates to remember: Lover's Cup Race, Feb. 14; Pro Patrol Race, March 7.
Insider tip: On a powder day, head to the Quad Chair for fresh tracks in the trees off Richard's Bowl and Lower Lake Louise.
Don't miss: For the most spectacular views of Lake Tahoe, make the long traverse to Outer Limits off Quail Face.
Details: (530) 525-2992, SnoPhone (530-525-2900), www.skihomewood.com. Take Interstate 80 east to the second Truckee exit, Highway 89, and then head 20 miles south.
Stories about Dick Buek still abound at Soda Springs. He was called the "mad dog" of Donner Summit. A slave to gravity, Buek, a two-time national downhill champion and 1952 Olympian, thought nothing of tucking the steepest of slopes. It was at Soda Springs that Buek learned the joy that stamped his life. A run called Mad Dog remains one of the resort's delights.
Situated atop Donner Summit, Soda Springs was casting a spell over vacationers long before Buek came along. It received its first customers in 1931.
In 1935, rope tows were installed and Soda Springs became a popular destination for the swells of San Francisco society who traveled by ski train excursions to enjoy the record-breaking snowfalls of the Donner Summit area.
While Soda's 200 acres qualify it as only a nugget-size resort by today's Tahoe standards, its ideal terrain and an emphasis on families have transformed the resort's small-area reputation to that of a skier's mountain that also has great value.
Cheek by jowl to adjacent Sugar Bowl's Mount Lincoln, Soda's ridgeline commands views of Lake Van Norden and the spine of the northern Sierra. Two double chairs and two surface lifts access wide-open slopes. A one-price ticket gives guests access to snow tubing, skiing, snowboarding, sledding and snowshoe trails.
And if you haven't skied or boarded enough during the day, your lift ticket gets you several more half-price hours of skiing under the lights at nearby sister resort Boreal.
Soda Springs offers California's largest tubing operation. The resort boasts four tubing flumes, each designed with banked turns, rollers and giant dips. Two tubing lifts allow for plenty of howling times down the flumes.
What's new: Expanded snowmaking; Planet Kids Snowplay Park for ages 10 and under.
Best deal: $10 for Planet Snowplay, including a tube.
Don't miss: Kids 6 to 12 can hop on a pint-size snowmobile and scamper around a track; helmets provided.
Details: (530) 426-3901, SnoPhone (583-426-3666), www.skisodasprings.com. Take I-80 east to the Soda Springs exit.
Donner Ski Ranch is no architectural marvel. There is nothing fancy about the modest lodge, with its semi-claustrophobic cafeteria and bar where guests are encouraged to meet each other.
Outside, the area's 400 acres are accessed by six chairs, the pride of the fleet being a fixed-grip triple chair.
The resort's simplicity, convenience and affordability continue to beckon visitors. It's not unusual on a weekend day for the Ranch to host nearly 3,000 skiers and boarders. From the summit of its highest rise atop Signal Hill (7,851 feet), dramatic views descend toward Donner Lake, past the railroad snow sheds and the "Chinese Wall," a railroad right-of-way foundation built by Chinese laborers in the late 19th century. The Ranch's terrain has a variety of steep pitches and rolling shoulders.
Situated atop Donner Summit, the resort opened for skiing in 1937 with one of the area's first rope tows. Today, the area offers 45 runs.
Although the majority of slopes are rated beginner and intermediate, advanced carvers discover steep pitches, tree skiing and black-diamond runs on The Face and South Palisades. Norm's Run, off Chair 3, is a fall-line cruiser that stretches for three-quarters of a mile.
Donner Ski Ranch was the first Sierra resort to allow snowboarders. Riders still make up a large portion of the Ranch's clientele, especially at the resort's half-pipe and terrain park. Donner Ski Ranch hosts several snowboard competitions each season, including its annual Legends of Snowboarding Reunion.
An adult, midweek ticket is $25. Customers ages 60 to 69 ski for $15. More discounts come every other Thursday, when adults pay $10 and youth lift tickets (12 and under) cost $5.
What's new: New owners have invested in a state-of-the-art Pisten Bully grooming machine.
Date to remember: Legends of Snowboarding Reunion and vintage snowboard race, March 27.
Best deal: Flashback prices, plus barbecue and bar specials on "Old School Thursdays."
Details: (530) 426-3635, www.donnerskiranch.com. Take I-80 east to the Soda Springs/Norden exit. Turn right at the stop sign and follow the road for 3 1/2 miles.
Incline Village, Nev., occupies the most northern niche of Lake Tahoe. The town received its name from the grade that was used to carry timber nearly 1,400 vertical feet into the lake during the 1800s. A century later, the same grade is being used to carry skiers up and down its slope after Boise-Cascade Co. developed the golf course and ski resort now called Diamond Peak.
With stunning views of sylvan landscapes, affordable pricing, special programs for children and a variety of terrain, Diamond Peak's 655 acres add up to one of Tahoe's premier family resorts.
Off the Crystal Quad chairlift, advanced riders and skiers enjoy dropping into Golden Eagle Bowl, a series of four natural glades strung together down the canyon. Others scream down Lightning, a black-diamond run comparable in steepness to Squaw Valley USA's Headwall. More natural glades and wind-dwarfed pines can be discovered in Solitude Canyon, 20 acres of advanced terrain also reached from the top of the Crystal Quad.
Almost half of Diamond Peak's terrain is intermediate. The Crystal Ridge Run is more than a mile of smooth and wide cruising with magnificent views of Lake Tahoe.
For kids, there's the Bee Ferrato Child Ski Center, where children 7 to 12 build skiing skills by participating in the Sierra Scouts program. Diamond Peak also offers the Incline Kids Klub, a licensed day-care program for ages 2 to 6.
Those ages 6 to 12 or 60-plus ski for $14. The mid-station SnowFlake Lodge offers casual fare and views of the lake in a relaxed setting.
What's new: The resort has added many terrain features in its parks and extended customer service.
Dates to remember: Snowbomb hosts Sick and Twisted contests Feb. 11 and March 12.
A good deal: The resort's minipass offers $100 savings over seven days of skiing.
Don't miss: Each Saturday beginning at 4:30 p.m., the Last Tracks promotion offers skiers and snowboarders an après-ski party while they enjoy the sun setting over Lake Tahoe. From the mid-mountain Snowflake Lodge at 7,000 feet, guests in an octagonal dining room can enjoy California wine and gourmet appetizers. After the sun sets, everyone follows the ski patrol down a freshly groomed corduroy run to the base area.
Details: (775) 832-1177, SnoPhone (775-831-3211), www.diamondpeak.com. Take I-80 east to Truckee, and take the Highway 267 exit to Lake Tahoe's north shore. At the Highway 28 junction, turn left and proceed to Incline Village. Turn left on Country Club Drive and then right on Ski Way.
The story of skiing at Granlibakken, which in Norwegian means "a hillside sheltered by fir trees," dates to 1928, when the resort became one of Tahoe's first snow-play areas. In 1930, the Lake Tahoe Ski Club built one of the country's best ski jumps there and hosted national and Olympic Trials jumping contests.
Today, the historic jump overlooks Granlibakken's one large, machine-worked ski slope, which includes 30 acres accessed by a bunny tow and a poma surface lift.
The resort's historic day lodge continues to evoke old Tahoe charm. Friendly, folksy and with families always in mind, a highly qualified staff offers alpine ski, Nordic, snowshoe and snowboard lessons and rentals, and a well-maintained snow-play area.
Although it might be Tahoe's smallest snow-sport area, the resort remains an important part of the popular Granlibakken Conference Center and Lodge and it boasts close proximity to many other north shore ski areas and other snow-play options. Granlibakken offers several stay-and-ski packages, including a Homewood lift and lodge package starting at $99.
Best deal: Beginner Learn to Ski or Snowboard package for $49.
Insider tip: Backcountry skiers can get a head start into Paige Meadows and the Tahoe Rim Trail by taking a free one-ride pass to the top of the poma.
Details: (530) 581-7533, (877) 552-4754 or www.granlibakken.com. Take I-80 east to Truckee and then Highway 89 south to the "Y" in Tahoe City. Follow Highway 89 south for half a mile to Granlibakken Road.