(Photos: Getty Images)
By Bill Fink
Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which is the best. This week’s opponents are two premier U.S. ski destinations: Lake Tahoe and Utah.
It’s winter, and the snow is falling, lifts are running, and skiers are rushing to the slopes. But where to go for that midwinter break? Two of the biggest and best collections of major ski resorts in North America are in the Lake Tahoe area (14 around the California-Nevada border), and in Utah in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City (11 resorts and counting). Each destination has enough skiing, snowboarding, and winter fun to last a lifetime of trips. But if you can only visit one destination this winter, here’s a biased bunch of boastful blasts for each area, combined with a healthy dose of personal experience, providing a Utah vs. Lake Tahoe ski mountain smackdown.
The Case for Ski Lake Tahoe
Winter in Lake Tahoe is truly a vision: blue water surrounded by snow-topped mountains and topped with blue skies. (Photo: Getty Images)
“I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords,” said Mark Twain upon his first visit to Lake Tahoe, “a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still!” Or, instead of Tahoe, you can visit the smog-choked urban center of Salt Lake City and its namesake toxic lake and go skiing there.
Tahoe has not only the majesty of its stunningly bright blue lake but also an array of ski experiences unmatched in the world. From the deep powder and steep chutes of isolated Kirkwood Mountain to the packed evening snowboarding jams right next to the interstate highway at Boreal; from the wholesome family fun on the gentle slopes of Tahoe Donner to casinos and go-go dancers at the South Lake Tahoe playground of Heavenly Valley Resort. Ski silently through peaceful glades at Northstar and Alpine Meadows, or call out your tricks at the “Squaw-lywood” showoff party scene at Squaw Valley. Tahoe really has something for everyone — unlike the bland sameness of Utah and its weird and oppressive alcohol laws. Genuine local ski towns of South Lake Tahoe and Truckee provide nearby food and entertainment for après ski activities, and Reno airport gives a convenient gateway to the area, with only 30-minute drives to the nearest slopes.
The Village at Squaw Valley is just one of the 14 resort options in the area. (Photo: Chris Beck/Squaw Valley)
Number of resorts: Lake Tahoe has 14 resorts in the mountains surrounding its shores: Alpine Meadows, Boreal, Diamond Peak, Donner Ski Ranch, Heavenly Valley, Homewood, Kirkwood, Mt. Rose, Northstar, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Squaw Valley, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl, and Tahoe Donner Downhill.
The snow: Tahoe has plenty of powder-skiing days. Maybe not as many as Utah, but what it lacks in powder it more than makes up for with more pleasant weather — the California ski ideal of sunshine with temperature in the 30s — and less of that dry, bitter cold that Utah needs to create its trademarked license plate snow. And there’s plenty of snow to be had in Tahoe — in an average year, Kirkwood claims 600 inches (that’s 50 feet of snow).
The steep slopes of Squaw Valley are just one of many skiing options in Lake Tahoe. (Photo: Squaw Valley)
The skiing: From the extreme cliff faces at Squaw Valley and Kirkwood to the wide-open, family-friendly groomed runs at Northstar and Heavenly Valley, mellow beginner runs at Donner and Soda Springs, expansive snowboard parks, tree skiing, side-country hiking terrain, wide-open bowls, and narrow chutes, Tahoe really does have every type of downhill ski terrain a person could ever hope for (and it even has an indoor ski and snowboard training center at Woodward). Visitors have the choice of less-expensive smaller hills, like Diamond Peak and Boreal, or the 4,800-acre expanse of Heavenly Valley, where you can actually ski from California to Nevada.
Looking for something to do off the slopes? Truckee offers plenty of dining, shopping, and nightlife options. (Photo: Visit Truckee/Facebook)
The towns: Unlike Utah, which has only the faux-Hollywood film-fest main street at Park City, Lake Tahoe has legitimate local ski towns closely linked to its slopes. The historic rail and mining town of Truckee in North Lake Tahoe hosts a homey mountain array of dining, shopping, and après ski entertainment options, while the South Lake Tahoe–Stateline combo straddling the California-Nevada border may be the world’s most unique ski town, with its high-rise casino hotels on the Nevada side of the border and an array of both budget and high-end boutique hotels on the California side. Tahoe City, Incline Village, and even nearby Reno provide other local options. Tahoe also has slope-side resorts like Squaw Creek and Ritz Carlton and plenty of rental residential properties. In Utah, you’re pretty much stuck with resort lodging or a commute to the mountain from Salt Lake City.
Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. (Photo: Robert Riger/Getty Images)
Olympics host: Tahoe hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, back in the days when it only cost $2 million to run the whole event, and they had just one chairlift and actually refused to build a bobsled course because that would be a huge waste of space and money. Take that, IOC! Now Squaw hosts a small Olympic Museum, all that’s left from the games aside from the skiing, as opposed to the white elephant boondoggle structures that provide the Salt Lake Olympic legacy.
Olympic Gold medalist Jonny Mosely at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. (Photo: Nathan Bilow/Getty Images)
Famous Tahoe locals: Plenty of Olympic and World Cup ski and snowboard medalists, past and present, have made Tahoe their home and training ground: Julia Mancuso, Jonny Moseley, Daron Rahlves, Hannah Teter, Maddie Bowman, Jamie Anderson, and David Wise, as well as the dearly departed epic extreme skier Shane McConkey.
The Case for Ski Utah
Utah combines great resorts, great ski towns like Park City, and great mountains. (Photo: Joseph De Palma/Flickr)
Utah is more than just a weekend ski stop for Silicon Valley posers. It’s a complete ski destination spread across the phenomenally beautiful Wasatch Mountain Range, with options including full-service resorts like Deer Valley and Canyons, a classic western ski town like Park City, and uncrowded hill-and-a-warming-hut ski mountains for purists, like Powder Mountain. Speaking of powder, Utah has more than anyplace else, the light, fluffy stuff making the mountains a joyful place to ski. And best of all, airline hub Salt Lake City’s International Airport gives access to many resorts within an hour’s drive from downtown — unlike Tahoe, which is over a three-hour drive from San Francisco to the mountains on the best of days.
Alta’s Rustler Lodge offers convenient ski in/ski out access, so you can be on the slopes in no time! (Photo: Alta’s Rustler Lodge/Facebook)
Number of resorts: Utah has 11 ski resorts within an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City International Airport: Alta, Brighton, Canyons, Deer Valley, Nordic Valley, Park City, Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, Solitude, Sundance, and the new Cherry Peak Resort, scheduled to open this season.
Utah offers some of the freshest, softest snow imaginable. (Photo: Getty Images)
The snow: Utah license plates say it all: the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” Dry air and high elevation provide light, powdery snow, a delight to ski through — and a cool pillow for your on-slope crash landings. Unlike Lake Tahoe, where you’ll likely be confronted with the notorious “Sierra cement” — wet, heavy, clumpy snowfall that’s really just one step away from slush. After a big storm, Tahoe snowboarders can be seen stuck, trapped in flat areas like groups of sad neon seals, while their counterparts in Utah will be riding high, ripping glorious rooster-tails through the powder.
Powder Mountain boasts over 7,000 acres of skiable terrain. Where to begin? (Photo: Ian Matteson/Powder Mountain)
The skiing: A person could happily spend a lifetime skiing Utah’s resorts, with 31,000 feet of vertical terrain and 1,200 ski runs spread between the resorts. Begin with the well-groomed, family-friendly resorts of Canyons, Brighton, Park City, and Deer Valley, then graduate to the more advanced terrain of Alta and Snowbird, allowing plenty of side trips for the open expanses of Powder Mountain (which boasts over 7,000 skiable acres, the most of any resort in the U.S.) and some peaceful solitude at, well, Solitude. Snowboard terrain parks, gladed skiing, and white-knuckle black-diamond runs are available at nearly every resort. And there’s powder, powder, powder — no matter how fancy the resort, how epic the terrain, it all comes down to the stuff you’re skiing on, and Utah beats Tahoe (and everywhere else) hands down.
There is plenty to do in Park City and, despite what you may have heard, drinking is one of them. Be sure to stop by the High West Distillery Restaurant & Saloon for the best whiskeys Utah has to offer. (Photo: High West Distillery/Facebook)
The towns: Salt Lake City has a quality international airport, from which some slopes are only 30 miles away. It’s a perfectly reasonable goal to fly in and ski the same day. (Contrast that to the tedious San Francisco-to-Tahoe commute, which on snowy holiday weekends can run over 10 hours — if you’re able to make it at all.) Access between the mountains, gathered in bunches in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, is easy as well. Resorts’ proximity to each other means you can access a couple in a day, either directly on the hill, as in Alta-Snowbird, or through a backcountry interconnect tour across up to six resorts. In Tahoe, an “interconnect tour” will just have you sitting in traffic on Route 89. And Park City is one of the most fun ski towns in America, with great restaurants, shops, and, yes, bars — don’t believe the hype: you CAN drink in Utah. Yes, supermarkets can only sell 3.2 percent beer (4 percent by volume), but bars and restaurants can serve any strength of beer they want. Utah’s Wasatch Brewery has a half-dozen beers exceeding that limit, including its 8 percent “Devastator” Double Bock, and also its Polygamy Porter (Slogan: “Why have just one?”), while Park City’s own High West Distillery makes some whiskeys to keep you warm on a winter’s day.
Utah hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. You can still visit the bobsled track at the Olympic Park near Park City. (Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Olympics host: Utah hosted the phenomenally successful 2002 Olympic Games, with alpine ski events held at Snow Basin, Park City, and Deer Valley. You can still come and try out ski jumping and the bobsled track at the Olympic Park near Park City, which both recognizes the past in its two museums and trains new generations of U.S. Olympians for the future. Tahoe’s legacy from its 1960 games? A rickety skating rink at Squaw whose roof collapsed amid heavy snow and conspiracy theories.
Ted Ligety – seen here at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi – is but one world class skiier to come out of Utah. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Famous locals: Utah’s mountains have been home to a host of world-class skiers and snowboarders, including Ted Ligety, Jared Goldberg, Tanner Hall, Faye Gulini, and Kaitlyn Farrington, while local Westminster College alone provided 10 percent of the members of the 2014 U.S. winter Olympic team.
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