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Smaller resorts may be the way to go for quality skiing

By: Jeffrey Weidel, Special to Gold Country Media
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Many skiers and snowboarders find themselves routinely heading to the more heralded Lake Tahoe resorts, rarely contemplating a visit to more modest locations. The preference seems to be – big names, big amenities, and don’t forget the big crowds. Today’s larger ski resorts offer high-speed lifts, on-mountain fine dining, slope-side condominiums, and retail space some strip malls would envy. While Heavenly, Squaw Valley and Northstar-at-Tahoe attract snow enthusiasts with sheer name recognition, and resorts like Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, Sugar Bowl and Sierra-at-Tahoe cash in on their reputation for “big is better” as well, smaller resorts can be the way to go, especially on busy weekends. Fortunately for the snow enthusiasts who frequent the Tahoe resorts, there are many choices. Quaint resorts that have retained their more homespun appeal reside in the North Tahoe region. Homewood Mountain Resort, Diamond Peak are two solid choices for a quieter experience, while Donner Ski Ranch and Tahoe Donner are wonderful family destinations that will appeal to beginners but also have a little something for advanced skiers and snowboarders. Here is a snapshot of the four smaller resorts: Diamond Peak: Reminiscent of a cozy neighborhood bar, this Incline Village resort is known for its small crowds, reasonable prices, casual learning center, and its gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe Built in 1966, Diamond Peak is a perfect fit for Incline Village, the first of several small towns along a stretch of Highway 28 that line Tahoe’s north shore. Unlike the more tourist-happy south shore, Incline Village possesses a more tranquil existence. Featuring six lifts and 30 trails, Diamond Peak has always been known as one of Lake Tahoe’s premiere family resorts. The big news this year is the lodge has been renovated. It is a multi-dimensional location, serving as a cafeteria, bar, sun deck, rental area, and of course, a meeting place. Homewood: No Tahoe resort has more impressive lakefront scenery. No wonder. Walk a mere 25 yards across Highway 89 from the Homewood parking lot and one can dip a toe (or a ski boot) in the waters of the chilly lake. The classic west shore views of Lake Tahoe are prevalent on many of Homewood’s 59 runs. There are eight lifts and 1,650 feet of vertical at Homewood, which features 35 percent advanced runs. Although most of the popular trails are meticulously groomed, there is an abundance of trees, which is why a powder day will attract a good number of locals. Speaking of powder days, Homewood can be the place to go on a stormy days as well. It has long been noted as Tahoe's best protected mountain against the wind. Tahoe Donner: Situated at perhaps the most obscure location of all Tahoe’s resorts, Donner definitely caters to families. It’s an ideal place to learn, featuring an unimposing hill, modest crowds and modest prices. Tahoe Donner is a cozy destination that has two lifts that access 14 trails. Although the base area is at 6,200 feet, the summit rises to 8,000 feet. The “Bowl” offers some nice intermediate terrain, while runs like Race Course and Skip’s Plunge will provide some challenge for advanced skiers. To reach Tahoe Donner, take the Donner State Park Exit off Interstate 80. Travel east and proceed to Northwoods Boulevard. Donner Ski Ranch: This is a resort with a long history, dating back to 1937 when the first rope tow was hauling skiers up its modest hill. The rope tow is long gone, replaced by six lifts that access 52 trails, but the same relaxing, carefree atmosphere remains. Situated off I-80’s Norden exit, the base elevation is 7,031 feet and the summit only rises to 7,781 feet, which means the runs are relatively short on the 460 acres that provides a variety of terrain for all abilities. There is rarely a day when the lift lines aren’t small and the slopes uncrowded at one of California’s last family owned and operated resorts. Jeffrey Weidel is a Sacramento free-lance writer with more than 25 years of skiing experience. Resort snapshot DIAMOND PEAK: North Tahoe resort features great lakeside views and typically small crowds. Location: Highway 431, five miles north of Incline Village Elevation: Base 6,700; Summit 8,540 Adult lift ticket: $49 Lifts: 6; Trails: 30 Phone: (775) 832-1177 Web site: diamondpeak.com Web site: dodgeridge.com DONNER SKI RANCH: This modest resort has long skiing tradition, dating back to 1937 when it featured a lone tow rope. Location: Interstate 80, Norden exit Elevation: Base 7,031; Summit 7,781 Adult lift ticket: $40 (weekends); $30 (midweek) Lifts: 6; Trails: 52 Phone: (530) 426-3635 Web site: donnerskiranch.com HOMEWOOD MOUNTAIN RESORT: Tough to beat its Lake Tahoe views, which are visible throughout the mountain. Lots of tree skiing. Location: Highway 89, six miles south of Tahoe City Elevation: Base 6,230; Summit 7,880 Adult lift ticket: $53 ($39, Monday thru Thursday) Lifts: 8; Trails: 59 Phone: (530) 525-2992 Web site: skihomewood.com TAHOE DONNER: Definitely a beginner-friendly resort. The mountain is small, but so are the crowds. Location: Highway 89, Northwoods Boulevard Elevation: Base 6,200; Summit 8,000 Adult lift ticket: $36 Lifts: 2; Trails: 14 Phone: (530) 587-9444 Web site: tahoedonner.com