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Winter in Placer County can be a little wild—in the best way possible. As a North Tahoe local, I’ve skied the resort in the morning, taken an art class in the afternoon, caught up with friends over après, and then spent the evening dancing to live music. There’s something for everyone, whether you like to fill your days outside from start to finish or prefer focusing on just one aspect of winter with some downtime.
Stretching from just north of Sacramento to the shores of Lake Tahoe, Placer County features some of the most beautifully diverse terrain I’ve seen in Northern California. The Sierra slopes are somehow more beautiful when covered in snow, après in the mountains is festive and fun, and the culinary comforts of the foothills can’t be beat. But what makes it the best place for a winter escape of any kind is how easy it is to get to. Sitting just 132 miles northwest of San Francisco, and 100 miles west of Reno, it’s the ideal base camp for a winter weekend getaway.
Whether you like speeding down the mountain on skies, cozying up in front of a fire, or sampling world-class meals, you’ll find it here. Ready for some fun this winter? Here are six reasons why a trip to Placer County is just what you need.
Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Northstar, Sugar Bowl, Homewood… the sheer number of downhill ski areas in Placer County is staggering. Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro, there’s a resort for every kind of skier or snowboarder in the Tahoe area. And while they are located close to one another, there are plenty of differences between them.
Big resorts like Squaw Valley and Northstar are home to large villages full of restaurants, shops, and music, meaning that you don’t have to sacrifice creature comforts in the mountains and that there is always a hot cup of cocoa waiting for you at the end of the run. I love the family-friendly vibe at Northstar, and I have spent hours teaching local kids to ski there. It’s also where I spent enough hours on skis to truly push myself as an intermediate skier. Although known for beginner-friendly groomers, Northstar also boasts an epic terrain park and plenty of long black diamond runs through trees.
Once I developed the chops to step it up on advanced terrain, however, I couldn’t resist the pull of the area’s most iconic resort, Squaw Alpine. Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and merged with its neighbor Alpine Meadows several years ago to cater to the power hounds and aggressive skiers who wanted access to the best of both resorts. Here, it’s common to see expert skiers and riders cliff jumping, straight lining through groves of trees, and riding down steep, open bowls. The terrain of Squaw Alpine is legendary and draws the best skiers in the world to its slopes. On any given day when the snow is good, I have spotted local pros like Jeremy Jones, Cody Townsend, Elyse Saugstad, Connery Lundin, and Michelle Parker ripping up the slopes right alongside locals. One of my favorite things about being a season-pass holder at Squaw Alpine is the fact that it draws in so many people who consider skiing or riding their passion. It’s a resort with a culture, and the collective stoke is infectious from the moment I pull into the parking lot.
Independently owned, Sugar Bowl offers a slower pace and less of a village scene. Squaw, Alpine, and Sugar Bowl are known for their more challenging terrain whereas Northstar caters more toward families and beginners and is known for their terrain park.
Deciding on the kind of lodging that appeals most to you will also help you choose what resort to visit. Looking to stay in the Auburn area and go wine tasting while you’re there? Sugar Bowl is the first resort off Highway 80. Want to be in the thick of it? Head to Northstar or Squaw Valley.
From the glittering shores of Lake Tahoe to the snow-studded peaks of Donner Summit, Placer County is a winter wonderland for those who like to leave the resorts behind and seek out the solace of snowy white trails. Backcountry skiing and riding is one of the fastest growing outdoor sports in the nation, and while it takes an upfront investment in gear and education, strapping on a pair of backcountry skis and taking an American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education course was a game changer for me. My favorite thing about backcountry skiing is seeing my favorite landscape covered in a silent, snowy blanket and setting a fresh skin track into the mountains.
Tahoe is also one of the most easily accessible places for backcountry winter recreation in the county. Cross-country skiers love Royal Gorge, the largest cross-country ski area in North America, which is known for its well maintained—and seemingly endless—trails. You’ll also find more than 65 kilometers of trails (groomed daily) at Tahoe XC in Tahoe City. The 21 trails feature extraordinary views of Lake Tahoe, and the three warming huts with hot chocolate and tea offer a nice break along the way.
There’s also plenty of more advanced terrain on Donner Summit and in and around Tahoe City for backcountry skiers who have the necessary avalanche education and safety equipment.
Just because you don’t ski doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the snow. At the Kingvale Tubing and Sledding Center, you can enjoy gliding down the hill without taking lessons. Located just off of I-80 in Soda Springs, it’s an excellent option for families. The Tahoe City Winter Sports Park also offers sledding, plus an ice skating rink. If you want to explore under a little more power, give snowmobiling a try. At High Sierra Snowmobiling, rent a snowmobile and ride a trail on the Old Brockway Golf Course in Kings Beach or take a ride with Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Tours to get a backcountry adventure that you’ll never forget.
From from B&Bs to hotels, there are tons of options for accommodations in Placer County. But if you’re looking for something high-end, check out the luxury condos at Squaw Valley or Northstar. Complete with fireplaces, gourmet kitchens, and wonderful amenities, these ski areas have it all. After some time on the slopes, indulge in a spa treatment or yoga class to relax your body.
Almost all yoga studios in Tahoe (and there are quite a lot to choose from) offer a different approach to après skiing. Wanderlust Yoga Studio in the Squaw Valley village, for example, features a class called Après-Ski Flow in the late afternoon several times a week, and I love to head there right after clicking out of my ski boots to ease my muscles after a day spent on the slopes. Afterward, simply sipping a cup of hot cocoa in front of a bonfire is one of my favorite ways to end the day.
The River Ranch Lodge, located along Highway 89 at the base of Alpine Meadows Ski Resort and along the Truckee River, is a classic Lake Tahoe retreat, offering 19 boutique rooms and a restaurant/bar that is open to the public. It’s been around since 1888 and despite its rustic vibe is very luxurious and located in one of the most convenient locations out of any hotel or condo in North Lake Tahoe.
Large, fancy resorts are wonderful, but might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you love taking a step back in time with a stay in a nostalgic lodge, Placer County is hard to beat. The Granlibakken in Tahoe City is about a century old, and room options include bedrooms, studios, suites, and one to eight bedroom townhouses, making it one of the more upscale historic lodging options while packing in the rustic charm. It’s a place where I’ve gathered around a fire with friends old and new to swap stories about our days on the slopes or trekking through the woods. It’s set back just a bit from town, allowing visitors to feel like they are fully immersed in an old-time retreat.
Those who don’t mind more rustic accommodations will get a kick out of the historic Clair Tappaan Lodge, located on Donner Summit off Old Highway 40/Donner Pass Road. Built by Sierra Club volunteers in the 1930s, the lodge is still owned and operated by the Sierra Club and features dorm-style accommodations that are open to the public. Guests can book a bed in the men’s or women’s dormitories or book a private bunk room for families. Meals are served family-style on white and red checkered tablecloths, and if you catch the steward of the property who oversees the needs of all guests in between tasks, he’ll give you a guided tour of the historic photos hung up around the lodge and even pull out a slideshow presentation after dinner, as well. When I visited Clair Tappaan, I thought that the rustic bunks, friendly staff, and cozy atmosphere allowed for a kind of vacation that’s all but nonexistent in today’s modern world. It’s a true escape.
And if you spend any time in Tahoe City at all, visit the century-old Fanny Bridge. Named due to all the fannies you can see from the road as people bend over to gaze at the beautiful blue water of Lake Tahoe, it’s also a great place to watch the sun go down or the Canada geese swim in the water below. The bridge is a great spot to check out the Tahoe Dam, completed in 1913, and you can see original pictures of its construction displayed on the bridge. Next to the bridge is the Gatekeeper’s Museum, a reconstruction of the original 1909 cabin where the people who operated the dam once lived.
With its location just below the snowline, the town of Auburn is easily accessible in the winter and offers a wide range of food and drink to help make a weekend getaway special. It’s the center of arts and culture in the region—and home to a number of breweries, wineries, and farm-to-fork restaurants. No matter how you like to spend your days in the snow, Auburn is ready to help you unwind in the evening.
The Placer Ale Trail features a dozen unique craft breweries to visit and sample, including the Auburn Ale House, Crooked Lane Brewing Company, Knee Deep Brewing Company, and Moonraker Brewing Company, all in Auburn. For those who enjoy wine, the Placer Wine Trail features 20 wineries in the region that is increasingly being recognized for its growth. Located in the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area, the wineries are mostly family owned and operated, and they offer a different feel than the big commercial vineyards in larger wine regions. Here it’s a personal and unique experience where you can get to know the winemakers, especially during the winter months.
Dining options abound, including wine-centered restaurants like Carpe Vino and other local eateries such as Tin Lantern Bar and Grill, Tap & Vine and Joe Caribé’s Caribbean Bistro & Cafe. For entertainment, check out the Auburn Symphony, or the Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center, featuring live music and theater. The Auburn Old Town Gallery is the place to see the work of local artists.
Located right off the freeway, Ikeda’s is an iconic stop for travelers making their way to Tahoe. It started as a fruit stand—and is a perfect place to pick up locally grown produce—but over the years Ikeda’s has grown into much more. It offers hot, fresh pies (both savory and sweet), a burger joint, and incredible homemade dips and salsas that you can sample before buying. Even if you’re just passing through, it’s worth a stop.
Written by Jill Sanford for RootsRated Media in partnership with Placer County.
Featured image provided by U.S. Department of Agriculture