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Your Guide to the Ultimate Winter Weekend in Lake Tahoe, Skis Optional

GQ logo GQ 1/31/2018 Jensen Power

a group of people sitting on a bench in front of a building: Basecamp

Basecamp
© GQ

If you’re looking to book a wintery weekend away, California probably isn’t the first destination that springs to mind. Maybe you’ve categorized the West Coast as a place for suntan seekers and people who want to Instagram palm trees, not serious shredders looking to hit the pow. But one of the Golden State’s finest gems is Lake Tahoe, which becomes a sprawling snowy playground in the winter months.

Straddling the Nevada border, Lake Tahoe is nestled into the High Sierras, offering visitors a pretty wild view of tall, rugged mountains alongside a lake as piercing and blue as Ryan Gosling’s eyes. With its highest peak hovering around 10,000 feet, you won’t get Colorado’s altitudeson the slopes of Tahoe, but you will find milder temperatures, frequent blue sky days, and some of the best powder in the United States.

If you or your significant other/buddies/family/kids aren’t super into snow sports, Tahoe remains an excellent wintertime destination thanks to its food scene, its wide range of non-vertigo-inducing activities, and its Vegas-adjacent nightlife. The lake’s north side is known for its quiet shore, family friendly slopes, and low key, hip vibe; the south side, with the flashing lights of casinos and newly renovated boutique motels, is a weekender’s paradise. It would be difficult to see the best of both sides in one weekend, but it’s impossible. No doubt the lake will leave you wanting to return to its Gosling-blue waters, whatever your agenda.

Where to Shred

Whether you’re looking to hit some double black diamonds or just lay in an inflated tube while it slides down the gentle slope of a snow-covered mountain, you’ll want to start your day with some sort of activity. If you are staying in South Lake Tahoe, that will mean going to Heavenly ski resort. Ride the gondola up from the village, even if just for the spectacular views of the lake. (For those who prefer to simply après-ski, the gondola will take you directly to a lodge, where you can cozy in with a drink, if you please.) Heavenly offers dual-state skiing, one side of the mountain in Nevada, the other in California. It also has a stunning view of the lake that other resorts do not. On certain runs, it seems as if you could ski or board straight into the impossibly blue water.

Kirkwood ski resort lies 45 minutes south of South Lake Tahoe. Locals will tell you that the runs are better at Kirkwood than they are at Heavenly—the former is more advanced and less crowded. But what you gain in vertical feet and challenging terrain you lose in village amenities. Kirkwood prides itself on being secluded, a resort dedicated to the most intense and devoted skiers and snowboarders. And while there are a handful of places to stay at the base of the resort, choices are slim.

On the north side of the lake is Northstar, whose diverse terrain is more family friendly. In addition to downhill skiing and snowboarding, the mountain offers opportunities for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and tubing. Kids can sign up for ski school classes. Two large areas on the mountain are dubbed “kids adventure zones,” and feature intermediate ski runs, terrain parks, and fun, historical facts about the area. At the base of the mountain, Northstar Village houses a skating rink, bungee trampoline, yoga studios, and a variety of shops. If you're in the mood for more of a fun park and less of a speed race, this is your spot.

For a day off the mountain, head to the north side of the lake and explore the historic logging town of Truckee, which also happens to be where the Donner party got stranded. Donner Memorial State Park, which sits just outside of Truckee, offers visitors insight into the expedition, and is most impactful during the winter months when you really get a sense for how damn cold those poor people were. If you’re not into morbid tourism, the quaint and relatively hip town is home to a handful of breweries and wineries, restaurants, bars, and locally owned shops.

Where to Eat

If you're in Tahoe City, you'll want to start your day with a breakfast burrito from the Dam Café—it's just the thing to prepare you for a few runs. (You know, before you have that midday bloody mary.) After a day of runs at Heavenly, you’ll be wanting to eat, and if you want to eat, your best bet is Basecamp Pizza. There will be a wait, but it’s well worth it; put your name in, then head over to Stateline Brewery for a local beer or two before heading back for a slice or four and maybe a shotski with your pals. Check out the super-popular Base Camp pizza, loaded up with pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions, and mushrooms.

If you’re looking for something a little less casual and a little more romantic, South Lake’s Cafe Fiore offers Italian food in the area’s coziest setting, an alpine cabin tucked into a residential area away from the main drag. The dishes are refined and delicious without being too froo-froo for a post-ski meal, and the wine list is long enough to make every sort of drinker happy. The space is small—just seven tables—so make a reservation if you want to check it out.

A Truckee staple, Moody’s Bistro is one of those craft cocktail, farm-to-table, moody music delights, beloved by tourists and locals alike. Though the vibe is slightly old school, there’s nothing old fashioned about the food, which is fresh, seasonal, and always on point.

If you’re really just looking for a burger after your day on the slopes, the locals will send you to Char-Pit in King Beach on the north side of the lake. What started as a walk-up hamburger joint in the ‘60s is now a sit-down spot that accommodates year-round crowds. Though your meal will likely be cramped and loud, it will also be affordable, generously portioned, and well worth any long lines or discomfort you might experience.

Where to Sleep

South Lake Tahoe has seen a rash of boutique hotels pop up over the last few years. Many of them are converted motels, onetime crashing sites for transient ski bums that are now friendly, hip spaces with easy access to the mountain. (Think the Ace hotel, but with animal pelts and wood paneling.) One such hotel is Basecamp, which also has a location in Tahoe City. In addition to their affordable, cabin-chic rooms (some of which come with actual bunk beds that can accomodate a whole family or a budget-conscious group of buddies), Basecamp is big on communal amenities such as hot tubs, fire pits (you can purchase s’more kits at the front desk), and a beer garden. The hotel restaurant serves up meals family style, with guests seated at long dining tables under twinkle lights. Walking distance from the Heavenly gondola, the hotel is a perfect, well, base camp for travelers in town for a weekend on the slopes.

The new-ish Coachman Hotel competes with Basecamp in price, amenities, location, and Instagram-worthiness, though perhaps skews a bit more to the romantic side than its family-friendly alternative. End the ski day with a glass of wine, snuggled under a Pendleton blanket by the patio fire pit.

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