THE HAPPY WANDERER: SIERRA SKIING


Celebrating Spring – in the Snow!

By Ginny Prior

Contra Costa Times


The music pulsates. Bikini-clad women sun themselves on the sprawling decks. A guy in a moose hat chugs a beer as his buddy takes a mongo bite of his barbecued burger. It’s mid-March, and the party scene sizzles at Sierra ski resorts, where they ring in spring with their own mix of sunshine, snow and silliness.

With plenty of white stuff to last through April, folks get a little giddy this time of year. The sun warms, the snow softens, and moods seem to lighten as skiers don silly sunglasses, crazy hats and everything from swim wear to lederhosen. The people-watching is primo.

So, too, are the myriad events that resorts come up with to celebrate spring. One of my favorites is the annual Mount Rose Dummy Downhill, a race you can watch from the lodge where dummies fly down the mountain at break-neck speeds. I’m not talking humans here, but stuffed dolls and mannequins. Anything without a pulse.

At Heavenly, it’s just the opposite. Real people with really loud screams are streaking through the air on the longest zip line in the continental United States, called the Heavenly Flyer. Think 80 seconds of stomach-in-your-throat fun, dropping the distance of the Space Needle at 50 mph. It’s a wild way to see one of the world’s most scenic views — if you can keep your eyes open.

Or not.

A decidedly more civilized way to ring in spring is with wine glass in hand — toasting the sunset at Tahoe’s Diamond Peak Resort. On Saturday afternoons through the end of the ski season, Last Tracks lets skiers ride the lift to the mid-mountain Snowflake Lodge, where featured wines and cheese are served in a stunning mountain setting. The best part is the trip down, on freshly groomed “corduroy” that the snow plows have been making while you’ve been enjoying your nibbles and sips.

One of the premier party resorts since its recent expansion is Northstar at Tahoe. With a new European-style village at its base, Northstar has fire pits and drink stations set up all around the center’s crown jewel — the ice rink. Comfy sofas and chairs invite Après skiers to sit and soak up the scene on a sunny spring day or a cool, starry night.

Easter is a colorful day at Sierra ski areas, with traditional egg hunts, mountain-top church services and other special events. The bunny makes his rounds, too, popping in at every resort before soaking his rabbit’s feet in Epsom salts at sunset. One of the best egg hunts is at Squaw Valley, where 1,000 eggs are hidden on and around the mountain. Parents who don’t want to participate can soak in the High Camp Swimming Lagoon & Spa while their kids round up the oblong treasures.

Spring is one of the best times for another kind of skiing — cross country. As the snow glistens like diamonds in the filtered light, wildflowers poke shyly through patches of white in the sun-splashed meadows. The acres of pristine forest and track seem to go on forever at Royal Gorge, indeed the largest cross country ski resort in North America. On a recent day here, (just 21/2 hours east on Interstate 80) a friend and I worked up such an appetite that we found ourselves stopping at the Reindeer Bar in the Ice Lakes Lodge. Sound romantic? I fell in love almost immediately. With the food.

The tri-tip was tender and juicy and served on a toasted baguette with fried onions, melted provolone and spicy horseradish sauce. The French onion soup was a savory blend of sweet onions, port wine and imported Gruyere, served with freshly baked sourdough bread. The Pinot Noir was a perfect compliment and warmed my tummy for the trip back to the main lodge.

If you thought ski resorts served only French fries and pub food, you haven’t been to Royal Gorge. Much like the solitude of their cross country trails, a well-prepared meal has a lot of appeal for the older, more sophisticated skier. It’s another reason why more and more boomers are switching to cross country skiing. And while you probably won’t see moose hats and bikini tops, my bet is you’ll have just as much fun.

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