With more than $80 million in new lifts, lodges, and upgrades planned for Northstar and Squaw, will North Lake join the ski resort big leagues?
In 1928, little Granlibakken opened for an entire winter of skiing for the first time near what is now Tahoe City. Ever since, the swath of the Sierra Nevada known as North Lake Tahoe has been the Bay Area’s home in the snow. Even when I-80 is at its snow-flying, traffic-crawling worst, we heave a happy sigh the moment we crest Donner Summit and begin to descend into North Lake. Sure, the destination resorts of Colorado and Utah—polished, up-to-date, and user-friendly—have their appeal. But with its sunny days and big snowfalls, its easy-going Northern California style, and yes, its tony new Ritz-Carlton, we gladly motor up to North Lake to play.
Now, both Squaw Valley USA and Northstar California Resort are under well-funded new ownership. Each is moving boldly forward with improvements designed to transform North Lake’s most popular ski areas into competitive players among mountain resorts nationally (and even internationally). Between March and July, the two resorts announced a total of $80 million in near-term upgrades. In September, Squaw and Alpine Meadows merged under joint ownership. In October, Northstar announced the opening of new terrain and guided snowcat skiing. And that’s just the start. Here’s what the changes at Squaw, Northstar, and Alpine mean for the Bay Area’s favorite winter destination—and what you can expect to find next time you finesse the I-80 drive.
In the 1940s, Hollywood stars vacationed on skis at both Sugar Bowl and the old Sky Tavern (overlooking Reno)—and the nation took note. In 1960, global attention turned to Squaw, host of the VIII Olympic Winter Games. Otherwise, North Lake in winter has remained primarily a destination of regional appeal. “California skiing is awesome,” says Bill Rock, Northstar’s new chief operating officer. “People in San Francisco know that. People in New York don’t.”
Ski tourism experts tally an equation of reasons for this, not least of which is Colorado’s long-standing successful brand identification with skiing, along with the resulting widespread idealization of Colorado’s weather and snow quality as North America’s best. Further challenges include North Lake’s lack of a single primary resort center, California’s long tradition of drive-to day skiing, the difficulty of marketing a destination that overlaps two states, the further marketing challenge of distinguishing North Lake from South Lake (so very different in flavor yet possessing a far larger guest-bed base), and increasingly sophisticated competition for the winter vacationer’s leisure dollar.
Even those who already frequent Tahoe have come to expect 21st-century standards on their ski vacations—standards North Lake’s destination resorts have not always been able to meet. Think upmarket yet affordable slope-side lodgings, seamless transitions from parking to slopes, high-speed lifts, easy skier circulation no matter the volume of users, great slope grooming, teen-dazzling terrain parks, delicious (even gourmet, vegan, low-carb, locavore, and affordable) lunchtime cafeteria food, stylish après-ski bars, epicurean nighttime dining, and start-to-finish family-friendly logistical ease. It’s an equation that requires a steady stream of vacationers to finance—steadier than provided by regional “rubber tire” skiers and boarders (who drive up primarily on weekends and holidays).
Enter Vail Resorts and KSL Capital Partners. What they see in North Lake is unrealized economic and tourism potential. They’re not the first, but together they possess the vision, financing, staffing, and savvy that could take North Lake into the resort big leagues.
Vail’s New Star
Vail Resorts (which owns Colorado’s Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone; and California/Nevada’s Heavenly) acquired Northstar in October 2010. Vail Resorts sees the mountain as an exciting and balanced addition to its other resorts, says COO Rock, not as “a fixer-upper.”
Since 2004, Northstar’s previous ownership group invested more than $1 billion in improvements. Call it Northstar 1.0. The redevelopment included the Village at Northstar ($500 million), the exceptional Ritz-Carlton ($400 million), and various on-mountain improvements ($50 million). Today’s Northstar—known for both friendliness and smart service—has appeal for value-oriented groups and families, as well as for those in search of an upmarket, boutique-style destination experience. “All the elements are in place,” says Rock. “We’re just going to take it to the next level. But we’re not going to nibble at the edges. We will take a huge step forward.”
Northstar 2.0 leapt forward in summer 2011 with $30 million in on-mountain improvements. Most significant is the all-new Zephyr Lodge, a large mountaintop day lodge and eatery. The lodge features seats for 700 (500 inside), glide-up access from several lifts, and big Sierra views. Future plans include new lifts, and further expansion into Northstar’s undeveloped terrain.
Perhaps the best news for Northstar’s existing fans is that Vail Resorts is the industry leader in smart customer service, from small touches (easy-to-follow on-mountain signage, speed zones that actually slow everyone down, and clearly marked vegetarian and gluten-free options in all cafeterias) to large ones (lift alignment that enables easy and natural flow from slopes to lifts and back again).
For North Lake’s businesses and investors, perhaps the better news is that Vail Resorts, with its global reach, will attract vacationers who never considered skiing North Lake before—people, in fact, who may not even know where it sits on a map.
Squaw’s New Start
KSL Capital Partners, a Colorado-based firm with broad leisure and travel holdings, acquired all of Squaw Valley USA in November 2010. The plan? Spend $50 million on improvements in the first five years, both benefiting the Squaw faithful and attracting a new audience. Earmarked upgrades include removal of outdated lifts, installation of high-speed lifts in smart new alignments, and dramatically improved food.
“We are dedicated to creating an approachable and friendly experience for our guests of every ability level,” says Andy Wirth, Squaw Valley’s president and chief executive officer. “I’m talking about true experience-wide service enhancements. It’s an overhaul.”
For destination skiers, it’s an overhaul that’s long overdue. Experts always have loved the mountain’s terrain, and many visitors are captivated by Squaw Valley’s majestic beauty. But others have been put off by the resort’s quirks. Simple considerations—such as steps instead of slippery snow banks from the Village or KT Sundeck to the foot of the lifts—have been overlooked. Improvements of recent years (like the stylish renovation of the Gold Coast cafeteria and bar) made a good start but did not go far enough. In other words, skiing Squaw hasn’t been harder just because of its exceptional expert terrain.
Industry pundits long have said that if Squaw delivered the customer-focused experience of a place like Beaver Creek (or the new Northstar), it would compete with the best resorts in the world. Squaw’s new owners agree, and their vision is polished and bold.
They began by hiring members of the customer service–oriented team that transformed Northstar over the past decade. They retained top consulting talents, like the mountain-planning engineers from Utah’s SE Group (Deer Valley, Jackson Hole, and Telluride) and dining experience designers from Chicago-based Levy Restaurants (known for Windy City icons like Cafe Spiaggia, distinctive large-venue eateries like those at L.A.’s Staples Center, and hip creations like Mammoth Mountain’s mobile “snowcat kitchens”).
And then, Squaw’s new owners dove right in. The $15 million invested over summer 2011 fixes Squaw’s most egregious and readily reparable problems. The additional $35 million slated for improvements from 2012 to 2015 will bring new lifts for both novices and experts, improved mountain access during storm days, and a rebirth of the High Camp facility. For locals and visitors alike, this means a much more user-friendly Squaw experience—starting now.
Alpine Meadows and Beyond
KSL’s vision for North Lake Tahoe doesn’t stop at the boundaries of Squaw. In September, after decades of regional speculation and dreaming, Squaw formed a corporate merger with Alpine Meadows. The new Squaw Valley Ski Holdings will operate both ski areas.
It’s too early in the merger process for Alpine’s new management to know the details of its future upgrades, but it does know that the goals and processes of the mountain’s renaissance will be similar to those at Squaw: Honor Alpine Meadows’ distinctive history, culture, and character. Build on what already works well. Transform what does not. The first thing likely to be tackled is the Hot Wheels lift, which is sorely in need of an upgrade. But a larger question is whether Alpine and Squaw will ever physically meet.
For now, Alpine and Squaw will continue to operate as separate entities under a single lift ticket, and will be connected by a frequent shuttle service. But the two mountains are separated only by one ridgeline: a privately owned piece of property dubbed White Wolf.
White Wolf is owned by a Tahoe local named Troy Caldwell. Caldwell receives lease payments from Squaw, whose KT Express chairlift’s upper station is located on White Wolf’s land. In recent years, Caldwell installed lift towers up White Wolf—a skier’s field of dreams—but he has yet to complete the installation with a drive station, cables, or chairs. Now, with Squaw and Alpine under one ownership, many speculate that making some sort of deal with Caldwell is only a matter of time.
In fact, connecting Squaw, White Wolf, and Alpine would create the largest contiguous ski area in the United States—larger than Vail Mountain (currently at 5,289 skiable acres). An Alpine-Wolf-Squaw resort would deliver stunning lake views, superb skiing in all weather for literally all levels of skiers, the simpatico style of Northern California, and—if Tahoe’s new investors are successful—the service and quality of Utah and Colorado’s best.
The Squaw-Alpine merger, explains Wirth, is part of a new way of looking at North Lake. While some of North Lake’s marketing consortiums long have sought to brand it as a single destination, its mountain resorts nevertheless have functioned as competitors. When one resort’s percentage of regional business rose, another’s generally declined.
And many regulars have viewed the North Lake mountains as rivals. Alpine Meadows devotees have tended to be anti-Squaw. Squaw people have sneered at Northstar. Early adopters of Northstar 1.0 marveled that Squaw did not treat its customers even a fraction as thoughtfully as Northstar did and felt they had made a smarter choice.
Now, Vail Resorts and Squaw Valley Ski Holdings intend to try to work together. “Raising the water will lift all the boats,” says one Northstar executive. “What’s good for the health of North Lake’s tourism is good for all of us,” says one from Squaw. In other words, while the notion of stealing business from each other may persist, the new vision is to improve business for the entire North Lake region.
While the big field of dreams waits, Squaw’s owners are focused on other innovations that may lift the region’s economy, such as implementing a new state-of-the-art central reservation system that enables users to book lodgings anywhere within 20 minutes of Squaw and Alpine, and working with Reno Airport and its allied airlines to increase access from a number of hubs. Other regional players also are focused on buffing North Lake. For example, $40 million in infrastructure improvements being made in Kings Beach over the next three years should alleviate traffic, improve pedestrian walkability, increase lake water clarity, and give better scenic views.
But perhaps best of all for longtime Bay Area fans, Squaw’s management has been meeting with Caltrans. Goal one: improve the timeliness and accuracy of road information for regional travelers (information that also will be disseminated via Squaw’s new real-time communications network). Goal two: improve access to North Lake during big storms with better maintenance and more strategic deployment of Caltrans equipment. “For a state agency in a state that is in near fiscal emergency, it has been incredibly responsive,” Wirth says. All of which should make it not only more appealing but easier to get to our favorite place in the snow.
Freelance writer Susan Reifer’s work has appeared in SKI and Outside magazines. She lives in California and British Columbia.
New at Squaw
» Squaw Valley USA and adjacent Alpine Meadows have merged under single ownership. One lift pass accesses both ski areas and frequent shuttle service connects them.
» A full makeover of the KT Base Bar, with fire pits, cabanas, and an indoor/outdoor bar.
» A new mountain information system with real-time lift status updates, including lift opening times on powder days.
» Transformed terrain parks, with more and better boxes, rails, jumps, and hits.
» Naming, grading, and clear signage of trails, plus a new mountain trail map and daily grooming maps.
» Further face-lifts to Gold Coast, with a ski-up coffee shop, a new market and café, and a doubling of restroom capacity.
» The launch of Rocker@Squaw, a cool Squaw-themed lunch, après-ski, dinner, and late night spot, serving upscale comfort food.
» A new look and menu at Bar One, with a chef’s harvest table and wine and chocolate tastings.
» A bright and open day lodge on the base level of the Olympic House.
» A remodeled Squaw Kids facility.
» Three new magic carpets, plus special terrain features, at the Snowsports School.
» A new central sales center for lift tickets, lessons, and rentals.
» Lodging upgrades that include flat screens, sound machines, and humidifiers at the Village at Squaw.
New at Northstar
» Zephyr Lodge, a new mountaintop day lodge and eatery.
» Promised Land Express, a new high-speed quad chairlift on Northstar’s Backside.
» Also on the Backside, two new intermediate “blue square” trails and additional snowmaking.
» 170 acres of newly opened “side country” terrain on Lookout Mountain (next to the Prosser Trail) and in Sawmill Glade (next to Logger’s Loop Trail, off the Vista Express chair).
» Guided tours of the new acreage as well as in the Sawtooth Ridge and White Rabbit areas.
» Snowcat skiing on Sawtooth Ridge.
» A 22-foot half-pipe designed by two-time snowboard Olympic Gold Medalist Shaun White, who will make Northstar his home base for training throughout the 2011–2012 season.
Talking Squaw: Julia Mancuso
Nobody knows Squaw and the Tahoe ski scene better than three-time Olympic champ Julia Mancuso. We caught up with the globe-trotting skier to get her thoughts on the big plans for her home mountain, as well as the scoop on her North Shore faves.
There’s a lot of big news at Squaw right now, with millions of dollars of improvements and a huge merger with Alpine Meadows. What do you think of all this?
It’s pretty sweet to make such a big resort. Theoretically, now you can ski all the way to the West Shore of Lake Tahoe: That’s pretty amazing. I always like the possibility of adventure. I love my home mountain, Squaw Valley, but it’s nice to see progression.
Tell us about your perfect winter day.
I would wake up nice and early to catch the first tracks, only stopping for cookies, cinnamon rolls, and the best turkey sandwich at the cookie shop. After the perfect sunny day of skiing, I would head back to Le Chamois and enjoy après-ski with all the locals.
Even without Alpine, Squaw is a lot of mountain. What’s your fave place to ski at Squaw?
The whole mountain is great, but one cool thing is you can almost ski all day on KT-22 and never ski the same run twice. The terrain’s great, and you can reach everything by chairlift. You get spoiled not having to hike to runs.
Talk about some runs you like—and which ones are best in which conditions.
Any day when there’s fresh snow: KT. I really like Red Dog Ridge in the trees. … When it’s groomed, early in the morning, Cornice. … And then going back to Shirley Lake and cruising on the family runs is fun.
Obviously you’re a Squaw Valley girl, but do you ski any other North Lake resorts?
I skied over at Northstar for a day last year. They’re having a little more influence like Colorado; it’s not really like Tahoe, with the Ritz, the fancy hotel, and everything. The skiing’s not as advanced. [But] they have some new terrain they’ve opened that’s pretty good.
Where’s the best hot tub in Tahoe?
When High Camp’s open, they have the pool and the hot tub. You can hang out with your friends up there, and then you can ski down.
OK, so I have to ask: Have you ever gone down a run in a bikini?
I don’t think I have—not fully. Maybe in a top. It’s the California way. Everybody’s gotta try it at least once.
Are there things North Lake doesn’t have that you wish it did?
The part that’s unique is that it’s sleepy. It’d be nice to see a little more creativity, parties, but I see cities all over the world, and it’s nice to come home and have it be a little quieter. I’m a pretty mellow person.
Aside from it being home, what is North Lake’s biggest strength as a destination?
I think the beauty of it. I grew up here, and it still blows me away. It’s so fun in the summer to hike up the canyons and see wildflowers. And all year, the lake is what makes it so great. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as Lake Tahoe.
—Justin Goldman and Serena Renner