Lake Tahoe XC Ski & Snowshoe - San Francisco Chronicle
AT NORTH TAHOE'S NORDIC centers there are no boutique stores, no crowds, no chairlifts. Cross-country skiers cruise along groomed trails into places such as Anton Meadows above Tahoe City, where frost-rimed willows reach from the snow like wizard fingers, or to Tahoe Donner's Euer Valley, where the meadow sparkles weirdly, as though a million stars just fell from the sky.
Between the West Shore and Donner Summit there are seven track systems where skinny skis reign. Trails are machine groomed for three kinds of action: classic cross country, in which legs move scissors-like in a kick-and-glide motion as the skis slide in parallel groves or "tracks"; skate-skiing, which mimics in-line skating using Apolo Ohno - style strides to zoom along trails groomed 6 feet wide and velvety smooth; and snowshoeing, a sport so quickly catching fire that the Nordic centers have rebranded themselves "cross-country and snowshoe centers" to promote their new rental equipment and snowshoe-specific trails.
The Nordic centers have been expanding family and group activities in response to rising ticket sales. They offer new biathlon ranges, ski-and-read storytelling loops, moonlight and stargazing tours, easy citizen races, gourmet ski tours and trailside chef services.
While the centers' day lodges aren't glamorous, the sporty clothing trends defiantly un-couture, those aren't the Nordic skier's concern. Catching an adrenaline lift deep in Tahoe's forested terrain is.
Why now? The skiing is cheap. At North Tahoe's cross-country centers you can ski three days or more for the price of a downhill ticket. Day passes are $20-$30 for adults, some beginning lessons are free, Tahoe XC has $12 Tuesdays, and Northstar's cross-country season pass is only $99. Olympic trails at Sugar Pine Point State Park are free.
Backstory: The 1960 Olympics developed groomed trails in Sugar Pine Point State Park. A 1970s craze sparked no less than five new North Shore track systems. Tahoe XC trails evolved at that time, followed by Tahoe Donner (founded by Olympian Glenn Jobe) and Northstar-at-Tahoe.
Checking in: Granite fireplaces, knotty pine paneling, and cozy quilts give the private cabins at Tahoe City's Cottage Inn an Old Tahoe charm. The inn is 15 minutes from Tahoe XC, the Resort at Squaw Creek and Sugar Pine Point State Park.
Dining: Kick-start the morning at Fire Sign Cafe with homemade chocolate chip sour cream coffeecake, huevos rancheros or a smoked salmon omelet. The salsa, chorizo and pastries are homemade; salmon is smoked on site. For lunch, try Tahoe Donner's chunky veggie chili, Tahoe XC's Nordic-themed panini sandwiches, or a bowl of wild boar stew at the Northstar Ritz Carlton's Mountain Blue Market.
Have a private lunch cooked by a chef trailside on a snowmobile-pulled BBQ sled at Tahoe XC, try new biathlon ranges at Northstar and Tahoe XC, or join the kids on Tahoe Donner's new ski and read storybook loop.
Don't bother: Skiing the bike trail along the Truckee River between Tahoe City and Squaw Valley. Road grime tossed there by snowplows from SR 89 makes a sticky muck.
Don't miss: At Tahoe Donner, check out the "High Noon" trail aspen groves and the lookout on "Crabtree," or ski any other route in the Alps-like Euer Valley. At Northstar, glean lake views from "Tahoe Trail" and from the Swiss Hut warming hut on "Lumberjack Trail." At Tahoe XC, glide on out to "Red" and "Silver" trails to loop Anton Meadows and get a sunny panorama of Lake Tahoe.
Word to the wise: Wear synthetic clothing (not cotton!) that wicks moisture away from the skin and can be removed in layers when you heat up on the go.