El Cheapo's Guide to Northern California Snow
By Kathy Chin Leong

In December in the Bay Area, we still barbecue, lather on the sunscreen, and go shopping wearing shorts. But if you are hankering to experience what the rest of the country does during the winter, a five-hour or less drive going north, south, or east takes you into a scenic wonderland right out of the pages of a Dicken’s novel.

And here’s the good news: you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on excursions. We’ve unmined the most economical activities, from absolutely free to $25 per person. Now, there’s no reason to feel hestitant about taking the family on a snow outing because of cost.

The Village at Northstar , Truckee, is home to the popular Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort. In recent years, the property has undergone an major expansion project adding over 15 shops and restaurants and over 250 rooms to create a Nordic village atmosphere.  Of note is its new 9,000-square-foot outdoor ice skating rink open free to the public.  Ice skate rental costs only $5  per person, or families can bring up their own skates and make this a completely free activity. The rink is open daily from 12 to 8 p.m.

Other activities at the Village include the opportunity to roast s’mores around the firepits on the premises. Gourmet s’mores kits are sold for $15 each. Families that prepare in advance can bring their s’more ingridients from home.
Skiing parents who want to teach little Johnny how to handle the slopes are in luck.

Parents with lift tickets at Northstar  and their 3 or 4-year-old can sign up for the “Mommy, Daddy & Me” program. This is a free 45-minute lesson which instructs parents on how to teach their kids to ski using proper, safe, and encouraging techniques.

And every Tuesday in December, from 4-8 p.m., and daily from December 23 to 25,  the Village celebrates Noel Nights. For the public, that means free hot chocolate, free skate rental, caroling, live music, free wine tasting for adults, free photos with Santa. Phone: 530-562-1010; web site: www.NorthstarAtTahoe.com .


For outrageous fun, mark January 6 on your calendar and head on over to Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe for Elvis Day.  All day long the resort turns into what promoters call “a virtual sea of Elvi.”  Don’t be surprised if Elvis turns up to teach your ski lesson, issue lift tickets or fit skis.  It’s an unforgettable and rockin’ event. Although lift prices remain the same, visitors can come and enjoy seeing Elvi everywhere at no cost. According to marketing director Mike Pierce, “It’s mainly an employee-driven event, and you can’t help but crack up when you come here.” 

And later on Saturday, April 7th, visitors can enjoy more laughs during its annual Downhill Dummy day where participants launch homemade inanimate dummies on anything that can make it down a hill. Families who build their own dummy and sign up from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. in the main lodge can get up to four free ski lift tickets to be used that day. Launch time is at noon. According to Pierce, “It’s gotta be less than 200 pounds. People have tried to throw down cars.”   Click on www.mtrose.com for more info or call 775-849-0704.

History buffs can visit the free Olympic Heritage Museum at the top of the gondola ride.  At the property’s Headwall Café and Climbing Wall, kids and adults can go on unlimited number of climbs on the 30-foot wall for $16, which includes shoe rental.

At Squaw Valley USA there’s action around every corner. With a base village of more than 40 shops, a playground, bungee jump, snowtubing, and trampoline, there’s plenty to see and do. Grab a meal or snack at one of  over 50 eateries and go ice skating. Skating prices:  $25 adults, $21 teens, and $13 for 12 and unders which includes blades and gondola ride.  For the gondola ride alone, costs run $20 for adults, $16 for teens and seniors, $5 for kids 12 and under; and free for tots 3 and under.

Throughout December, the village celebrates its own Festival of Lights , and the buildings throughout Squaw are decked in tiny lights as carolers and Santa and his elves ski and stroll the premises. On Christmas Eve, the annual Squaw Valley Torchlight Parade has skiiers descend down the slopes carrying torches for a magnificent sight.  Look it all up at www.squaw.com or call 800-403-0206.

And by spring, from March 2 to 11, the North Lake Tahoe Snow Festival held throughout the north shore joyously parties with fireworks, a polar bear swim, snow sculpture contest and more. Click on www.TahoeSnowFestival.com to get a list of events or call 530-583-7167.


At the Kirkwood resort, on April 6 to 8, the Kirkwood Jammin’ XIV is Kirkwood's annual Spring Break Party. Designed to be great fun for the whole family, visitors can participate or simply watch snow volleyball and lots of zany kids' activities. For details and more information click on www.kirkwood.com or dial 209-258-7406.

Heavenly Valley is another one of the few resorts where you can take a gondola ride up to the top of the mountain just to enjoy the views. Costs run $24 per adult, $22 teens, and $15 for kids ages 5-12. Children four and under are free. Once at the peak, enjoy spectacular views of Lake Tahoe, eat at Café Blue, and try climbing the towering rock climbing wall. See www.skiheavenly.com for details or call 1-800-HEAVENLY.

 At the base of the gondola is the new Heavenly Village, similar to Village at Northstar or Squaw  This is a European-styled retail community of some 40 shops and eateries, an arcade, 8-theater cineplex, and an ice skating rink which costs $16 per adult and $12 per child including skate rental. See www.theshopsatheavenlyvillage.com or call 775-265-2087.

Over in Sierra-at-Tahoe , $20 per person brings you an entire day of snowshoeing. For those who need downhill thrills, that same $20 provides participants with a day of tubing. Call 530-659-7453 or log onto www.sierraattahoe.com .


Families that want to get away from the crowds during ski season will do well to drive to Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park which sets an entrance fee of a modest $10 per vehicle.  There, free snowplay abounds along with free snowshoeing guided hikes every Saturday at 1:30 p.m.. Yes, the park service will loan you snowshoes and request a $1 donation for equipment upkeep.
 According to public information officer Karen Haner, the program is open to anyone 8 years old and up, and the two-hour hikes can be strenuous. No baby backpacks or carriers are allowed.  “We do an introduction to snow shoeing, and these trips are a lot of fun,” she says. Participants should wear snow or rugged hiking boots, not tennis shoes.

Right outside the national park gates is the Eskimo Hill Recreation Area where kids can slip, slide, and saucer to their heart’s content. Call 530-595-4444 for more info.

In the same region, near Mt. Shasta Ski Resort, off Highway 89, Snowman’s Hill is a free climbing snow hill that will get your kids tired in a hurry. At no cost to users, the area is safe and offers plenty of room to build snowmen and make snow angels as well. Bring your toys!


The California Department of Parks and Recreation runs 21 official Sno-Park sites throughout the state. The cost is $5 per day and $25 for an entire season from November through May. Passes can be purchased at the listed vendors on the web site www.ohvparks.ca.gov .  Some locations such as Donner Lake Sno-Park offer cross country trails and others such as Hope Valley Sno-Park tout snowmobile runs. Phone 916-324-1222 for more info.
Overnight camping is not permitted, and many of the parks are near major ski resorts and plenty of lodging. At each of these sites, families can use their own equipment.

With a myriad of options available, there’s no excuse to miss out on a snow trip this season. The prices are right and the white stuff will last for months. So break out the ski suits, mittens, and scarves, and let’s make some snow angels!




[Back to Top]     [Back to Index]



Powered by WSI Inc. in partnership with Monte Gifford Design.