Firsthand Report: Alpine Meadows — Once Is Not Enough
By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist
January 31, 2013 — I skied Alpine Meadows, California ski area for the first time ever on a beautiful, sunny day with excellent snow conditions in early January, 2013. I was accompanied by my 22-year old son Vince. We had driven to the ski area after spending the night about ten miles away in a little lakeside motel in Carnelian Bay. There are a fistful of fine ski areas in relatively close proximity in this picturesque region surrounding North Lake Tahoe.
Geographically, Alpine Meadows is a stone’s throw from its big brother Squaw Valley (the actual distance between ski area boundary lines is about a mile). The two resorts were rivals for many years, but in 2011 a company named KSL Capitol Partners LLC took controlling interest in both ski areas. They are now sometimes light heartedly referred to as Squalpine. KSL sells a Tahoe Super Pass (season pass) that covers both resorts totaling approximately 6000 skiable acres. Just for good measure the pass also includes Sierra at Tahoe ski area near the south end of Lake Tahoe.
When Vince and I hit Alpine Meadows (base elevation 6,835 feet) I must confess we were tired. We were both battling colds and it was our sixth straight day of fairly active skiing with 1,000 miles of snow country driving mixed-in. We spent our time at Alpine Meadows mostly in the groomer zoomer mode enjoying beautiful slopes under a clear, windless sky. The morning temperature started in the low teens and the day time high probably never climbed out of the 20s, but it felt a lot milder and the pleasant weather was like a balm for weary ski travelers.
We spent our first couple of hours on the sun drenched south side of the terrain layout. We rode the Hot Wheel and Scott triple chairs to access a trail pod of pretty groomers served by the Lakeview Triple Chair on the backside of Scott Peak (elevation 8,289 feet). Later we migrated over to a mostly wide open mountainside adjacent to the Sherwood Express Quad. We tested the off piste conditions in a more challenging treeless bowl here called the South Face, but mostly cruised the fine array of sweet groomed runs nearby. At one point on the blue square Sherwood Run I told Vince that if at age 80 I was still around and still able to ski this gorgeous, guilty pleasure type of terrain I’d be a very happy old man.
Eventually as the sun rose we returned to the main front side of the ski area and took the Summit Express Six Passenger Chair up Ward Peak (elevation 8,637 feet) to access two huge and very skier friendly bowls, Alpine to the looker’s left and Wolverine to the right. These bowls constitute the signature lift served terrain at Alpine Meadows and each had a slice of slope that was groomed to perfection from top to bottom. They also offered plenty of moguls, cliff drops, and scattered pockets of skiable trees for those seeking greater variety and challenge.
It can’t go without saying that another signature of Alpine Meadows is the enormous amount of superb inbounds, but ungroomed terrain accessible by short hikes or traverses from several lifts. Due to our fatigue and lack of familiarity Vince and I left a lot of this great stuff untouched and owe it to ourselves to return some day. From the top of Alpine Bowl there was a long high traverse that led to what appeared to be a mile long ridge of lightly skied mountainsides. This huge, south facing area is marked on the trail map as Sun, Big Bend and S.P. Bowls and eventually spills down to the Sherwood Chair where we had skied in the morning sunshine.
From the top of Wolverine Bowl there is a traverse to skier’s left across the heights of a long steep ridge forming the northern boundary of the ski area and not far from the ski trails of Squaw Valley. Following this line leads to Beaver, Estelle and Bernie’s Bowls representing another huge area of challenging all natural terrain. With KSL’s common ownership it will be interesting to see if a lift-link is ever completed between Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley. It could provide lift access to some of this spectacular sidecountry.
Alpine Meadows is also known for a liberal open boundary policy, meaning the 2,400 patrolled acres are just the beginning of what’s accessible in the adjacent backcountry. However, tourists should know that this out of bounds terrain is not for the ill informed and unprepared lacking beacons, probes, shovels and the training to use them. Sadly, recent headlines prove avalanche dangers are all too real in this part of the Sierras.
When it was time for lunch we stopped at a little on-mountain restaurant called The Chalet that was part way up the front side trail layout. Since it was a pretty day we ate at a picnic table out on the deck with in-your-face views of the steep Scott Peak terrain. I like my meals with a side dish of High Sierra scenery!
After lunch we repeated our pattern of runs from the morning. We returned to the sunny, south side groomers. The views from Scott Peak were amazing and expansive, only now was I beginning to realize that almost everything we were looking at was considered inbounds terrain even the stuff that appeared to be far from the nearest lifts. As the shadows lengthened we returned to the shady front face of the mountain and racked-up a bunch more vertical off the Summit Express, this time with very light crowds right up until the 4 pm closing time.
Thinking back on our visit I can’t help comparing Alpine Meadows to Squaw Valley. We skied them on back to back days. They share much of the same precipitous Sierra topography, but from my limited exposure there are clear differences in atmosphere and clientele. Alpine Meadows has a lower key vibe without the touristy resort village. It seems to draw more of a local/California crowd, whereas Squaw is truly an international destination. The vertical drop at Alpine Meadows is about 1,800 feet and the skiable acreage tallies about 2,400. Therefore, it’s a little smaller than Squaw, but still the kind of place a mid-Atlantic skier/snowboarder could get lost in for a week. My only complaint is that I didn’t have another six days to test that theory and find my way around some of the fantastic sidecountry. One day is barely enough time to scratch the surface at Alpine Meadows.
Quick Alpine Meadows Facts:
Elevation: Summit — 8,637’ Base — 6,835’
Vertical drop: ~1800’
14 Lifts: One high-speed detachable six-passenger chair; two high-speed express quads; three triple and five double chairs; three surface lifts (one of two surface lifts is for Kids’ Camp participants only).
Terrain: 2,400 patrolled acres; 100 designated runs; 25% easier, 40% more difficult, 35% most difficult/expert.
Average annual snowfall: 365 inches
About the Author
Husband, father and civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jimís ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourismís Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article. To read other articles by Jim, click here.
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