Firsthand Report: Sugar Bowl, CA - Tasty Terrain Steeped in History
By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist
February 8, 2013 — My first ever visit to Northern California’s Sugar Bowl ski area came on the seventh consecutive ski day of a two week western safari with my 22-year old son Vince in early January, 2013. Sugar Bowl was one of the most enjoyable “discoveries” of multiple ski areas visited during the trip. I had few preconceptions about the area before my visit having heard only vague reports that it had a fascinating history and good terrain. Sugar Bowl proved to be an absolute Tahoe classic and was an experience I’d highly recommend to all.
Sugar Bowl struck me as a Pocket Hercules type of ski area. It wasn’t so huge (1,500 foot vertical drop) that you couldn’t find your bearings and get a fun taste of it on your first visit. Yet, it had some very robust terrain and was plenty big enough (1,500 acres) for days of distinctive trailblazing. It didn’t hurt my favorable impression that we caught a beautiful sunny day there with excellent packed powder conditions leftover from a five foot snow storm about ten days before.
Our survey of the ski area consisted of a day-long sweep back and forth across the three peaks that comprise the trail layout, from looker’s left to right: Mt. Judah (el. 8,238 feet), Mt. Lincoln (el. 8,383 feet), and Mt. Disney (el. 7,953 feet). We started by riding the Mt. Judah Express Quad and the Summit Quad to the pinnacle of Mt. Judah. We took a quick peek directly down the backside at beautiful Donner Lake. Starved members of the Donner party of early emigrants perished here in the fateful winter of 1846. From the summit of Mt. Judah we skied an off-piste hillside that fed into the fittingly named Emigrant Glades.
Eventually we caught the Mt. Lincoln Express Quad with a cheery gentleman named Jan. I joked with Jan that we were both riding antiquated Volant skis, but I also found him very inspirational. He had been an emigrant himself at one time, coming to San Francisco from Czechoslovakia 50 years ago. At age 77 Jan is still making ski trips to Sugar Bowl, a favorite of his because it’s one of the closest major resorts to the Bay area with good access via I-80. Jan’s wife didn’t ski, but accompanied him on this day to paint landscapes near the base lodge.
Mt. Lincoln is the heart of Sugar Bowl and provides access to a batch of dark blue square groomers and some epic advanced terrain including The 58 trail named for a huge 1958 blizzard and resulting avalanche that “naturally” cleared this section of steep ridgeline. Next to The 58 is the spectacular and truly extreme Palisades Chutes. Much of this terrain was beyond my ability level, but heading skiers left off the Mt. Lincoln Express we found among the hairy stuff a wonderful single black diamond run with tremendous character called Silver Belt. Silver Belt was essentially a big gulch tumbling down the fall line between steep, rocky side walls. After an initial plunge it leveled off to a short plateau and from there split into several interesting line choices. Steering towards another single black diamond pitch I followed the Mt. Lincoln Express lift line and had a blast trying to hold it together under an audience of lift riders above. Silver Belt rewarded creativity and was so full of subtle terrain features it begged for a reprise.
When we finally made it to the top of Mt. Disney my son Vince was itching to do some carving. All morning we had been eyeing an impressively steep groomed run called East Face that led straight down the center of Mt. Disney and ate up about 80% of the nearly 1,000 feet of vertical served by the Disney Express. Vince carved East Face like it was a Thanksgiving turkey and went back for a second helping on Disney Nose, a nearby groomer also marked with a black diamond on the trail map.
After exploring Mt. Disney for a while we returned to the Mt. Judah day lodge for lunch. It’s a relatively new facility and very well appointed. In the afternoon we checked out a few areas we’d missed in the morning and also returned to some of our favorite spots. There is a large terrain park complex served by the Mt. Judah Express. The Village Lodge at the base of Mt. Disney is a fascinating and historic structure that dates back to the earliest days of the resort. About halfway down the Disney Nose trail are two antique chairs hanging from a lone original lattice style lift tower, a tribute to the original ski lift built in 1939. As mentioned, Sugar Bowl is far too big to fully explore in one day. We never made it to an area of black diamond hike-to terrain to the looker’s right of Mt. Disney called Crow’s Nest Peak (el. 7,954 feet).
At this point I’d like to make a short digression about Sugar Bowl’s fascinating history. The founder was Hannes Schroll, an accomplished Austrian ski racer and instructor who opened the ski area in December 1939 with the first ski lift (a Riblet chair design) in the state of California. Walt Disney had previously taken ski lessons from Schroll and became associated with the mountain as an important early stockholder with a mere $2500! Silver Belt, the ski trail I enjoyed so much on Mt. Lincoln was the site of the Silver Belt race which was inaugurated in 1940. Over the years this annual competition drew racing greats from around the world including Friedl Pfeifer, Gretchen Frazer, Buddy Werner, Andrea Mead Lawrence, and Cindy Nelson who won the last event in 1975.
While we utilized the Mt. Judah day lodge for our visit, the Village Lodge at the base of Mt. Disney dates to the earliest days of the resort and still hosts overnight guests in rustic slopeside ambiance for reasonable rates. Back in the day Scholl used his Hollywood connections to entice many golden era movie stars to visit the resort including Errol Flynn, Norma Shearer and even Marilyn Monroe. Many of them spent time at the Village Lodge, which is ski-in/ski-out and accessed by a vintage transport gondola.
I love all the marvelous moments of discovery on a big trip sampling numerous ski areas for the first time. Sugar Bowl was a definite standout. Vertical foot for vertical foot it’s got possibly the sweetest 1,500 feet you’ll ever ski. The resort features express lifts serving all the best terrain, great access to Interstate 80, a reputation for some of the deepest annual snowfall totals in the region (just ask the Donner party), and a fascinating history still very much on display. It also has what now ranks as one of my all time favorite runs, Silver Belt. This big, long, bumpy gulch skis at the single black diamond difficulty level, but it feels so much more heroic following in the tracks of a glorious racing history set among Sugar Bowl’s most scenic double black diamond cliff drops and chutes.
Sugar Bowl Fast Facts:
- Base Elevation: 6,883 feet
- Summit Elevation: 8,383 feet
- 102 Trails
- 1,500 Skiable Acres
- 1,500 Vertical Feet
- 500 Inches Average Annual Snowfall
- 13 Lifts: 5 High-Speed Express Quads; 3 Fixed Grip Quads; 2 Fixed Grip Doubles; 1 Gondola; 2 Surface Lifts
- Trail Rating: 17% beginner; 45% intermediate; 38% advanced
- Terrain Park
- The Switching Yard off Mt Judah Express
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. Jim’s ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism’s Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article. To read other articles by Jim, click here.
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