Squaw Valley, California
There's a ridgeline in the Sierra Nevada that may be the most important 460 acres in the ski world. It's relatively small and undeveloped, but it sits right between two of America's greatest ski resorts, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. The two areas are so close to each other, nestled amid the most extreme terrain in the Lake Tahoe area, that locals have long dreamed of the two joining forces to create one giant powder playground. When Squaw bought Alpine two years ago, that sliver of land was all that was needed to link the two. Luckily, the owner of that ridge, Troy Caldwell, was a lifelong Alpine Meadows skier himself and wanted it just as badly as his neighbors. "Being able to ski all the way from Ward Peak to Granite Chief sounded like a pretty unique experience," he says.
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows now sprawl across 6,000 acres of peaks that top out above 9,000 feet, making it the biggest ski resort in the country. It gets 450 inches of snow a year and averages 300 days of blue skies: Powder day or dry spell, there's always corn snow. "We get spring skiing all year," says pro free skier J.T. Holmes, who grew up in Squaw Valley. "Even if it hasn't snowed in a while, our snow is still better than everyone else's."
Having hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, Squaw Valley already has a world-class mountain with a lift system that can move more people uphill per hour than just about any other resort's in the country. And the merger came on the heels of a $15 million reboot of Squaw's village. Now, a single pass lets skiers and boarders drop off Squaw's backside – without getting chased by the ski patrol – and hit the quieter chutes and glades of Alpine. Once a full lift-assisted traverse is possible (Caldwell and the resort are collaborating to design a state-of-the-art chairlift linkup), the two-resort megaplex will look more like iconic European destinations such as Courchevel, in France. In fact, in researching how to link the two mountains, Caldwell had to actually leave the country – Whistler in Canada is the only place in North America comparable in scale; everything else is in the Alps.
The merger wasn't the first time Squaw Valley had taken on the Europeans. Immediately after East Coast lawyer Alex Cushing and Olympic skier Wayne Poulson opened the resort back in 1949, Cushing decided he wanted to host a Winter Olympics. It was a ridiculous notion – back then, European resorts were the center of the skiing world, known for great wine, chic style, and modern chairlifts. But Cushing proposed the idea of the first Olympics ever to be held with all the events laid out across one mountain. Squaw had both the terrain and the size to pull it off, and it won the games. Within five years, the resort went from having one chairlift and a 50-person lodge to having three ice rinks and the world's first Winter Olympic Village. "Squaw is the ultimate training ground," says snowboarder Jeremy Jones, who moved there 15 years ago from the East Coast. "It's so consolidated with steep, featured terrain that you get strong and get tons of vertical in a short amount of time."
What Jones describes is probably Squaw's most unforgettable quality: a mountain that feels big and small at the same time, and a mountain that makes you a better skier or snowboarder. As you drive into the valley, trees block the resort at first, but then Squaw's entire six-peak massif comes into view, with both KT-22 and the thousand-foot cliff face known as the Tram Line towering over the village. Drops like KT-22's famous Fingers and Siberia's Palisades have starred in countless ski films, and yet right beside every extreme line are intermediate runs that push good skiers to their limits without hurtling them over a cliff. "A lot of other resorts' intermediate terrain is serviced by slower chairlifts," says Holmes. "Squaw's is serviced by high-speed six-packs. We have such an efficient network of lifts, you ski and ride more miles and develop your skills quickly. You show up on Friday, and on Sunday you leave a different skier. That's what gets you hooked."
Squaw is known for having terrain for every type of skier, but lines like the Fingers and the Palisades made it the epicenter of the eighties hot-dogging scene. In fact, in 1983, the raunchy cult ski film 'Hot Dog' was filmed at Squaw Valley, and its depiction of neon-clad shredders with new-wave haircuts, who take partying as seriously as their skiing, was more documentary than fiction. Later, free skier Shane McConkey shot some of his most famous film sequences in-bounds (Squaw mounted a brass eagle at the top of KT-22 in memory of McConkey after his death in 2009). By the nineties, the resort had picked up the nickname Squallywood as pros wearing giant wraparound sunglasses and mohawks congregated outside Le Chamois to down plastic pitchers of beer and listen to punk rock.
Holmes was only five when 'Hot Dog' came out, and he prefers to hang in the new village. Built in 2005 with the requisite raw wood and stone, the Euro-style plaza gave Squaw a much-needed polish, tripled its accommodation capacity, and brought some Bay Area style to a resort that hadn't seen many upgrades since the Olympics. Mamasake does a beer and a hand roll for $5, and the packed Rocker Bar is designed as a sort of homage to the Squallywood days, with poster-size photos of its famous ski stars. Le Chamois is still going strong just 100 yards away, and it remains a good bet for spotting the skiers and boarders featured on those posters.
The revamp of Squaw's village was one of the most dramatic reinventions in the industry, but the skiing hasn't changed a bit. Squaw is proud of its dual personality, having once hosted a Winter Olympics and also inspired history's most sophomoric ski flick. "The lift line today is not much different than it was 15 years ago," says Jeremy Jones. "Anything goes at Squaw – you could be in a banana suit and on a mono ski, and the guy next to you would hardly notice."
The Perfect Day: There are few resorts where you can clock as much vertical on such interesting terrain so quickly as you can at Squaw. For the perfect progression, hit KT-22 first to beat the crowds. As soon as it gets tracked out, ride Squaw's stormproof funitel to the top of the mountain and then work your way down by hitting Siberia, Headwall, and Broken Arrow, one after another. Grab at least one après beer at Le Chamois for some Squaw history, but head to Rocker for a better beer selection. "I like sitting in the sun, and Rocker is right there where you can watch people skiing," says J.T. Holmes.
Credit: Jeff Engerbretson / Squaw Valley