I learned to ski as a teenager at Squaw Valley USA, and so, like all first romances, it has always retained a special appeal. That said, the Lake Tahoe, Calif., resort offers enough attractions to appeal to a wide range of visitors, regardless of whether or not they harbor sentimental attachments to the mountain.
For one thing, the season is one of the longest in the nation, usually extending well into spring.
For another, skiers and snowboarders rave about the quality of the snow, which tends to be abundant and soft, a bonus for those of us whose enthusiasm for the sport outweighs their skill.
In fact, last season was one of the snowiest on record, dumping more than 800 inches of snow and enabling Squaw Valley and a few sister resorts to stay open into May and reopen for skiing on Independence Day weekend in July.
Squaw Valley reinvented
The big news this season is the kickoff of an enormous renovation project, to the tune of some $50 million, that is slated to unroll over the next five years. The planned improvements are resortwide and include upgrades on the mountain and in guest facilities.
The first phase, which will cost about $15 million, will include a renewed focus on terrain parks, which are a key attraction for young visitors and for those seeking an adrenaline rush. New features will include boxes, rails and jumps as well as seating areas for those who want to watch the terrain high jinks or take a break from the action.
The terrain park improvements follow the grand opening of a 22-foot-tall, 600-foot-long superpipe that opened at the end of last season. A new half-pipe is also planned.
Behind-the-scenes changes will include new grooming machines to keep conditions optimal and a new grooming map that will enable skiers and snowboarders to find the best-groomed areas.
Other navigational improvements will include iPhone app features designed to interact with the revamped mountain-mapping system.
Fans of Squaw Valley know that historically the trails have not had names, despite the fact that they are spread out over 4,000 acres of terrain. But the resort is now taking pity on the directionally challenged this year by naming trails and indicating their level of difficulty on posted signage in keeping with the rest of the industry.
"We've talked to guests, skiers and riders regionally and around the country and learned that the very caliber of this mountain may have kept some visitors away, and we are dedicated to creating an approachable and friendly experience for our guests of every ability level," said Andy Wirth, Squaw Valley's president and CEO.
Anyone who has ever gone skiing or snowboarding with children knows that getting outfitted for the day can be daunting. On our most recent visit, we noticed that the children's facilities at the base area did nothing to make prepping for the day with the kids a hassle-free experience.
But a planned new Day Lodge and Family Rec Center will provide space to dress for the slopes or relax at day's end, and the interior of the 17,000-square-foot Squaw Kids facility is being renovated.
Off the slopes
Like a lot of today's winter sports enthusiasts, I want more from my stay than just skiing and riding, and to that end, Squaw Valley is upgrading its dining facilities. The Blue Coyote in the Village at Squaw Valley, for example, is reopening after a redo with indoor and outdoor dining and apres-ski cocktails.
The KT-Sundeck at Olympic House will be enhanced with firepits and "K-banas," on-mountain cabanas for groups of families or friends who want a more exclusive area to hang out.
Other dining improvements include the addition of a chef's harvest table at Bar One Lounge at Olympic House, where the menu will change frequently, as well as space for chocolate and wine tastings.
For more casual dining, the Top of the Funitel Market & Cafe and Wildflour Baking Co. will also offer more space and revamped menus.
Caffeine addicts will now be able to grab a cup of java on the go at the industry's first ski-in/ski-out coffee bar at the Gold Coast complex.
Phase two of the project, to be ready in time for the 2012-2013 season, will cost about $20 million and will focus on lift upgrades for the upper mountain.
Squaw Valley is one of seven Ski Lake Tahoe resorts, which, as a group, concluded a record-breaking 2010-11 season with more than 3.6 million skier visits.
The mountain, which hosted the 1960 Winter Olympic Games, is located less than an hour from Reno-Tahoe Airport.
Visit www.skilaketahoe.com and www.squaw.com.