It's easy to get the impression that American skiing - now an established part of the British market - is confined to the Rocky Mountains, particularly Colorado. Vail and Aspen lead in the status stakes, while Breckenridge vies for top slot in terms of British custom. But there are resorts of more than local interest in other states, and some of the most compelling are in California. The ski areas in the Sierra Nevada, a few hours' drive from the coast, include three that claim to be among the biggest in the land: one, which hosted the Olympic Winter Games in the 1960s, is among the most challenging.
And there is snow, of one sort or another; California's snowfall record is rather erratic, but the average is high and has given little cause for complaint in the last couple of years. Last winter brought as much snowfall to the Sierra as it brought devastating rainfall lower down. Earlier drought years led the big resorts to install impressive snowmaking equipment, but in January I saw none of it - it was all buried deep beneath the natural stuff. Californian snow rarely approaches the famous fluffiness of Colorado's and Utah's; but it doesn't deserve to be written off, as it often is, as "Sierra cement".
Even if the story ended there, California would merit exploration by European skiers. But there are other surprises. Thanks to a winter surplus of airline seats and hotel rooms - California skiing mainly serves as a weekend and holiday diversion for locals - Virgin Ski (01293 61 71 81) can offer a week's package to Lake Tahoe in January for just pounds 400 (including some of the costs of a rental car - see page 64). For pounds 500, you can have a fortnight. Other operators, who lack Virgin's privileged access to airline seats, are not far adrift of these prices.
California also has the benefit of being one of the most accessible American states. That surplus of airline seats is on scheduled flights direct to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively about four hours by road from Lake Tahoe (the main concentration of resorts) and six hours from Mammoth (one of the biggest and best resorts, but rather isolated from the rest). At a time when direct flights to Colorado's gateway airport of Denver have been abandoned, this is of more than academic interest.
LAKE TAHOE: GAMBLER'S CITY
Anyone seeking a change from Alpine or even Rocky Mountain skiing can safely head for Lake Tahoe. The lake fills the deep crater of a defunct volcano, with ski resorts dotted around its rocky rim - 14 downhill resorts and seven cross-country centres. From many of these resorts there are superb views across the lake.
Tahoe is more popular for summer than winter vacations, but people don't go just for the scenery and the sailing. The basin is bisected by the state line separating California (30 million residents; gambling illegal) from Nevada (1 million residents; gambling not only legal, but the economic mainspring). The impact of this simple fact on the south end of the lake is unimaginable to someone who has not seen an American casino town before.
The "city" of South Lake Tahoe requires the visitor to abandon all traditional notions of what a ski resort village should be like. At its heart is the Stateline area, just inside Nevada, which is dominated by four or five high-rise office blocks that are actually casino-hotels. Life in SLT revolves around these places - they provide not only round-the-clock gambling, but also good-value restaurants and big-name entertainers to pull in the crowds - and around Highway 50. This broad artery cuts straight through the town, and less swanky accommodation spreads along it for mile after messy mile. You can stay in SLT without a car - there are buses to the skiing and to the casinos - but you wouldn't do so by choice.
HEAVENLY: TREE SKIING AT ITS BEST
The casinos are something of a blot on an otherwise sublime landscape. The story is that when the 19th-century settlers came up over the ridge to escape the summer heat of the Carson valley, they beheld the Tahoe basin and named it Heavenly Valley. Even today, complete with foreground casinos, the view of the blue lake, wooded shore and distant peaks from the hill behind SLT is very special - and you can't really blame the ski lift company that operates the hill for seizing the name (which has more recently been truncated to Heavenly).
Heavenly's lifts start a mile or two out of town, though there are plans for a gondola from the town centre. They climb a total of just over 1,000m, a figure exceeded by very few American resorts, and give access to 4,800 acres of skiable terrain - a figure exceeded by none.
This impressive acreage may partly be explained by the amount of off- piste skiing available: like most US ski areas, Heavenly consists mainly of trails cut through the forest. Unlike most other forests, however, this one has widely spaced trees; and much of it is gentle enough in gradient to be accessible to adventurous intermediates as well as to real experts. When there is fresh snow about, this tree-skiing really is heavenly.
Heavenly's defined trails appeal mainly to intermediates - the genuinely steep face of the mountain directly above the lift base is happily not typical - but there is plenty of easy skiing on the slopes above SLT, and some very challenging skiing on the back of the mountain, in Nevada. Milky Way Bowl offers a wide expanse of ungroomed terrain leading to the increasingly steep chutes of Mott Canyon and Killebrew Canyon.
SQUAW VALLEY: OLYMPIC VETERAN
Heavenly's only serious rival for international business in the Tahoe area is Squaw Valley, on the opposite side of the lake. The hour's drive around the lake is a splendidly scenic one in the early-morning sun. For a day trip from SLT, though, a seductive alternative is to cross the lake by boat, and enjoy an apres-ski drink or two to live music on the way back.
Squaw Valley USA (as it is officially known) still trades on having hosted the Olympic Winter Games 35 years ago. It is a few miles from the lake, and can't quite match Heavenly for views or vital statistics (though the acreage is not far short, at 4,000). But its skiing, mostly on open or lightly wooded slopes, has just as much to offer. Experts in particular have more choice of terrain here, particularly on Squaw Peak and KT-22 - named in honour of the 22 kick turns it took an early explorer to get down the front face. But Squaw is a genuine all-rounder, with long intermediate runs from top to bottom of the mountain, and a splendid high-altitude beginners' area.
If you want to stay at Squaw Valley, you have two choices: paying for smart accommodation at the foot of the lifts, which includes the swanky Resort at Squaw Creek, or staying in the jolly little Lakeside town of Tahoe City - which is also handy for the other major ski area at this end of the lake, Alpine Meadows.
Like a number of other American resorts, Squaw is a quirky place, bearing the clear stamp of its creator - in this case Alexander Cushing, who alone (unless you count a fat cheque from the State of California) convinced the International Olympic Committee to award the 1960 Winter Games to a resort that at the time had only a single chairlift. The map of the ski area now shows lots of lifts but nothing else; lifts are colour-graded for the difficulty of the skiing they serve, but there are no identified runs. Halfway up the mountain is what you might call Cushing's folly - or his visionary anticipation of 21st-century resort design, depending on your point of view. This is High Camp, an amazing tennis/swimming/skating/bungee jumping complex, which also contains a range of restaurants (served by cable-car in the evening).
MAMMOTH: RUSTIC SIMPLICITY
Mammoth, half a day's drive south of Lake Tahoe, shares some of Squaw Valley's eccentric feel. Dave McCoy, the founder, sees no need for detailed marking of runs on the map or on the mountain: "Wherever you ski here, you're going to end up at one lift or another." He has a point - and since the lifts are not sensibly named, but numbered in a bewildering (chronological) order, you're unlikely to be entirely clear about which one you are aiming for.
McCoy's folly - or his visionary anticipation of 21st-century resort design, depending on your point of view - is still in its early stages of development: it's a Disney-style monorail, at present linking only two of the several lift base stations, but eventually intended to link the whole of the mountain to the main resort village of Mammoth Lakes. This is much less of a culture shock than Heavenly's South Lake Tahoe, and its wooded setting and rustic style are pleasant enough. But this is a sprawling place where a car is handy, monorail or no monorail.
Mammoth Mountain offers an excellent mix of easy, intermediate and steep trails cut through forest at the bottom of the ski area, and seriously steep chutes and bowls at the top, high above the trees at altitudes up to 3,400m. It's pleasantly quiet during the week, but on fine weekends there's a huge influx of skiers from LA. Time then to head for Mammoth's smaller sister resort of June Mountain. Or to have a couple of days down the road in Disneyland.
WHAT DON'T YOU GET FOR pounds 400?
Practically all package ski holidays to the United States are priced on a room-only basis, so you have to pay for all meals. The rental car that's "included" in Virgin's holidays is in fact only partly paid for. Supplemental liability insurance takes your third-party cover from the inadequate $100,000 per person mark to $1,000,000, at a cost of about $75 (pounds 50) a week. Loss damage waiver, to cover theft of or damage to the car, adds a further $63 (pounds 40) a week to the bill. Then there is the cost of a ski rack and snowchains for the car - each an extra $35 (pounds 23) a week, though the cost of the chains is refundable if you don't use them. There may be some small local taxes to pay. Call it pounds 150 a week, plus the cost of fuel - though that's negligible by European standards. !Reuse content