Sun, Ski & San Francisco – An Unbeatable Stateside Ski Adventure

STORY BY Megan Hughes

Year upon year us British mountain lovers flock to Europe. This is understandable – not only are many European resorts easily accessible, set within impressive ski areas and relatively snow-sure, but we’re all creatures of habit right? However, while we all adore Europe, skiing in the USA is something that every snow sports fan should experience at least once. And if you are going to rack up the air miles, you might as well do it right. There’s no point jetting transatlantic for just a few days of skiing – if you’re going to go, go the whole hog and really make the most of your time stateside with the trip of a lifetime.

This year we took a trip that may have forever changed the way we think of ski holidays. Gone were the six day lift passes and ski-til-you-drop mentality – instead we found ourselves cycling the golden gate bridge, bathing in waterfalls at Yosemite and eating beside Lake Tahoe, with some incredible skiing thrown in between!

Now I know the whole ‘American road trip’ may seem slightly cliche, but we’d highly recommend it for this adventure. We began and ended our trip in San Francisco, in between taking in Yosemite, Tahoe and Sacremento. Keep reading for the full low-down on our route, experiences and what skiing in the USA is really like.

CITY

We opted for a daytime flight in order to try and fight that pesky jetlag, landing at around 5pm in San Francisco. This was perfect in time for an early dinner and an early night… so we thought. However, when we arrived at our first destination, the Hilton Union Square, San Francisco, we got a bit distracted. The Hilton is a fantastic high rise hotel and luckily for us being on one of the higher floors, we had absolutely amazing panoramic views of the city. Not only was our location within the hotel ideal, but the hotel itself was set right on the doorstep of all the action; we simply had to go and explore!

As a first base in San Francisco, we can’t recommend the Hilton Union Square highly enough. After a lengthy journey, the comfort and hospitality (not to mention the epic breakfasts and mouth-watering on site deli) was definitely appreciated and it sits in an ideal location for newcomers exploring the city.

If you’ve never been to San Francisco, it’s genuinely like walking onto a movie set with the incredible scenery, all-American dining options and of course that famous stateside service. We had around four days to enjoy the city, which allowed us to pack a huge amount in.

We also played traditional tourists for the day with an open top bus tour from the Big Bus Company. If you’re visiting a larger city that you’ve never been to before and don’t quite have your bearings of, it’s a great idea to take a tour like this. You can hop on and off easily, seeing all the sights and getting all the essential info about the city. It’s actually surprisingly easy to get around San Francisco. While a ride on the trams is a must, they are often fairly packed and we found it much easier to simply get the bus (with a lot of help from Google maps that is).

One of our favourite experiences was cycling the Golden Gate Bridge with Blazing Saddle Bike Tours. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience we would highly recommend, particularly for families. It’s around a 12 mile ride, but it’s mostly gentle cycling with a few hills to make you work that little bit for your evening meal! For dinner here there’s really only one place to head – Hornblower Cruises operate on the river over looking the bridge, with a unique perspective on this world-famous landmark that makes for an epic dinnertime backdrop…

Another attraction that simply has to be done, especially if you are travelling with kids, is Pier 39. Whilst it has become pretty commercialise, it’s still absolutely incredible to see the hundreds of sea lions adorning the pier and is so different to anything you will see in the UK. For fans of marine life the aquarium is another must-visit, in particular the tunnels you can walk through with rays and sharks swimming right over the top of you.

Sausalito which was probably our favourite area. It’s almost like San Francisco’s own ‘Cote d’azur’ – a stunning waterfront packed with restaurants, bars and flash cars that offers the perfect opportunity to sit back, relax and enjoy the start of your well-earned holiday!

SUN

After an action-packed few days in sunny San Francisco, we began to crave the mountains, so began the journey up to Tahoe, brimming with excitement at the thought of soft snow and fresh mountain air. As it’s quite a lengthy drive we decided to make a pit stop at Yosemite Park, with a night’s stay at Rush Creek Lodge. This was both a blessing and a curse – it was such an amazing destination that we ended up gutted to have just the one night there!

If you can imagine a forest holiday in the UK and multiply that experience by ten, you may get a sense of how incredible this place is. Rush Creek Lodge consists of a number of units with four apartments per block, all with spectacular views and impressive rooms. Think open log burners, fabulous bathrooms and beds with views to die for. There’s a massive games room for the kids, a great bar and restaurant on site and a fabulous pool – right on the edge of Yosemite. What more could you want?!

Due to the time of year we were travelling, quite a bit of the park wasn’t open yet but we still managed to see Yosemite Falls (the biggest waterfall in North America), el Capitan and Bridle Veil Falls. The falls were really incredible to experience and surprisingly easy to find. As we approached the falls we met people walking back to their cars absolutely soaked through. Stupid right? Well, about an hour later we were those same people… Once you reach the falls, the awesome power of the water really does mesmerise you and you find yourself wanting to get closer and closer. The epic, endless crashing of the water and the beautiful light and rainbows it creates really was something very special that we felt very lucky to have the chance to experience.

From Yosemite we drove on to Granilbakken Lodge and on the journey passed by the most spectacular views of the entire trip at Emerald Bay – stop here if you can!

SKIING

Now the best part begins (in our opinion anyway!). The fantastic thing about this type of trip is that we got to explore a range of ski areas – six in total!

With Granilbakken Lodge, we eased ourselves out of the relaxing sunny holiday mindset and began to find our winter feet again. The lodge itself has a small area for on-snow activities, but its real draw is its proximity to Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City itself. Calling it a city may be an overstatement, but we really enjoyed fell in love with it. It’s essentially one main street set alongside a lively fast-flowing river which runs in to Tahoe lake and is home to some of the biggest fish you can imagine! It’s a small, one-of-a-kind ‘city’ with some lovely independent shops, bars and restaurants right on the water’s edge providing stunning views of the lake.

From Tahoe we travelled on to Kirkwood, where the real skiing began. A small but highly functional ski area, Kirkwood is home to one of the most interesting ‘aprés’ bars we’ve ever experienced (and we’ve sampled a fair few!). From the outside it looked like a tin shed. However, on the inside, it was a full on French chalet, with fantastic food and even better service. So, out with the fondue and vin chaud and in with the bottomless cola, stacked nachos and buffalo wings, all in the beautiful, charming surroundings of an old french chalet. Yep it does sound odd, but, it was the perfect friendly atmosphere you want at the end of a days skiing.

From the small ski area of Kirkwood we travelled north to the world famous Squaw Valley. One of the great things about a trip like this is that you get to experience so much, from charming local ski areas and all the unique places you find along the way, to the legendary larger resorts.

Sqauw Valley is certainly larger, in fact it’s one of the biggest resorts in North America, with over 3600 acres of terrain. It’s famed for its extreme terrain, but has trails to suit all abilities as well as an impressive snow record. Squaw was our first taste of the more typical large North American ski resorts and it certainly did not disappoint. The skiing here was some of the best of our entire trip, with heaps of entertaining tree skiing, plenty of piste and a lively town. The infrastructure here is also impressive, with the main cable car running directly out of town providing quick and easy access to the slopes. We stayed at The Village at Squaw, a condo-style block which was pretty much perfect for our needs, with an open gas fire, a fabulous pizza place just downstairs, ample covered parking and all the services of a hotel, which really allowed us to make the most of our time on the mountain.


Click here for our full guide to skiing in the USA & Canada


From here, we went straight on to another North American powerhouse – Northstar California Resort. A fantastic modern resort, Northstar have invested millions of dollars in their town and ski area recently and it definitely shows. A great village provides entry to an even better ski area, with some lovely gentle blues and reds that are ideal for younger skiers as well as those who love to enjoy a cruise.

We did find ourselves wondering how on earth our next destination would top this – how do you follow these epic areas?! It turns out you simply head east around Lake Tahoe into Nevada…

Heading to The Hyatt at Incline, we had to cross the border between California and Nevada at the northernmost part of Lake Tahoe. Essentially, this means that pretty much within metres of entering Nevada, you are fully immersed in a kingdom of casinos and blinking lights.

The Hyatt at Incline is epic on all scales. A grand hotel with an on-site casino itself (of course), a range of restaurants, a 20,000² ft spa and even free ski shuttles and a ski hire service in house! Of course all of this is set within the spectacular scenery we had become accustomed to by this point. The outdoor pool area has the most impressive views of the mountains, allowing you to sunbathe while planning your ski routes for the next day! Not quite like any European ski holiday we’ve ever had.

Diamond Peak is the closest ski area here. A small but perfectly formed ski area, Diamond Peak only has around 15 runs. While this may sound minuscule compared to those gargantuan European areas of the 3 Vallees or the Dolomites, it actually makes a very nice change. The runs themselves are of good length, a lot of fun and offer spectacular views over the lake. It’s one of those places that you really do have to pinch yourself to believe it’s real, and is so much better in reality than when you are merely reading about it. There’s no village here as such, but there is a good base area with a restaurant and with spectacular tree-lined skiing all around. It’s hard to describe how quickly and easily you can fall in love with such a little gem. If you’re looking to stop at a smaller resort with a bit more personality, Diamond Peak is definitely worth putting on your list.

The Hyatt is located within Incline village, an area of beautiful multi-million dollar lakeside homes with plenty of fantastic dining options. The Hyatt’s Lone Eagle Grill lake-front restaurant was the setting for one of the best meals we’ve ever had in terms of both location and food. ‘Bison of the day’ wasn’t something I ever thought would feature as a highlight of a ski trip but I was sold within one bite. It’s cooked right in front of you and is definitely something I’d highly recommend (just keep an eye on the wine prices to avoid being hit with an unpleasant surprise when you eventually get the bill – or the check as I should say!).

Begrudgingly, we had to leave Incline Village after four nights, to continue our journey around the lake, with our last ski stop  Heavenly Mountain Resort, located at the other end of the lake. This meant a spectacular shoreside drive, taking in the absolutely spectacular lake scenery that you just can’t tire of. Heavenly is a resort based right on the Nevada/California state border and whilst it hasn’t always been the most desirable destination, like Northstar, they have invested hugely in the area recently and it definitely shows.

The buzzing town, cool, calm après scene and decent sized ski area are all great, but what really sets Heavenly apart are the views you get. The lake, the desert and the mountains all visible from one standing point – strange? Unique?  Whatever you want to call it, it’s breathtaking. In a way, Heavenly epitomises our USA trip. You don’t have to limit your holidays to just sun, snow or cities. You can do it all at once with this ultimate USA getaway.

We stayed in Heavenly’s Hard Rock Hotel. If you’re an old school music fan, this has to be done. They’ve got a huge amount of fantastic memorabilia, which I will admit, we didn’t think would be our thing… but we couldn’t help but marvel at the breadth of their collection and how much you can learn before your evening meal!

When the time came to board our flight home, we were all in agreement that this was one of the best holidays we had ever had. The variety of activities, some fantastic skiing and a range of excellent accommodation has led us to all in love with California and we will definitely be returning.

On quieter weeks you can get flights direct to San Francisco from LGW for as little as £250 return, so what are you waiting for – get planning!!

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