Most skiers who fly into the large US skiing hubs of Reno or Denver head straight out again to a resort. But stay in the city and you can ski a new powder field every day – and get more of a taste of America
Plus five more city ski hubs
March in Reno, Nevada, isn’t particularly cold. The average daily high is around 12C. Beige and gold, dust and sand, glittering neon and glinting glass – the entire cityscape hollers heat, revels in sunlight, and bathes in the sparkling flow of cash in and out of the casinos.
At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be a place you’d associate with skiing. Yet within an hour’s drive of the city centre are a glut of resorts – some big, some small, all offering knee-deep powder and a local feel. Like its Colorado counterpart Denver, Reno, on the Nevada-California border, is a city most skiers fly into and head straight out of to their resort of choice. But there are benefits to sticking around – and these are not limited to the obligatory breakfast bloody mary offered by the casinos.
While I recommend the bloody marys at Peppermill hotel and casino, I was more excited about the dull sky and snow-heavy clouds overhead as we made our way up to the resort of Mount Rose. The 30-minute drive saw the dry landscape morph into pine trees, mist and great dollops of snow. We passed a car that had skidded off the road on the black ice, languishing in a ditch as police cars rallied, but we managed to arrive unscathed. The petite nature of the main lodge belied the 1,200 acres of steep terrain and superb tree runs that awaited us – chute after chute of perfect powder popping out at the base of Chuter chair, which took us to the top to do it all again. And meeting locals was a breeze as we kept bumping into the same people.
It snowed all day, so we headed for the trees, which provided markers and broke up the whiteness, and when the sun finally came out for our final hour, we were treated to a glistening view of Lake Tahoe in the distance, trees resplendent in their snowy attire. The day was topped off with a pint of Shock Top (a Belgian white beer that Mount Rose skiers seem to have made their own) in the main lodge bar. Kids wet through from snow and exertion greeted parents, parents greeted each other, ski instructors had laughs with punters and the whole lodge hummed with the vibe of a community celebrating a great day on the hill.
Mount Rose isn’t the only place within shouting distance of Reno. Another 10 minutes up the road is Diamond Peak (blink and you’ll miss it) with its locals-only-know powder glades. The behemoth of North Star – 3,170 acres of terrain, superpipes, freestyle parks, shops, restaurants and bars – is an hour away. Then there’s Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, Homewood and Heavenly.
The majority of these resorts would not by themseleves hold a skier’s interest for a 10-day trip, but put them together and you’ve got an itinerary to keep even the hardiest skier entertained. Acting as the apex for all these resorts is Reno, which also probably wouldn’t be enough to keep you entertained for a full trip. But break each day into wake up, ski, night in Reno, and throw in the odd day off, and out of the neon and gambling-den mire emerges a lotus of a city.
Reno is famously the place where divorce is quick and painless – in the 1961 film The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe threw her wedding ring into the Truckee river which snakes through downtown. It’s not all about endings, though. Small businesses and restaurants are pushing up in between the casinos like green shoots, and the river constantly drags your eye towards the peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
Java Jungle, (246 West 1st Street, javajunglevino.com), all band posters, open mic nights and poetry readings, served up a cracking cup of organic chai. Sundance Books (121 California Avenue, sundancebookstore.com) is a haven of fairy lights and cushy sofas in a classic revival style building – and is said to have its own ghost.
The Riverwalk is the prettiest part of town, with restaurants serving organic local produce to streetside diners. And although Reno isn’t a cultural hub, the Nevada Museum of Art carries some interesting exhibitions. It’s a far cry from Las Vegas, but offering as it does the chance to ski little-known local hills, then ditch the thermals and eat citrus-marinated tofu with swiss chard in a buzzy downtown, a trip to Reno feels like two holidays for the price of one.
Denver doesn’t have the mild identity crisis that seems to afflict Reno. It’s very confident of its place in the world – the gateway to the Rockies, a vibrant cultural scene mixing effortlessly with the outdoor life. The Mercury Cafe (2199 California Stret, mercurycafe.com) is a great example of this. While savouring a pint of Treehugger from the list of microbrews as we waited for our dinner of local veggies and organic meats, a poetry slam gave way to jazz flutes and a touch of wailing from the performance room.
Its artsy vibe is mirrored in the River North area of the city – all yoga studios and raw-food restaurants. Linger (2030 West 30th Avenue, lingerdenver.com) is a former mortuary that’s been converted into an eatery where the cocktails are as good as the panoramic view of downtown.
Equally inspiring are the indie music venues, record shops, thrift stores and dive bars in and around East Colfax Avenue. If Pete’s Satire Lounge (petesrestaurants.com) has changed at all since Bob Dylan gigged there as a teenager before he moved to New York, it’s hard to tell.
But as well as being yoga mat and tattoo parlour central, Denver is arguably one of the best hubs for skiing in North America. Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain, Vail, Winter Park, Beaver Creek and Arapahoe Basin are within a two-hour drive. They all offer superb skiing and all of them except Winter Park and Copper Mountain are owned by Vail Resorts and so covered by its Epic Pass (snow.com/epicpass). Instead of spending a week in one resort, you can ski them all without buying a new pass. You can also hire skis in one resort and drop them off at the end of your trip in another.
All of which points to exploration rather than hanging out in one resort. It’s not a plan that will suit everyone, but if you want the freedom to ski where the snow is good and fancy seeing a bit more than snowscapes – it is a long way to go just to ski – Denver is a great option.
• The trip was provided by Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256, crystalski.co.uk) which offers a week at the Peppermill Casino in Reno from £1,044pp for seven nights (based on two sharing) including American Airlines flights via Los Angeles. Car hire starts from £182 a week including insurance. British Airways (ba.com) flies London-Denver from £667 return in December. Hotel Monaco in Denver (+1 303 296 1717, monaco-denver.com) has doubles from $170 a nght. The Ski Lake Tahoe six-day lift pass (skilaketahoe.com) costs $329 and covers Heavenly, Kirkwood, Squaw, Sierra, Northstar and Mount Rose. The seven-days Epic Pass for Colorado (snow.com) costs $569 and covers Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Canyons, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Afton Alps, Mount Brighton and Arapahoe Basin
FIVE MORE CITY SKI HUBS
There are several ski regions within an hour or two of Munich, Bavaria’s cultured capital. Among the best-known is Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with 59km of pistes, which includes Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze. Rail operator Bayerische Oberlandbahn offers combined train and ski-lift tickets to Bad Tölz and Lake Tegernsee. Deutsche Bahn trains also serve Bavarian Alpine resorts, including Berchtesgaden. Ski buses go to Austrian resorts St Johann in Tirol, Hochzillertal/Hochfügen and Grossglockner-Resort, while Bavaria also has excellent backcountry skiing for off-the-beaten track adventures.
The swish city of Geneva has numerous French ski sites within striking distance. Some of the Mont Blanc resorts, including Chamonix, are an hour away, as is the huge ski region of the Grand Massif (Samoëns, Flaine, Les Carroz, Morillon); Grand Bornand and La Clusaz in Aravis; and Les Gets in Portes du Soleil. Within two hours’ drive are Paradiski, Tarentaise and Les Trois Vallées, which includes Courchevel and Méribel.
Vancouver, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, has three local mountains: Grouse Mountain, Cypress Mountain and Mount Seymour. Cypress is 30 minutes from the city centre and has downhill and cross-country skiing, snowtubing and snowshoeing. Grouse is even closer: 15 minutes from downtown. Whistler, North America’s largest ski resort, is a two-hour drive north along the scenic Sea-to-Sky highway; buses and trains also take that route.
Queenstown, New Zealand
This is New Zealand’s best ski base, with bars, bungee jumps and four ski areas. Coronet Peak, 25 minutes away, has roller coaster terrain and night skiing; the Remarkables (50 minutes), is best for beginners; Cardrona (55 minutes) is the biggest close to the city; and Treble Cone (90 minutes) is ideal for advanced and off-piste skiers.
Japan’s fifth-largest city is one of its snowiest, hosting an annual snow festival. Ski resorts within day-trip distance include Teine, 45 minutes away, a mix of beginners’ slopes and steep tree skiing. Kokusai (60 minutes) gets busy but has lots of quiet off-piste areas. Kiroro is 70 minutes’ drive; nearby Asari is good on windy days; and lavish Tomamu is an 80-minute train ride away.
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