Driving from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe and on to Las Vegas, Charles Starmer Smith revels in untracked powder and unrivalled views on the edge of the desert.
By Charles Starmer Smith
Only my wing mirrors defied Jack Kerouac’s words, continuing to reflect the San Francisco skyline as we trundled across the eight-mile-long Oakland Bay Bridge . Five lines of traffic poured east; five flowed west. To my left, the burnt-red struts of the Golden Gate Bridge, now in its 75th year, still felt synonymous with Cali-fun, -freedom and -fornication. But for me, and for my three fellow travellers, it was the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada that beckoned, not the surf and party lifestyle of metropolitan San Francisco.
Ol’ Jack would have said that all a traveller needs is a wheel in his hand and four on the road, but we didn’t feel like we had “lit out” just yet. Only when the waters of the Pacific had become a distant memory did it seem like our journey proper had begun. Whether or not your definition of the road trip was inspired by American literary greats such as Kerouac, Steinbeck and Twain, this is a country made for holidays where the journey is as important as the destination. Here, anyone with a car can go anywhere; a driver’s licence, not a passport, is a person’s identity; towns and cities are planned with parking, rather than pedestrians, in mind; and truckers, not train drivers, are the heartbeat of the nation.
As a result, the roads are improbably long and straight and the cars are gargantuan fuel-guzzlers, designed for long hours at the wheel and totally at odds with these environmentally-conscious times. My black Chevrolet SUV was the size of a London bedsit, greedily eating up fuel and the 200 miles of tarmac that lay between us and the Lake Tahoe Basin , marked on the map as Highway 50.
We pulled into Sacramento for a potted history, at the California State Railroad Museum , of how locomotion had shaped life out west in the wake of the 1848 Gold Rush. From that point on, every sign seemed couched in the language of hope and opportunity that had lured 300,000 people westwards on a promise of streets paved with gold: El Dorado, Gold River, Gold Hill, Villa del Sol, La Riviera .
We passed Coloma where, on a cold January day, a young carpenter called James Marshall struck gold on the South Fork of the American River , triggering one of the biggest human migrations of modern times. But it was the pioneering work of a humble postman that piqued my interest more. In 1857, after the Gold Rush ended, John A Thompson strapped on 9ft-long wooden “skis” to deliver post on the Mormon emigrant trail along which our Chevy was now thundering. Few could have suspected, then, that flecks of white rather than gold would become the lifeblood of the local economy.
Dusk was fast approaching as we neared Lake Tahoe. Over-eager, I swung the SUV off Highway 50 too early, passing along the south-eastern shore and away from the urban sprawl of South Lake Tahoe . But the skyrises, casinos and condos could wait a while, as we stopped to gaze through snow-laden trees at North America’s largest alpine lake and the snow-capped peaks beyond it.
In summer, the vast Lake Tahoe, with its 72-mile circumference, is a hive of activity – hiking, biking, boating and fishing – but in winter attention shifts to the 14 alpine resorts surrounding it, invariably reached by car . We had arrived, but our road trip was only just beginning.
For most European skiers, the idea of driving to the slopes each day is an anathema. Ski-in, ski-out and stay put is the tried-and-tested formula, and resorts are chosen for their proximity to planes and trains (and to minimise the transfer up twisting Alpine roads).
In many ways, however, that formula is a gamble: everything hinges on the snow-gods being kind and the crowds staying away. I preferred the odds of a snow safari, where four wheels leave you with a trump card to play. Companies such as Ski Safari (which organised my trip) can tailor-make a range of itineraries across resorts in North America, Japan, Switzerland or Scandinavia. Capitalising on a growing desire among skiers for multi-destination trips, they offer everything from pristine lodges and premium hotels to private rentals.
Each morning, as we debated where we were heading, it felt like a scene from Kerouac’s novel – and we relished the freedom. Setting out from our split-level town house in South Lake, we ventured east to Heavenly , where we carved gently through untracked powder, stopping only to marvel at the view from the long Ridge Run , a far cry from your typical Alpine panorama. On one side, the lake, flooding the valley floor with mercury blue; on the other, the arid, earthy plains of the Nevada desert.
For more challenging runs and emptier pistes, we headed south to Kirkwood , before hotfooting it to Alpine Meadows after news came in that it had enjoyed some overnight snow. After a few days, we upped sticks and skirted Tahoe’s western shore to Squaw Valley , home of the 1960 Winter Olympics and the resort of choice for the West Coast gliterrati. Welcome to Squallywood.
Here, steam rose from hot tubs into the night sky, couples with matching fur-lined collars browsed the boutiques before dining in refined restaurants serving Italian, French or Pan-Asian cuisine – a step up from the usual. We stayed at the salubrious Resort at Squaw Creek , where the penthouse suites afford views of six alpine peaks. Yet Squaw Valley has substance as well as style, rivalling Val d’Isère for its connectivity and varied terrain, with the steep runs off KT-22 living long in the memory.
But constant sunshine and rising temperatures were beginning to play havoc with the pistes. Early-morning ice gave way to lunchtime slush – a disaster avoided by going back on the road with barely a backward glance. Slicing through the Sierra Nevada mountains, we headed south on the old El Camino trail to Mammoth, stopping only to admire the vistas over lakes Mono and Topaz .
Mammoth proved to be no hyperbole. It seems improbable, but here on the edge of the desolate plains of Nevada lies California’s highest ski resort. Winter storms sweep in from the Pacific, and any precipitation that reaches these last great peaks is deposited on the pistes below. The result is 10 metres of snowfall each winter, a season that can last until June and, on this occasion, broad smiles on the faces of four excited Englishmen.
What the resort lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer skiing pleasure. For two days we swept down open bowls and snaked through forest glades, before toasting our efforts in the lively bars long after sundowner time. The temperature touched -10C as we raced down the Cornice run for the final time before setting the satnav for Las Vegas. Just over two hours later, we ground to a halt 200ft below sea level with the dashbard temperature gauge registering 40C: a cool day in Death Valley. I smiled inanely as the road stretched out through the vast empty plains devoid of life or character.
A highway snaking through the Valley of Fire State Park in the Mojave Desert, Nevada. Image: Alamy
We rolled on as the shadows lengthened across the Mojave Desert. Finally, Vegas appeared on the horizon – a circus of excess rising implausibly out of the desert. A table awaited us at the Marquee nightclub, but just as the neon lights of the Strip appeared tantalisingly close, it dawned on us that some bright spark had left the bag containing all our shoes back in Mammoth. Cue some sharp words, an even sharper turn off the Strip and an unscheduled stop at one of its monolithic shopping malls.
Still clad in ski gear, we marched down the first aisle of a stack’em high, sell’em cheap shoe outlet, grabbing four pairs of faux crocodile-skin shoes. When in Vegas…
The cashier smiled wearily at our wintry garb. “So y’all getting hitched?” she asked, in a matter-of-fact way. I looked at her quizzically, then back at the matching pairs of lurid loafers on the counter. “Only to the road, ma’am,” I replied. It was the kind of answer of which Ol’ Jack would have been proud.
Road trip through California and Nevada, USARoute: San Francisco–Lake Tahoe–Mammoth–Las Vegas.
Distance: 640 miles.
Car: Chevrolet Tahoe: a butch American beast with a big boot, as happy on slippery passes as on hot tarmac.