- Closest mid-size snow resort to those traveling from Sacramento area (or through Sacramento) to the north side of Lake Tahoe.
- Very good variety of terrain.
- High-speed quads and fact that it is not a superstar destination resort keep lift lines relatively short.
- Frequently gets more inches of snow out of a storm than most other Tahoe resorts.
- Relatively easy access off the 80 freeway.
- Daily ticket prices relatively low (compared to other midsize and large Tahoe resorts).
- Free lessons and rentals on most weekdays.
- At 1,650 skiable acres, it is smaller than Squaw Valley (which has 3,600 skiable acres).
- Grooming not as high in quality as at Northstar (groomed runs often have seams).
- Trees need to be thinned in some areas to make better tree skiing.
- Season pass prices a little higher than competing resorts and you only get access to Sugar Bowl with your pass.
The two most significant reasons I call Sugar Bowl my home mountain are a combination of proximity and terrain variety. Sugar Bowl is a 60-minute drive from my house and most of that drive is on the very well maintained 80 freeway. It would be an additional 20-30 minutes of drive time (assuming no traffic) if I went on further to Northstar or Squaw Valley. Since I do day trips from my house to ski, this extra drive time is a factor for me and for others driving from the foothills or the Sacramento valley. Also, on a storm day or another busy ski day, this extra 20-30 minutes can turn into an extra hour or more on the road. Anybody doing a day trip from the Sacramento area or starting their ski trip by driving up the 80 in the morning to get their first day of skiing in should give Sugar Bowl a try.
There are actually three other resorts on top of Donner Pass with Sugar Bowl that are just as convenient, but they are very small or too terrain-park focused for my tastes. Proximity alone does not justify a day at Sugar Bowl. However, Sugar Bowl has an excellent variety of terrain. I often describe it as a smaller version of Squaw because its terrain is somewhat similar to Squaw’s terrain—there is just less of it. There are many cliff areas with good landing zones, there are a number of steep chutes, big open bowls, gullies and tree runs. I have not been to Northstar in many years, but some of my friends who have gone in the past couple years complain that there is a lack of terrain variety. The common complaint is that “they groom everything.” Some days when I am stuck on groomers due to conditions or ski buddy limitations I wish I were at Northstar, because Sugar Bowl’s grooming does not seem to be a very high priority.
There are plenty of groomed runs at Sugar Bowl–quantity is not the problem. In my opinion, the problem with Sugar Bowl’s grooming is that they tend to leave these big seams where the grooming apparatus overlaps. Instead of a nice wide groomer that will allow you to make big turns at high speeds, their groomed trails are often broken up by a strip or two like vertically running speed bumps going down the slope. Actually, I don’t usually find this on the Mt. Lincoln runs but do find it frequently on the Mt. Disney side. So, if you are skiing groomers and not enjoying the vertical speed bumps on Disney, I recommend you move over to Lincoln and it will probably be much better.
Although proximity and terrain variety are the two main reasons I enjoy Sugar Bowl, it has a number of other positive attributes that I think deserve mention. They have a pretty good loyalty program called “Core” that has some good benefits. I used my Core points from last season to get $50 off each season pass for myself, my wife and my older son for the 13/14 season (I spent $149 for my son's pass and $249 for our adult weekday passes). My 7 year old could ski for only $15/day with their $21 “Core Daily” pass (these are 2013/14 prices), but I purchased him a season pass because it pays for itself in 10 days. I bought a Core Daily pass for my 5 year old just so we could skip the ticket lines. The lift ticket for him would be free but would require going to the ticket counter each time to get the free ticket. I figured $21 for the whole season of not having to go to the ticket counter was worth it.
Good parking is another nice feature at Sugar Bowl. Parking is free and the Judah lot is quite large and only overfills on the few busiest days of the season. Since I usually go on the least busy days I usually park about 50 feet from where I can put my skis on. Numerous times I have parked in a spot that I can ski to at the end of the day and literally take my skis off while leaning on my car. You can do this in the upper Judah parking lot next to the children’s center.
The main lodge is on the Mt. Judah side and is the newer lodge. It is quite nice and serves good food by normal ski resort standards. The restaurant/food choices are very limited compared to Northstar, but if you are just looking for a hearty meal on your lunch break at Sugar Bowl you probably won’t be disappointed.
Areas of the mountain
Sugar Bowl opened a new lift in the 13/14 season that opened up some new terrain that will be excellent on powder days. The terrain served by the lift is steep and has lots of trees. Before the lift was installed you had to traverse a long way west from the Disney lift, then make a few turns and then traverse all the way back to Disney. The new lift, called Crow's Peak, is a triple fixed grip and fairly protected, so they should be able to run it on the stormiest of days. They added 150 acres of new terrain with the new lift and enabled a lot more vertical (about 900 feet) since you won't have to traverse back to Disney.
Advanced skiers who are not in the terrain park or on the Crow's Peak lift will spend most of their time on Lincoln and Disney. Both of these are high speed quads and offer an excellent variety of terrain. I generally prefer Disney on powder days and especially on windy days when the top of Lincoln can get very windy and is more prone to white outs. The day after a storm is often a good time to take the short Summit lift from the top of the Judah lift—the Summit lift is almost always closed on storm days and then has lots of untracked powder when they open it after the storm. You have to be careful off the Summit lift, though, because it can be very bony over there. Most of the scratches and dings on my powder skis came from skiing off the Summit chair.
Both Disney and Lincoln have cliffs and rocky drops with good landing areas for those who are interested. There is a series of cliffs under the Lincoln chair that would probably get a lot more traffic if they were at Squaw. Since they tend to not get a lot of traffic I like to go there when most other areas have been skied out and work my way down one of the narrow chutes between the shorter cliffs on the east side of the cliff band and then traverse west under the cliffs to get some more untracked powder. Here is a shot from near the end of a powder day that shows the bottom of some of the cliffs in the upper right of the photo and the largely untracked terrain below it.
The most advanced and athletic skiers can also periodically get a chance to ski the narrow spines of the Palisades (most of which end with a cliff drop). This section of the resort is only opened a few days a year when conditions allow it. You can clearly see the Palisades from the Lincoln chair, so the entertainment value is high on the lift rides when this area is open. Below is a shot of the Palisades from the Lincoln chair (the Palisades are the top part of the photo):
The terrain park is not an area where I spend a lot of time, but it seems like a pretty good park. It is serviced by the Judah lift. The Jerome lift has good beginner and intermediate terrain along with a couple short advanced runs. Jerome stays open a little longer than most of the other lifts, so I often enjoy fast cruiser runs down the wide Trailblazer trail at the end of the day when the mountain has nearly emptied. Christmas Tree is Sugar Bowl’s race course lift that has a few short runs that can be fun to ski while waiting for the Lincoln lift to open on a powder day. Christmas Tree also stays open a little later and allows you to ski Disney or Lincoln until they close and still get back to the Judah side of the mountain if you parked by the Judah lodge. Note that you can also park in a little lot by the gondola and take the gondola over to the base of Disney. It is a very old 4-person gondola that travels mostly horizontal. If you want to get in near the front of the line at the Disney lift on a powder day it is good to park here and take the gondola, which runs 24-7 during the season. Otherwise you can only get to the Disney lift by hiking a ways or by riding Jerome up from the Judah side and skiing over to Disney.
If you are unfamiliar with Sugar Bowl and want to explore you do have to be careful because there are a few places where you can get stuck with a long, flat traverse, especially at the bottom of Strawberry Fields on the far west side, in the meadow below the Roller Pass tree area (east side of Lincoln) or at the bottom of the Judah lift near Lake Mary. The cliff areas are mostly well marked with signs, and common sense will generally keep you from getting stuck or in a place you’d rather not be. Sugar Bowl is a fun resort to explore with its variety of bowls, chutes, gullies, trees and groomers. I recommend it to anyone spending some time in North Lake Tahoe and especially to anyone doing a day trip who is driving up the 80 freeway.
Sugar Bowl website: http://www.sugarbowl.com/home
Sugar Bowl history: http://www.sugarbowl.com/history