Since the late 1940s, numerous developers have announced plans to build the complete winter resort at Lake Tahoe, only to each fall short of that vision. In its 40th year, Northstar California can rightly claim being Lake Tahoe’s first.
Originally called the “Timber Farm,” Northstar was a logged forest near the railroad and lumber town of Truckee that was acquired by forest product giant Georgia Pacific. The area was renamed Northstar-at-Tahoe and opened in Deccember 1972 as an all-season resort community. What existed in the early ‘70s was tiny compared to the extensive, complex and growing resort embodied by Northstar California, today.
Back then, few could imagine that Northstar might eclipse Squaw Valley as North Lake Tahoe’s preeminent winter resort. I certainly didn’t. At the time, I directed marketing and PR at Squaw Valley. The company I worked for, Mainline Ltd. of Australia, had acquired the State of California’s interests at Squaw in 1974.
In partnership with Squaw Valley USA, Alexander Cushing’s ski company, we announced plans to develop a futuristic, environmental resort, reminiscent of that at Courcheval, France, to be designed by a master of modern architecture, I.M. Pei. Cushing would manage the mountain, Mainline would develop and promote the resort.
The new Squaw would contain all the elements of the complete winter resort promised by the 1960 Olympics, 14 years earlier, then not yet realized. It would have grand hotels, fine restaurants and enticing shops. Parking lots full of cars would disappear, replaced by day skiers arriving by light rail from Truckee and Tahoe City and overnight skiers would park beneath a low-profile, serpentine condominium building. Each residence in the serpentine would have an unobstructed view of the valley. The structure would wind around the Olympic Ice Rink and a village core, punctuated at its sinuous end by a 30-story residential and hotel tower hidden from view of those arriving at Squaw Valley.
It was a bold plan by a daring Aussie developer, one who soon found himself in a financial bind when labor strife Down Under caused his business empire to collapse. It was one of several grand, but fleeting, concepts proposed for such existing and conceived resorts as: Sugar Bowl, Mineral King, Tahoe Donner, Ski Incline (Diamond Peak), Bear Valley, Mammoth and June Mountains, Kirkwood, Homewood, Independence Lake, Squaw and Alpine Meadows, Iron Mountain and Dyer Mountain.
In El Dorado County’s case, Heavenly’s proximity to abundant, though mismatched, lodging, casino hotels and visitor services, meant it couldn’t be in charge of its destiny as a mountain resort. Heavenly depended upon the cities of South Lake Tahoe and Stateline, Nev., planning agencies, long-established business owners and the convergence of economic and environmental factors to force the replacement of past haphazard development with a planned resort.
From its beginning, Northstar California had a clean slate. It could more easily become what it aspired to be. There was nothing on the slopes of Northstar’s Mount Pluto other than the signs of past logging when the resort began in 1972. Soon, a compact village of condominiums, shops and restaurants, a golf course, tennis courts and ski lifts were completed. For Northstar-at-Tahoe’s first few years, selling real estate was its focus. Promoting and improving the ski terrain and lifts was secondary. That changed once its operators realized that a resort with a reputation as being full of great fun attracts second-home owners.
In 1994 Trimont Land and Development acquired Northstar from Fibreboard, which sold its resort group to Gillett two years later. Three years later Booth Creek took over development and a decade of stability and growth followed. Until this century, Northstar concentrated on expanding and refining its ski terrain, adding the backside and improving lifts. Then, early in the ‘00s, Northstar began completing the package.
It rearranged snowsport on the mountain, locating its superpipe on Lower Dropoff, dramatically increasing the extent of terrain park features, adding signature rails for riders and skiers and opening Lookout Mountain, a series of steep slopes that added backcountry character to the mountain. A symbol of the old Northstar, its clocktower building, was demolished in 2004, as a new village center arose, offering over 100,000 square feet of commercial space for shopping, galleries, cafes and restaurants, all centered around a village plaza with a 9,000 square-foot skating rink.
Today, families and friends cluster in canopied pods around the rink on winter days, enjoying treats of s’mores, crepes and hot drinks as the skaters swirl past. There is verve at Northstar. The action is not just on the hill, but in its vibrant village.
Other additions included the Stash, a terrain park designed in conjunction with Burton Snowboards and Snow Park Technologies that used materials natural to the area, creating a backcountry feel for riders. The Northstar Mountain Bike Park became the largest in Northern California in 2007 with 100 miles of trails, including Live Wire, a signature bike trail that has become legendary among mountain bikers.
In 2009 the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe opened, making Northstar California the first nationally-branded five-star resort at Lake Tahoe. Celebrated chef Traci des Jardins of San Francisco’s Jardinière brought culinary creds to the Ritz-Carlton and Olympian Shaun White brought snowboarding ones to Northstar when he selected it as his training base. A year later, Vail Resorts added Northstar California to its expanding collection of North American mountain resorts, including Heavenly and Kirkwood.
Today, Northstar has become what many other Tahoe resorts are still striving to achieve. Though more improvements are envisioned, including mountainside ski-in/ski-out homes, what began as concept 40 years ago is now reality. Northstar California is Tahoe’s first complete winter resort.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.