As I described in my tale of our time skiing in the Alps, I’m not the greatest skier in the world. Where I come from in southeastern Michigan, we ski on landfills because we don’t even have mountains. Knowing that I was heading to one of the premier ski areas near Lake Tahoe had me a bit intimidated because I was slightly concerned that I wouldn’t find many runs that I could comfortably do. Those fears were completely unfounded though, because I found Squaw Valley to have lots of fun runs for both beginners and intermediate level skiers.
However, I had a free lift ticket in my hand (find out how you can score one too!) and I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to at least check out a legendary ski location like Squaw – it was the site of an Olympics after all. To my great surprise, I discovered that Squaw Valley has some of the best Lake Tahoe skiing for beginners and I had an amazing afternoon on the slopes. I even returned a couple more times on subsequent business trips. And since I wasted valuable time that day googling “Squaw Valley beginner runs” on my phone with not a lot of great results, I decided to write about it so anyone in my boat can see that it’s totally doable even for a moderately in-shape mediocre skier from the Midwest.
I knew that I wouldn’t be hitting any of the black diamond and beyond runs. I don’t even do those on little Michigan hills. I figured I’d start out on green runs and maybe work my way up to some blue runs toward the end. I was fully expecting to spend my whole afternoon at the bottom of the mountain taking runs up and down the bunny hill. However, once I got there and looked at the trail maps, I found out that the best Squaw Valley beginner runs were actually located toward the top of the mountain.
This meant two things that made my experience way better than expected: 1. I got to enjoy the gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe from the top of the mountain. Seeing it sparkling like an enormous blue sapphire surrounded by white, snow-covered peaks was worth the effort in and of itself. And 2. I was able to string together some longer runs that connected while still staying on terrain that I felt comfortable on. My first visit was honestly the best skiing experience I’ve ever had.
After spending an eternity fussing with my ski gear in the parking lot, I headed in to the base area of Squaw Valley. Depending on where you park, it can be a bit of a hike – and it’s pretty much uphill. And I was walking in ski boots and hauling my skis. Since I arrived in the afternoon, I was lucky to score a relatively close parking spot, but I was still sweating by the time I made it to the Funitel lift. That’s not a good start to skiing because all that sweat will swipe your body heat when you eventually get cold, so be prepared and maybe leave a layer off while you’re walking up.
I’d already gotten my lift ticket, but if you need to purchase one, you can head to the ticket office right by the main lift. Don’t miss the Olympic rings on the funicular’s building commemorating the 1960 games either. It’s a cool thing to be able to say that you skied at an Olympic site and a good spot for photos.
You’ll want to start your ski day with a ride on the Gold Coast Funitel. Pro tip: stash your lift ticket card in a pocket on your left side to make scanning it easy on the way in and avoid fumbling while you’re trying to board.
The long ride up is an experience in and of itself. The views are amazing and it’s warm inside, so you can pop your gloves off and snap some pictures or just take in the view. The ride up takes you over several runs and past gorgeous rock formations so you can really enjoy the snow-covered beauty of the mountain. It’s a great opportunity to plan out your next route using one of the run maps, warm up on cold days, or cool down on warmer ski days – I legit rode up in a t-shirt and snow pants when I did some spring skiing in May because I was drenched in sweat.
The funicular drops you off in a large building that houses some snack kiosks, a Starbucks, and a bar. There are also some bathrooms and drinking fountains available. It’s located at the bottom of the best terrain at Squaw Valley for beginners, so it’s the perfect place to start your visit. I recommend walking straight through the building, past the equipment shop, and out the back door near the Starbucks. You’ll find yourself in a decent sized flat area perfect for getting your skis or snowboard on. This is where you’ll start your journey at Squaw Valley.
The best Squaw Valley Beginner Runs
Squaw Valley has the requisite bunny hill, and it’s tucked in an out of the way area off to the side of the parking lot. It’s gently sloping and should be a good spot for some practice runs. If you’re a true beginner, you may need to spend a little bit of time here getting your legs underneath you. If, like me, you’ve skied before, you may be able to head straight to the main ski area. I didn’t even realize there was a bunny hill until my third visit in all honesty.
Once you’re ready to hit the real mountain, you’ll want to head toward the Big Blue Express lift. Getting there is the perfect warmup to get your legs ready to go as it’s a pretty quick and easy route. Head downhill – make sure to look uphill first though because people tend to come flying through and you don’t want to find out what roadkill feels like – and follow the gentle curving route down to the lift. It’ll be on your left. There are lots of signs warning beginners not to proceed past that lift, so it should be easy to spot. It’s a large lift that holds lots of people, so queue up and merge with another party if you’re alone or in a smaller group.
Once you’re at the top, you’ll have a few different options for how to proceed. But first, before doing any skiing, take a minute to admire the gorgeous view of Lake Tahoe. If you’re lucky like I’ve been on all three of my visits, you’ll be treated to a sunny day which leaves the lake sparkling like an enormous sapphire ringed by snow-covered peaks. It’s a sight to behold.
In my experience, the easiest route, Snow Flower, will be toward your left as you get off the lift. The run to the right, Mule’s Ear, is totally doable as well, but it does have a slightly steeper part that you may want to leave for a second or third run of the day. Taking Snow Flower will give you a great warmup and return you to where you started at Gold Coast. You can either stop for a break or keep cruising back to the Big Blue Express lift.
There are other great beginner runs in this area of Squaw Valley too. Ramp Run, Monkey Flower, Jupine, and Mountain Run are all rated green for beginners. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but since most of them are longer runs that connect and wind back to the Big Blue Express lift, you can get plenty of skiing in.
Once you’ve got the hang of things on the green runs, you may want to expand into some of the easier blue intermediate terrain. I really enjoyed the blue runs accessed by the Emigrant lift (bear left when you get off the lift or you’ll end up on a black diamond). The view of Lake Tahoe is incredible from up there and easily beats out the one from the top of the Big Blue Express (you’re at a higher elevation). It looked like a perfect blue gem sparkling in the afternoon sun. The Monument Ridge trail is an easy cruise on almost level terrain that allows you to really soak up the view. From there, you can turn and take a narrow, but not too steep run back toward the lift that returns you to the Emigrant Face run. It’s also rated blue for intermediates, but I had no problem with it, and it connects you to the green beginner trail called Ramp Run after a short distance. Make sure you’re able to make your way down from Emigrant though – you can’t ride the lift back down if you’re not up to it.
I also enjoyed taking the runs all the way back down to the bottom. You can take the Gold Coast Funitel down if you don’t feel comfortable on the intermediate runs, but by the end of the day on my first visit, I was ready for a bit more of a challenge. If you’re consistently making it down the green runs comfortably, you might want to give it a shot too. You start by skiing past the signs warning beginners to take the Big Blue Express lift. There are yellow signs marking the easiest route down the mountain, and you’ll want to follow those to make your way down. You’ll mostly be following Mountain Run, though toward the bottom you can choose to stay on that run or bear right for Home Run. I found them to be of comparable difficultly levels.
I found the skiing to be pretty easy as I headed to the base of the mountain. There was really only one little stretch that made me nervous because it was a little steeper than I like, but it was such a short steep spot that I probably would’ve been fine. I took a very gently sloping trail that looped around to avoid it and ended up cross-country skiing back to the main trail. The next few times I went through, I skied as far toward the trees as I could since that area had a shorter steep stretch and just took my time making lots of turns. It can’t have been pretty to watch, but I made it. Once you get through that area, the skiing is pretty easy, though it does narrow a bit toward the end, which makes turning to control your speed a little harder. There are plenty of areas where you can pull off to the side to rest, which I definitely needed since I’m so out of shape these days. Once you’re at the bottom, you can grab something to eat or drink or head right back up the Funitel.
I also tried the Red Dog Lift, which services mainly black diamond terrain, but has an easy/intermediate route down too just for some variety. This was definitely the hardest section that I attempted, but I didn’t feel out of my comfort zone. From the top of the lift, bear to the right and take the intermediate Champs Elysees run. It’ll connect you to a green run called Easy Street. I had intended to take that to Julia’s Gold, an intermediate run named after local Olympic skier Julia Mancuso, but it looked too steep for me, so I continued on Easy Street until it ran into the Home Run route that makes part of the path to the base that I mentioned earlier.
Other things to do besides skiing at Squaw Valley
Aside from hitting the slopes, my favorite thing to do at Squaw Valley is visit the Olympic museum. Located at High Camp, you can wander through this small gallery with artifacts and information about the 1960 Olympic games that were held in Squaw. As a major fan of the games – I’m not the only one obsessed, right? My fiance thinks it’s weird – I made a point to pay it a visit. I learned some cool history about how those games came to be and a fun story about the US men’s hockey team that won an unexpected gold medal. Apparently at one point, they were trailing the team from then-Czechoslovakia and a Russian player showed up in their locker room recommending they take oxygen to help. While his advice wasn’t exactly selfless (a Czechoslovakia win could’ve pushed Russia off the podium), it was an interesting, unknown story to this hockey fan. Best of all? The museum is free with your lift ticket or tram ride.
Oh, and there’s a fake podium you can pose for pictures on so you can pretend you won something. No one has to know that right after faking my gold medal photo, I headed right back to the beginner runs. Or that I almost fell on my face climbing down in my ski boots. It’s our little secret.
If you’re doing some spring skiing, you can visit the High Camp hot tub, where you can soak your sore muscles while taking in an amazing view. There’s an extra charge for this, but it’s quite an experience. Sadly, it’s closed for most of the ski/snowboard season and I didn’t get to check it out until my May visit. The upside is that the Squaw Valley beginner runs tend to stay open later in the season because they’re close to the top.
High Camp is most easily accessed via the Bailey’s Beach lift, though you can also make it there with a little effort from the Big Blue Express lift.
If you need a break from skiing, but still want to be on the snow, check out the snow tubing area. You can get tickets for a 55-minute tubing session, which offers you another, more relaxing, way to zoom down the mountainside.
Things to do in the Squaw Valley Base Area
The basecamp area of Squaw Valley is full of shopping and dining to suit all tastes. From Irish pubs to delis to pizza to Mexican to sushi, there are a variety of restaurants to pick from. I sampled both 22 Bistro and Fireside Pizza and had good meals at each.
The mac & cheese with bacon and hot Cheetos at 22 Bistro was my favorite out of my sit-down meals. Plus, eating outside on their patio with a view of the mountain was pleasant. Well, until the sun set and I got cold. That was my own doing though because I asked to sit out there.
For a faster (and cheaper) snack, the two kiosks near the big firepit outside the Gold Coast Funitel entrance are my favorite. You can get sweet or savory crepes – try the British, full of marshmallow and chocolate, unless you care about dignity and not getting dessert smeared all over your face. And maybe hair – from Euro Crepes or frog dogs and Belgian waffles from the Euro Snack kiosk. Chilling out by the fire with your treat is such a great way to relax after a long day of skiing.
There are also plenty of stores to wander into, many of which sell ski and winter gear. I checked out a couple of them, but things were a little out of my price range. I’m not much of a shopper anyway, but if that’s your thing, you’ll find plenty of it.
Lessons and packages at Squaw Valley for beginners
I’d highly recommend taking a beginner lesson if you’re at Squaw Valley and need some help getting going. You can take individual or group lessons to learn basic skiing technique and get comfortable out on the slopes. They’re offered for both skiing and snowboarding, so you can learn either sport. Squaw Valley also offers a buy two, get one free deal for lessons. They’re certainly not cheap, but skiing and snowboarding are skills that tend to require some help to develop.
The group lessons can be added on to your skiing package or can include a lift ticket and rental if you choose.
Check out these other Lake Tahoe area tips:
- How I Skied for Free at Lake Tahoe
- Hiking Your Way to a Spectacular View of Lake Tahoe
- Ten Best South Lake Tahoe Restaurants