Wandering the West
September 8, 2009
With two kids in college in the San Francisco Bay area, my wife and I have made a lot of long laps between Park City and S.F. The first year I printed out MapQuest directions, but all it said was turn left at Kimball Junction and proceed west for the next 733 miles. I could drive there in my sleep after seven years of this commute.
In the early years we were in a hurry and blasted past Truckee, Calif., and over Donner Pass without blinking. But in recent years we’ve carved out extra time to do what we now call the Truckee Triangle. When we break the trip into two days, we opt for cheap casino-hotel lodging in Reno and keep our money in our wallets (except for a spousal addiction to Wheel of Fortune, which she always seems to win). That puts Truckee just 40 minutes down the road, in time for breakfast the next morning at the restored Truckee Diner.
Truckee was a frontier town slightly newer than Park City, but it was a railroad and timber town instead of one that made its living wrestling rock from mountains. Its main drag is a mix of Victoriana, frontier funk, and retro modernity, like the diner. The Truckee River flows through it, along with several rail lines. It’s still a railroad town, and the depot is now the visitor center, full of brochures, maps and friendly advice.
Truckee is also the top of the triangle that gives us at least a taste of the Sierras and especially Lake Tahoe. From Truckee, take Highway 287 down to King’s Beach. This route also offers a chance to see some of what Sierra ski resorts are like. There’s Northstar at Tahoe about halfway to the lake, with lift rides, mountain biking, golf and all the amenities we’ve come to expect in the summer at winter resorts. The Autumn Food and Wine Festival begins there this Friday and runs through the weekend.
We hurry past to get to the lake. Tahoe is in a class by itself. Deep, blue, surrounded by fir- and pine-covered mountains around its 72 miles of shoreline straddling two states. The park at King’s Beach offers the first chance to get out and take it all in and learn about its unique qualities through interpretive signage and a well-executed topo-map display.
As you’d expect at a place with so much tourism, the shoreline drive is a slow tour through T-shirt shops, mom-and-pop motels, condo projects and delis. We save our appetites for Gar Woods Grill and Pier in Carnelian Bay with its big lakeside deck. If you arrive by boat there’s valet boat docking, and during lunch you’ll see a number of classic wooden boats come and go. For a moment you might think you’re enjoying the Corleone Family’s Tahoe property, full of mahogany Chris-Crafts but minus the gunfire.
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The triangle tour continues slowly along the lakeshore to Tahoe City where you pick up Highway 89 North back to Truckee. But along the way take the time to stop at two more ski resorts, famous for different reasons. The first stop is Alpine Meadows, well known by long-time Park City locals. Alpine is where Nick Badami got into the ski business at the urging of his friend Art Linkletter. When the Badamis looked to expand, they purchased then-struggling Park City Ski Resort, re-launching it into the modern era. When the Badamis ran both resorts, you could use your Park City season ticket to ski free at Alpine once Park City closed, since Alpine’s season ran longer.
Just a few miles past Alpine, stop by Squaw Valley, one of North America’s grand old winter resorts. The Olympics were held here in 1960, and except for a recent expansion of the base to include pedestrian malls in-between high-rise hotel and condo buildings, the place looks pretty much the same as when Walter Cronkite covered the Games. Take the cable car to High Camp at 8,200 feet and prepare to be surprised. There at mid-mountain is a big swimming-pool complex with islands, waterfalls and lap lanes. Next to that is the Olympic Ice Pavilion, site of the 1960 ice events, and still open for summer skating. Surprisingly, the only mentions of the 1960 Games I found were on an obscure wall in the High Meadows cafeteria, where a few photos hang on the wall. Heck, in Park City we built a whole big fancy museum to remember the Games.
From Squaw it’s a short scenic drive along the Truckee River back to Truckee the town, and on down I-80 whichever way you care to go. The Truckee Triangle adds at least two hours to your I-80 trip to the Bay, but as I always say, getting there is half the fun.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Truckee — 580 miles
Insider tip: If you’ve got the time, circle the whole lake on Highway 89 on the California side and Highway 50 in Nevada.