By Matt Villano, on February 7, 2015

Winter family adventures in Lake Tahoe

For groups of grownups, most winter trips to the northern part of Lake Tahoe include epic power days on the slopes, beer (and herb) around a giant bonfire, stargazing from the comfort of a hot tub, then skiing and snowboarding again.

Visiting the Lake Tahoe area as a family, however, can be quite different—especially when you have kids who are a) too young for ski school or b) too spooked by the thought of gravity-assisted sports.

I experienced this first-hand on a recent multifamily jaunt to the region. My family—yours truly, my wife, and our two daughters, ages 5 and 3—rented a house outside Truckee with another family—my wife’s best friend, her husband, their 4-year-old daughter, and their infant son. Only one of us (my lucky wife) hit the slopes. As a group, however, we found plenty of other ways to make the trip memorable.

Embrace the sno-park

No. 1 on our list of diversions: Sno-parks in and around Truckee.

These “parks” comprised relatively small hills where snow had been shaped and molded into sledding or tubing hills of varying pitch. At many of these spots, the kids (except for the baby, obviously) were able to slide down modest slopes without fear of losing control or crashing. In one park, my older daughter even managed to perfect the art of sledding on her butt.

We loved the diversity of these sno-parks; because most of the areas were divvied up into sections for riders of different skill levels, the kids didn’t have to worry about older kids (or childish grownups) crashing into them.

Exploring Northstar in style

At the snow-park in Tahoe Donner, we also appreciated the proximity to a pizza shop; after one particular sledding session, the dads seriously contemplated ditching everyone and downing some suds.

Improvise at Northstar

I mentioned my wife was the only one in our group who got to ski. Truth is, that wasn’t entirely the plan. The day we drove from our house over to Northstar California Resort, all three of the girls were psyched to enroll in a ski lesson. Of course when we arrived and they saw the slopes and the skis and all of the other kids who’d be taking the class, the kids decided they wanted out.

That left the rest of us with some improvising to do. The Village at Northstar made that easy. The girls spent part of the morning scampering up a giant pile of snow left over from some plowing. After snack (hello, Starbucks!), we watched the big kids jump on a bungy trampoline for a while.

There were other activities to consider: Candle-making and pottery-painting, to name a few.

But just as the girls started getting antsy, I scored one of the resort’s free gear wagons, convinced the three of them to climb in, and pulled them like cargo around the village. The three of them luxuriated in that cart like a bunch of Victorian princesses. Thankfully, lunchtime arrived before my rotator cuff gave way.

Viewfinder Tip: If you’re driving to Lake Tahoe from the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to bring chains for your tires in case it snows.

Explore the KidZone

Because my wife and I travel a ton with our family, we always try to seek out the local children’s museums wherever we go. During our visit to Truckee, that meant a visit to the KidZone Museum.

In winter, the museum revolves around a giant indoor space—a building that comprises a play area for infants, an indoor play structure for older kids, an art studio, and a science lab with hands-on science activities. In spring, summer, and fall, the museum has a wonderful outdoor play area, as well.

Naturally, because it was -7 degrees the day we visited, our kids stayed inside. My Big Girl scampered around the play structure like a little monkey, while my little one gravitated more toward the art. Both girls liked the science area as well, though a few of the experiments were a bit too sophisticated for the kids to handle.

My girls’ absolute favorite activity at the KidZone Museum was the indoor train table (technically, this is part of the indoor play structure). Here, over the course of one hour, the girls pretended they were Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, chugging all over the board to fix various catastrophes. They protested when it was time to go. I always take that as a sign of a good time.

Relaxing by the fire at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe

Perfect the art of après snowballs

Every time we vacation with these friends, the dads try and give the moms at least a few hours to hit up a local spa. This particular vacation was no exception—on one of our last days in town, all eight of us drove up to The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. The dudes watched the kids while the mommas disappeared for some mani/pedi action.

My buddy stayed inside with his baby son while I ventured out onto the back patio with the three girls. They had a snowball fight. They slid face-first down a bunny slope. They watched in amazement as the chairlifts went up and down.

Then they got cold.

Instead of fleeing inside, the girls pulled up chairs around a giant firepit and warmed their footsies. We inquired about Marshmology—a daily s’mores tasting between 4-5 p.m.—but we were too early. In the absence of another diversion, the kids told each other stories about abominable snowgirls and giant furry snow-cats. The stories alternated between adorable and terrifying.

By the time we ventured back into the lobby bar, my buddy was waiting with a table and a spread of healthy snacks (for the kids), and giant cocktails (for us). The girls continued telling stories while they colored and marveled at the crackling fire. It was the perfect end to a relaxing family trip.

How do you like to spend ski vacations with kids?