Forget Squaw Valley. Take your nordic to the next level at this inexpensive offshoot
Let the Tahoe traffic continue over Donner Pass while you peel off Interstate 80 on a snowy, bumpy backroad that seems to lead to nowhere. (Lack of signage doesn’t help the matter.)
But stay the course, and you’ll arrive at Royal Gorge―North America’s largest cross-country ski “resort,” where a no-fuss lodge and a handful of warming huts barely disrupt this 9,000-acre winter wonderland.
Ski: Rent a pair of skis right on-site at Royal Gorge (closed Wed; day pass $29; royalgorge.com), and head out on your own to tackle groomed and well-marked beginner, intermediate, and expert tracks. Nordic newbies can test their skills on the scenic, mostly flat Lake Van Norden trails, while the hard-core prefer the challenge (and canyon views) of Point Mariah. Join a class or guided telemark trek; check out newly blazed trails especially for snowshoers; or take the interconnect trail for just over 10 miles to Sugar Bowl Resort―and gloat at the $66 lift tickets dangling from the parkas of all those alpine skiers.
Eat: Just up the road, by the Yuba River, is Rainbow Lodge, known for its indulgent weekend brunch, served in the timber-stone dining room of Engadine Café ($$; closed Tue–Wed; 50080 Hampshire Rocks Rd., Soda Springs; 530/426-3871). Dinner is worth a reservation too, with European game specialties like wild boar stew.
Sleep: From Royal Gorge trails, ski to your room at the Ice Lakes Lodge (from $199; royalgorge.com), a knotty-pine throwback tucked in the trees beside tiny Serene Lakes.
Rest your aching legs by the stone fireplace in the bar, then pony up for a frosty pint and soothing French onion soup before adjourning to the game room to tackle a jigsaw puzzle or a board game. Try to snag an upstairs lakeview room.
If you do get the downhill itch: Family-friendly Sugar Bowl Resort (day pass $66; sugarbowl.com) is closest (with some great chutes), but just over Donner Pass is world-class Squaw Valley USA (squaw.com), where white-knuckle runs and sweeping Sierra views set you back a whopping $83.