Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Olympics and outdoor playground of the San Francisco Bay Area, hasn’t always had the reputation for being the most user friendly mountain. Poor to non-existent signage, cranky lifties, nude art in the cafeteria and a sense that you didn’t belong there unless you could ski didn’t create a warm, fuzzy environment, despite the motto, “We Care”, that was emblazoned on every uniform. But it always had the steeps, and no matter what was going on around the periphery, passionate skiers had all they wanted at the core–plenty of gnarly places to test their mettle. Changes over the decades have resulted in a vast improvement in services and the overall guest experience, so now hard core skiers mix with luxury seekers at the lodge, usually well separated on the mountain by virtue of the lifts they choose.
The great Scot Schmidt, one of the early extreme skiers, wrote in the foreword to Squallywood, a Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines, “Few mountains share the unique terrain characteristics that Squaw Valley USA has to offer: 360 degrees of exposure, ridge lines that run in every direction, big clean cliffs, steep faces, wide open run-outs and great tree spacing throughout the mountain.” That pretty much sums up what make Squaw great.
How well I remember gazing at the craggy pinnacles of the Palisades, narrow walls of Classic Chute and vertigo-inducing swoop of the East Face of Olympic Lady, wondering if I’d ever feel comfortable there. Now I’ve skied the expert lines so many times they are as familiar as a commute to work, but the first times for each, when the sense of uncertainty and anticipation were greatest, were the best.
With the benefit of years on the mountain a group of long-time skier friends tried to come up with this list of challenging runs that might not be so obvious to a new comer (though named on the map), without getting people into too much trouble and mostly not requiring any hiking. These are all popular lines for expert skiers who are regular folks, people who have honed their skills over time but don’t make a living skiing. We want to be able to introduce people to some great lines and then let explorers find some of the harder, more adrenaline-inducing terrain on their own or, preferably, with a guide. Guiding services are available at Squaw for those who have some extra pocket change and haven’t befriended a local who can show them around.
Squaw Rating Scale
Squaw rates trails on a scale from Easiest (green circle) to More Difficult (blue square) to Most Difficult (double blue square) to Expert (black diamond), with the caveat that the Most Difficult are sometimes more like a Black Diamond, depending on snow conditions. Each ski area has its own method of determining the level of difficulty so it is important to understand that an Expert ski run here might not be the same as what you’re used to at your home mountain. Also, Squaw does not differentiate between black diamond and double black diamond so “easy” black diamonds like Sun Bowl or Red Dog Face are rated the same as steeper runs like the Slot or Dead Tree—hardly equal runs in terms of difficulty. Be very cautious about following expert skier or tracks so you don’t get in over your head. Know your limits.
These are mostly listed from top to bottom, starting higher up the mountain. To follow the sun, start with Granite Chief (see Top 10 Advanced Ski Runs at Squaw Valley). Basic pointers are given but you need a map to know where to go. If you want to back out see Easier Way.
Top 10 Expert Runs at Squaw
1. Broken Arrow
This is a special place that needs enough snow to be accessible. If the Broken Arrow lift is running, check it out—you’ll feel like you’re a world away when you drop over the edge of the cliff as it winds down through Swale or Powerline Face to Sunnyside through a series of open bowls and narrow slots.
Chair: Broken Arrow, exit straight ahead
Easier way: Tower 16 is a little easier, or you can exit left down the Land Bridge to Silverado.
2. Headwall-North Bowl
A more wind-scoured place would be hard to find; the top of the Headwall lift is not a place to linger. Bits of snow cling to bare shale but the rewards of steep runs on almost all sides makes this lift a place to explore for hours. A favorite run is North Bowl, where the sun never shines, the fall line is perfect and the drifts can be deep.
Chair: Headwall, exit left, take Bullet toward the Face but turn left under the lift as soon as you can. You’ll likely see tracks and other skiers headed that way. Usually you drop in and traverse to skier’s left to the belly of the bowl, though there are good lines everywhere, steeper and rockier to the right.
Easier way: Sun Bowl is easier if you decide at the staging area immediately after dismounting the lift but if you get all the way to the lip of North Bowl you can still back up and take Bullet (double blue), a road that curves around the backside.
3. The Slot
The hardest part about the Slot is getting to it, both because you sometimes have to take your skis off just before you get there if it’s rocky, and after you get to the entrance, there are often a couple of monster bumps before getting to some of the best snow on the mountain. It’s not really that narrow at the top but the first few turns are critical (unless it’s filled with powder), then it opens up more and more.
Chair: Headwall, exit left, take Bullet toward the Face. The road curves to the right before you reach the Face; follow the road as it curves but take a left after passing a big rocky knob.
Easier way: Sun Bowl is easier if you decide at the staging area immediately after dismounting the lift but if you get all the way to the Slot you can back up and take Bullet down.
4. KT22 -West Face/Mosley’s
We tried to distribute the runs on this list around the mountain but you will see why many of the top skiers spend 90 percent of their time on KT—it’s loaded with a fantastic array of amazing lines. West Face, aka Mosley’s (named for Squaw’s Mountain Host, Jonny Moseley, who won Olympic Gold in moguls at Nagano in 1998) is a long thigh-burner, steep and almost always filled with extremely large moguls.
Chair: KT22, hook a U-turn to the right and head toward the Patrol Shack, angling to the right after you pass the shack.
Easier way: Saddle
5. KT22-West Face Alternates
On a spring afternoon, when the sun has softened the snow, the Alternates are an outstanding way to end the day. Ski down the first section of West Face on the right, and after you pass the small clump of trees in the middle of the run traverse further to the right. A beautiful slope, usually full of smooth, skiable snow, wonderfully free of moguls, awaits. If it’s a bit skied out, traverse further to the right as there are a series of open slopes separated by vertical bands of trees.
6. KT22-Chute 75
Chute 75, a gully to skier’s left of West Face, has the same great snow with a steeper pitch, and the narrow size requires more precision.
Chair: KT22, hook a U-turn to the right and head toward the Patrol Shack, angling to the left after you pass the shack to enter from the top, which is best for the full effect. You can also sneak in from the left side of West Face after negotiating a stand of trees that separates them.
Easier way: Saddle
7. KT22-Rock Garden
In case you’re wondering how Rock Garden got its moniker, it’s pretty obvious. Due to the sun exposure and terrain it tends to be quite rocky. It’s a little like an hour glass: there is a wide entrance, then it gets very narrow as you pass through an especially rocky band for just a couple of turns, then widens again.
Chair: KT22, take a right and follow the wide road toward the Saddle. Take another right as the pitch levels out on the road the Saddle.
Easier way: Saddle
8. Olympic Lady East Face/Tamara’s
The East Face of Oly, aka Tamara’s (named for Tamara McKinney, World Cup Overall champion in 1983–the only American woman to hold that title until Lindsey Vonn came along; now coaches Mighty Mites at Squaw) is a wide open bowl that offers an infinite number of lines from the long ridge. If you keep to left you can explore some hidden areas on the way down to Blood Alley, a narrow gully that funnels everyone on to Champs Elysees and out.
Chair: KT22, take a left and head down the road toward the Women’s Downhill, but keep some speed so you can swoop up again, to the right of the Olympic Lady lift. If the Oly lift is running that works too.
Easier: Take the Saddle from KT22 (exit right), which is usually groomed. Once you go left from the lift there is no easy way down.
9. Poulsen’s Gully
You can get a good look at Poulsen’s (named for the family who first purchased land in the valley–640 acres, and still call it home) on the way up Red Dog. It’s fairly wide and steep at first as it descends from just under the end of the lift into a very narrow gulch with lots of trees. It needs a fair amount of snow. Guaranteed to make your legs burn.
Chair: Red Dog, exit right or left. Drop down under the top of the Red Dog lift or ski under the Squaw Creek chair and approach from the side. At the bottom, turn left to catch the Far East chair back up.
Easier way: Take the Dog Leg or Red Dog Face
10. Palisades-National Chute
This one is out of order but we saved this one for last. A rite of passage, hiking up to the Palisades is often the first introduction to earning your turns, eschewing the lift to power yourself up the mountain. It’s an easy walk but the nerves tingle the first time, especially if you’ve seen the pros hurling themselves off impossible lines. For the mere mortals among us, there is a sane line, know as National Chute, the furthest chute to skier’s right. Take a moment to peer over the near-vertical lines of Chimney, Main and Extra and if you’re not having second thoughts, you’re not human. Hang in there, calm yourself and take your time. National has a nice wide entrance, though sometimes it’s corniced and it’s best to drop in an angle.
Chair: Siberia, turn left, remove skis and start hiking.
Easier way: Siberia Bowl
These ten runs cover some of the best, most accessible runs at Squaw, but it’s really only a starting point. There are many, more thrilling lines for the best of the best, outlined in great detail in the book by Robb Gaffney, “Squallywood, a Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines”, many of which would qualify as triple black diamonds or more.
1960 Squaw Valley Road
Olympic Valley, CA 96146
Snow Phone 530-583-6955
To reach Squaw Valley from San Francisco by car (200 miles; approximately 4 hours, depending on traffic and weather):