When the snow starts to fall and the winter weather beckons, Bay Area families hit the road for Tahoe and it’s no surprise why. From skiing and snowboarding to just plain old winter fun like outdoor ice skating, sledding and snowman building, Tahoe has it all. Here’s your ultimate guide to this winter wonderland.

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Where to Stay

For those who prefer the north side of the lake, the Village at Northstar boasts a ton of comfy lodging options for you and the fam, and most rooms come with a mini kitchen so you can cook up your own hot cocoa. For an elevated experience, check into the Ritz-Carlton, which opened 2010 mid-mountain at Northstar. Expect 5-star Ritz service, with ski-in-ski-out convenience, plus a spa worth bribing your significant other to take the kids for a couple of hours.

If your kids aren’t quite ready to “put on the Ritz,” the Timber Creek Lodge Lofts at Northstar make a perfect alpine lodging experience, walking distance from the gondola, restaurants and shops in the village.

If being close to the action is what you crave, the Village at Squaw Valley plunks you and the fam just steps from the gondola, lifts, shops and great restaurants of the former Olympic Village. Condos come in sizes from studios to three-bedrooms, so there’s room for all.

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On the South side of the lake, there are sometimes better deals to be found, as well as some top-notch skiing. The Hotel Becket boasts gorgeous modern rooms and is located Just across the street from Heavenly Village, which offers 4,800 acres of world-class skiing and snow boarding.

If you’re looking to team up with another family or simply prefer more space, (plus have your own yard for snowman-building and snowball-hurling) the widest array of options are found on vrbo.com or airbnb.com. TahoeGetaways,com also offers some stunning homes perfect for groups or large families, including some homes within residential community Mountainside at Northstar, which offers everything from ski butler, to a communal club house with a fitness center and heated pool, to back doors that open up right to the runs on the mountain.

photo: Resort at Squaw Creek

Where to Ski and Shred

Some of you may be itching to get the little ones up on skis for the first time. If they’re ready to go for it, most of the larger ski resorts have ski schools that are perfect for tiny beginners. Squaw’s program takes kids as young as 3 and these “Pioneers” learn on the flats, with about a 3-to-1 student to teacher ratio. Slightly older kids (4-6) learn with the Explorers group. And at Northstar-at-Tahoe’s youth ski/snowboard  program takes 3-year-olds and up as well. TIP: For first-timers, most resorts recommend starting off with a half-day, to keep their little legs from getting too tired, then checking them into day care so kids can have a blast while you go big on the slopes. Check out our full list of kids’ ski and snowboard lessons right here.

But if the real thrill is teaching your little shredder yourself, there are plenty of slopes perfect for learning. The Little Dipper sits right behind the Ritz Carlton and even has it’s own mini chair lift, which tends to make kids extra excited about the whole snowy endeavor. Closer to Northstar Village, there are two Kids’ Adventure Parks with tiny terrain perfect for the beginner to practice on.

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Where to Sled, Skate and Tube

Tahoe Donner
This outdoor adventure wonderland is perfect for families who have more on their wish list than ski, ski, ski. While there are great options for downhill and cross-country here, we went nuts for the snow play area. Sledding (sleds provided!), tubing and even a snowball launch make this an all-in-one winter wonderland for kids (and grownups who may have forgotten the joy of coasting down a snow-covered hill on their butts). Ample parking and one ticket lets you play all day. There are fire pits, picnic tables and a food truck serving up sandwiches, hot cocoa and more.

11509 Northwoods Blvd.
Truckee, CA
530-587-9400
Online: tahoedonner.com

Sleigh and Sled Rides
Bundled-up kids will enjoy a sleigh ride pulled by horses: there’s one at Squaw Creek Meadow (free for kids under 2) and also one in South Lake Tahoe at Borges, a family-run outfit. Dog-sledding trips might thrill older kids who can stand to be on a husky-pulled sled for an hour. Check out Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours if you think this classic outdoors adventure is a fit for your family.

Tube it Up!
If your tot prefers to pull his own sled, there are dozens of options for sledding hills and tubing parks all around the lake. If you’re planning to ski at one of the major resorts, you’ll be glad to know that Squaw, Northstar, Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe all boast tubing parks where kids can slide in a giant doughnut for a small fee. And the smaller resorts have some pretty tricked-out sledding hills these days, too: Soda Springs lets tots as little as three take its tow ropes to the Tube Express, or, for a slower ride, the Little Dipper; Granlibakken rents saucers (no tubes or toboggans). For good, old-fashioned classic sledding, there are some hills around the lake that do it old-school: BYO sled, and best of all, no fee.

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And let’s not leave out that classic winter pastime: ice skating! The year-round rink at Northstar (roller-skating in the summer) is in the center of the village, so parents can sip a hot toddy while kids twirl away in their sightline on the ice. And the resort at Squaw Creek’s outdoor rink makes a perfect photo op, with its Sierra backdrop and hot chocolate on hand.

Indoor Play: When you just can’t get them into their snow pants, hats and mittens (or have little ones that are simply not ready for the slopes yet), head for Truckee and hit up the KidZone Museum for indoor fun including art projects, climbing adventures and rotating exhibits. Hint: Your Bay Area Discover Museum pass can get you in for free or discount (depending on your membership level).

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Where to Eat

Pretty much any of the restaurants within the villages at Northstar or Squaw are perfect for filling up your snow covered crew any time of day. But if you are venturing out to the towns, there are lots of family-freindly places to check out.

Dine in an old train car Jax at the Trax, which serves up thick milkshakes, sweet potato fries and even whipped cream topped Irish coffees for mom and dad. This Truckee favorite is almost always bustling, but the incredibly friendly staff will make sure you feel well taken care of. The menu is multiple pages long, and even offers breakfast favorites served all day. Portions are large, so maybe pick a few favorites and go family style. Their chicken fingers are the real deal (as opposed to of the suspiciously shaped McNugget variety), so order em up.

For some special views, the lakeside dining at Riva Grill in South Lake Tahoe is surprisingly kid-friendly. Order up a Virgin Woody (the nonalcoholic version of their famous house cocktail) and soak up the scenery of that iconic lake.

For the best Frosty the Snowman pancakes in town, grab a table at Donner Lake Kitchen. It’s tucked behind the Donner Pines Market on Donner Pass Road. The service is as sweet as the M&Ms used for Frosty’s buttons, and the menu is extensive. (We recommend the Bloody Marys for mom and dad) The portions are massive, but luckily they offer half sizes on the most monster-sized meals. They are only open for breakfast and lunch.

On your way in our out of town, be sure to fuel up at the Wagon Train Coffee Shop. Located in the heart of downtown Truckee, right on the strip, this place is a must visit for a taste of local flavor and fun. A model train runs on tracks suspended over the dining room and dozens of license plates and taxidermy trophy heads line the walls. The family business has been going strong for decades and their baked goods are out of this world. Just don’t try and ask what is in the biscuit’s sweet sauce—that’s proprietary. This place is a haven for thoughtful parents who want to let their partner sleep in, as they open up at 5:30 a.m. every morning and offer early bird pricing during those wee hours. There’s even an ice cream shop on site.

Getting There

Driving from the Bay Area? During the snowy season, it’s best to come prepared with tire chains unless you are driving a four-wheel-drive with snow tires. But if you come empty handed, there are always chain services selling and installing on the side of the road, and you’ll pay from $30 to $45 for the whole shebang, without ever having to get out of your car.

—Erin Feher and Sarah Bossenbroek