Diamond Peak: A Lake Tahoe gem

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this winter, Diamond Peak is probably the most overlooked and underrated ski resort in the Tahoe Basin. With an impressive 1,840 feet of vertical, a variety of trails and breathtaking views of Big Blue, Diamond Peak is without a doubt a premier Tahoe ski destination. This hidden jewel boasts miles of unpopulated runs, open tree skiing and an intermediate cruiser called Crystal Ridge that is rated among the “World’s 100 Best Ski Runs” by CNN Travel.

Diamond Peak’s Crystal Ridge Run. | Jeff Engerbretson

Diamond Peak is geared toward an exciting family experience, but diehard skiers can challenge themselves in Solitude Canyon, an expert area that’s killer after a powder storm. Diamond Peak is privately owned by Incline Village property owners, but the public is always welcome.

Like many Tahoe ski resorts, Diamond Peak has an interesting history. During the late 1800s, the region was logged of its timber to support the Comstock mining boom near Virginia City, Nev. Cord wood and cut lumber harvested from forestland along the North Shore were loaded into tram cars and hauled 1,400 feet up to Incline Summit by a double track tramline. Built in 1880, this steam-powered cable railway was 4,000 feet long and became known as “The Great Tramline of Tahoe.”

Powered by two massive 12-foot-diameter iron bull wheels, the innovative logging operation inspired the moniker: Incline. By 1897, nothing remained except for stripped forestland, logging roads and crumbling flumes. Despite fits and starts, alpine skiing at Incline was still nearly 70 years in the future.

Ski Incline was the first resort in the West to utilize a snowmaking system and when it opened on November 19, 1966, it featured three chair lifts, a T-bar surface lift and nicely groomed terrain.

There was a flurry of activity in the late 1930s when it seemed that lift-served, downhill skiing was about to become a reality near Incline. Norman Biltz, owner of the Cal Neva Lodge in Crystal Bay, had returned from Europe where he was inspired by the possibility of building an Austrian-style resort at Lake Tahoe. In August 1937, Biltz ordered a feasibility study for developing nearby Rifle Peak, elevation 9,488 feet, into a ski resort. Joining Biltz for the exploration of Rifle Peak was noted Reno architect Frederick De Longchamps, along with engineers and local expert skiers Halvor Michelson and Wayne Poulsen.

Poulsen, future founder of Squaw Valley, spent much of the 1937-38 season on top of Rifle Peak where he scouted skiing terrain and snow deposition. Poulsen and his buddies from the University of Nevada, Reno ski team had built crude cabins at the summit out of old flume wood for winter shelter. That winter, the snowiest on record in the Tahoe Sierra, Poulsen lived off canned stew that his skiing friends would bring him periodically.

The Rifle Peak project caught the attention of Captain George Whittell, an enigmatic San Francisco real-estate tycoon who owned most of the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. In the summer of 1938, Whittell proposed building a $1 million casino and hotel resort at Sand Harbor in hopes of cashing in on the much anticipated Rifle Peak ski development. But, the savvy investor was waiting to see how successful Norman Biltz’s winter sports program would be. Although Biltz and his partners envisioned ski runs, jumps, tramways and tows, lodges, bobsledding, ice skating and other related winter activities in their “Tahoe Alps” project, Rifle Peak was the key cog in the whole plan.

Unfortunately, Wayne Poulsen came down from the mountain reporting that Rifle Peak was poorly suited for a ski resort. A southern exposure and proximity to Lake Tahoe resulted in a wet, unstable snowpack and that in many years the snow on the lower elevations would melt too quickly in the spring.

In the early 1960s, George Whittell sold 9,000 acres of land to Art Wood, an Oklahoma-based developer. Wood and his associate, Harold B. Tiller, envisioned the creation of Incline Village: a master-planned, vacation resort community. A cornerstone amenity for this concept was a new ski area called Ski Incline.

It was a stroke of genius that Art Wood hired legendary Austrian ski pioneer Luggi Foeger to design and build the $2 million ski area. When Foeger looked over the initial layout of the project, he told Wood that the location was all wrong from a skier’s perspective. The original proposal situated the resort on the slopes of Rose Knob Peak, a high-elevation ridge not far from Rifle Peak. Foeger argued that the proposed runs were too steep for beginner and intermediate level skiers and the slopes faced south instead of north, which better protected the snow. And, in Foeger’s mind, the proposed runs were poorly cut.

Foeger successfully re-designed Ski Incline to provide a pleasurable experience for the whole family. Over his career he had headed ski schools at Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park, Sugar Bowl and Alpine Meadows at Lake Tahoe. He also helped design Northstar California.

Foeger was an affable instructor, known as much for his sense of humor as for his care in resort design to preserve and protect the environment. Foeger’s award-winning layout of Ski Incline was called a model for modern ski-slope development. Ski Incline was the first resort in the West to utilize a snowmaking system and when it opened on November 19, 1966, it featured three chair lifts, a T-bar surface lift and nicely groomed terrain.

In the 1980s, improvements at Ski Incline added more chairlifts and expanded snowmaking capability. In 1987, under the direction of Ski Resort manager Jurgen Wetzstein, the area doubled in size and was renamed Diamond Peak to highlight the addition of longer, more advanced runs on the new upper mountain. The addition of the mile-long Crystal Quad chairlift was icing on the cake. Since then about $15 million has been invested in capital improvements, which produced new high-speed detachable chairlifts that cut the ride time in half, beautifully renovated lodges and a new, more efficient snow-making system.

Diamond Peak ranks fourth among Tahoe resorts for the continuity and ski-ability of terrain between its high and low points — ahead of such notable resorts as Mt. Rose, Homewood, Alpine Meadows and even Kirkwood.

Diamond Peak is celebrating a big birthday this year. The resort’s marketing slogan is: “Don’t worry, ski happy.”

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books, including his new book “Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra,” are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

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Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.