Donner Ski Ranch | Future is bright at family-owned resort

Sign with Donner Ski Ranch’s elevation and view from the top of Chair Lift 3. | Courtesy Donner Ski Ranch

It was overcast when I headed up the summit to ski at Donner Ski Ranch. The previous night’s dusting of snow lies gently on the hill. I have passed the mountain a hundred times, yet never skied there. My friend Karen Zazzi and I hop on the chair lift as the sun tries to eke out through the haze. We ski up the lift and are astonished that we have much of the backside of the mountain to ourselves. With sweeping views, we shush around the hill taking in the majesty of our backyard. Who knew?

“People don’t realize we have as much terrain as we do. They come here when the big resorts are packed and ski the backside.”              –Day Franzen

There are currently 471 operating ski areas in the U.S., according to the National Ski Areas Association. Corporations and holding companies own most of these resorts. But there are a few that are still independent or family owned. In the Tahoe region, there are 16 downhill ski resorts, of which seven are owned by a family, the community or by homeowners: Donner Ski Ranch and Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in Truckee, Tahoe Donner Downhill, Granlibakken in Tahoe City, and Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, Sky Tavern and Diamond Peak Ski Resort in Nevada.

People heading up the lift at Donner Ski Ranch.
| Courtesy Donner Ski Ranch

Donner Ski Ranch is one of the oldest ski resorts in the area. In 1937, Jerry Ellis install-ed a rope tow on what would eventually become Donner Ski Ranch. After World War II, Stanley and Made-line Walton built the lodge and T-bar and gave Donner Ski Ranch its name. Norm Sayler, who still lives on the summit, helped build the first chair lift at Donner Ski Ranch in 1955 and eventually took over the resort in 1958. He ran it for 46 years, while slowly acquiring most of the ownership.

In 2004, Janet and Marshall Tuttle pur-chased the resort and have been making improvements to the property ever since. The couple also owns Tahoe Vista Lodge & Cabins and Rustic Cottages on the North Shore. “It wasn’t my idea to buy Donner Ski Ranch. It was my husband’s idea. It’s been a crazy adventure. Marshall loves old, historic places and he wanted to bring it back to its grander days,” says Janet Tuttle. “We want to keep the resort an affordable, family-friendly place to ski.”

Donner Ski Ranch was also one of the first resorts to allow snowboarding on the mountain.

Karen Zazzi and Priya Hutner on the backside
of Donner Ski Ranch. | Courtesy Priya Hutner

“Donner Ski Ranch became a home for snowboarders in the area. Guys who were snowboarding back in the 80s and 90s come back with their families and say it’s like coming home,” says Day Franzen, the resort’s general manager.

Franzen was hired three years ago; he came to the resort with many years of experience in the ski industry. The Tuttles are thrilled with him and his leadership.

“People don’t realize we have as much terrain as we do. They come here when the big resorts are packed and ski the backside,” Franzen says.

Donner Ski Resort has been indepen-dently owned for 83 years and has retained its independence. As the owners, the Tuttles can make decisions such as allow film shoots or open an 18-hole disc-golf course, which they did last summer. The resort hosts unique events year-round, including dirt-biking races, rock crawls and motorcycle events, according to Franzen.

Every bit of money made goes back into to improving Donner Ski Ranch, such as remodeling the main lodge.

“It was built in the 40s. It needs some help,” says Tuttle.

The couple also plans to rebuild the day lodge on the backside of the mountain; it burned down three years ago.

Old 40 Bar & Grill at Donner Ski Ranch has become a locals’ hangout where many who work on the summit, including Sugar Bowl employees, gather, says Franzen. Chef Scott Van Every came on board a few years ago and has made a difference in the food. Tuttle makes pies for the restaurant and has gained quite a reputation for her delectable baked goods. It’s known among Pacific Coast Trail hikers that Old 40 Bar & Grill is the place to stop for a slice of pie.

“We are very fortunate to have a great staff. Everyone is like family. I think that compared to other ski resorts, we can make things happen quickly and don’t have to deal with bureaucracy. We are both hands on. I do the bookkeeping and baking, and my husband runs the lifts, fixes anything and does whatever is needed. He’s like the wind; everywhere all the time,” says Tuttle.

“The future is bright. There is a resurgence of people who want to ski at a smaller resort and not spend $1,000 a day for the family,” says Franzen.

I loved skiing at Donner Ski Ranch. I met the co-owner Marshall Tuttle, who was shepherding folks onto the chair lift. And afterwards, I tried the pie, and it was delicious. |