Sierra-At-Tahoe celebrates 75th anniversary: Roots Steeped in Legend

Sierra-at-Tahoe historical photographs. | Courtesy Sierra-at-Tahoe

Sierra-at-Tahoe is a legacy resort, one that has deep roots in the origins of downhill skiing in the Tahoe Sierra. Organically it descends from a gaggle of pioneering mom-and-pop-owned ski areas that were strung like white pearls along Highway 50’s upper-elevation snowbelt. Despite being temporarily closed at this time due to infrastructure damage and extensive tree loss caused by the devastating Caldor Fire in 2021, Sierra-at-Tahoe is celebrating its 75th anniversary of sharing the love of alpine sports.

The ski area will open on April 9 and 10 only for the season with pre-purchase tickets available starting on March 16. Additional tickets will be available for day of purchase based on parking availability, the ski resorts announced.

“We are so grateful that so many are interested in the history of our resort, what happened during the Caldor Fire, and who Sierra will be in the future,” Katie Hunter, director of sales and marketing, wrote in an email to Tahoe Weekly on March 1. Follow the progress on the repairs at the resort at

The first owner-operated ski area built along Highway 50 was known as Strawberry Ski Hut. It opened in 1938 with a motorized rope tow and a main run 200 feet long.

Early ski areas along 50

The popular resort is the heart and soul of the South Lake Tahoe and Highway 50 skiing communities; a ski area that has stood the test of time. It will rise again (hopefully, this spring) to welcome skiers and snowboarders back for its special brand of fun and challenge.

The first owner-operated ski area built along Highway 50 was known as the Strawberry Ski Hut. It opened in 1938 with a motorized rope tow and a main run 200 feet long. Although snowfall is more reliable closer to Echo Pass, Strawberry was as far up the west slope as the California Department of Highways plowed the road during the 1930s. Strawberry was followed by Needlehorn. Then Edelweiss Resort at Camp Sacramento (Twin Bridges) opened in 1941, just as the country entered World War II. Edelweiss was farther up the road for better snow (6,500 feet), but winter access was sketchy without all-wheel-drive vehicles. (The Echo Pass area holds California’s 24-hour snowfall record of 67 inches on Jan. 4 to 5, 1982. In 1983, the summit was walloped by more than 62 feet of snow.)

Edelweiss offered a ski lodge on one side of the highway, with a chairlift and three rope tows on the other. These family-run businesses barely survived the war due to the lack of customers, poor winter access and rationed gasoline. Post war, however, things looked more promising. A robust economy and abundant gasoline for motorists coincided with America’s resurgent interest in downhill skiing that began in the 1930s with the introduction of mechanized rope tows, improved skis, boots and bindings, along with imported European instructors, who taught dynamic alpine-turning techniques.

In 1946, William Bliss opened White Hills ski area to the east on Highway 50 at Spooner Summit. Bliss was the son of timber baron, Duane Leroy Bliss, a prescient visionary who developed winter sports and tourism infrastructure at Tahoe City in the early 1900s. White Hills boasted a T-bar, ski jump and a handful of good runs, but couldn’t financially survive the erratic weather of the Tahoe Sierra. The business lasted just five years.

Sierra Ski Ranch opens

Brothers Ray and Floyd Barrett jumped into the game in 1946 when they opened Sierra Ski Ranch about 1 mile down Highway 50 west of Echo Pass. The location lacked a flat area for base operations and high-elevation rain sometimes washed out the snow, but in 1953 newlyweds Vern and Bobbie Sprock purchased the ranch and initiated improvements. They replaced one of the rope tows with a Poma lift, which increased the resort’s vertical drop to an underwhelming 350 feet. The 80-acre ranch was popular with skiers, but Vern wanted more.

A golden opportunity arrived in the late 1960s when the California Department of Transportation notified the Sprocks that it was going to realign Highway 50 onto the south side of the American River: construction that required their land. The Sprocks negotiated with the Forest Service to relocate to Echo Summit. They took out a $600,000 bank loan and on Dec. 21, 1968, opened the Sierra Ski Ranch with the old rope tow and Poma from the original location, plus a new chairlift and a 10,000-square-foot day lodge.

It snows a lot in that neighborhood and the near record winter of 1968-69 — snowfall averaged 300 percent of normal — caused a lot of headaches for the Sprocks and their employees, but they persevered. Over time the resort became a favorite for Californians from Sacramento and the Bay Area; by 1977 Sierra Ski Ranch was hosting more than 300,000 skier visits a season.

During the 1970s and 80s, the Sprock family continued to upgrade the resort with a backside expansion, high-speed lifts and snowmaking in critical areas. In 1993, after more than 40 years of operation, the Sprocks sold their pride and joy to Fibreboard, a vinyl-siding manufacturer and resort operations corporation, which renamed it Sierra-at-Tahoe. It was at this time that John Rice, the current general manager, took over.

Rice modernized lift capacity and introduced innovative programs and guest services before Fibreboard sold to Booth Creek Ski Holdings in 1996. Under Rice’s visionary leadership, Sierra opened adjacent back-country terrain and began supporting local competitive skiers and riders with its Sierra Elite Team Program. In 2006, Sierra-at-Tahoe was awarded the Silver Eagle for Environmental Education by the National Ski Areas Association.

Home to talented skiers, riders

Those small-time ski areas tucked along the American River were soon overshadowed by mega-resorts such as Heavenly Lake Tahoe (1955), Mammoth Mountain (1955) and Palisades Tahoe (formally known as Squaw Valley, 1949). But that didn’t stop talented skiers and snowboarders on the Highway 50 corridor from becoming champions. Vladimir “Spider” Sabich grew up with his two brothers in the 1950s and 60s at the hamlet of Kyburz near Echo Summit where his father was stationed with the California Highway Patrol. Sabich learned to ski at Edelweiss under the tutelage of Lutz Aynedter, a German downhill champion who taught European-style ski racing. The Sabich brothers and other local young racers were known as the “Highway 50 boys.” As Spider improved, he began racing at Mammoth and Squaw Valley where he dominated the competition. Spider Sabich joined the U.S. Ski Team and went on to win World Cup races and a national title in downhill. In 1972, a year after turning professional, he won the World Pro Ski Title. Tragically, the “god of skiing” was shot and killed in 1976 by his girlfriend, French actress and singer Claudine Longet.

Two-time Olympic Gold Medal champion snowboarder Jamie Anderson is also the most decorated woman in the history of Winter X Games snowboarding. She started to learn her craft at Sierra-at-Tahoe when she was 9 years old. In 2013, she started the Jamie Anderson Foundation to “give back to youth, by supporting their athletic dreams and inspiring them to be community and environmental leaders.” |