Although its hill is extremely modest and barely garners a mention among Lake Tahoe’s many famed ski resorts, for several decades Granlibakken was known as the only winter playground in the entire Tahoe basin.
Never heard of Granlibakken? That’s not surprising. Drive too swiftly along scenic Highway 89 on Tahoe’s west shore and it’s easy to overlook the road that heads into this historic Norwegian-like village.
Occupying 74 beautifully wooded acres in this picturesque mountain valley, Granlibakken is located a half-mile from Tahoe City. It provides a link to the past, a reminder that some ski hills were once small in stature and remain devoid of the sophistication that typifies today’s mega resorts.
In 1928, when a mere 12 families called Tahoe City their year-round home, making a trek into Granlibakken was a regular occurrence for local children, who were overjoyed that their school shut down in December and didn’t reopen until sometime in March.
Much like children in some European villages that get covered in snow all winter, Tahoe City kids used their make-shift skis frequently as their mode of transportation. One of their prime destinations was the then unnamed Granlibakken area, where winter visitors would take a short sleigh ride from the elegant, 223-room Tahoe Tavern and head up the hill across the street for a few turns in the nearby terrain.
At the time, there was no official ski hill on the Granlibakken property. But that quickly changed when a group of touring Norwegian skiers so impressed the owners of the famed Tahoe Tavern that they hired one of the Norwegians — seven-time ski jumping champion Lars Haugen — to design a ski jump hill.
Two years and $10,000 later, Haugen completed the task in 1929, clearing an area of trees and establishing a 60-meter jump that became known as Olympic Hill. The hill quickly gained fame and hosted the Olympic Trials and the U.S. Championships in 1932.
But it wasn’t until after World War II, when Norwegian ski jumper Kjell “Rusty” Rustad moved from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, that a village resort was established and named Granlibakken — which in Norwegian means “a hillside sheltered by fir trees.”
Granlibakken was the first official ski resort in the Tahoe basin, where two years later in 1949, Squaw Valley had its modest beginnings.
Today, Granlibakken still sports a ski hill, but it’s more suited for snow play than skiing or snowboarding. A lone tow rope carries people to the top of a small hill for the quick downhill trek. On the opposite side of the ski slope, a sledding area receives much more attention.
On a recent weekend in early March, Chris and Heather Himmelmann were providing their 5-year-old daughter Grace a ski lesson and some snow play time. Granlibakken has become a winter destination for the Himmelmanns, who have driven from their home in Rancho Murrieta for a third-straight winter vacation.
“Granlibakken is really a family friendly place,” Heather said. “It’s a great beginner hill for Grace. She’s taken lessons here and keeps making good progress each year. The price is right, and we really enjoy our stay.”
More serious skiers and riders use Granlibakken for a convenient lodging location they can book for a bargain price. For $138 on the weekend ($114 weekdays), an individual receives a room, generous buffet breakfast, and a lift ticket to one of seven nearby ski resorts (Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, Mt. Rose, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sugar Bowl, Sierra-at-Tahoe).
While serving as a serene, isolated place for families to vacation, Granlibakken is an even bigger lure as a conference destination. With more than 200 rooms and conference space for an estimated 500 people, Granlibakken hosts numerous groups year round, ranging from ski clubs to international academic organizations that seek a secluded getaway in an inspiring area.
“In the winter time we’re in the ski business, but we’re in the conference business all year round,” notes Kay Williams, Granlibakken’s resort manager. “We’re not a Holiday Inn. You get treated to a real experience here. Granlibakken is a beautiful location, and we treat you like a member of the family.”
Being in the “family” might include an impromptu dinner chat at Granlibakken’s Cedar Creek restaurant with Ron Parson, the current general manager whose family has part-owned and run the resort since 1978. Parson is a walking historian for the Granlibakken and the west shore region. Like much of the staff for which he manages, Parson is amiable and friendly.
Lodging at Granlibakken includes studio units, 1-3 bedroom townhouses with a loft, suites, executive bedrooms, and a chalet with eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms.
Granlibakken converts to a summer resort around May, offering biking, hiking, year-round heated pool and spa, and use of its six tennis courts.
For more information on Granlibakken, visit http://www.granlibakken.com or call 877 552-6325.
— Jeffrey Weidel is a Sacramento-area free-lance writer with more than 25 years of skiing experience.