Below the ski belt: Satellite ski towns

“Unless you have a family inheritance, or somehow snagged one of the few affordable rentals, living in a traditional ski town is a less viable option than ever,” observes Powder Magazine. “Unable to afford the old ones, young, adventurous people are making new ones.”

Though a little farther from the ski slopes, so-called satellite ski towns still have easy access, a vibrant cultural scene, and are more affordable. The foothills is blessed with an abundance of them:

Though known for its leaf peeping, hiking trails and pristine swimming holes in the South Yuba River, historic Nevada City also is an extraordinary winter retreat.

Usually below the snow line, Nevada City is only a one-hour drive to ski resorts on Donner Summit, including Sugar Bowl, Boreal and Royal Gorge, North America’s largest cross-country ski area.

In town, the restaurants, wine tasting rooms, brewpubs and bars are hopping. The arts and culture scene includes live music, theater and art galleries. Lodging choices, including Victorian inns, B&Bs and motels, abound.

On February 18, Nevada City hosts its 26th annual Mardi Gras celebration, featuring a festive parade and street faire. Mardi Gras beads and feathered masks are available for sale, along with Cajun food, drinks, crafts and more.

The town also offers unique shopping experiences, including some that are ideally suited for winter.

Auburn helped bring skiing to the Sierra. The Auburn Ski Club was formed in 1928 by resident Wendell Robie. Skiing expanded from small club-operated hills to the opening of Sugar Bowl in 1939. Walt Disney was an original investor.

Less than an hour from the major ski areas, downtown Auburn is vibrant with a town square, complete with a fire pit and benches. Old Town Auburn is oozing with charm.

Auburn also is home to a California Welcome Center, which issues “sno-park” permits for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snow play.

The city is setting a gold standard for wining and dining. The restaurateur of Monkey Cat and tre Pazzi trattoria comes from the San Francisco dining scene. In Old Town, the owner of Carpe Vino restaurant is a respected wine connoisseur.

Park Victorian has a “stay and dine” program with Carpe Vino. Art galleries include Auburn Old Town Gallery.

Downtown Grass Valley is livable, walkable and historic. Whether you’re shopping, dining, staying or playing, you’ll find an abundance of options.

The dining scene is among the most vibrant in the foothills. Restaurants offer a wide variety of fare, such as pizza, sushi and steak.

Grass Valley is a top destination for entertainment in the region, thanks to The Center for the Arts, Del Oro Theatre and restaurants and wine tasting rooms that offer live music.

The town also has become a center for wine tasting, all in restored Gold Rush-era buildings. The art scene includes Art Works Gallery in a restored Gold Rush-era building on Mill Street.

Lodging options include the deluxe Gold Miners Inn and Grass Valley Courtyard Suites. Both offer free wine and beer, and appetizers for après ski.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort is easily accessible on Hwy. 88 from the Gold Rush towns of Sutter Creek, Volcano and Plymouth in Amador County. The ski area is only 15 minutes away from Sorensen’s Resort and Café.

Amador County’s lodging options include deluxe hotels, charming inns and B&Bs. Sutter Creek is home to the restored Hotel Sutter, Volcano has the Union Inn and Pub, and Plymouth has a boutique hotel called Rest. All have superb “sister” restaurants.


Along with an abundance of satellite ski towns, our region also is blessed with some of America’s best ski towns, including Tahoe City, Incline Village, South Lake Tahoe and Truckee — the recent winner of numerous travel honors.

“Truckee sits in the middle of more ski areas than anywhere else in the West, and yet has none of the glitz of places like Aspen or Jackson,” states Matador Network, in naming it America’s coolest ski town.

There are more than half-dozen ski areas to choose from, including Donner, Northstar, Alpine Meadows, Mt. Rose, and—most notably — Squaw Valley. Squaw deserves special mention as host of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

(Photo of Grass Valley: Josh Miller; photo of Truckee: Olof Carmel)

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