Anyone who has a passion for snowboarding and wants to excel should line up at the Burton Academy at Northstar California. At Northstar, snowboarding is more than a sport. “It’s a lifestyle we teach here,” says Luke (Shep) Sheppard, the director of the resort’s unique school.

Northstar is a great ski and ride mountain that feels rustic, thanks to dense forest that camouflages 100 trails (60% intermediate), tree skiing, condos, a few hotels and an upscale pedestrian base village. When you take the Comstock Express Lift to the 8,610-foot summit, the Lake Tahoe views are so stunning that it’s easy to see just how special it is.

From homespun to high touch

In 2010, Vail Resorts took over the property and began transforming it from a casual snowboarder’s paradise that raised the likes of Shaun White, to a posh, polished mountain resort focused on families.

With the high touch service inspired by Vail’s premium Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado, a palatial AAA Five Diamond Ritz-Carlton mid-mountain, fine farm-to-fork California cuisine – not to mention Tahoe’s famous warm temperatures and bluebird skies — Northstar has become the Vail Company’s laid-back version of Beaver Creek.

Families who choose Northstar expect quality and expect to pay for it, and Northstar delivers – in a big way — on every count. Those interested in saving money on the resort’s exemplary teaching programs, should visit early season prior to Christmas, in January, or midweek all season to take advantage of discounts and smaller class sizes.

Northstar’s Platinum Learning Experience

Lake Tahoe from Northstar's Comstock Express lift.
Northstar’s forests frame all the views; here’s Lake Tahoe seen from the top of the Comstock Express lift.

We had the privilege of meeting the mountain during a Platinum Private Lesson devoted to service and personal attention. Jesse Telian, one of the resort’s top ski coaches, met us in the luxurious base village lounge to fit our demo equipment near a cozy fireplace.

The three-hour session (from $649) with Jesse exposed us to 10,000 vertical feet of trails, tips and tricks for skiing better, his pick of the best runs for our mixed abilities, guidance on where to eat and play, and an on-mountain lounge that held our gear overnight. It’s actually good value, and any family with experienced skiers and riders will benefit from a customized intro to the best mountain vacation ever.

The Burton Academy

Burton Academy at Northstar slopeside lounge
Burton Academy at Northstar has a cool slopeside lounge where snowboarding students can hang out, warm up and live their dream.

While we sampled Northstar’s skier pampering, what’s unique at this resort is the Burton Academy that focuses on snowboarding.

The famous Burton Snowboard company staffs the special training school with their own certified instructors who complement the Vail staff. Children’s teaching is designed to be holistic, incorporating circle time and games for the youngest snowboarders ages 3-6, thorough instruction in freestyle and slopestyle for ages 7-12 and immersion in the snowboarder lifestyle for teens and adults. Guests enrolled in Ultimate 4 or private lessons get VIP treatment.

Raising a Snowboarder, 1 run at a time

The littlest shredders can use custom snowboards with a scooter-style handle or a tow rope for instructors and borrow ski bikes and other snow toys. Hanging out in the slopeside, heated Burton Academy lounge lined with recycled wood and patchwork carpeting while watching the champs do their tricks in TWS videos, is cool.

At the Academy teaching slope, terrain-based learning techniques guide Northstar’s excellent snow surface team, who groom the contoured learning zone. Rollers help learners feel their weight shifting and teach balance; banked turns enable stops; wide slopes, mini-pipes and more trail alterations help beginning snowboarders feel the joy of the sport.

Instructors work with all ages at their peak ability level and as kids advance, they are paired with coaches who stay one Backside 540 ahead of them. Additionally, in conjunction with Achieve Tahoe, specialized snowboard lessons are available for those with physical or mental disabilities.

Northstar’s Other Ski and Snowboard Programs

Hanging out outside Northstar's Zephyr Lodge.
Hanging out in Lake Tahoe sunshine outside Northstar’s Zephyr Lodge.

Group skiing or snowboarding lessons come in all shapes, sizes and costs at the spacious, well run Children’s Ski and Ride School in the Village. Group lessons include up to eight or nine people with one instructor; Ultimate 4 Lessons include four or fewer students. Coaches say that many children thrive learning with others their own age and recommend starting novices in group lessons.

Miners Camp, Northstar’s daycare program, is based at the resort entry near the golf course. The goal is to have parents drop off kids ages 12 months and older for a full day of care so parents can enjoy the resort guilt-free.

Base Village Family Facilities

Need more convincing that this is the place for young Olympians and their families?

Start in the Village at Northstar, which revolves around a large skating rink where all ages are twirling under lit evergreens. Some skaters have headsets on to enjoy Silent Disco; others are tuning in to movies being shown on a screen outside. There’s tubing and sledding nearby.

Among three levels of cut-stone storefronts are restaurants (try the Rubicon Pizza Company), wine bars, rental gear shops, real estate agents, high end boutiques, ice cream parlors and baristas catering to gluten-free and vegan visitors. From here, stick around for the daily 3:30pm S’mores around a fire pit, or take off across cross-country trails on a fat tire bicycle.

Housing at Northstar

Northstar's free Snowcat ride service
Northstar pampering includes a free ride to the base lodge on a Snowcat for tired skiers and snowboarders.

If you’re based in a slopeside condo as we were, the village’s Copper Lane Café (better known for yummy lunch paninis and burritos) sells provisions. Bookings are easy through the Northstar Property Owners Association and condo guests get free access to the NPOA recreation center with its heated outdoor pool and hot tubs.

If you’re traveling with extended family, it’s better to book one of the hotels or condos in or right above the base village. That way, anyone in the group who doesn’t want to ski won’t have to wait for shuttle vans to be transported to the village.

Then, of course, there’s the lavish Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe accessed via groomed trails or a private gondola that lands above the base village. Our meal at Manzanitas, their American cuisine restaurant, gave us a taste of the service and style resort guests are treated to. Winter guests have a mountain concierge to assist with gear, lessons and snow needs or, in summer, with golf, the lakefront club and mountain biking at the Specialized Bike Academy (Burton Academy’s warm weather reincarnation.)

Getting to Northstar Easier than Ever

Traveling to and from Truckee, the hip Tahoe town that’s closest to Northstar, has never been easier. The tiny Truckee Tahoe Airport is served from San Francisco by Mountain Lion Aviation, SurfAir and Blackbird, although most Bay Area families drive.

Southern California families can fly from Carlsbad on California Pacific Airlines directly to Reno, Nevada, about 45 minutes away. Reno is also served by 10 larger airlines from most major Western cities, plus New York, Atlanta and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

If you don’t want a rental car, or prefer to stay in town, there’s free park and ride services every weekend between Truckee and Northstar California through mid-March 2019.

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