"El Niñoooooooooo!" That's how ski-resort workers at Lake Tahoe are pronouncing the name of the weather pattern that is expected this winter to dump large amounts of snow on the region. The excitement is understandable. After enduring four years of below-average snowfall, resort staff and snow junkies are as giddy as children on Christmas Eve. With six major resorts ringing this alpine blue lake, Lake Tahoe has runs that delight extreme snowboarders, two plankers and first-time skiers. But don't expect resorts and mountainside businesses to cut you a break on price. After the first big storm of the season in November, I visited Lake Tahoe to find how to ski, play and dine without dipping into my kid's college fund. The tab: $174 for two nights at the Pepper Tree Inn in Tahoe City, $12 for dinner at nearby Moe's Original Bar B Que, $50 to rent skis and equipment, plus about $217 for round-trip airfare to Reno and $41 for a rental car.
The Pepper Tree Inn (645 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City;  624-8590, www.peppertreetahoe.com) is more than just inexpensive lodging within walking distance of the lake and a short drive to the Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley ski resorts. The room was well-appointed, with a mini-fridge, a microwave, a comfortable bed and a flat-screen TV with free HBO. But what really scored points with this penny-pincher was the free continental breakfast with a generous choice of goodies such as waffles, cereal, yogurt, French toast, hard-boiled eggs, bagels, juice and coffee. Weekday rates start at about $83 a night.
Finding good, inexpensive food along the shore is tough but not impossible. My nose for cheap food drew me to a joint called Moe's Original Bar B Que (120 Grove St., Tahoe City;  583-4227, www.moesoriginalbbq.com/lo/tahoecity). It is part of a Colorado-based national chain. No linen napkins here: Look for rolls of paper towels on the tables and comfort food served on paper plates. A dinner of pulled pork, mac and cheese, cornbread, sweet potato wedges and a drink: $12.
No matter how much you save on food and lodging, you might think you can't avoid expensive lift tickets. Think again. A few resorts offer deals that let you trade your airline boarding pass for a free half-day lift ticket if you ski on the same day you fly. (To find the resorts that offer this deal, go to www.lat.ms/1SisLSd). I took an early flight into Reno-Tahoe International Airport, picked up boots, skis and poles at a rental shop and by 1 p.m. I was cutting awkward curves on the white slopes of Squaw Valley. Squaw Valley and nearby Alpine Meadows are both owned by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings so my half-day ticket got me on two mountains.
The lesson learned
If El Niño meets its much-hyped expectations, Lake Tahoe will be a snow lovers' paradise, and there are several ways to enjoy the snowfall without spending too much. Try snowshoeing or hiking through the pines and aspens at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, a monument to the determination of California's early immigrants. About two miles south of Mt. Rose on State Route 431, I also found a free snow-play area (look for the turnoff for the Mt. Rose Summit Welcome Plaza) where kids and parents were laughing, screaming and smiling as they zipped down hills on plastic sleds.
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