With Palisades Tahoe’s new Base-to-Base Gondola opening this month, all eyes are on Olympic Valley and Alpine Meadows. By uniting the 6,000 acres of terrain at the two locations, the gondola will make Palisades one of the largest ski resorts in North America. But just down the street from the Alpine portion of the resort, at the bottom of Alpine Meadows Road, lie the half-forgotten remains of a mid-20th-century ski area that remind us of a much simpler time when a single person could own a ski area and far fewer people cruised the slopes.
The old ski area operated under two different names from the 1950s to the 1980s. As Palisades Tahoe moves into the future, Moonshine Ink talked to a few who remember this tiny ski area of the past.
Powder Bowl, a gathering place
In 1957, Mark Calhoun was about 6 years old when his godfather, Jerry Waters, opened Powder Bowl, located in the same spot that is now used as overflow parking for Alpine just off Highway 89. According to the 2020 book Lost Ski Areas of Tahoe and Donner by Ingrid P. Wicken, it consisted of two rope tows and a 2,600-foot-long Poma lift — which Calhoun said was the longest in the world at the time — and a small warming lodge that was known for its giant front deck where people gathered and watched skiers cruising down the hill. Per Calhoun’s memory, skiing the 900-vertical feet top to bottom took less than a minute.
Calhoun, who founded Alice’s Mountain Market in Olympic Valley, remembered that safety standards then were not the same as they are today. If you didn’t weigh a lot, as he did as a child, at a certain point the Poma lift’s spring tension would slingshot you off the platter held between your legs and send you into the sky.
“I would be holding on and then boing, I would just spring into the air,” he said. “It was a blast.”
The rope tows weren’t much better. As Calhoun told it, the safety device for the longer rope tow’s wheelhouse was a simple extension cord that would disconnect and cut off the motor if a skier didn’t get off the lift in time.
Calhoun’s fondest memories of Powder Bowl are of its two big events. One was the Paul Masson Winery’s Barrel Stave Olympics. (A stave is a wood strip that forms the sides of a barrel.) Leather straps were placed on the curved staves as bindings, and competitors would ski on the staves down a course.
“Everybody was drinking and having a good time,” Calhoun recalled.
The other event, which occurred in the spring, was an obstacle course in which skiers had to do silly things along their runs, like pull down the handle of a wooden slot machine. The lighthearted events created a tight community at Powder Bowl, Calhoun said.
“There was a real sense of belonging, a sense of family,” he recollected. “It wasn’t large scale, but it was home. You knew everybody and everybody knew you. It was a lot of fun.”
Powder Bowl changed hands multiple times over the years. By the time Dick Tash arrived in 1972 to run the ski school, it was owned by a group of Lockheed Martin engineers who would come up from the Bay Area on weekends and holidays to open the ski area. They built the small lodge and a ski shop that still exist today at the top of the parking lot and now house Palisades’ graphics department and transportation department, respectively.
Tash, who became the ski area manager from the late ’70s until 1982 and now lives in Alpine Meadows, was a one-man show.
“I would plow the lot, groom the hill, sell tickets, fit skis and boots, then teach them, then cook food,” he said. “You had to do everything. I had to wear a lot of hats. Only a few people worked here.”
The grooming wasn’t anything fancy, either; the machine didn’t have tillers or blades.
“It just had a big roller behind it, and that was it,” Tash remembered. “It was just a funky old machine. You skied the conditions; you skied what you had.”
Deer Park, bigger crowds
In 1980, an attorney from San Francisco, Gerhard Stoll, bought Powder Bowl and renamed it Deer Park Ski Area after the Deer Park Lodge, which is now River Ranch. (Deer Park Lodge had in turn been named after the Deer Park Springs Hotel, built in 1880 on Bear Creek in the Alpine Meadows subdivision.) Stoll installed the ski area’s first real chairlift, a fixed grip wonder called Alpha Triple Chair that took skiers to the top of the main run, Deer Dance. Stoll also put in seasonal removable rope tows where the Alpine Meadows Stables are now, which was called Emily’s Meadow, and provided a shuttle back to the lodge.
Tash said Deer Park’s first year was the biggest year for the ski area, when it could see upwards of 300 people on its 218 acres on busy weekends.
“It was a tiny mom and pop place, but people loved it. They learned to ski there,” Tash said. “It was really friendly; it wasn’t pretentious. It was a bunch of young people who were enthusiastic about skiing. No glamour.”
But Deer Park’s heyday was short-lived. The Alpha Chair proved to be so expensive that Stoll couldn’t recoup his costs. At the same time, larger neighboring resorts started drawing skiers away from small ski areas. Even Calhoun admitted that as he got older, he preferred skiing at the bigger resorts.
“I think it was inevitable that it was not going to survive,” he said. “I would rather not ski at Deer Park and go to Squaw and Alpine because they have more terrain.”
In 1984, Deer Park filed for bankruptcy. According to Tash, the resort continued for another two years under a bank-appointed manager. But in 1986 the Alpha Chair was sold to a ski area in New Mexico, and that was the end of Powder Bowl and Deer Park’s 30-year run.
“I think something was lost,” Tash reflected. “Everything speeded up in our world; everything is fast-paced now — driving fast, skiing fast … Deer Park was great fun; there were a lot of good people. Turning people on to the mountains is rewarding.”