North Lake Tahoe Ski, Craft Beer, and Music Festival

Festival season is the best season. Is that a quote? Because if it’s not a quote, then it should be, and I’ll gladly take credit for it. Festival travel is one of my favorite ways of traveling and experiencing a destination for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps foremost, it combines many of my favorite interests, often in a favorite destination of mine or a new destination I’ve never experienced. Additionally, festivals often put a destination on the world’s stage, in their element, highlighting its character and ambiance like nothing else. I discovered this to be the case on my most recent trip to North Lake Tahoe (hosted by Tahoe North) for WinterWonderGrass, which couldn’t have been a more Lake Tahoe festival if it tried.

When I was first invited to WinterWonderGrass I was actually offended. I was offended because of all of the times I had visited Lake Tahoe and of all the friends I had made, no one had seemed to mention that there was a ski, craft beer, and music festival. It’d be like me failing to mention that there is a taco festival in L.A. (yes, for real, there's an L.A. taco festival).

WinterWonderGrass, however, actually started a few years ago near Vail, Colorado with the mission of combining good craft beer and good bluegrass music amidst a community setting. With many festivals, you get one or the other, and sometimes both, but rarely in a community setting like you find with WinterWonderGrass. Starting as a two-day festival in Edwards, Colorado, the festival has upped the ante each year, now taking place in the Vail Valley in Avon in the middle of winter and in North Lake Tahoe at Squaw Valley at the beginning of spring, selling out each of the last few years.

With the Lake Tahoe edition of WinterWonderGrass taking place at the base of Squaw Valley, obviously I had to get the full experience. And that full experience for me began with hopping on the first chair at Squaw Valley ski resort to get a full morning of snowboarding in, culminating in the 3.2-mile Mountain Run to the bottom. Within minutes of throwing my snowboard in my car, I was walking through the gates of WinterWonderGrass and being handed a plastic sample cup for free beer tastings (yes, really). And believe me, you’ll want to get there early enough in the afternoon to get a plastic sample cup.

Craft beer samples in North Lake Tahoe at WinterWonderGrass
Craft beer samples in North Lake Tahoe at WinterWonderGrass

With a free plastic sample cup, you can then walk from beer tent to beer tent, trying any number of craft beers, most of which are local (or regional), including Lagunitas, Green Flash, North Coast, 21st Amendment, Magnolia, Stoneyhead, and one of my favorites on all of the West Coast, Knee Deep. Best Lake Tahoe festival ever? It was the happiest of hours, in every sense of the word, taking place each day of the festival from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm.

One of the subtle, yet standout points of this North Lake Tahoe festival was the eco-friendly practices, such as recycling stations and organizers who helped sort recycled items. Naturally, my favorite eco-friendly initiative occurred in the beer tent, featuring Klean Kanteen’s reusable, steel pint cups, which were a few dollars to buy, but then provided you with your pint cup for the entire festival, as well as a souvenir to take home. When you’re ready to upgrade from free beer samples to pints, Sierra Nevada was pouring a number of their beers in both beer tents. Bonus points that they were pouring happy hour pints during the same time as the beer tastings.

The beer tents, or beer halls, was where the real action was taking place, and not just because beer was flowing there the entire festival. In between the headlining music acts on the main stage, smaller bands would take to the stages in the beer halls. It was here that I felt that community vibe of WinterWonderGrass the most, as friends toasted their sample cups, clinked pint cups, and tapped their feet (and in some cases cut a rug).

Meanwhile, just beyond the doors of the beer tents felt more like a big Lake Tahoe adult playground or park, and less like a traditional music festival. In one corner, groups of people played games of cornhole, while others gathered around food trucks in another corner, and elsewhere friends sat together on hay bales while drinking beer, all the while major bluegrass bands entertained on the main stage, just below Squaw Valley’s ski runs. It was so Tahoe.

While I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a number of Lake Tahoe festivals, WinterWonderGrass is certainly a standout, and not just because of the free craft beer and bbq (though that most certainly didn’t hurt). You can get a single-day ticket to the North Lake Tahoe festival for as little as $69, which this year included 15 different shows throughout the course of the day and free beer samples. That’s often the price you’ll pay (if not much more in many cases) for a single concert ticket to see a single band. The best bang for your buck, however, is the three-day ticket, which is $129 ($43 per day).

But wait, there’s more! I can’t talk a music, beer, and ski fest without talking about skiing. The $329 "Music and Mountains" pass comes with all of the perks of a three-day WinterWonderGrass pass, but with the addition of a private show atop the Emigrant lift at Squaw, plus three days of skiing at Squaw Valley–Alpine Meadows. For those keeping track at home, it'd cost that just for three days of skiing. Best festival ever?