TRUCKEE, Calif. -- Can't decide on a golf destination? California-Nevada's High Sierra mountains present five destinations in one, all within about an hour's drive. The quality and diversity of courses rivals anything you can find in the west.
Some golf groups may stick to one or two regions of the High Sierra on their trip, while others will go for broke and see them all -- like I did this June. Either way is satisfying, so where should you start?
Reno and Carson City
It's tough to discuss Reno without a few Las Vegas comparisons, even as the Biggest Little City in the World continues to spread its wings well beyond its gaming core (a common theme throughout Nevada lately) with a new riverfront district and more emphasis on the outdoors.
The Reno-Sparks golf scene boasts a few traits Vegas can't: higher altitude and northern latitude that yields more comfortable summer temperatures, while the golf is more affordable, too. The roster of A-listers just doesn't run as deep, and the ultimate splurge courses of Vegas are absent in Reno.
But in Reno, whether you're looking for a hotel, restaurant or round of golf, $75-$100 can go a long way. Somersett Golf Club is one of the area's newest courses, opened in 2004, that dangles along foothills terrain. Others, such as the 36-hole RedHawk Golf Club, presents resort-worthy conditions and scenery. LakeRidge Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and one of the first high-end courses in Reno, also remains a top area play for visitors.
Just south of Reno is Carson City, which to visitors may seem like a small, unlikely spot for any state capital. Stately government buildings and small shops and restaurants are interspersed with a smattering of old school casinos and their giant marquees full of brightly lit mascots, like the towering cowboy above Cactus Jack's Casino. Carson Street is a bizarre juxtaposition for a first-timer, but locals will gladly point you toward satisfying, locally owned restaurants and bars.
The golf scene in Carson Valley is the most affordable among the High Sierras and chock full of options, highlighted by 36 holes at Genoa Lakes. This time around, we played a bargain course, Silver Oak Golf Club ($25-50), that features a front side that plays up into the mountainside and beside boulder piles.
But it's hard for the mind not to wander, while playing along this barren, rocky mountainside, that Lake Tahoe and its mighty pines lie just a few miles west on the other side of the range.
Golf on the shores of Lake Tahoe
The prime golf season may be short around Lake Tahoe, but for a few short months each year, the courses beside it sparkle. The lake's entire circumference should be driven to take in sights like Emerald Bay and small little beaches on it's shoreline -- and the drive is even better with golf clubs in your trunk.
While historic nine-holers Old Brockway and Tahoe City Golf Course were some of the first to come to the lake and remain today, the south and north shore each built championship courses in the 1960s. On the south side, beside the giant casino properties such as Montbleu, Harrah's and Harvey's is Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. Edgewood has become Tahoe's most coveted play, thanks in part to the American Century Celebrity Classic (July 17-22, 2012) and the spectacle of celebrities playing in front of raucous, boat-cruising fans beside the lakefront 17th hole.
Practically due north across the lake is the Incline Village Championship Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., of similar pedigree to Edgewood even if it's got a quieter reputation on the north shore. Holes play on the sloping, foothills ground, which presents some long views of Tahoe from some of its highest holes. It's the north shore's largest community, and one of its residents is Annika Sorenstam.
Golf north of Lake Tahoe in Truckee
The 7th hole at Gray's Crossing in Truckee
Just a few miles from Lake Tahoe's north shore is the old mining town of Truckee, set on the banks of the Truckee River. Squaw Creek and Northstar are two resorts with older-generation golf, but the last decade has brought an onslaught of dynamite mountain courses coinciding with residential development. On Schaffer's Road, for example, you'll pass semi-private Schaffer's Mill, followed by private Lahontan and Martis Camp.
On the other side of town, sister courses Gray's Crossing and Old Greenwood, as well as daily fee course Coyote Moon, make Truckee, pound-for-pound, arguably the west's top mountain-golf destination, especially when you consider Tahoe is just a few miles to the south and even more remote, mountain golf awaits to the north.
Low-key Graeagle in Plumas County
The Dragon at Nakoma Golf Resort's par-3 5th hole.
If little Truckee is still too busy for your tastes, take the winding, two-lane Highway 89 along Tahoe National Forest north about 30 miles to Graeagle, a little mountain town with a big golf footprint.
On a corner of village's main road, there is an ice cream stand with a modest driving range next to it, named 'Frostee' and little executive courses can be found beside a handful of hotels, such as my base for the trip at the Chalet View Lodge. Beginner-friendly 18-hole courses such as Graeagle Meadows or Plumas Pines offer convenient, laid-back and affordable rounds.
Recent years have brought on a new, higher standard of golf to Graeagle. The first was Whitehawk Ranch, which features holes in both deep forest and amongst wide-open ranch land. Semi-private Grizzly Ranch, designed by Bob Cupp, is the newest of the bunch and showcases the remote, natural beauty of the surrounding mountains better than anywhere else.
Meanwhile, the infamous Dragon, which closed for a short period, has been softened. While it remains plenty tough, set on rolling mountain ground with many elevated greens but also loads of spectacular elevated tees, it's perhaps the area's best value right now ($65-$85) as owners try and lure back golfers who may have walked off the 18th green in years prior, scorched by its venom.
More information and golf packages can be found at GolftheHighSierra.com