Orange groves, surfing and ... ski slopes?

Image: Squaw Valley
This undated 1960 file photo shows a ski jumper participating in the 1960 Olympic Games in California.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cut into a Sierra Nevada canyon defined by steep granite cliffs and tree-dotted peaks, Squaw Valley USA is one of the Lake Tahoe area's premier ski resorts, attracting more than a half-million to a million visitors each ski season.

But 55 years ago, when former Wall Street lawyer Alexander Cushing campaigned to bring one of sport's greatest spectacles here, the idea of the Winter Olympics in a state known more for surf than snow was laughable.

"They knew about California, but they thought it was orange groves, beaches and movie stars. They wondered, 'Where would you ski in such a balmy Camelot?'" said David Antonucci, author of "Snowball's Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe."

Location wasn't Cushing's only obstacle. His fledgling resort had only been open five years and consisted of one chairlift, two rope tows and a 50-room lodge. There also was little infrastructure in the area to support such a massive event — one dirt road led to the mountain — and no real town.

But after intense lobbying that included citing statistics that the valley gets about 450 inches of snow a year, dispatching well-connected friends to campaign for votes and securing financial support from the state, Squaw beat out three more glamorous European cities to be awarded the games.

"It caused quite a stir," said Cushing's widow, Nancy Cushing, chief executive of Squaw Valley Ski Corp. "It was pretty, pretty amazing."

The next four and a half years were busy with preparations. A ski jump was constructed, and an ice arena built. Hotels and restaurants sprang up, and a highway was carved through the mountains to bring visitors from Reno.

But the legacy of the games is not in Olympic-ordered structures that have stood the test of time (in fact, most are no longer there.) Rather, the staying power is found in what has happened since the event.

"The Olympics delivered a second economy to the area," Antonucci said. "The area had a fairly strong summer economy but by hosting the Olympics, it elevated the Tahoe area to a winter sports destination."

Lake Tahoe, located on the border of California and Nevada, now has the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America.

This year, Squaw Valley is celebrating its 60th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Olympic games.

From Jan. 8-17, the resort will host 20 events commemorating the Olympics. They include an Olympic Torch Relay, opening ceremony and an 1960 Olympian reception. The events are either free or to raise money for a new Lake Tahoe ski heritage museum.

The Village at Squaw in Squaw Valley, Calif., has lodging, restaurants, bars and shops and is considered a focal point of Squaw Valley USA's apres ski life.Adam Gorlick / Adam Gorlick

The turnoff from Highway 89 into Squaw Valley is marked by two large towers capped by Olympic rings. They are flanked by the U.S. and California flags, and at the base of each stands a flame. The Truckee River rushes along the road.

There is enough room on the side of the road to pull over and snap a picture of these relics of the games and grab a soft drink from a 7-Eleven, the only chain store for several miles.

A two-lane road carries you up through the canyon past tudor-style condominiums, Queen of the Snows Church and a fire station. A-framed cabins and luxury mansions are tucked into the northern side of the valley. On the southern side, across a field that bursts with wildflowers in the summer, sits the upscale Resort at Squaw Creek.

The chairlifts — there are now 33 of them — come into focus as you get deeper in the canyon. Then a massive parking lot signals you've reached the Village at Squaw Valley, nestled at the base of the slopes and made to look like it came right out of the Alps.

The B.C. city, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and its surrounding areas offer visitors culture, cuisine and class.

The Village is constructed as a pedestrian shopping mall with stores, restaurants and lodging. Bands play outside in the summer and large fire pits draw friends and family in the winter. It is the focal point of the apres ski life in Squaw Valley.

Dentists Ian Vanzyl and Ewa Konopka regularly make the nearly four-hour drive from their home in Lake County.

"I've skied all over Europe," said Vanzyl while walking around the village with his wife on a recent sunny, but chilly Saturday. "Squaw is the most efficient mountain. Your value for vertical feet for dollar is probably the best anywhere in the world. It's just amazing terrain."

The terrain is considered among the most challenging in the Sierra Nevada, attracting risk takers who hurl themselves off of cliffs to the delight of chairlift observers. But 70 percent of the runs are for beginner or intermediate skiers, and many of the mountain's attractions don't even require strapping on skis or a snowboard.

A gondola whisks visitors up the side of the mountain in eight minutes. The thrilling ride brings you to 8,200 feet to high camp, where, come spring, skiers and snowboarders can trade their bibs for bathing suits and take a dip in an outdoor pool that stays open through the summertime. Tennis courts, bars and restaurants are also at this base with stunning views of Lake Tahoe.

"Most mountains, the beginners are relegated off to the side down at the base and they don't enjoy the magnificence of skiing," Cushing said. "That's a big part of skiing — being able to enter the alpine environment."