WinterWonderGrass at Squaw Valley is a vibe all its own

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WinterWonderGrass at Squaw Valley is a vibe all its own

All Photos: Courtesy of WinterWonderGrass

Whether it’s coming from the stereo on your drive up to the mountain, the headphones that permanently reside in your ski jacket or the powder day playlist you’re constantly updating, there’s a soundtrack for every epic ski day. Capping off a day of shredding with a night full of live music is the proverbial cherry on top of a skier’s sundae. Extend that live music for three nights, add in a slew of independent craft breweries to sample from and you’ve got the ultimate ski and music getaway. This is the reality of WinterWonderGrass (WWG), prompting skiers from all over the country to flock to Colorado, California and Vermont throughout the ski season and set their ski-cation to the tune of acoustic bluegrass, roots and jam-band music while taking in the incredible mountain-town scenery surrounding the festival stages.

WinterWonderGrass 2020:

Steamboat, Colorado: February 21-23

Squaw Valley, California: March 27-29

Stratton, Vermont: April 10-11

WinterWonderGrass first hit the scene in 2013 in a parking lot in Edwards, Colorado. Founder and musician, Scott Stoughton, had the idea of starting a winter music festival in a mountain setting when he was driving through the California desert en route to the electronic music festival he was running at the time. “This festival was really successful,” says Stoughton, “but I was very disconnected from the audience and the bands were disconnected, too.” 

In September of 2012, with the desire to create a more authentic music experience focused on the community, Stoughton came up with the name WinterWonderGrass and launched the festival within two months. Having played with Colorado’s Leftover Salmon in the past, Stoughton had a clear idea what kind of sound he wanted the festival to have. “[Leftover Salmon] invited me to sit in and do some freestyling and that’s really when I learned the power of the acoustic community, the bluegrass community specifically,” say Stoughton. “I was really blown away by the welcoming nature of those people and the audience.”

In early 2013, WWG was up and running near Stoughton’s adopted hometown of Vail, Colorado, with bands, and stalwarts on the jamgrass scene, Greensky Bluegrass and the Infamous Stringdusters headlining the debut event. “It was a total shitshow,” as Stoughton recalls. He and his team anticipated a turnout of about 800 people and ended up hosting nearly 2,000 eager music-goers—a testament to the community’s collective yearning for a festival of this nature. “It’s very unique just because there’s not much in the way of bluegrass festivals at that time of year,” says Chris Pandolfi, founding member and banjo player of the Infamous Stringdusters, who has played every WWG with the exception of one.  

By 2015, WinterWonderGrass had migrated to a bigger space in Avon, Colorado, in the Vail Valley and Stoughton was toying with the idea of expanding. “I went out to look at sites in North Lake Tahoe just on a whim and I got to Squaw Valley and was like, ‘Wow there is an amazing energy here,’” Stoughton explains with palpable enthusiasm. “You stand in that valley looking at the mountain, feeling the river and knowing you’re close to the lake; there’s something so magical there.” It was a no-brainer for Stoughton to add Squaw Valley as the second stop on the WinterWonderGrass tour that year.

The Tram at Squaw Valley | PHOTO: Courtesy of Alterra Mountain Company

Set at the base of Squaw Valley Resort, with the mighty Tram Face posed beautifully in the background, WWG California carries a vibe all its own. Situated just 15 minutes from Tahoe City and Truckee, Squaw Valley services both communities and has long been known as the home base of some of freeskiing’s most legendary characters—including Shane McConkey, CR Johnson, Jeremy Jones, JT Holmes and more. Spread across 3,600 skiable acres, snow sliders have access to 2,850 vertical feet of skiing littered with steep fall lines, varied terrain and enough features to create a cult following of local pros—think: Cody Townsend, Elyse Saugstad and Michelle Parker, just to name a few. Squaw’s most iconic face, KT-22, summons skiers out of their beds at the crack of dawn on powder days for the best first tracks of the season down The Fingers, home to some of the most famous lines at Squaw. “We call it the Mothership,” local ski guide Trevor Husted tells me over the phone. “It’s everything that holds Squaw together.” If you happen to make it to Squaw on a day when the Silverado chair is open—conditions have to be just right—you won’t want to miss out on everything this rowdy playground has to offer expert skiers, including steeps, chutes, bowls and trees. “It’s a hidden gem that doesn’t open very often,” says Husted.

“There’s a more extreme community vibe in terms of their relationship with the mountain and that’s pretty cool and unique,” adds Stoughton about the draw of Squaw. “Squaw is a valley, so you get up in that valley and you’re completely surrounded by the mountains—you’re in it. So you’re much more affected by that concentration of good, positive energy.”

You’re also in close proximity to a wide array of activities aside from skiing, like rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, fishing and paddle boarding thanks to the beautiful Eastern Sierra range and massive Lake Tahoe, just 10 minutes down the road from Squaw Valley, which are all in prime condition to enjoy at the end of March. 

When skiers’ legs are gassed, the festival is just warming up. At 2 p.m. each day the beer starts flowing and the bands get to rocking. Headlining this year’s festival at Squaw is Americana band The Devil Makes Three, award-winning guitarist Billy Strings and the festival’s year-after-year return guests, the Infamous Stringdusters. 

“They play acoustic instrumentation seriously and with intention. They play punk style and they play rockabilly and there’s a bluegrass influence but they break the mold and that’s why I love them,” Stoughton says of The Devil Makes Three. “[Billy Strings] is on fire leading the charge around the scene, around the world and he’s just incredible, it’s so fun to watch him.” 

As for the smaller acts that will be jamming out over the three spring days, Stoughton is quick to point out Boston-based band Twisted Pine, which will play at every stop of the WWG tour this year. “They are so good… I’m pumped to get these kids on stage,” says Stoughton. Andy Falco and Travis Book of the Infamous Stringdusters will also be playing an acoustic tribute set to Jerry Garcia, that Stoughton is certain is “going to rage.”

Rounding out all of these amazing bands and performers, the WinterWonderWomen will return for its second year. Organized and run by founding member and fiddle player of Elephant Revival, Bridget Law, WinterWonderWomen is an ever-rotating collective of female musicians that take to the stage for a collective jam-sesh at the festival, with each set distinctly different from last.

“We take the women that are playing the festival and we pull them from their bands or their typical performance scenarios, we bring them all together and we play together,” says Law. “It’s a super empowering, collaborative, supportive, celebratory energy.”

A few of the women confirmed to share the stage with Law and the WinterWonderWomen at Squaw Valley are Katia “Pixie” Racine and Amanda B. Grapes of Pixie and the Partygrass Boys, Megan Lutz, Lindsay Lou and the talented all-female band, Della Mae. Designed to be a spontaneous jam session, you’ll hear these ladies play everything from the Dixie Chicks to Beyonce to Metallica. “Everybody digs it and it’s worked really well every time,” says Law. 

With plenty of the musicians being skiing fanatics themselves, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up riding the chair or ripping the same line with WWG talent but the most unique aspect to the Squaw Valley event—that can’t be replicated at the Colorado or Vermont stops—is the spontaneous Tram Jam that happens every year. “It’s kind of rogue,” explains Stoughton. Rather than have a set plan with an announcement to the public, Stoughton and his team treat the Tram Jam like a pop-up event, inviting whichever band is ready and willing to play and a handful of lucky festival goers who just happen to be at the right place at the right time. “All of a sudden, there’s 15 musicians and 15 to 20 people just rocking out on the tram,” Stoughton says with an audible smile.

No festival—or ski day, for that matter—is complete without a healthy sampling of brewskies, and at WinterWonderGrass, there’s certainly no shortage. Since the first event in 2013, WWG has partnered with local, independent craft breweries and distilleries for festival attendees to taste free beer from 2-5 p.m. everyday and purchase drinks all night long. As a nod to nature and the beautiful mountains in which WWG takes place, the festival is now officially 100-percent single-use plastic-free by giving every guest a reusable, stainless steel mug to bring with them as well as reusable, washable cups for the tasting hours. “Our ethos is leaving communities cleaner than we found them,” says Stoughton. 

WinterWonderGrass is unlike any other festival in that it takes place in ski towns in the wintertime. Celebrating music, the mountains and the communities that thrive in both worlds, WWG is for skiers and music lovers, alike. As part of a three-stop tour, the festival will take over Steamboat, Colorado, February 21-23, Squaw Valley March 27-29 and Stratton, Vermont, April 10-11. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed ski bum with a taste for good tunes or a music maestro interested in seeing a show somewhere new, this is the winter-music-beer festival for you.

“When you come to WinterWonderGrass, I want you to feel like you’re home,” says Stoughton with complete sincerity, “like you’re back with your friends and family talking about the day on the hill, wearing your funkiest ski outfit, drinking some great beer, eating great food and seeing great music.” 

Where to: Squaw Valley

Where to fly in: 

Your best bet for a convenient travel day is flying into the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nevada. Just 43 miles southwest on I-80, the drive to Squaw Valley can be made in an hour and a half and a variety of taxi and shuttle services will get you to and from the resort, should you feel like ditching all transportation responsibilities for the weekend. 

Where to eat: 

You’d be remiss not to make a stop—or three—at the Wildflour Bakery in the Olympic House at the base of the resort. For breakfast, lunch or just a snack, Wildflour has the freshest and most delicious baked goods you’ll ever sink your teeth into. For a more substantial meal before the show, head over to Squaw’s newest Mexican kitchen and tequila bar, Tremigo

Where to apres: 

Apres like you own the place at Le Chamois & Loft Bar, which features a massive outdoor patio to perfect that spring break goggle tan while sipping on your favorite post-skiing spirit. For more of an understated vibe, head to Slot Bar to kick back with a pitcher of PBR.

Where to stay a few extra days: 

After the close of the festival, take a few extra days to enjoy everything the Tahoe area has to offer. Emerald Bay State Park on the west shore of Lake Tahoe is surrounded by glacier-carved granite hillsides perfect for hiking and exploring the Vikingsholm castle. For those who like to live a little more dangerously, South Lake Tahoe has a slew of casino resorts to put your money where your mouth is.