Sports for all: Sky Tavern aims to be most accessible ski, mountain biking area in Basin

Sky Tavern built the area’s first adaptive flow trail.
Provided / Sky Tavern

Driving up Mt. Rose Highway from Reno to Lake Tahoe, drivers pass a little ski hill just off the highway. Compared to large resorts around the basin, Sky Tavern doesn’t look like much, but to the low-income, disabled and beginner skiers in the area, the ski hill is everything. 

For 75 years, Sky Tavern has been one of the most accessible ski areas in the Lake Tahoe Basin. While it has primarily been known for its winter activities, in recent years, the area has quickly become one of the more popular parks for summer recreation, specifically mountain biking. 

75 Years

On Saturday, Jan. 24, 1948, local pre-school teacher, Marcelle (“Marce”) Barkley Herz, filled up her station wagon with some of her students and their friends and drove them to Sky Tavern to teach them how to ski. Shortly after, other parents caught wind of Herz coaching and offered to help teach the kids, as well. Thus began the Junior Ski Program at Sky Tavern.  

Since 1948, more than 100,000 kids have learned to ski (and snowboard) at Sky Tavern. 

Sky Tavern wants to make trails rideable by anyone and everybody.
Provided / Sky Tavern

Prior to the program launching in 1948, Sky Tavern already had a decade’s worth of history. 

Sky Tavern was originally called Reno Up Ski and Reno Ski Bowl at Grass Lake (was filled in to build the parking lot.) 

According to Sky Tavern’s website, “the first project that eventually led to Sky Tavern becoming a ski area was snow surveying to determine moisture content, led by Dr James Edward Church, a UNR professor who has been called the ‘Father of Snow Surveying.'” 

Church worked with a local boy scout troop, which included Wayne Poulsen, Marce Herz’ father and uncles and others, to conduct the snow surveys. The boy scout troop actually manufactured the first skis used at the Sky Tavern hill. The skis were made of Birch Wood and were heated in geothermal waters in Steamboat Springs, Nev. and bent into an arch and then shaved.  

Poulsen graduated from Reno High School in 1933 and was the founder and first coach of the University of Nevada, Reno Ski Team. In 1938, along with Ed Heath, Poulsen opened Mt. Rose Up Ski at Grass Lake (now Sky Tavern.)

In 1944, Robinson Neeman opened Sky Tavern with a restaurant, a hotel, and a bingo parlor run by William Harrah. He sold the property to Keston Ramsey in 1945, who added three tow ropes on the mountain. 

In 1953, the Junior Ski Program became part of the City of Reno Recreation and Parks Department.

Ramseys sold the property to private buyers in 1959, then reacquired it in 1964. Finally, he sold it again in 1968 to the city of Reno, which still owns it today. Sky Tavern has plans to be around long into the future, after they signed a $1 a year, 50-year lease with the city in 2019. 


Sky Tavern boasts that it is the biggest and the oldest youth training center in the United States. Many skiers have taken their first turns at Sky Tavern and for parents who don’t want to spend the big bucks on a sport their child knows nothing about, it’s the perfect place to go. While the nonprofit does have full-time staff, they number less than a dozen so most of the work is done by volunteers. 

“Parents will bring their kids up then they’ll work in the kitchen, they’ll run the parking lot, they’ll come out and shovel snow, so everything is volunteer run,” said Randi Thompson, Sky Tavern Board of Directors. 

Sky Tavern graduate and Olympian Tamara McKinney with her mother Frances.
Provided / Sky Tavern

The mountain is 143 acres, with two chair lifts and two surface lifts. There are eight hills that vary in difficulty and correspond to the classes, i.e. class one skis on hill one. Passing level three gives athletes access to the chairlift. 

In 2021, Sky Tavern was awarded the National Ski Areas Association Conversation Cup which “recognizes the best ski area programs aimed at bringing in first-time guests and converting them into lifelong participants.”

But it’s not just for beginners. Sky Tavern has a race program which is coached by Mike Savage, one of just a handful of coaches that is a United States Ski Coach Association Internationally Certified Level 500 Ski Coach, which is the highest level of certification.

Many notable athletes have cut their teeth at Sky Tavern, including Olympians Steve and Tamara McKinney, Sandra Poulsen and David Wise, whose father helped launched the Sky Kids program. 

The ski area is also well known for its adaptive ski program for children with learning and/or physical disabilities. There are five PSIA adaptive instructors that volunteer to coach those children. 

In addition to their own program, they open their mountain for other nonprofits. They’ve also partnered with High Fives, another non-profit in the area that works with disabled athletes, as well as, the Men to Mountains program through Wounded Warriors Foundation. 

Sky Tavern is also well-known for its affordability. By opening their lodge for events, they are able to keep their prices low. 

“We don’t break even with the ski tickets, we want to keep them affordable, we want to keep them under $200,” Thompson said. That’s saying a lot when a season pass at some of the surrounding mountains cost between $500-1,000. 

A day pass at Sky Tavern is about $50 and a season pass costs $190, which includes two hours of lessons every week. Every year, they receive $25,000 in grant funding to offer as scholarships. They work with the City of Reno Housing Authority to give free passes to children living in low-income housing. 

The mountain has plans to continue growing their offerings. Since they signed the 50-year lease in 2019, they’ve had more success fundraising for capital improvement projects. They received a $1 million matching grant from the Wiegand Foundation. Earlier this winter, they raised enough to match that, which will be used on snow making equipment. 

At the same time, they brought on Yale Spina as Chairman of the Board of Directors. Spina’s grandfather Rocco Spina was a member of the Reno Parks and Recreation department and pushed the city to buy Sky Tavern. Spina is a retired pro aerial acrobatic and his brother, Lane, has two Olympic medals. Both learned to ski at Sky Tavern. 

“It’s the way the city fixed this property, because it was just not being utilized for more than two days a week, 10 weeks a year. The Junior Ski Program going for 75 years and it’s wonderful but  the city considers sky tavern to be a city park and they’d like to see it being utilized more often and it’s a shame that it just kind of sits between the week and nothings happening so we’re making stuff happen,” said Spina.

They are partnering with University of Nevada, Reno and Truckee Meadows Community College for a learn to ski program for students, along with accessing local high school students and a race program for masters. 

“There’s so much opportunity to do things for the community as a training and competition place. Sky Tavern is the home of the Junior Ski Program but it can be so much more than that.” Spina said. 

But along with the lease, they were able to also expand into summer operations. 


When Spina joined Sky Tavern in 2019, there was half of one mountain bike trail, which was built by the UNR downhill team.

“We now have five really good mountain bike trails, and one uphill trail, which makes this essentially a bike park, and we intend to keep that going, because essentially cycling is the largest growing sport in the world,” Spina said. 

They’ve launched a cycling camp and children programs. In 2022, they hosted an Enduro race and want to continue hosting races. 

Since 2019, Sky Tavern has grown its trail network.
Provided / RenoTahoe

As with skiing, Sky Tavern wants its bike park to be accessible to all. 

“What we did initially, what didn’t exist in the Tahoe Basin was an adaptive flow trail … so we built the first ever purpose built adaptive flow trail,” Spina said. 

A flow trail is similar to a bobsled course for bikes. There are plenty to be found around the Basin but they are all built for singletrack. Sky Tavern’s is eight feet wide, with big berms that allows people riding hand-cycle bikes to use more easily. 

Sky Tavern launched an adaptive cycling program which started with four people and has since grew to 28 people. 

They are also building a strider track, which can be used by young children who are riding striders, bikes without training wheels or pedals that allow kids to learn balance before getting on a pedal bike. They are also building a pump track, which are tracks that have berms and bumps which start and end at the same place. 

Finally, they are going to build three skill progression trails, which they are calling their “coaching trails.”

Sky Tavern has contracted with Steve Wentz, who is a world-class trail builder to build the trails. The Reno local told Spina that he wants Sky Tavern to be some of his best work. In addition to new trails, he’s also going to help rebuild some of the existing trails. 

“In the last few years, the parking lot is filling up, so we are the place where you can come with all the bikes and all the kids and anybody and everybody can ride from here,” Spina said. 

They also want to expand their summer events to include races and concerts as fundraisers for the rest of the programs. 

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