We wanted to introduce our 4-year-old to skiing last winter, and my friend Big Paul said: "Take him to Northstar, drop him off at the ski school." Which was probably sound advice.

The problem was, I didn't want to drop him off and ski away. For one thing, I was keen to share in the experience. For another thing, though James is blessed with natural athleticism (thanks to his mom) and the fearlessness that infects most young boys, I wasn't sure how he'd take to being, well, dropped off in a strange place to try a strange sport for the first time.

So I figured I'd just find a place that offered family lessons. Unfortunately, that ended up being easier said than done.

Big Paul's words were prophetic: Most of the major Lake Tahoe resorts only offer kids' ski schools where mom and dad aren't invited to participate. I can understand the rationale: No doubt there are liability issues involved when grown-ups mill around with other people's children. (And quite frankly, I'm sure plenty of parents who have devoted the time and money to a Tahoe trip are happy for some kid-free skiing.)

Still, my hopes for a daddy-and-mommy-and-me experience left me with one option at the bigger resorts: A private family lesson that could run as steep as a black diamond slope.

At Northstar, for instance, half-day family lessons were going for $515. Squaw Valley quoted $479 (although this winter, they've added a less expensive option called Teaching Tykes; for more information, see the accompanying box). At both places, we'd be looking at another $300-plus for lift tickets and equipment rentals for the three of us.

Homewood Mountain Resort in Tahoe City offered a far more affordable option: Its Family and Friends private lessons ran as low as $79 an hour. "Much of skiing and snowboarding's fun comes from interacting with friends and family on the slopes," said Brian Schilling, Homewood's snow sports school manager. "Offering family group instruction is a perfect fit."

But lift tickets and equipment added nearly $250 to the tally -- not a deal-breaker, but I hoped to do better. Diamond Peak, at Incline Village, cost just $180 for tickets and rentals, provided we waited until 12:30 to hit the slopes. However, an employee at the resort's Child Ski Center told me, "They're fairly strict about it being a 'no-parent zone.' " The idea, he said, is to encourage kids to trust their instructors.

While Diamond Peak does offer private family lessons, children have to be 7 or older to participate.

In desperation, I started Googling for alternatives and stumbled across a reference to a ski hill called Granlibakken, 10 minutes north of Homewood. A private, one-hour lesson for James, I was told, was $65, and each additional person cost $30 -- lift tickets included. What's more, equipment rentals for the three of us, including a helmet for James, would total a measly $95. (The prices have ticked up a bit in the past year, but not by much; see box for details.)

Things got even better when I realized the place was just two miles from Tahoe City's Lake of the Sky Inn -- where, coincidentally, I'd stayed with some friends on my last ski trip pre-fatherhood. A (very) basic room with two queen beds set us back $120, including a (very) basic breakfast.

When I call Granlibakken a "ski hill," I mean just that. General Manager Kay Williams told me the resort's lone slope stands only 300 feet in height. Still, she said, "It's not all beginner skiing." Ride the platter lift to the top, and you've got a choice of several wooded trails and downhill runs, not to mention a pretty view of the lake's cobalt-blue water. It was enough to make me feel I'd gotten in a legitimate afternoon of skiing.

The trees give Granlibakken its name, which is Norwegian for a "hill sheltered by trees." The 74-acre, family owned resort opened in 1947 -- two years before Squaw Valley. But the property's roots date back to 1924, when it was called Olympic Hill. According to industry website www.SkiLakeTahoe.com, that makes it "the first ski resort in the Lake Tahoe basin."

Granlibakken's owners also assert that, because its location shelters it from wind and sun, it's typically the first to receive enough snow for skiing each year and the last place to lose it. Still, to be on the safe side the resort has the snow-making equipment that's requisite in these days of drought.

We got fitted for boots and skis in the same rustic "snack hut" that offers chili and hot chocolate for après ski. As for the tickets, they're half-off for people staying at the resort; they also cover the adjoining sledding area. Williams said that if you're too busy skiing to try out the smaller sled hill, the tickets will be honored there the next morning.

James, in fact, was quite happy to spend a few hours shooting down the sled hill on one of the brightly colored plastic saucers. When at last it was time for his ski lesson, he was even happier to head off with his instructor, Travis Glander, and leave us in his dust. I skied behind at a respectful distance, while my wife stationed herself with the video camera near the base of the tow rope.

It occurred to me that Big Paul may have been right in the end. But as I watched my fearless preschooler learning to make a "pizza pie" with his ski tips, and heard my wife's gleeful cheers, I was thankful not to be in a parent-free zone.

Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.

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FAMILY SKI LESSONS
Our choice was Granlibakken, a small family owned resort in Tahoe City that offers super-affordable lessons on its ski hill.
Granlibakken (www.granlibakken.com) -- One-hour private lessons cost $85 for one person (ages 4 and up) and $30 for each additional person (with lift tickets included). Equipment rentals run $30-$35 for skis, poles and boots. It's the same price for snowboards/boots. Helmets ($6) are mandatory for anyone younger than 18. Lift rates for 2013-14 are adults, $30 full day, $16 half-day. Children 12 and younger ski for $20 full day, $10 half-day.
OTHER TAHOE OPTIONS
If you're looking for a bigger mountain with a full range of runs -- but family ski lessons that won't break the bank -- try these resorts:
  • Homewood (www.skihomewood.com) -- Their Family and Friends private lessons, introduced last winter, blend ski or snowboard instruction for up to five people at various ages and skill levels. A one-hour, early bird session costs $79, while half-day and full-day options are more expensive. Does not include lift tickets ($59 for adults, $24 for kids 5-12, free for younger children) or equipment rentals ($49 full-day, $39 half-day for adults; $39-$29 for kids, plus $19 for helmets).
  • Squaw Valley (www.squaw.com) -- The new Teaching Tykes program is a one-hour private lesson for kids 3-5 and parents who want tips on how to teach them to ski or snowboard. (Northstar discontinued a similar program, called Teach Your Tot, last year.) The $169 fee includes "beginner lift" tickets for parent and child, plus the little one's equipment. Grown-up gear costs $54 (boots and skis/poles or snowboard), and if mom or dad want to hit the big slopes later, lift tickets are $87 half-day, $102 full-day or $95 if bought online at least three days in advance.
  • Mt. Rose (http://dev.skirose.com) -- Halfway between Reno and Lake Tahoe, it offers private instruction for kids 3 and older on a first-come, first-served basis. The popular one-hour lessons, which often sell out, cost $110, with each additional person $80; equipment rental and all-day lift tickets are included.