Having spent years skiing the Tahoe area and living at the foot of Heavenly, I’ve come up with the top 6 resorts you need to ski at! I’ll give you the lowdown on the terrain, crowds, town – both the good and bad. This list is subjective, of course, and the winner might even surprise you, but regardless, I’m confident my top 6 picks are sure to impress and get you going this ski season!
Known for: Some of the best tree skiing in the Tahoe basin, one of cheapest season passes in the Lake Tahoe area
- Great side-country skiing and tree skiing
- Exceptional terrain parks
- Fantastic grooming operation
- Lift closures due to wind are infrequent
- Parking can be a nightmare on busy days
- No lodging at Sierra at Tahoe
- Limited snowmaking capabilities
Located 26 km from South Lake Tahoe, Sierra at Tahoe is a local’s favourite! Offering 46 groomed and ungroomed trails across 809 ha of terrain, there’s plenty to explore here but it’s the incredible side-country and inbounds tree skiing that keeps skiers and snowboarders coming back every time!
Ski and Terrain
Sierra at Tahoe has a wide range of runs including some great groomers thanks to their fantastic grooming operations but that’s not what you’re really here for. Their spacious tree skiing is some of the best in the Tahoe basin with plenty of powder in between. It’s so good the resort even joke about re-arranging the trees every night to keep it all fresh! If you love a challenge, then the huge boulders here means you'll need to bring your A game. To top it all off, when the snow is good, the side-country terrain is unbeatable; most notably in the Huckleberry Canyon which serves up powder-filled bowls, cliffs, cornices and more trees!
Base Village: The base areas at Sierra offer a variety of great dining options making it easy to grab a bite. The outdoor plaza though is where the magic happens; it’s where special events are held including Olympic athlete meet and greets and is also the spot to be for après ski with fire pits to warm up and rest up. The only thing that might disappoint visitors about the base is that there is no lodging at Sierra itself which means driving to a nearby town for the night. Another issue that might annoy skiers is the lack of close parking, especially on busy powder days when parking can extend all the way down Sierra road toward Highway 50.
Learn more about Sierra at Tahoe
Known For: Easy access from San Francisco Bay Area, one of the highest snowfall in Lake Tahoe
- Some of the highest snowfall in Lake Tahoe
- Closest resorts to get to from Bay area
- Easy access to back and side country
- Shorter lift lines and fewer crowds compared to larger Tahoe resorts
- Short vertical drop 457 m
- Lower elevation compared to other Tahoe resorts at 2,555 m
- Mid-sized ski area, smaller than other top Tahoe resorts
If you’re a powderhound seeking a quick and easy snow fix then Sugar Bowl is your resort. With some of the highest snowfall in Lake Tahoe, Sugar Bowl is one of the most convenient resort from San Francisco Bay Area. This family-owned resort has a classic ski atmosphere offering a wide variety of terrain for skiers of all levels. Its mid-size ski area doesn’t compare with the larger Tahoe resorts; however, this also makes it convenient to get around, especially for families. Advanced and expert skiers won’t be disappointed though, there’s plenty of side and backcountry terrain that’s only a short hike from the lifts!
Terrain: Located on top of Donner Summit, Sugar Bowl’s four peaks offers 668 ha of ski terrain, which is respectable but not impressive by Lake Tahoe standards. Mt Judah is where most skiers start; with plenty of long greens and blues to cruise before working towards Mt Lincoln which is the highest and most popular of the four. While the vertical drop is lacking at 457 m, the sheer variety of terrain keeps things interesting. Make your way to Strawberry Fields on a powder day and you’ll find out Sugar Bowl made our list.
For the more daring adventurers, take advantage of the resort’s open boundary policy by taking The Crow’s Peak chair and Summit Express to access side and backcountry.
Crowds: Being the most accessible resort in Northern California, Sugar Bowl sees herds of locals coming via the I80 from Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area on the weekends. While there are crowds here, they tend to be fewer than the neighbouring resorts, making it a better bet if you hate long lift queues!
Base Village: The two main base areas, The Village at the bottom of Mt Lincoln and Judah at the base of Mt Judah, is where you’ll find the same facilities as other ski destinations minus the glitz and glam. Both areas offer ski-in/ski-out accommodation, but if you’re driving, Judah has slope-side parking, whereas you need to take a gondola from The Village parking lot.
Getting between the villages is easy though, just a 5 to 10 minute walk. Best of all, the Village has trails connected to Royal Gorge, North America’s largest cross-country resort, with 2,428 ha to explore!
Cost: One Day Lift Pass - Adult $115 - $120 USD ($147 - $153 CAD) / Child $67 - $70 USD ($86 - $89 CAD) / Young Adult $94 - $99 USD ($120 - $126 CAD) / Senior $94 - $99 USD ($120 - $126 CAD)
Learn more about Sugar Bowl
Known For: Excellent protection from the wind, serving up perfect intermediate ski terrain, cool base village to hang out in.
- Quite possibly the best intermediate terrain in the whole of Tahoe
- Intense snowmaking system keeps the slopes topped up with white stuff
- Nowhere in Tahoe is better protected from the wind
- Base village is a lot of fun, with plenty of places to eat and drink plus an ice-skating rink!
- Lowest elevation of any major ski resort in Tahoe making it warmer and icier in comparison to other resorts
- Warmer weather degrades snow quality and allows for rain during warm storms
- Need to take shuttle bus from most parking lots to base area
- Getting on the slopes takes a while (need to take a lift to mid-mountain for lifts to intermediate/ advanced trails)
If you’re looking for the best intermediate terrain that the Lake Tahoe ski resorts have to offer, you’ll find it at Northstar! I’d say it’s simply perfect for the average skier, but the mountain stats speak for themselves with almost half of trails being intermediate blues, and Logger’s Loop, the longest blue trail on the mountain at 2 km.
Terrain: One of Northstar’s biggest strengths is its protection from the wind, with almost every trail cut through deep evergreen trees. Add in the relatively low summit elevation of 2,624 m and you have a Tahoe resort that rarely suffers from windhold. I’ve been told by ski patrol that high winds only close lifts to the upper mountain one day per year! This is definitely your go-to ski resort when a storm kicks in over the Lake Tahoe region.
Low snowfall when you arrive? Don’t worry, the resort’s snowmaking operation covers half of the entire ski area! This is particularly great considering Northstar has the lowest elevation of any major ski resort in Tahoe which makes it warmer and in turn degrades the snow quality. You’ll also get rained on if you go during a warm storm!
Getting to slopes: Northstar’s downfall comes even before you reach the slopes. If you don’t snag one of the limited parking spots next to the base area you’ll have to park further away and catch a shuttle bus there. Then you have to walk through the village before you reach the lifts! Worst part is, at the end of the day, you’ll have to do it all over again to get back to your car!
Another pet peeve is that the lifts at the base of the resort only take you mid-mountain to blue and green runs only. You’ll need to take another lift to get to the advanced terrain and the peak.
Crowds: Weekends can also be a nightmare, when Northstar can be overrun by hordes of skiers and snowboarders from the Bay Area, bringing with them agonisingly long lift lines. During the week, however, you’ll find that the efficient lift system gets everyone moving around the mountain in no time. The trick with Northstar is to time it right. Do that and I’m sure you’ll enjoy a fun and relaxing day skiing here!
Cost: One Day Lift Pass - Adult $89 USD ($114 CAD)-$130 USD ($166 CAD) / Child $53 USD ($68 CAD)-$77 USD ($98 CAD) / Teen $73 USD ($93 CAD)-$107 USD ($137 CAD) / Senior $73 USD ($93 CAD)-$107 USD ($137 CAD)
Learn more about Northstar
Although Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are technically separate ski areas, the two have become synonymous ever since Squaw Valley acquired Alpine Meadows. Plans are in place to connect the two ski areas via the California Express Gondola, but as it stands, you'll still need to take a shuttle between the two. Both are covered by the same lift ticket which means a massive 2,428 ha of skiable terrain for you to explore, making it my number 3 on the list! As separate ski areas, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows have their own feel, so I'll walk you through them individually:
Known For: Easily accessible side-country, daredevils who love hucking off cliffs, fewer crowds than other popular Lake Tahoe resorts
- Better wind protection than Squaw Valley
- Fantastic hike-to terrain to explore
- Most lifts provide access to a variety of steeps
- High standard of grooming on steep trails
- Old lift system and base lodge
- Low elevation at 2,621 m results in warmer weather which can result in rain and ice
- Most runs are top to bottom because vertical drop is only 549 m
Perhaps one of the most underrated ski resorts in Tahoe, Alpine Meadows has all the ingredients necessary to make it a top mountain for experts. Having been acquired by Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows has yet to be connected to its neighbour but still has incredible terrain on its own. Amazing sidecountry can be easily accessed after just a short hike, there are some insanely steep groomed trails, and even some bumps for the mogully-inclined. Add to that a total of 7 bowls to tear down, along with two snow parks to unleash your inner freestyler, and the sheer variety of terrain on offer makes it a truly versatile mountain.
Snow & Terrain: There are over 100 trails to try out with a variety of terrain and a good distribution of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs. Snow-wise, it’s very solid averaging over 1,016 cm. I’ve skied here in May and experienced fantastic top to bottom coverage!
The low elevation at 2,621 m might be an issue here as it allows for warmer weather which causes rain and ice. The other thing that might not impress you is the 549 m of vertical drop, which makes the best runs usually top to bottom affairs. Otherwise, Alpine Meadows is a fantastic place to ski if you’re looking for great terrain without the crowds!
Crowds: Being right next door to Squaw Valley means Alpine Meadows is often overlooked, but the truth is that I’ve always had an awesome time skiing here. Most of the time there’s far fewer skiers and snowboarders at this resort than at nearby Squaw and Northstar, so it’s a great place to find some quieter slopes to ride.
Lifts: So what’s there not to love at Alpine Meadows? There are only 13 lifts to get skiers and boarders around the mountain, and some of these are becoming antiquated. Just hold onto the fact that the lifts will deliver you to heart pounding steeps and you’ll easily look past this.
Base village: The base area lodge also needs upgrading, so all around the resort needs some investment. Maybe this will come when Squaw and Alpine are finally linked.
Known For: Wide variety of extreme terrain, vibrant ski culture and Olympic heritage, excellent base village packed with facilities
- Legendary reputation for its high snowfall and notorious steeps
- The base village is in a close tie with Northstar as the best in all of Tahoe!
- Rich ski culture, Olympic heritage, and top location for ski movies
- Grooming of the steeps is unmatched anywhere in Tahoe
- No other Lake Tahoe ski resort is affected by the wind more than Squaw Valley
- Top elevation here doesn’t match up to the other top resorts in Tahoe
- Crowds and lack of parking on powder days
- Some of the longest lift lines in Tahoe!
Squaw Valley is one of the most famous ski resorts in America, and plenty of skiers would say it’s the best in the Lake Tahoe region. Host of the Olympic alpine skiing events in 1960, it’s also become the home of many professional skiers over the years. There is some truly extreme terrain here to challenge even the most advanced mountain riders and it has a great record for consistent snowfall. For the quintessential Lake Tahoe ski vacation, Squaw Valley ticks all the boxes!
Terrain: Notorious for its steeps, incredible snowfall and immense black run options, Squaw Valley wins the hearts of advanced and expert skiers and boarders. But if you’re not quite at that level yet, don’t worry as there are acres and acres of mellow blues to cruise. Squaw Valley also does an excellent job of grooming the steeps, better than any other resort in Tahoe, so there’s almost always a smooth slope down the mountain from every lift!
On the flip side, there are also a couple of geographical downsides to Squaw Valley. Its lower elevation compared to other Tahoe resorts can be a problem, particularly because once you drop below 2,438 m, the temperature warms up and rain becomes much more common. The lack of trees on the upper half of the mountain also means when the wind picks up the slopes get absolutely hammered and lifts can be closed. Despite all this, Squaw Valley remains an iconic ski resort that should be on every skier’s bucket list!
Base village: Once you’re ready to hang up your ski boots for the day, the base village here really is a lot of fun and easy to walk around with a great selection of restaurants and bars. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the 80s ski comedy classic ‘Hot Dog’ to get a glimpse of what Squaw Valley looked like back when fluoro one-piece ski suits were all the rage!
Crowds: It’s hard to argue with the masses, but with such a reputation comes a few disadvantages, namely crowds. On busy powder days, it can be infuriatingly crowded even before you get on the slopes. Roads to the resort can be busy and you could struggle to find a parking spot. Then you’ll have the lift queues to deal with once you’re on the mountain, which were the longest I experienced over the whole of last season. The attitude of some local skiers and snowboarders can also be a bit off-putting at times.
Cost: Any Four Days Lift Pass - Adult $349 USD ($449 CAD) / Child $239 USD ($308 CAD) / Teen $319 USD ($411 CAD)/ Senior $319 USD ($411 CAD)
Learn more about Squaw Valley - Alpine Meadows
Known For: Top quality intermediate skiing, fun party atmosphere at the base, finding freshies in-between the trees
- The 5th largest ski area in North America!
- Spectacular views of Lake Tahoe and the desert
- Groomed snow quality is unmatched anywhere in Tahoe
- Terrific variety of terrain and gnarly steeps
- Doesn’t get as much snow as nearby resorts like Kirkwood and Squaw
- Crowds can be a problem here
- Access to best terrain usually involves waiting in lift lines
- Wind often closes the upper mountain and link between California and Nevada
If you never want to ski the same trail twice on your Lake Tahoe ski vacation, Heavenly is the place for you. It’s truly massive with 1,942 ha of ski area, making it the 5th largest in North America! It’s so huge you really could spend a week exploring every nook and cranny. Intermediate skiers will be in heaven here (pun not intended), with almost half of all the trails on the mountain being blues! That’s not to say that experts aren’t well-catered for too, how does dropping into 488 m chutes sound?
Terrain: Not only is Heavenly the second biggest ski area in Lake Tahoe, it’s also the highest at 3,068 m. What’s more, the vertical drop here is unequalled anywhere on the California, with 1,067 m from top to bottom. Along with all these record-breaking mountain stats, this place also has some of the best-groomed cruisers in Tahoe, thanks to the resort’s huge focus on their grooming operation.
Heavenly is the best place in Tahoe for tree skiing. From every lift you slide aboard you’ll find some tree skiing when you slide off, and the size and spacing of the trees are just perfect for it all over the mountain. On a powder day, you could ski between the trees all day if you wanted to; there are opportunities for freshies everywhere!
You’re also likely to enjoy better quality snow here than at many other ski resorts in the region. Without getting too technical, there’s less moisture in the snow at Heavenly because the resort is on the east side of the lake. Other Tahoe resorts that are closer to the Sierra crest generally have wetter and harder snow. It’s no champagne powder, but it’s not Sierra cement either! However, it does receive less snow compared to nearby resorts such as Kirkwood and Squaw Valley.
Base village: Heavenly continues to entertain off the slopes, with a real party atmosphere in the base resort, and the major Tahoe casinos nearby just add to the fun!
Crowds: You might hear some Tahoe locals giving Heavenly a bum rap, even writing it off by saying that the resort’s focus on grooming draws in too many crowds. Sure, there are crowds, but there are lifts with no queues, though maybe not the ones that take you to the best terrain. So don’t be put off! In fact, a pal of mine who is an incredible skier and a former member of the US Ski Team summed up it up perfectly, saying, “I just like to ski Heavenly… it’s more fun!”.
Cost: One Day Lift Pass - Adult $85 USD ($109 CAD)-$124 USD ($158 CAD) / Child $47 USD ($60 CAD)-$68 USD ($87 CAD) / Teen $70 USD ($89 CAD)-$102 USD ($130 CAD) / Senior $70 USD ($89 CAD)-$102 USD ($130 CAD)
Learn more about Heavenly
Known For: Deepest snow in all of Tahoe, best place to ski inbounds powder, adventurous terrain
- 3rd highest snowfall of North American resorts!
- Adventurous terrain within the boundaries, including hike-to bowl skiing
- Plenty of freshies to find, even days after a dump (if you know where to look!)
- Fewer crowds compared to other Tahoe ski resorts
- Robust local ski culture oozes enthusiasm for the pow!
- 610 m of vertical drop falls short compared to both Squaw and Heavenly
- 45-minute drive south of Lake Tahoe, crossing over two passes
- Not enough car parking spaces on busy days
- Aging lift network
- Chair 4 on the backside of the resort is notoriously old, slow, and often has long lines
When you’ll settle for nothing less than the steepest slopes and the deepest powder, Kirkwood is the place for you. This 931 ha ski area draws in flocks of diehard skiers and snowboarders who come for the extreme terrain, and it’s a terrific sight to see them fearlessly tearing down the mountain on a powder day. The ski patrol here has a great reputation for opening up fresh powder-filled terrain as soon as they can after completing avalanche control.
Snow & Terrain: Kirkwood’s 610 m of vertical drop is by no means the biggest in Tahoe, but its trump card is snowfall. Sometimes the resort gets twice as much snow as other Tahoe ski areas, something the locals like to call the ‘K-Factor’! So there’s plenty of freshies to discover, even days after a dump, that’s if you know where to look. Kirkwood is also famous for is its excellent high-angle grooming - there’s nowhere better for smooth corduroy black runs than just off Chair 6.
With 65 different trails to try out, you’ll have plenty of exploring to do. Some of the views from up high are breathtaking, but to get back down you’ll need to be a confident skier or snowboarder as almost 60% of the terrain here is advanced to expert trails! For some deep powder within boundaries, there’s some excellent hike-to terrain in the Palisades area, serving up quite possibly the best inbounds powder skiing across the whole of Tahoe! Just remember, the resort has an aging lift network, so it might take you a little longer to reach the slopes.
Crowds: There are fewer crowds here compared to other Tahoe ski resorts but that also means there are less parking spaces so get there early or else you might be refused entry! After driving 45-minutes south of Lake Tahoe and crossing over two passes, you won’t want to be told to turn around.
One little thing that brings Kirkwood down is the cost of eating at the resort as prices have gone up since Vail took over, so it’s best to dine elsewhere. Despite this, trust me when I say Kirkwood very hard to beat. While riding the chair here last year, I started chatting with a local who skied Squaw Valley pretty much exclusively for the past 20 years. All he kept talking about was how much better the skiing is at Kirkwood!
Cost: One Day Lift Pass - Adult $80 USD ($102 CAD)-$94 USD ($120 CAD) / Child $58 USD ($74 CAD)-$69 USD ($88 CAD) / Teen $72 USD ($92 CAD)-$85 USD ($109 CAD) / Senior $72 USD ($92 CAD)-$85 USD ($109 CAD)
Learn more about Kirkwood
There you have it, the top 5 ski resorts around Lake Tahoe! Before you make your decision on which Lake Tahoe ski resort to spend your vacation at this year, there’s one more that deserves an honourable mention…
This place has a lot going for it, with the most efficient lift layout of any resort in Tahoe. A couple of six-pack chairs shuttle skiers up the mountain in a flash, and pretty much all the terrain is accessible from these two lifts. You’ll enjoy amazing views of Reno and the desert from the top, and the snow quality is fantastic.
Another great thing about Mt. Rose is that the base area is the highest in Tahoe, resting at 2,518 m, which helps to keep the white stuff in great condition. The Chutes ski area is my pick for terrain to make you pucker, while the front-side of the resort has some fun steep groomers. So why didn’t it make the top 5? It’s a small ski area and the vertical is pretty limited too, so it just doesn’t stack up against the competition.