Sunday, October 28, 2012

Choosing Tahoe Ski Resorts

Need help deciding which Tahoe ski resort to visit? Ever wonder how to cut through the hype of advertising and get a perspective on the resorts from a local skier? Read on.
There are many factors in planning your Tahoe Ski-and-Ride trip, but one of the biggest is which resort to visit. Of course, one of the great things about Tahoe is that you can visit many resorts in just one trip because we have so many resorts in a relatively small area. But many people still want to know which area to focus on in picking lodgings and planning restaurants, and there are many lodging packages that include lift tickets. Below is a list of considerations to help you choose where to have fun.
Note that this list concentrates on the major winter (downhill) resorts. We also have smaller areas like Boreal and Donner Ski Ranch (Both Already OPEN!) to ski and ride, and you don't want to forget Royal Gorge, our huge cross-country area that connects to Sugar Bowl. Many of the other areas also have cross-country trails.
Here are some of the questions people often ask about Tahoe resorts. While some of the answers are simple facts (like ski area elevation), others are my personal opinions. (Please register your additions and dissent as “comments” at the end of this post!)

What are the Biggest Resorts?

Heavenly, followed by Squaw Valley. Both Heavenly and Squaw are huge. Many people could ski/ride either area for a week without repeating any run or combinations of runs. (An interesting footnote: The owners of Squaw Valley recently bought Alpine Meadows. Because they back up against each other, the plan is to eventually connect them. When that happens, the combined area will reportedly be the biggest resort in North America.)

What are the Not-So-Big Areas?

Many people like an area that isn't so big – easier to keep track of the others in your party. Our smaller areas are Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch. Our smaller-to-midsize areas are Diamond Peak, Mt. Rose, Sugar Bowl, and Homewood.

Which Resorts get the Most Snow?

The eight areas aligned along the Sierra Crest (to the west of the lake) get the most snow. They are, from north to south, Sugar Bowl, Boreal, Donner SkiRanch, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Kirkwood. Of all these, Kirkwood regularly gets the most of all.

It should be noted that while nearly all our resorts have decent snowmaking, some areas, especially Heavenly, have huge snowmaking systems. In those rare years when we don't get much natural snowfall early in the season (i.e., before January), the areas with snowmaking often have the best snow. Also remember that the most snow isn't always what everyone prefers. See the next list.

Which resorts have the Most Sun?

Sometimes, while the areas on the Sierra Crest are lost in the fog and white-out conditions of a slow-moving storm system, our other four areas are enjoying fantastic sun. These sunnier areas are Northstar, DiamondPeak, Mt. Rose, and Heavenly
Diamond Peak

Highest Elevation at the Summit

Heavenly at just over 10,000 feet is the highest, followed by Kirkwood, then Mt. Rose. This usually only matters in the spring when the sun is turning the snow to mush. When that happens, the higher you go, the better the snow.

Best Slope Grooming

In my personal experience, the best grooming is found at Heavenly, Northstar, and Squaw.

Most Independent of Automobiles

Nearly all Tahoe skiers – even those that fly into Reno or Sacramento – drive to the mountain. Yet some of our visitors love to drop off their car and not get back into it for a week. While Tahoe resorts do not have a huge amount of ski-in/ski-out lodging, there is some at many areas. And several areas have lodging at the base where you can walk from your hotel to the lift. The most auto-independent resorts are Northstar followed by Squaw, both of which have substantial pedestrian-focused base villages. Heavenly has a smaller pedestrian village at the base of the gondola where it is enjoyable to stay without having to use your car. Several of the other areas have limited on-slope lodging where you can put on your skis at your door and ski to the lift. Check out ski-in/ski-out vacation rental homes especially at Northstar, Kirkwood, and Squaw.

Fewest Crowds

This one is easy. Homewood, Diamond Peak, Mt. Rose, Boreal and Donner Ski Ranch.

Best Value

Let's face it, skiing/riding at major North American resorts is expensive. The Tahoe areas doing the most to hold down costs are Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood, Diamond Peak, and Mt. Rose.

Most Lodging Choices

Heavenly, because it is in Tahoe's largest community, the South Shore. Next would be Northstar and Squaw for lodging close to the slopes, then Diamond Peak for lodging in nearby Incline Village. Skiers at Northstar, Squaw, Alpine, Sugar Bowl, Boreal. and Donner often stay in Truckee, which has many lodging choices.

Most Nightlife

Heavenly because it is at the South Shore where there are the most entertainment options.

Best Views

This is easy. The resorts with the best views are those that are closest to the lake. Diamond Peak, Homewood, and Heavenly. (Northstar is somewhat close to the lake, but it faces north, away from the lake. Both Alpine and Squaw have views of the lake, but they are not as grand as those areas on the lake.)
View from Heavenly

Most Family Friendly

What do families want for their winter playland? One of the main things is a place where they don't have to worry about their kids getting lost or otherwise getting into trouble. The resorts that most answer this need are all the areas other than the biggest two, Heavenly and Squaw. (I know I will get argument on this because many families will stay within a single area of the big resorts, treating it as a smaller resort within the big place.) For most family-friendly of all, I vote for Northstar, which is large, but the way it is laid out around the pedestrian base village makes it very comfortable. Northstar also has the most ski-in/ski-out lodging, which, although expensive, is great for families.

Easiest to Get to Without Four-Wheel-Drive

For most Tahoe visitors, getting over Donner Summit (Interstate 80 from Sacramento) on the north or Echo Summit (Hwy 50 from Sacramento) on the south is a bigger hurdle than getting to each area once you are in the Tahoe area. From Reno, you have an easier drive up 80 or 50, and both of those access routes get less snow than those coming from the west.

Having said that, some of our resorts have steeper base access than others. The ones with the easiest, most level access are Heavenly Village at the base of the gondola, and Squaw Valley. Homewood sits right on Highway 89 on the West Shore, which is fairly flat, but access is often only from the north (Tahoe City) because Emerald Bay to the south is often closed during storms. All of the other areas require driving on substantial slopes to get to them.

Most Challenging Terrain

Squaw and Kirkwood have the most legendary challenging terrain, steep chutes and cliff-edged palisades, although both have lots of easier, cruiser runs, too! On the flip side, while Heavenly is often thought of as a cruiser area, it also has Mott and Killebrew Canyons along with The Face, some of the most challenging terrain in the country.

Easiest Terrain

All of our areas have good learning areas along with good ski instructors to assist you.

Which resort has the Highest Glitz Factor? i.e., Where are you likeliest to see movie stars and sports stars putting on their moves?

Like Aspen and Vail in Colorado, the Movie Star Quotient in Tahoe is highest at Squaw and Heavenly.

Here's a Quick Description of Each Area from a Local's Perspective


Heavenly is a huge, sprawling resort, Heavenly is the biggest and highest, and it has the most vertical rise (3500 feet) of any Tahoe resort. While it is often thought of as a cruiser area, Heavenly has every kind of terrain. Heavenly also has Tahoe's best tree skiing (ask a local for current, best tree-skiing locations). Reaching from California into Nevada, Heavenly has four bases, two in South Lake Tahoe (at the base of the gondola in Heavenly Village, and up Ski Run Blvd), and two up off the top of Kingsbury Grade on the Nevada side. (Note: your kids will love the trails that go from one state into the other. Take their picture next to the signs that say, “Entering California” with Lake Tahoe in the background.)

Because of its location on the South Shore, Heavenly is nearer to more lodging, restaurants, and other entertainment than any other Tahoe resort. Heavenly, along with Northstar and Kirkwood, was recently purchased by Vail Corporation, which shows how highly those resorts are regarded by big money from out of the area.

Squaw Valley

With Tahoe's only Olympic history, legendary terrain, Hollywood glitz, and spectacular valley views, Squaw Valley is the quintessential Tahoe resort. Squaw is located on 89 south of Truckee and north of Tahoe City. Just look for the Olympic Rings. You can spend an entire week in the valley, never get in your car, and you won't feel like you've missed a thing. And if anyone in your party gets tired of skiing or riding, there is the pool and skating rink at the top of the cable car. Unlike any other Tahoe resort, when you are sitting at Squaw's pool at 8200 feet, surrounded by mountain peaks, you might for a moment think you are in Switzerland. At the end of the day, there are many good restaurants in the base village along with boutique shops.
High Camp at the top of Squaw's Cable Car

Sugar Bowl

Tahoe's oldest major resort (Granlibakken is the true oldest) still has a bit of quaint historical feel to it. Sugar Bowl is fun and family-friendly. Driving up Interstate 80 from the Central Valley, Sugar Bowl is the first major resort you come to, meaning you'll spend less time driving and more time skiing. Like all Tahoe resorts, Sugar Bowl can get crowded on the weekends, but during the midweek you'll find less crowds than at most resorts. Sugar Bowl is adjacent to Royal Gorge, America's largest cross-country ski resort, with its own awesome terrain and magnificent views.

Alpine Meadows

Many locals say that Alpine Meadows is their favorite Tahoe resort, and more than a few think that it gets more snow than any other Tahoe area other than Kirkwood. A few miles north of 89 from Tahoe City, Alpine is surprisingly large with every kind of terrain, but it doesn't have the sprawling feel of Squaw or Heavenly. Alpine has a wonderful layout of runs. Because of the different ways that Alpine faces, one can often find sheltered runs when the weather is blowing. Alpine was recently bought by the owners of Squaw, which is just over the ridge to the north, so look for big changes in the future. The goal is to connect the two to make one of the largest resorts in the world.


Homewood is one of Tahoe's best values, its best-kept secret, and it has Tahoe's best lake views, too! South of Tahoe City on the West Shore, Homewood sits closer to Lake Tahoe than any other resort. From many runs it looks like you're about to ski down into the water. Although Homewood has big plans for upgrades (which will eventually raise prices), right now it still feels like a friendly resort from years past. Homewood is Tahoe's biggest surprise because it doesn't look like much from the road. But once you ride the lifts up, you will find that it is a big place with runs for everyone. Unless you're expecting Squaw's glitz, you will be pleasantly surprised.
View from Homewood

Sierra At Tahoe

Like Sugar Bowl off Interstate 80, Sierra (as locals call it) is the first resort you come to as you drive up Highway 50 from Sacramento. Being closer means more skiing and less sitting in traffic. On weekdays, Sierra is as uncrowded as any Tahoe resort. Because it sits on the Sierra Crest, Sierra gets more snow than most. Sierra also has more vertical rise than most Tahoe resorts. Many South Shore locals have season passes at Sierra, finding it to be less crowded than Heavenly.


“The 'Wood,” as locals call it, is known for having the most snow of any resort in North America. It's a big claim with the weather statistics to prove it. (Although Sugar Bowl will fight them for that claim!) Add in a wide range of challenging terrain, and Kirkwood is hard to beat. Kirkwood is about an hour drive from Tahoe's South Shore (south out 89, then west on 88). Kirkwood's location is its major advantage as well as disadvantage. Except on weekends, Kirkwood is uncrowded, and you won't find many people showing off their latest ski fashions. Instead, you'll find the serious skiers, searching out the deepest snow in the country. Beware that in bad weather Kirkwood is sometimes hard to get to. Carson Pass to the east is at 8600 feet, and it often closes during storms. On the other hand, being trapped at Kirkwood for unending days of bottomless powder would be one of the greatest problems a skier could ever face!

Diamond Peak

Like Homewood on the West Shore, this is the place where locals go on the NorthEast Shore to avoid the rush. It is a short drive up from the town of Incline Village. Diamond Peak is a great mountain with one of the best overall views in Tahoe. From every run you look down at the lake and across at the peaks of the Sierra Crest. Lunch on the mid-mountain sundeck is an experience you'll never forget. Diamond Peak is less expensive than the big areas, and it probably has the best overall weather of all Tahoe resorts. Because Diamond Peak gets more afternoon sun than most Tahoe areas, most winter days are glorious sun-soaked experiences with awesome lake views.

Mt. Rose

Mt. Rose is not actually on the mountain named Mt. Rose, but across from it on the Mt. Rose Highway (#431). Mt. Rose Highway climbs up from Incline Village, over Mr. Rose Summit (the highest year-round pass in the Sierra) and then down to Reno. The ski runs face east toward Washoe Lake and north toward the “Biggest Little City.” Because it has a higher base elevation than the other Tahoe resorts, all of Mt. Rose has good snow well into spring. Like Homewood and Diamond Peak, Mt. Rose provides its slightly-smaller size for less cost than most other areas. Mt. Rose also has the distinction of being the closest major ski area to any international airport in the country. You can fly into Reno and be at the chairlift in a bit over a half hour after leaving the airport.


There's a reason that Vail Resorts bought Northstar (along with Heavenly and Kirkwood), and why Northstar has Tahoe's glitziest hotel (The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe). Northstar is a fabulous, completely self-contained resort with a huge assortment of runs and a great base village with good restaurants, an ice rink, and everything else to make a perfect winter vacation. In a national poll, Northstar was voted the most family-friendly ski resort in the country. Northstar also has Tahoe's largest number of ski-in/ski-out lodgings. You need never get back into your car during your time at Northstar.

You won't find many Tahoe views because Northstar sits on Mt. Pluto, north of Tahoe, and it faces north toward Truckee. But the ski area itself is surprisingly large, and it has every kind of terrain.

Donner Ski Ranch

These two separate areas have similar characteristics (although the managements probably don't think so!) Both are off Interstate 80 near Donner Summit, both are smallish compared to the big Tahoe resorts, and both are much less expensive. Both are traditionally the first resorts to open in late fall. In fact BOTH ARE ALREADY OPEN THIS SEASON! Because of their small size, they are particularly good choices for parents who want to know that their kids can't stray too far.

How to Get to Tahoe?
The Reno Tahoe International Airport (airport code RNO) is only an hour or so from Incline Village, which is near Diamond Peak. From the airport, you drive south on 395, then west on the Mt. Rose Highway (#431). This route takes you past Mt. Rose Ski area, and over the Mt. Rose Summit at 9000 feet, so you only want to go this way when the weather is nice and the roads are clear.

The Reno Tahoe airport is also less than an hour from Truckee. From the airport, you go north on 395, then west on Interstate 80 to Truckee. The freeway doesn't go over any passes until you through Truckee and climb on up to Donner Summit (where Sugar Bowl, Boreal and Donner Ski Ranch are located.) From Truckee you can easily access all of the resorts on the north side of Tahoe.

From the Reno Tahoe Airport, you can also get to Tahoe's South Shore in only 90 minutes. From the airport, go south on 395 to Carson City. Just south of Carson City, turn west on Hwy 50. That takes you up and over Spooner Summit, which sits a bit over 7000 feet. While Spooner can get snowy during storms, it is usually clear. Once you get on the Tahoe side of the summit, Hwy 50 turns south and goes directly to South Lake Tahoe. (The portion of the town on the Nevada side of the California/Nevada state line is called Stateline). To avoid confusion, many locals just call the entire area the South Shore.

You can also fly in to Sacramento International (airport code SMF). To get to Tahoe's North Shore, drive south from the airport on Interstate 5, then turn east on Interstate 80. The drive to Truckee takes about 2 and a half hours.

To get from the airport to Tahoe's South Shore, you also drive south on Interstate 5, then turn east on Hwy 50. Note that this turnoff, while hugely popular, is poorly marked. When you get close to downtown Sacramento, stay to the right as you go over the bridge over the American River. Look closely for the sign that says Hwy 50/South Lake Tahoe. Slow down because the exit is a slow-speed affair. The total drive from the airport to South Lake Tahoe is about 2 and a half hours.

Both 80 to North Tahoe and 50 to South Tahoe require you to drive over passes, Donner Summit on the north and Echo Summit on the south. These passes are often clogged with snow during storms. When the snow flies, both passes turn on signs requiring chains. And somewhat rarely, both passes will sometimes close for an hour or more.

Chain Rules and Car Rental Recommendations
Here's the rule about chains. If you have 2-wheel-drive, you have to be prepared to put on chains or they will turn you away. However, if you have 4-wheel-drive (same as all-wheel-drive for this purpose), they will let you through as long as your tires don't look bald. The technical rule is that your 4-wheel-drive must be equipped with snow tires. However, most 4-wheel-drive standard tires are “mud and snow” rated, so they are okay. To verify, look on the tire sidewall for the letters “M + S.” In general, all 4-wheel-drive vehicles are waved on through the chain control.

When you rent a car, you will be tempted to save a couple of hundred bucks by choosing 2-wheel-drive and possibly picking up a set of chains, which are against rental car rules. I recommend that you don't do it. You've already invested a lot in plane flight, hotel reservations, possibly a ticket package, and even more important, your time. I can tell you from experience, when the “Chain Control” lights turn on, there is nothing worse than having to lie down in a freezing, slushy puddle in the dark and wrestle with chains while you're trying to aim a flashlight with your teeth, or even worse, being turned away. If you have 4-wheel-drive, you will thank yourself a dozen times for being smart enough to pay the extra cost. Here's an indication of how valuable 4-wheel-drive is: Nearly every Tahoe resident who can afford it has 4-wheel-drive. 
Chevy Tahoe 4-Wheel-Drive

A Few More Considerations for a Winter Tahoe Vacation:
Because there are so many resorts in Tahoe, you can watch the weather and pick the best place for skiing and riding each day. Many visitors go to several different areas on their vacation, choosing to chase the sun or the powder or the fewest crowds. You don't get that opportunity anywhere else in the country.

Another thing to check out are multi-area passes. For example, you can often get multi-day ticket deals that extend to more than one area. At last check, a lift pass for Squaw is also good at Alpine.

Also notice that season passes are still cheap. If you are planning a winter vacation that is a week or longer, you can save money by buying a season pass now. And some of those passes are good at multiple areas. One example is the season pass good at Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood. Not only do you save money compared to daily ticket prices, but you save a great deal of hassle when you don't have to hike from parking to the ticket booth and stand in line. With a pass around your neck, you just head for the lift.

Last Thoughts
My wife and I have skied many places across the country. And we've spoken to hundreds of people who've skied all over the country and some all over the world. We all agree that there are multiple things that Tahoe resorts have to offer that the rest of the country doesn't:

*A Greater Concentration of ski-and-ride resorts than anywhere outside of the Alps
*More Sunny Days (The Rockies can claim as many sunny days, but they often come during times of Arctic-cold high-pressure systems, when it is too cold to comfortably ski or ride.)
*Warmer Average High Temps
*Warmer Average Low Temps
*Closer to Beaches and Golf Courses (in case you want to link your ski trip to a beach or golf trip)
*More Spectacular Views (Lake Tahoe views from up above are simply the most spectacular ski resort views in the country – maybe in the world.)
*More Exciting Night Life (In addition to nightclubs and gaming, where else can you take in a big-name act at the casino showrooms after a day on the slopes?)
*More Exciting alternative entertainment like a ride to Emerald Bay on the Tahoe Queen or M.S. Dixie
*Easier to get to if you fly into Reno

Check out the links in this post, and surf on over to your favorite travel site to check out travel and lodgings. You just may have the best winter-play vacation of your life!

P.S. Our October storm already dropped more than 2 feet of snow at the higher elevations. It looks like it could be a good winter, so come on up the mountain and play on the slopes!


  1. By the help of this I came to know about the different Ski Resorts in Argentina.
    Argentina Ski Resorts

  2. Thanks so much for this comprehensive and insightful guide. Really invaluable to get a non-commercial local's perspective.

    1. You're welcome, Jonny. Glad to be of help!