Here’s a primer to help you differentiate the South Lake Tahoe resorts; if you prefer the woodsy North Shore, check out our North Lake Tahoe ski guide. Check current road conditions before setting out. While en route, call Caltrans at 800-GAS-ROAD for the most up-to-date info. For a quick comparison, check current ski conditions at all California resorts.
Particulars: Weekend crowds at South Lake Tahoe are unbearable, especially at Heavenly Mountain. If you must ski or ride here, get an early start and ski through lunch; eat when nobody else eats, say, at 11am or 2pm. And check the weather before you set out. If it’s going to snow, note the snow level: warm storms mean higher snow levels, which can mean rain at the base areas of some resorts, particularly Sierra-at-Tahoe. Heavenly’s base is low, but its summit is high; stay near the top when conditions are wet. Sierra gets the best sun exposure, but this also means sticky spring skiing; once the sun tracks high in the sky, head to Kirkwood or Heavenly instead. If you’re planning to rent skis or boards, there’s a new service, called Ski Butlers, that will fit your equipment in your hotel room—a real time-saver.
Heavenly: Straddling two states, covering nine peaks, and sprawling over 4800 acres of wildly varied terrain, Heavenly Mountain Resort is the largest ski area in California and South Lake Tahoe’s raison d’être in wintertime. Beginners have two areas to choose from, and they’re up high on the mountain with good views: one is accessible from the California base area, the other from the Heavenly Gondola. Intermediates should follow the sun: start on the short, snappy corduroy cruisers on the Nevada side, then work your way around to the California side. If you dig long runs, ride Sky Express, then descend 3500-vertical feet and an amazing 5.5 miles (!) via Ridge Run and Roundabout – but like everywhere at Heavenly, keep your speed up (especially under the Powderbowl chair), or expect to skate some frustratingly long flats between peaks. Experts: If the conditions are good, make a beeline to Mott and Killebrew Canyons, a series of short, but super-steeps with killer views of Nevada and the Great Basin; there’s also amazing tree skiing. Heavenly’s terrain parks rock: Tahoe’s largest super pips is here, and there’s night riding on weekends. Don’t miss the picture-postcard photo op at the California-Nevada state line, along the blue-rated Skyline Trail, with gorgeous lake views in the background. The best way to reach the mountain if you’re staying near downtown is via the Heavenly Gondola, which carries skiers straight up the hill from the Heavenly Village. There are also shuttle buses that run throughout town. If you must drive, choose the California base area, which is closest to downtown; and you can ride the Sky Express Chair at the end of the day for long, cool-down laps, then chill out with brewskis and watch in disbelief while serious experts scream down the mogul-pocked Gunbarrel, an awesome sight.
The Stats: 91 trails on 4800 acres, rated 20% beginner, 45% intermediate, 35% expert. Longest run 5.5 miles, base, 6540ft, summit 10,067ft. Lifts 30, including an aerial tram, gondola, 2 high-speed six-packs, and 6 high-speed quads. Annual snowfall 360 inches.
Kirkwood: The favorite mountain of hardcore skiers and boarders, Kirkwood Mountain Resort consistently gets the deepest natural snow anywhere at Tahoe. Because of its location just west of the Sierra Crest, storms hammer the mountain unlike anywhere else: it’s not uncommon for Kirkwood to have the deepest snowpack on the entire North American continent. And because its base area is so high, the snow is as dry as you’ll find in California. The craggy, saw-toothed ridgelines are dream terrain for advanced and expert skiers, with gulp-and-go chutes and steep-steeps that’ll blow your mind. If you’re not of black-diamond caliber, you’ll still find awesomely fun runs, especially off the Sunrise lift, where you can ski in the shadow of a giant cornice, a very cool sight. Also look for smaller side trails around the main base area for some roller-coaster-like gullies; because they’re narrow and quick but not that hard, they’re great confidence builders. There’s guided out-of-bounds skiing with Expedition: Kirkwood, a custom-designed program for advanced skiers and riders, ranging from snowcat powder touring to avalanche training to clinics for improving your technique on the steeps – and this is the place for steeps! There’s also great cross-country skiing, with 58km of superbly groomed tracks and skating lanes. For non-skiers, there’s snow-shoeing and tubing; call ahead. Kirkwood’s strength is also its weakness: the high elevation leaves it completely exposed in storms, and when the snow falls, the highway west of here often closes, cutting it off from the Bay Area. The resort is 30 minutes from South Lake, but this distance also serves to keep away the dilettantes. If you’re a serious skier, don’t miss Kirkwood.
The Stats: 65 trails on 2300 acres, rated 15% beginner, 50% intermediate, 20% advanced, 15% expert. Longest run 2.5 miles, base 7800ft, summit 9800ft. Lifts 14, including 2 high-speed quads. Annual snowfall 500 inches.
Sierra-at-Tahoe: If you’re into snowboarding, you’ll dig Sierra-at-Tahoe, which lies west of Tahoe along US 50, making it a good choice for daytrippers from Sacramento and the Bay Area. It lacks the name recognition of bigger resorts like Kirkwood and Heavenly, so there’s a little more breathing room here on a busy weekend. Though it’s mostly an intermediate’s mountain, with fabulous grooming, wide-open cruisers, and six terrain parks, Sierra also has some concentrated, but tough advanced runs, with gated backcountry access and thrilling tree skiing. It’s also a great place to learn, with a family-friendly atmosphere that goes a long way toward reassuring nervous parents. There’s also snow-tubing, a quick and fun stop-over activity to wear out the kids before the long drive home.
The Stats: 46 trails on 2000 acres, rated 25% beginner, 50% intermediate, 25% advanced. Longest run 2.5 miles, base 6640ft, summit 8852ft. Lifts 11, including 3 high-speed quads. Annual snowfall 560 inches.
An Alternative: To make an adventure out of getting to the slopes, consider the bus-and-boat ski shuttle to Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. A bus takes you directly to the mountain in the morning; in the afternoon, you ride back across the lake aboard the Tahoe Queen, while sipping cocktails at a giant floating après-ski party with a live band. Note that this adds about three hours to your ski day, but how often do you get to go boating after a day on the snow?
Related: North Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts