Planning a ski vacation at Lake Tahoe can be overwhelming. There are SO MANY resorts around the stunning lake to choose from! While all of the resorts have something to offer, each of them is very different in terms of terrain, services and the surrounding areas. The best Tahoe ski resorts to meet the needs of your family depend on your skiing level, interests off the ski hill, time of year to travel and children’s ages. We recently hopped around the Lake Tahoe ski resorts to help you navigate this new terrain. Read on for our tips on how to pick the best Tahoe ski resort.
The Best Tahoe Ski Resorts
There are a lot of ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area, but a few of the more popular resorts that we recommend include Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Northstar, Heavenly, Kirkwood and Homewood. Squaw Alpine, Northstar and Homewood are located near the northern end of the lake whereas Heavenly and Kirkwood are to the southern end of the lake. They all offer sunny skies, excellent snow conditions and gorgeous scenery. So how do you choose the best Tahoe ski resort for your family?
Location, Location, Location
The ski resorts are spread around the Lake Tahoe area. When we say lake, we mean very large lake! This is no small pond and takes some 72 miles to drive around. You’ll need to decide if you want to visit the north side or the south side of the lake. If you are looking to visit more than one during your trip, it is best to choose resorts that are closer to each other. Heavenly and Kirkwood are both considered South Tahoe, but they are about an hour apart!
We have enjoyed the family-friendly resorts in North Tahoe and hopped around South Lake Tahoe, too. While Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is one resort, it was once two. The two mountains are a short drive from each other. One lift ticket accesses both of them. Another nearby (17-mile drive) family-friendly resort on the north end of the lake is Northstar. Homewood, located on the western shore of Lake Tahoe, is about a 20-minute drive from Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and a 34-minute drive to Northstar. Homewood offers fantastic views and some of the lowest lift ticket prices we've encountered. But it's better for families with some ski experience. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Northstar have more to offer beginners (and experienced skiers alike). These family-friendly resorts also provide more amenities and dining choices.
In South Lake Tahoe (about an hour from North Tahoe, depending on the road conditions), you will find Heavenly right in the town of South Lake Tahoe, sitting on the state line between California and Nevada. The Heavenly ski village sits right in the city. The gondola takes you from the village straight up the mountain to the ski runs and Adventure Peak tubing area. That means you have the city, casinos, shopping, dining and other nightlife for après ski entertainment choices. Kirkwood is about 34 miles south of Heavenly and in a more remote area outside of town. It offers fabulous skiing but is a quieter location, away from it all. Heavenly is a good choice if you want easy access to restaurants, shopping, grocery stores and pharmacies. Kirkwood is the place to go for fresh powder and fewer people in your way.
If you are looking for the best views of the gorgeous blue Lake Tahoe, you will find them from Heavenly and Homewood. Nothing beats a ski run with a scenic view of the lake. While you can't view the lake from Kirkwood, the views of the scenic mountains in that area are equally stunning.
When Are You Visiting Lake Tahoe?
For the most part, you can visit the Lake Tahoe ski resorts from mid-November to mid-April, but some resorts have longer seasons, especially during epic snowfall. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows offers the longest ski season in Lake Tahoe. You will find skiing here from November until long after the other resorts have melted down for the season. It offers a great spring season and sometimes even stays open during summer.
We skied in Lake Tahoe’s warm sunshine in early April 2017 and March 2019. Each visit was followed with huge snowstorms and fresh powder. They have been known to get snow in May, as well. Northstar is at a lower elevation, so it tends to close before Squaw Valley and is better to visit in the winter and early spring. Visit Heavenly and Kirkwood in late December though March or early April. Heavenly usually gets the most fresh snow in January and February.
Don’t froget about summer at these year-round resorts! Once ski season ends, you can enjoy mountain biking, hiking and other fun family activities such as summer tubing at Heavenly, as well as traversing ropes courses, panning for gemstones and climbing walls.
Level of Difficulty
Your family members' skill level as skiers or snowboarders is important when evaluating the best Lake Tahoe ski resorts. (There is no shame if you are a beginning adult skier like Leap, or what we lovingly refer to as "never-evers.") Each mountain offers all levels of terrain, but in different ratios. Northstar offers plenty of beginner and light intermediate terrain and really caters to families. Northstar recently added two new on-mountain Kids Adventure Zones with both natural and man-made features that are not only fun, but also educational. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows also provides plenty of easy terrain for beginners and intermediate skiers and offers a lot of diversity for families with skiers of different abilities. Snowboarders tend to enjoy Squaw Valley because it does not have flat terrain.
Heavenly is located on the state line between California and Nevada. You’ll find twice as many green runs on the California side than on the Nevada side, three times as many blue runs on the Nevada side, and double the amount of difficult black runs on the California side. Expect to traverse when getting from one side to the other, which makes this resort a little more ski-friendly than snowboard-friendly. Snowboarders quickly learn to avoid the many flat traverses at Heavenly. There is a nice beginner area at the top of the Heavenly gondola. At Heavenly, 20 percent of the runs are beginner, 45 percent are intermediate and 35 percent are advanced. Heavenly is known for excellent snow-making capabilities and snow grooming. So if it’s nice corduroy you are after, you’ll be in heaven at Heavenly. (And the views of blue Lake Tahoe are simply divine!)
Kirkwood is a skier’s and snowboarder’s mountain. It offers plenty of challenging terrain for a more advanced skier and special lessons in how to tackle the steeps and backcountry for advanced skiers who want to experience Kirkwood’s unique terrain with confidence.
At Kirkwood, 12 percent of the lifts are beginner, 30 percent are intermediate, 38 percent are advanced and 20 percent are expert. This is a more rugged mountain without all the bells and whistles (or trail markings) of the other resorts, but this hidden gem offers shorter lines, and has a lot to offer people with a sense of adventure. But that should not intimidate beginner and intermediate skiers, because there are some frogtastic, gentle beginner runs at the Timber Creek Base Area, as well as by Chair 1. There is great intermediate skiing throughout the resort. The lifts are a little older and slower, but there is an old-school charm of skiing at Kirkwood and it is perfectly situated to collect deep powder for people in search of fresh tracks. All this comes with a more budget-friendly lift ticket.
Homewood also appeals to the more experienced skier who is not looking for frills or a village environment (and enjoys a less-expensive lift ticket). Its hidden powder stashes and incredible Snowcat skiing keep more advanced skiers coming back for more.
How Do You Après?
What do you like to do after skiing or even on a day off instead of skiing? Knowing what types of après ski activities and amenities are available can help you to pick the best Tahoe ski resort for your family. For many, skiing is just one part of the winter fun. You’ll find tubing and ice skating on-site at Northstar, Squaw Valley and Heavenly. Tubing is off-site at Kirkwood, which is far away from most things. If you want to give cross-country skiing or snowshoeing a try, then make the trek to Northstar, Squaw or Kirkwood.
There are places to cross country ski or snowshoe in South Lake Tahoe not too far from Heavenly. Heavenly offers guided UTV tours on some holidays and weekends. You can purchase the tour at the top of the gondola. These tours are about 45 minutes long and for guests ages 8 and up who are over 42 inches tall.
The villages at the bases of Heavenly, Northstar and Squaw Valley have bars, pubs and restaurants that make for family-friendly après ski drinks, snacks and fun. They also offer trampoline bungee jump and other activities for kids. Après ski partying may not be on every parent’s list of activities, but if you want to get a sitter for the tadpoles and enjoy some nightlife, then Heavenly is close to the action and casinos. The other resorts are more family-oriented in that regard, although we raise a glass to the daily complimentary Champagne Toast at 2 p.m. at Northwood. Finding a ski hotel with a pool and hot tub is toadally high on our tadpoles’ list, and that is where we find ourselves after a day on the mountain.
Sanity-Saving Details for Families
I don’t know about you, but I like a resort that makes everything easiest for me, especially when taking the tadpoles skiing. When I am skiing by myself, I can handle a more rugged, no-frills approach. When skiing with my family, I find that I enjoy those frills because they make my day much easier. Leap and I have a lot of sanity-saving tips for a family ski trip, but I had one of my favorite days of skiing with children at Northstar. The resort provides wagons so you do not have to carry anything. It offers comfortable places to just lounge about and relax in the village après ski while the tadpoles enjoy free s’mores, snow play and a bungee trampoline. I guess you can say that as a mom, I know that making sure the kids are happy skiers keeps me hoppy too!
Northstar offers lodging on-site in the Village or at the sumptuous Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe.
If you are headed to Squaw Valley, you can get on-site lodging in the Village at Squaw Valley (as low as $306 a night) or at the Resort at Squaw Creek (as low as $202 a night), which offers ski-up/ski-down access or shuttle services so you do not have to hop in your car. The tadpoles loved the heated pool at Squaw Creek Resort, which made for easy (and free!) afternoon entertainment. You can find on-site lodging near the village at Heavenly and Kirkwood. There is an abundance of lodging — at all price levels — in the South Lake Tahoe area around Heavenly.
You may have heard that Undercover Tourist has hopped into discount lodging for ski vacations, and that includes ski hotels in Lake Tahoe Area hotels. You can get a leap on your next ski (or summer) Lake Tahoe vacation and search by certain resorts or areas (such as north or south Lake Tahoe). If you get a little further from the ski lifts, you can find more affordable units that may give you a little more space, a full kitchen and maybe even a free shuttle service.
If you have small children who do not ski, you might be interested in ski resorts that offer child care. Heavenly offers child care for tadpoles 6 weeks to 6 years old at the California Lodge. Northstar offers child care for tadpoles 2 to 6 years old at Minors Camp at the Northstar Golf Course. There is free parking and free shuttle service to the resort.
Using Statistics to Pick the Right Tahoe Ski Resort
If you are a numbers person, you can also consider the stats on each resort to help make your choice. Are you looking for the most vertical drop or the most snow? Heavenly and Kirkwood are the tallest mountains, whereas Squaw Valley and Kirkwood get the most powder. You can compare ski resorts with our handy matrix. Here are some basic mountain details on popular Lake Tahoe ski resorts:
Heavenly: Peak elevation is 10,067 and base is 6,255. It offers 4,630 skiable acres with 97 runs, 28 lifts, 2 terrain parks, and 360 inches of annual snowfall.
Kirkwood: Peak elevation is 9,800 and the base is 7,800. It offers 2,300 acres with 86 runs, 15 lifts and 354 inches of annual snowfall. It has three cross country trail systems.
Squaw Valley: Peak elevation is 9,050 and base is 6,200. It offers 2,400 acres, 170+ runs and 29 lifts with 450 inches of annual snowfall.
Alpine Meadows: Peak elevation is 8,637 and base is 6,935. It has 2,400 acres with over 100 runs, 13 lifts and 450 annual inches of snowfall.
Northstar: Its peak is 8,610 and base is 6,330. It offers 3,170 acres of skiable terrain with 100 trails and 20 lifts. It gets 350 inches of snow per year and offers 14.7 miles of cross country trails.
Homewood: Its peak is 7,880 and base is 6,230. It offers 1,260 acres with 67 runs, 8 lifts, 4 terrain parks, and 450 inches of snowfall annually. It also offers over 750 acres of snowcat accessible terrain, with a Snowcat summit elevation of 8,740.
Choosing Tahoe Ski Resorts Based on Budget
If budget is a huge factor for you, the Tahoe ski resorts all vary in price when it comes to lodging, lift tickets, lessons and even food on the mountain. Comparing costs before you book can help you choose the best Tahoe ski resort for you and save money, too. Northstar is one of the pricier ski resorts. But that price comes with pampering, a beautiful village, a lot of family entertainment and perks such as free s’mores and leg rests on the lifts. Heavenly and Squaw Alpine are in the middle range, with a lot of amenities and types of entertainment to offer. Kirkwood and Homewood are your less-expensive mountains that offer great skiing, but not a lot of extras. They are great places for people who want to focus on skiing and riding without paying for the fancy frills. As a lifelong skier with kids and a learning husband, I see the advantages of all sides, really. It comes down to what’s most important to you.
There are many ways to get some hoppin’ deals at the best Tahoe ski resorts with Undercover Tourist. Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood are all on the Epic Pass, which means you can use a 4-day, 7-day or unlimited Epic Pass at these resorts without having to worry about blockout dates or peak holiday pricing. You can purchase Epic Passes from Undercover Tourist before the season gets underway (plus, you can use them at other ski resorts in Park City and Colorado throughout the season). You can also get a jump on saving for discount ski hotels and lodging near any of the Lake Tahoe ski resorts we’ve discussed and save more when you bundle lift tickets with your hotel reservation (for resorts like Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar). Add equipment rentals to save even more money and time!
You can’t go wrong with any of the Lake Tahoe ski resorts. They all have their pluses, depending on what you are looking for in a family ski resort. The skiing is great at all of the resorts. But Northstar and Squaw Valley really cater to families and beginners. Know which other activities, amenities and après ski options you want. That way you can narrow down options and pick the very best Tahoe ski resort for your family.
Have questions about any of the Lake Tahoe ski resorts? Drop us a line in the comments below! Which do you think is the best Tahoe ski resort? We've got more information to help you pick the perfect ski resort at key resorts around the U.S. Undercover Tourist is offering equipment rentals and lift ticket/ski hotel packages for the 2018-2019 ski season, making it easy to save money and book your next ski vacation.
Related: Guide to Heavenly Ski Resort