When planning a ski vacation at Lake Tahoe, it can feel overwhelming deciding on where to go. There are so many resorts to choose from and they are located all around this stunning lake. You can rest assured that you cannot go wrong with any of the Tahoe ski resorts because they are all great choices. Depending on your skiing level, interests off the ski hill, time of year to travel, and children’s ages, some resorts will meet your needs better than others. We recently hopped around the Lake Tahoe ski resorts and are here to share what we have learned to help you navigate this new terrain. Here are 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 south 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. We enjoyed the family-friendly resorts in North Tahoe. While Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is one resort, it was once two. The two mountains are a short drive from each other, and 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 but is better for families with some ski experience, whereas Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Northstar have more to offer beginners and provide more amenities and dining choices.
In South Lake Tahoe, you will find Heavenly right in the town of South Lake Tahoe, sitting on the state line between California and Nevada. 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.
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.
When Are You Visiting?
For the most part, you can visit the Lake Tahoe ski resorts from mid-November to mid-April, but some resorts have longer seasons. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows offers the longest ski season in Lake Tahoe, so 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 are even sometimes open into summer. In April 2017, Squaw Valley announced that it would try to keep at least one lift running through summer and fall! As of now, it is open for skiing July 1-4 and Saturdays starting July 8 as along as conditions will allow. How’s that for a year-round ski resort? We skied in Lake Tahoe’s warm sunshine in early April, and the following weekend the Tahoe ski resorts got hit with a storm that brought 16 inches of fresh snow. They have gotten 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 its most fresh snow in January and February.
Level of Difficulty
Whether you or your tadpoles are beginners or experienced skiers/snowboarders really comes into play when evaluating the best Lake Tahoe ski resorts for your family. (And 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. 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. 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.
Kirkwood offers plenty of challenging terrain for a more advanced skier. 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. Homewood also appeals to a more experienced skier who is not looking for frills or a village environment (and enjoys a less-expensive lift ticket).
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. If you want to give cross-country skiing or snowshoeing a try, then make the trek to Northstar, Squaw, or Kirkwood.
The villages at the bases of 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. Heavenly also offers a village environment. 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 glamorous nightlife, then Heavenly is close to the action and casinos. The other resorts are more family-oriented in that regard. Finding a ski hotel with a pool 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 enjoyed 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. There is also on-site lodging in the Village at Squaw Valley or at the Resort at Squaw Creek, 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 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 jump on your next ski (or summer) Lake Tahoe vacation and search by certain resorts or area (such as north or south Lake Tahoe).
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. Northstar offers child care for tadpoles 2 to 6 years old at Minors Camp at the Northstar Golf Course. There is free parking and a 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 gets the most snow. 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 4,800 skiable acres with 97 runs, 28 lifts and 360 inches of annual snowfall.
Kirkwood: Peak elevation is 9,800 and the base is 7,800. It offers 2300 acres with 86 runs, 15 lifts and 354 inches of annual snowfall.
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 300 inches of snow per year.
Homewood: Its peak is 7,881 and base is 6,223. It offers 1,260 acres with 64 runs, 8 lifts and 400 inches of snowfall annually.
You can’t go wrong with any of the Lake Tahoe ski resorts. They all have their plusses, depending on what you are looking for in a family ski resort. The skiing is great at all of the resorts, but some resorts (such as Northstar and Squaw Valley) really cater to families and new skiers. Also, knowing what other activities, amenities and après ski options you want can help you to confidently pick the best Tahoe ski resort for your family.
Have questions about any of the Lake Tahoe ski resorts? Drop us a line in comments below! We've got more more information to help you pick the perfect ski resort at key resorts around the U.S. Look for ski packages and lift tickets for the 2017-2018 ski season in the coming weeks.