There are nearly 10,000 skiable acres, 229 runs, 56 lifts, and 10 terrain parks between the three mountains in the immediate South Lake Tahoe vicinity. Each mountain is unique and will appeal to different interests, and all three provide unimaginable views and a full spectrum of terrain.
There’s something about the Tetons that brings in cold, dry snow – and it really is the stuff of legends. It’s sometimes referred to as cowboy powder or simply just white gold, but whatever you call it, when it snows, it really snows. The past few years, Jackson beat out many resorts in Utah and Colorado for total yearly snowfall and had numerous 10″+ 24 hour snowfall totals.
Heavenly is the largest, straddling the California and Nevada border, and will give you the best views of Tahoe you can find anywhere. Heavenly is right in the middle of South Lake Tahoe and you can quite literally ski right into Heavenly Village for shopping and eating. This is where the party is and it can get crowded. No trip to Heavenly is complete without a ride on Sky Express, taking you above 10,000 feet and giving you superb views of the lake. A must-do on those plentiful bluebird days!
Kirkwood is further out from the city and as such is less crowded. During the week you can often ski right up onto the lift, but it still maintains the larger resort-style feeling. Kirkwood has some great wide-open terrain for everyone from beginners to aspiring X-Games athletes. Go explore the backside of Kirkwood if it’s open. It’s usually overlooked by visitors (not as crowded!) but has some great views, a fun restaurant/bar, and great intermediate to expert terrain.
Sierra-at-Tahoe is the smallest in terms of terrain and is considered more of the “locals’ mountain.” Getting to it requires negotiating a slippery mountain pass, but you’ll find plenty to do once you get there, and with a mellow local vibe. It has the most terrain parks of any South Lake Tahoe mountain and some phenomenal backcountry access. Sierra is probably the best for families, as they have sledding hills and snowshoe trails available as well, and lack the crowds.
South Lake Tahoe has seen significant development in recent years. It still maintains a small-town feeling, but with offerings found in larger cities. Many of the hotels, shops, and restaurants are housed in their charming old buildings, next to rustic modern malls with name-brand shopping.
A number of pourhouses and brewpubs have been popping up in South Lake Tahoe, and we recommend you try them all if that’s your thing. Other than great restaurants, Heavenly Village also provides an abundant mix of art galleries, shopping, and live music.
Try your hand at the tables across the border in Nevada’s casinos. Within walking distance of Heavenly Village, these casinos could send you home with far more (or less) money than you came with.
Heavenly Holidays is an ongoing winter celebration in Heavenly Village, featuring music, ice sculptures, outdoor ice skating, and an unforgettable New Year’s Eve experience. The festival runs for two weeks prior to New Years.
When the weather is just too bad for hitting the slopes, you can find an indoor ice skating rink and bowling alley nearly next too each other in the center of South Lake Tahoe.
Regularly scheduled transportation to Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood is mostly non-existent, but you can utilize Uber and Lyft. Just be sure to request UberSKI or Lyft Ski Rack – regular vehicles won’t be equipped with racks or tires to traverse the passes.
Image courtesy aaron_anderer on Flickr
You’ll find the locals are more than friendly and often intermingle with visitors. They generally avoid Heavenly Village in the winter and spread out amongst the other fun South Lake Tahoe establishments. Looking for advice on where to explore the backcountry? The locals will happily point you in the right direction.
The best burger in Lake Tahoe is found at the Lucky Beaver, a small sports bar-casino across from the Hard Rock Hotel Casino. They’re open 24 hours and are also a great hangover cure.
A special night out is made that much more special at the Chart House, located on Kingsbury Grade. You can’t go wrong with the combination of lake views, fresh steaks & seafood, an outstanding chef, and wonderful staff.
Many nights start – or end – at Opal, a chic lounge in MontBleu Casino. This club features a dance floor, bottle service, and go-go dancers. They’re open Friday & Saturday and ladies enter free until midnight.
For those who want more of a “dive” experience, Whiskey Dick’s Saloon is your best bet. This happening bar is a favorite for locals, featuring live music, shuffleboard, and cheap drinks.
Everyone loves karaoke – the Classic Cue has a popular karaoke night Wednesdays and Fridays, and an open mic night on Thursdays. They also feature tasty bar food and typical bar games.
Because of its location on the windward side, Sierra-at-Tahoe soaks up most of the snow bound for Lake Tahoe, averaging 460 inches. Snow can be a mix of light powder to the common “Sierra cement”.
The Epic Pass will give you access to both Kirkwood and Heavenly. Due to the crowds, most locals avoid Heavenly during the weekend and instead go to Kirkwood. After a storm, however, Kirkwood is usually the last to dig out because of road closures on Carson Pass. Check road conditions before travel.
Heavenly Village has some great restaurants but is overwhelmed with tourists – head west on Highway 50 for a great selection of local eateries.
When your legs need a break from the hills, book a helicopter tour with Tahoe Helicopters, operating out of the South Lake Tahoe Airport.
Be prepared if you’ve never skied in Tahoe’s powder. It’s wetter and deeper than Utah and Colorado, and can often literally trip up a lot of people venturing into the trees for the first time. Wider skis are a good idea if you’re going off-piste.
You can still find some powder stashes if you get a late start on the hill. Conditions vary by day and mountain, but the locals are friendly and more than willing to help you get the most out of your day by sharing current conditions.
WHERE TO STAY
There are plentiful lodging options in the South Lake Tahoe area, and before deciding on one, you’re going to want to figure out how close to you want to be to the action.
If you want to be able to walk out of your hotel room and right onto the Heavenly Gondola, the Marriott’s Timber Lodge is the place to stay. This four-star hotel is right in the center of Heavenly Village and within walking distance of the casinos and numerous shops & restaurants.
If the Timber Lodge is booked – as it often is – or out of your price range, there are also a number of two and three-star hotels across the highway and also within walking distance of the gondola. Check out Hotel Becket, Basecamp, Stardust Lodge, or the Bluelake Inn.
You don’t need to stay right at Heavenly Village to be close to the mountain. There are also many other hotels throughout South Lake Tahoe, closer to the center of town and other Tahoe attractions, and with easy access to Heavenly. The Postmarc Inn is a recently renovated rustic mountain hotel with wonderful amenities; across the street from there you’ll find the Lake Tahoe Vacation Resort. Both of these hotels are in the Ski Run area and a straight shot to Heavenly’s California Lodge.
If you’re wishing to ski mostly Sierra-at-Tahoe, you’ll want to stay in South Lake Tahoe. There are no lodging options at this mountain.
Kirkwood, because it is a little further from South Lake Tahoe, does offer lodging at the mountain. Options include everything from full rental homes, condos, to small studio apartments. Some are within walking distance to the lifts while others will require a short drive. They do offer a shuttle service between their lodging.
If you stay at Kirkwood you will be less likely to make the trip into South Lake Tahoe every day. Thankfully, Kirkwood offers a wonderful general store with a deli and coffee shop, sports outfitter, and a couple of different bars & restaurants. It’s really not a bad place at all to get stuck for a day when snow closes Carson Pass.