Among ski regions in the USA, Lake Tahoe is its own culture and ecosystem. Perfect for families and close to major airports in Reno and Sacramento (and an easy drive from the SF Bay Area), Lake Tahoe is a premier destination for skiing families of all abilities. It also includes a couple of what we consider to be the best family ski resorts in all of North America.
Tahoe sits squarely in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a beautiful range that is often underrated terrain. The Sierras offer plenty of 14’ers of their own, along with tranquil lakes and the iconic National Park, Yosemite.
The mountains around Lake Tahoe are known for some epic snowstorms. This can be a good place to bring your powder skis – the snow can REALLY pile up some days.
To call Lake Tahoe one place is a bit deceiving, though. Lake Tahoe is a huge lake, with ski areas situated up in the mountains along side. The drive around Lake Tahoe is 75 miles, and given the windy mountain roads that equates to about a 2 hour trip. Having a good time skiing the Lake Tahoe area requires a little planning and knowledge of the sub regions.
Two Lake Tahoes – North and South
It is best to think of Lake Tahoe as being two regions: North Lake Tahoe, and South Lake Tahoe. The key ski areas all fall into one or the other, and each area has a little different feel when it comes to nightlight, traffic, and entertainment.
North Lake Tahoe is more of an Alpine getaway. With some of the best skiing in North America, the North Side is closer to I-80, Reno, and Truckee, CA. The towns and villages tend to be a bit quieter, and the iconic ski area of Squaw Alpine anchors the skiing scene. Northstar is the other heavy hitter on the North side, although a bit smaller than Squaw. Squaw-Alpine is where you go if you want world-class ski terrain. Northstar is where you go if you want things a bit quieter and smaller, but still excellent, high-quality mountain skiing. The North side of the lake is all about the skiing and alpine air.
South Lake Tahoe tends to be more of an active region with plenty of tourists, restaurants, and a few casinos and other entertainment venues. It is situated on the California-Nevada border. In fact, Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe allows you to ski both states from the same lift! This part of the region is centered around the town of South Lake Tahoe, and the major ski areas are Heavenly and Kirkwood (note that Kirkwood is several miles of the lake). South Lake Tahoe might be more appealing to groups who have non-skiers with them, who may want entertainment options outside of the slopes.
Let’s be a bit more blunt: The pros of the North side are that the skiing is generally more rustic and better for advanced skiers, and there is less riff-raff. The cons are that it can be sleepier and harder for find affordable lodging. The pros of the South side are that there is a ton of variety for people of all interests, and that South Lake Tahoe is a more walkable community. The cons are that some people see it a seedier and busier with the presence of casinos.
Our advice is to center your trip on the North or South side. If you are all about the skiing, we suggest the North side (although Kirkwood can be a real treat for serious skiers). If you like the combination of skiing, night light, and plenty of creature comforts, South Lake Tahoe offers plenty to do for the non-skiers in the group.
Tahoe Resorts, from Largest Vertical to Smallest
Heavenly. South Lake Tahoe. Heavenly is a Vail Resort, meaning that you enjoy all the benefits of an Epic Pass if you have one. Heavenly is unique in that you take a gondola up to the real base area, and then ski from there. You can ski in both Nevada and California, and there is plenty of great terrain for all levels. Tahoe views are abundant from many runs. There is plenty of vertical to greet you at Heavenly, 3,500 to be exact — but as is the case with most ski areas, the majority of skiing is concentrated on a subset of that vertical. Best for those who want a large variety of terrain.
Squaw. North Lake Tahoe. Squaw is our favorite for advanced skiers. There are some serious runs, but also enough for the family to enjoy. It is unique in that many of the green beginner runs are high up on the mountain. The views are great, and if you have a chance to ski the black or blue/black runs off the 9990 lift, do it. There is plenty of lodging and food at the base area, but it is not an operating town the way that Heavenly is — it is really more of a resort base area. Best for Advanced Skiers.
Northstar. North Lake Tahoe. Not far from Squaw is Northstar. While it can get quite busy on nice weekends, we like that it tends to have a quieter and more laid-back vibe during much of the season. A large ski resort in its own right, we like the terrain and the likelihood of having runs to yourself. A Ritz Carlton at the base is nice if you want to splurge. Best for those who want to avoid the crowds.
Sierra. South Lake Tahoe. An old-time resort dating back to the 1940’s Sierra is one of the originals at Tahoe. 2,000 feet of terrain means that you will have plenty of ground to cover, but perhaps not as much as Heavenly or Squaw. A good side-trip if you are homebasing in the South Lake area. Best for a more classic experience.
Kirkwood. South Lake Tahoe. Kind of part of Tahoe, but a bit removed, is Kirkwood. You drive about 40 minutes south of South Lake Tahoe through Eldorado Canyon, and arrive at Kirkwood. Intermediates and Advanced skiers often come away from Kirkwood with rave reviews. It is also known to have good power when other area resorts are beginning to lack in snow. Lift tickets tend to run a little less here than the others on the list. Best lift ticket value in Tahoe.
Others. We don’t want to exclude anyone, as you can have a great day skiing at Diamond Peak, Mt. Rose, Sugar Bowl, or Homewood. All are excellent choices. We suggest choosing a home base, and if you have extra days exploring with a day trip or two.
All the skiing around Tahoe is going to feature the same type of snow: Lots of dumps, and a pretty high snowpack most seasons. However, the snow can have some freeze-melt cycles, you be ready for anything. I recommend that people have a good, intermediate all-mountain ski so they can both carve and hit the powder.
Getting To Tahoe
If you are flying in, there are two major routes for getting to Tahoe. The closest is to fly into Reno, NV. That will put you about 45 minutes from the North Lake Tahoe areas, and about 75 minutes from the South Lake Tahoe areas.
Flying in to Sacramento will put you about 2 hours from both South Lake and North Lake Tahoe. Flying in to any of the San Francisco airports will add about 90 minutes to the Sacramento times, but traffic can also be a bigger factor.
Note that the mountain passes, especially the pass near Truckee on I-80, can be tenuous during winter weather conditions. When they get snow in this neck of the woods, they tend to get lots of it! The iconic 2016-17 winter saw over 500 inches of snow. Average is closer to 400 inches, still a lot when compared to other North America mountain ranges.
A car is recommended so you can maneuver between resorts. If you can’t have a car, we recommend home-basing in South Lake Tahoe near Heavenly. It is most walkable. Shuttles are available from the airports to the ski areas, too, but you will probably spend some time waiting to pool with the other passengers.
Lake Tahoe Ski Lodging
You have several options for staying in the Lake Tahoe area. It can be tempting to save money by staying in Reno and driving up to Tahoe each day, but we advise against that. An overnight snowfall can make that drive difficult.
South Lake Tahoe Lodging – Focus on the town of South Lake Tahoe. There are many good VRBO options within walking distance of the Heavenly lifts, and they will also put you in bus-or-walk distance from many all-purpose restaurants. There is a Marriott hotel that is literally within 30 feet of Heavenly Gondola base. We have stayed there and would recommend it for families, singles, or couples.
North Lake Tahoe Lodging – You have fewer options in North Lake. We like the rustic alpine town of Incline Village, but you are going to need to do a vacation rental there — resorts are limited. If you want to stay close to the slopes, consider the base at Squaw Alpine where there are many condos that you can rent through the resort, or splurge at the Ritz Carlton near the base of Northstar. It is a 5-star hotel, and is truly a ski-in, ski-out experience.
Paul Miller is the Founder of Family Skier. He is an advanced skier and has extensive experience with family travel and ski schools. An accomplished skier, he has skied in 15 states and provinces and 6 countries. In addition to FamilySkier, his writing can be found on many ski-related websites, and as curriculum for many ski clubs in North America.