Best Tahoe Ski Resort? A Tahoe Regular Explains How to Choose

Where is the best skiing in Tahoe? Good question!

There are over a dozen ski resorts dotting the mountains surrounding gorgeous Lake Tahoe. Some are big, some are small, some are beloved by experts and others are perfect for families.

Before you put your hard-earned money down for those lift tickets, you want to be sure you’re picking the right one.

As a northern California native, I’ve been making the trip to Tahoe every winter for about 30 years (update: 33 – time flies!). I’ve skied enough to know there is no such thing as the best Tahoe ski resort for everyone. It all depends on who you are and what you’re looking for.

Whether you’re a beginner or expert, a family or group of friends, seeking a luxurious vacation or on a tight budget, read on for a Tahoe regular’s take on the best Tahoe ski resort for you.

Tahoe Ski Resorts Covered Here

There are so many Lake Tahoe ski resorts that despite skiing there for 30 years, I have still not visited all of them. Fortunately, I have skied all the major and most popular ones: Northstar, Kirkwood, Heavenly, Sierra at Tahoe, Mt. Rose, and Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley).

The recommendations in this post are based on my actual experience skiing at these mountains. The few I haven’t included here are significantly smaller, making them good choices for beginners or families on a tight budget. If you’d like the full list, this page has good stats.

Sadly, Sierra at Tahoe was damaged in the Caldor Fire of summer 2021, and recently reopened for the 2022-2023 season. I haven’t visited since then, but I hear it’s different (fewer trees) yet still worthwhile. Check here for updates.

Best Tahoe Ski Resorts for Beginners

My picks (from the major resorts): Sierra at Tahoe, Mt. Rose

If you’re a true beginner – like planning to ski greens all day – the variety of terrain honestly doesn’t matter. My advice: choose a smaller and less-expensive mountain that will be easy to navigate. Sierra at Tahoe and Mt. Rose both fit the bill, with Sierra being most accessible from the west and Mt. Rose easy to reach from the east.

Folks in this category might also want to consider the even tinier hills with even cheaper lift tickets, like Boreal, Homewood, or Soda Springs. These are certainly good for beginners, but they’ll bore any experienced skiers who come with you and you’ll miss out on the full “ski resort” experience.

Best Tahoe Ski Resorts for Intermediates

My picks: Northstar, Heavenly

It’s hard to go wrong for intermediate terrain; all the major resorts provide plenty of it. Northstar, more than any other ski resort in Lake Tahoe, is known for its large number of intermediate runs. Heavenly also offers a lot of variety — groomers, gentle tree skiing, moderate bumps — that can help intermediate skiers stay engaged and level up to advanced.

I spent much of my childhood skiing at Northstar. It’s a great ski resort for intermediates and families.

Best Tahoe Ski Resorts for Advanced and Experts

My picks: Palisades (formerly Squaw Valley), Kirkwood, Heavenly

The expert terrain at Palisades Tahoe is legendary, with Headwall and KT-22 being two popular access lifts. Much of this stuff is over my head personally, but I can recommend it based on reputation alone. Advanced skiers can also find plenty to keep them busy here.

Palisades (formerly Squaw Valley) is famous for its advanced and expert terrain.

Kirkwood has plenty of black and double-black runs off The Wall and Cornice lifts. The Wall is technically double black, but in good snow conditions only the first couple turns are likely to give advanced skiers pause. Cornice chair serves a variety of black diamond runs with options to traverse to some double-black chutes, and is particularly nice for advanced or expert skiers looking to get in fast laps with minimal lift lines.

At Heavenly, head to Mott Canyon (and Killebrew, if it’s open) for a selection of double-black chutes. In good conditions many are doable by upper-advanced level skiers, and they tend to be non-committing (you can traverse out to a different run if you don’t like the one you’re on), making this a great place for advanced folks to get their first taste of double-black diamond terrain.

Honorable mentions: Mt. Rose has The Chutes, and Sugar Bowl has plenty of double blacks off Mt. Lincoln chair.

Heavenly’s Gunbarrel, a notorious advanced-expert bump run

Best Value Tahoe Ski Resort

My pick: Kirkwood (or Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Northstar with the Epic Day Pass)

This is subjective, but in my opinion Kirkwood is the best value of the major Tahoe ski resorts for experienced skiers based on the single-day lift ticket price. There are certainly cheaper Tahoe resorts, but they are smaller and less interesting. Kirkwood offers great terrain and excellent snow quality for a lower price single-day ticket price than others in its class, but you’ll want to be at least an upper-intermediate level skier to really get your money’s worth.

The other resorts in a similar price range are Sierra at Tahoe, Mt. Rose, and Sugar Bowl. Basically, just avoid the most expensive three — Northstar, Heavenly, Palisades — if you’re looking for a deal.

That said, it’s often possible to find deals by purchasing online in advance, buying multi-packs, or scoring a buddy ticket from a friend who has a season pass. So check your options if you’re on a budget, regardless of which resort you choose.

Noteworthy for the 2023/24 season is the Epic Day Pass, which makes Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Northstar all an equally good value if you can commit to a certain number of days in advance. You choose your number of days (1 to 7) and buy the non-refundable pass in advance, then you can ski at any of the participating resorts (including Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood) on days of your choosing. The current price comes out to around $90 per day, which is a WAY better value than buying a single-day lift ticket at the ticket counter. By comparison, a single-day ticket at Kirkwood (the cheapest of the three) is $179.

Kirkwood is known for its great snow and interesting advanced / expert terrain.

A Big Mountain With Lots of Choices

My picks: Heavenly, Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley)

For long runs and plenty of variety, head to the bigger mountains like Heavenly or Palisades. If you tend to get bored skiing the same lift all day, you’ll appreciate the vastness of these mountains and their blend of wide groomers, tree skiing, and bumps. They also work well for groups of mixed ability since they provide interesting terrain for skiers and boarders of every level.

The downside: these bigger resorts tend to get crowded and can be more challenging to navigate, especially if trying to meet up with friends or stay together in a large group.

Fun tip: at Heavenly you can even choose your state! The California – Nevada state line runs right through the middle of the mountain. The process of traversing between the two sides can be a bit tedious though, especially for snowboarders.

Heavenly is huge, has great views of Lake Tahoe, and spans the California-Nevada state line. You can spend all day exploring new runs here.

A Smaller Mountain That’s Easier to Navigate

My picks: Sierra at Tahoe, Mt. Rose

If you want something a little less overwhelming and easier to navigate, Sierra at Tahoe and Mt. Rose offer good skiing in a smaller space. This means you can spend more time skiing and less time hopping around to different lifts or trying to find your friends.

Snowy day in The Chutes at Mt. Rose

Avoiding the Crowds

My picks: Sierra at Tahoe, Kirkwood

If you’re looking for a less crowded Tahoe ski resort, avoid the big names and seek out some of the smaller ones. Kirkwood is the least crowded of the larger Vail brand resorts, and Sierra at Tahoe is small enough to draw a smaller crowd.

If you hate lift lines and crowds, avoid Heavenly and Palisades at all costs on busy weekends!

Sierra at Tahoe is smaller and less expensive, but still offers good quality skiing.

The Best Snow

My pick: Kirkwood

I’m sure all the resorts would like to argue over which Tahoe ski resort has the best snow, but in my opinion it’s Kirkwood. On low snow years, Kirkwood’s high base usually makes it the first resort to be worth the drive up to Tahoe. I’ve heard Sugar Bowl is also quite good.

Northstar, despite its great variety of intermediate terrain and fancy resort amenities, is generally a poor choice on low-snow years due to its lower elevation.

Easy and Affordable Lodging Nearby

My pick: Heavenly

Heavenly’s location smack in the middle of South Lake Tahoe gives it the greatest variety of accommodation options. While nothing is cheap exactly, the surrounding area contains a better selection of budget motels than any other mountain. There are also plenty of VRBOs and AirBnbs for larger groups.

If you’re willing to drive a bit, you can stay in South Lake Tahoe and drive to Sierra at Tahoe, probably the most budget-friendly combination.

Kirkwood, while a great lift ticket value, is tricky for budget lodging because there’s no town nearby. Be willing to drive (note that the approach on Highway 88 often closes in stormy weather) or pay to stay on the mountain.

Palisades and Northstar strike a middle ground, with towns within driving distance as well as fancy resort accommodations on-mountain. Both are accessible from North Lake Tahoe.

Two skiers in snowy weather
Goofing around at Heavenly

Easiest Drive

My picks: Sierra at Tahoe or Sugar Bowl (coming from the west), Mt. Rose (coming from Reno)

This depends on where you’re coming from of course. For those heading to Tahoe from the direction of the San Francisco Bay Area, Sierra at Tahoe will save you about half an hour of driving (or more in bad traffic) into the south Tahoe area.

On the north side of the lake, Sugar Bowl is similarly situated outside the Tahoe basin. If traffic is good (which it almost never is…) you can reach both of these resorts in three hours from San Francisco.

Coming from Reno, Mt. Rose is by far the most convenient drive.

Kirkwood, while outside the Tahoe basin area, requires a slightly more tricky approach on Highway 88. This is a two lane highway that can be dangerous in icy conditions, and frequently closes over Carson Pass for avalanche control. Yes, I have slept in my car on highway 88 because the road closed. Be sure to pack extra water, snacks, and warm blankets (and maybe a good book) and keep an eye on the road conditions if heading to Kirkwood in snowy weather.

Other Tahoe Ski Resort Guides

While trying to jog my memory for this post, I came across some other excellent guides from Tahoe regulars. For more diverse opinions on the best Tahoe ski resorts, check out these other posts:

More Skiing Resources

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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