The Best Tahoe Ski Resort for You: 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 (yeesh I feel old!). 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 ski resorts in the Tahoe area that despite skiing there for 30 years, I have still not visited all of them. Fortunately, the list of those I’ve skied at includes all the major and most popular ones: Northstar, Kirkwood, Heavenly, Sierra at Tahoe, Mt. Rose, and Squaw.
The recommendations in this post are based on my actual experience skiing at those mountains. Most of the options not covered here are significantly smaller, making them good choices for beginners or families on a budget. I won’t try to guess about mountains I haven’t been to, but if you’re curious about the full list, this page and this one have good stats.
The one exception is Sugar Bowl, which I haven’t visited yet. But it’s comparable in size to some of the others covered here, and I’ve been hearing good things about it.
Best Tahoe Ski Resorts for Beginners
My picks: 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 very much. My advice: choose a smaller, less-expensive mountain that will be easy to navigate and save you money.
People in this category might also want to consider smaller resorts with even cheaper lift tickets, like Boreal, Homewood, or Soda Springs.
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 Tahoe Resort is known for its large number of intermediate runs. Heavenly also boasts a lot of variety – groomers, gentle tree skiing, moderate bumps – that can help intermediate skiers stay engaged and level up to advanced.
Best Tahoe Ski Resorts for Advanced and Experts
My picks: Squaw, Kirkwood, Heavenly
The expert terrain at Squaw Valley 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 Squaw’s reputation alone. Advanced skiers can also find plenty to keep them busy at Squaw.
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 non-expert 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.
Cheapest / Best Value Tahoe Ski Resorts
My pick: Kirkwood
Kirkwood is, in my opinion, the best value of the major Tahoe ski resorts. It offers great terrain and excellent snow quality for a lower price than others in its class.
The other resorts in a similar range are Sierra at Tahoe, Mt. Rose, and Sugar Bowl. Basically, just avoid the most expensive three – Northstar, Heavenly, Squaw – if you’re looking for a deal.
That said, it’s often possible to find deals by purchasing tickets 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.
A Big Mountain With Lots of Choices
My picks: Heavenly, Squaw
For long runs and plenty of variety, from wide groomers to tree skiing to bumps, head to the bigger mountains like Heavenly or Squaw. If you tend to get bored skiing the same lift all day, you’ll appreciate the vastness of these mountains. They also work well for groups of mixed ability since they provide interesting terrain for skiers of every level.
The downside: they 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. Though the process of traversing between the two sides can be a bit tedious, especially for snowboarders.
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 area. This means you can spend more time skiing and less time hopping around to different lifts or trying to find your friends.
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 definitely 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 Squaw on busy weekends.
The Best Snow
My pick: Kirkwood
I’m sure all the Tahoe ski resorts would like to argue over who 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 rental houses and AirBnbs for larger groups. If you’re willing to drive a bit, you can stay in South Lake and ski at 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 can close in stormy weather) or pay to stay on the mountain.
Squaw and Northstar strike a middle ground, with towns within driving distance as well as fancy resort accommodations on-mountain.
My picks: Sierra at Tahoe, Sugar Bowl
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 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. I have definitely slept in my car on highway 88. 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 conditions.
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
If you’re headed up to Tahoe this winter, you might also find these helpful:
- Why you’re still skiing blues: tips for progressing to advanced skiing
- How wide skis can take your skiing to the next level
Share the Adventure
I put a ton of effort into these guides because I want to help other people realize their adventurous dreams.
If you liked what you read, would you mind giving it a quick share on your favorite social media so other aspiring adventurers can find it too? Many thanks!