Northstar Ski Resort

Which is the Best Epic Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe?

Are you looking for the ultimate ski vacation destination? Look no further than Lake Tahoe! Straddling the Nevada-California border, it is known throughout the world for its breathtaking scenery, world-class ski resorts, and consistently good snow. Lake Tahoe really is a winter paradise.

There are 13 ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area. However, only three are a part of the Epic pass. Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar are all fantastic ski resorts in their own ways, but if you could only visit one, which one would it be? Well, just like with most answers to questions like this… it really depends on you.

Below, we dig deep into each ski resort’s strengths and weaknesses, and why you’d want to choose one over another.

Ski Season in Lake Tahoe

But first, let’s talk about what the ski season looks like in Lake Tahoe.

The ski season in Lake Tahoe typically runs from November to April, depending on the weather and snow conditions. The exact start and end dates can vary from year to year and from resort to resort. In general, the ski resorts at higher elevations tend to have longer ski seasons than those at lower elevations.

Each month from November to April averages about 9-10 days of fresh powder a month. On the days that it snows, the area usually gets blanketed with 3 inches (8 cm) on average. However, major snowstorms seemingly come out of nowhere instantly.

The snowiest month is March, which averages almost 85 inches (216 cm) of new snow. The first snowfall in Lake Tahoe can arrive as early as September, but typically begins to fall starting in November.

The shoulder seasons in Lake Tahoe frequently have smaller crowds and milder temperatures. Fall and Spring temperatures regularly reach into the 50s with the lows hovering around freezing.

Lake Tahoe Lift Tickets

As mentioned above, the three resorts we are choosing from are a part of Vail’s Epic pass system. So while there are many more ski resorts to pick from in Lake Tahoe, we are only focusing on these for those that have the Epic pass. The Epic pass is a discounted lift ticket that can be used at a number of Vail-owned properties. Once you have your pass, you simply just walk to the slopes, skipping the counter.

If you don’t already have a season-long Epic pass, then you can ski these three resorts with a number of other Epic pass variations. If you are only visiting for a day or three, then the Epic Day Pass is what you should get. The Epic Day Pass allows you to buy lift tickets discounted for anywhere between 1 and 7 days.

If you are planning to stay in Lake Tahoe for longer than a week, then you’d want to buy the Epic Tahoe Pass. The Epic Tahoe Pass gets you unlimited days at these three Lake Tahoe resorts, plus 5 days at select Colorado ski resorts.

It should be mentioned that you can only buy Epic passes up until the beginning of December. After that, you are stuck paying gate prices for your lift tickets.

Getting to Lake Tahoe

There are many ways to get to Lake Tahoe to ski, and the best way depends on where you’re coming from.

Driving: Lake Tahoe is easily accessible by car from many parts of California and Nevada. It is located about 2-3 hours from Sacramento, 4-5 hours from San Francisco, and 6-7 hours from Los Angeles, depending on your exact starting location and mode of transportation.

Flying: The closest major airport to Lake Tahoe is Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO), which is located about 45 minutes north of the lake. From there, you can rent a car or take a shuttle to your final destination. There are also several smaller airports located in the Lake Tahoe area, including South Lake Tahoe Airport (TVL) and Truckee-Tahoe Airport (TRK).

Shuttle: There are countless companies that offer shuttle services from major hotels, airports, and cities to Lake Tahoe. These can be a convenient and cost-effective option, especially if you want to avoid driving or don’t have a car.

Train: The Amtrak California Zephyr service runs from Chicago to San Francisco and stops at numerous locations in the Lake Tahoe area, including Truckee and Colfax. From there, you can take a shuttle or rent a car to get to your final destination.

Picking the Best Lake Tahoe Ski Resort

All three ski resorts associated with the Epic pass are considered the cream of the crop in Lake Tahoe. However, each has its strengths and weaknesses that may force you to pick a different favorite one than others may choose.

Heavenly

Heavenly Lake Tahoe
Flickr/@lawrence_chernin
Heavenly

Heavenly is one of the hardest ski areas in the country. It ranks in the top 10% of most-difficult ski resorts in all of North America, mostly due to the fact that it has 30% of its trails rated as expert-level, and a vertical drop of 3,527 feet.

Mountain Stats

Summit:  10,067′
Vertical:  3,527′
Base:  6,540′

Terrain Stats

Trails:  97
Lifts:  28
Acres:  4,800

Trail Breakdown

Beginner:  8%
Intermediate:  62%
Expert:  30%

More Information…

Heavenly Ski Resort is a premier ski destination located in South Lake Tahoe, California. With its stunning views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s no wonder that Heavenly has been a favorite among skiers and snowboarders for decades.

Heavenly boasts over 4,800 acres of skiable terrain, with runs for skiers and riders of all abilities. The resort’s high-speed gondolas and chairlifts provide easy access to the mountain, and its state-of-the-art snowmaking system ensures excellent snow conditions throughout the season.

In addition to skiing and snowboarding, Heavenly offers a range of other winter activities, including ice skating, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. And when you’re not on the mountain, you’ll find plenty of dining, shopping, and entertainment options in the resort’s base village and nearby South Lake Tahoe.

Heavenly’s Strengths:

  • Heavenly has the best views in Lake Tahoe, and it isn’t even close. The views from atop the mountain are stunning, and you won’t be able to get them anywhere else.
  • The off-piste trails through the trees are the best here.
  • If you are looking for great green or blue trails, then Heavenly has exactly what you need.
  • Heavenly has a very active apres-ski environment. Also, being that it is located right in town, and less than a block away from the Nevada border, the nightlife here is second-to-none.
  • This is the largest ski resort of the three, which means that there is more room for the crowds to move around and thin out.
  • Heavenly has the longest runs of the three resorts.

Heavenly’s Weaknesses:

  • It’s not the best resort to snowboard at. The best would be Kirkwood.
  • Some skiers complain that the slopes are too narrow here.
  • With the best views come dizzying heights. If expansive views that go on for miles and miles tend to make you dizzy, then it might be best to choose a different resort.
  • No night skiing.

Kirkwood

Kirkwood Ski Resort
flickr/@flrent/
Kirkwood

Kirkwood is more difficult than the average ski slope. 85% of its trails rated as either intermediate or expert-level, which doesn’t leave much for the beginners.

Mountain Stats

Summit:  9,800′
Vertical:  2,000′
Base:  7,800′

Terrain Stats

Trails:  81
Lifts:  15
Acres:  2,300

Trail Breakdown

Beginner:  15%
Intermediate:  50%
Expert:  35%

More Information…

Kirkwood Ski Resort is a premier ski and snowboard destination located in Kirkwood, California, just south of Lake Tahoe. Known for its challenging terrain and abundant snowfall, Kirkwood is a favorite among advanced skiers and snowboarders.

The resort features over 2,300 acres of skiable terrain, with runs for skiers and riders of all abilities. Its modern chairlifts and gondolas provide easy access to the mountain, and its state-of-the-art snow making system ensures excellent snow conditions throughout the season.

In addition to skiing and snowboarding, Kirkwood offers a range of other winter activities, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snow tubing. And when you’re not on the mountain, you’ll find plenty of dining, shopping, and entertainment options at the resort’s base village and in nearby Kirkwood.

Kirkwood’s Strengths:

  • Kirkwood is the most difficult ski resort of the three, according to experts that frequent all three. If you are looking for more steep slopes than anywhere else, Kirkwood should be your top spot.
  • Since Kirkwood is the furthest away from the loop around Lake Tahoe, it tends to be less busy than the others. Read this as “less” busy… it still is busy, but you’ll likely see slightly smaller crowds here.
  • Because it is so much more difficult than the others, you’ll likely run into fewer kids and novice families hanging out on the hill.

Kirkwood’s Weaknesses:

  • While Kirkwood is technically in South Lake Tahoe, it is not situated around the lake like the others. It is about a 1-hour drive south from the town of South Lake Tahoe.
  • Due to the distance, Kirkwood is the most difficult to get to in the likely event of blizzards or major snowstorms.
  • Due to its difficulty level, if you are looking for a family-friendly resort with stuff for everyone, this is probably not the spot for you… unless your whole family are thrill seekers.
  • While this may get fixed in the near future (Vail loves to spend money on new lifts), but the lifts here are slow.
  • No nightskiing.

Northstar

Northstar Ski Resort
Flickr/@milesgehm
Northstar

Northstar can be beginner-friendly, but it depends on the ski trails you ride. While it ranks in the lower half of all North American ski areas in terms of overall difficulty, it still has 87% of its trails rated at or above intermediate ski level.

Mountain Stats

Summit:  8,610′
Vertical:  1,810′
Base:  6,800′

Terrain Stats

Trails:  17
Lifts:  20
Acres:  3,170

Trail Breakdown

Beginner:  13%
Intermediate:  60%
Expert:  27%

More Information…

Northstar Ski Resort is a premier ski and snowboard destination located in Truckee, California, just outside of Lake Tahoe. With its picturesque setting in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Northstar offers a truly unforgettable ski experience.

The resort features over 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, with runs for skiers and riders of all abilities. Its modern chairlifts and gondolas provide easy access to the mountain, and its state-of-the-art snowmaking system ensures excellent snow conditions throughout the season.

In addition to skiing and snowboarding, Northstar offers a range of other winter activities, including ice skating, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. And when you’re not on the mountain, you’ll find plenty of dining, shopping, and entertainment options at the resort’s base village and in nearby Truckee.

Northstar’s Strengths:

  • Northstar has a great mix of piste difficulties. This resort has something for every skill level.
  • There are no insanely difficult slopes. If you are a beginner or intermediate skier, then this resort is for you.
  • Similar to the top bullet item, Northstar has the best overall park of the three. It is the best for families and especially those with kids.
  • Northstar has the best terrain parks of the these three Epic ski resorts.
  • Wind doesn’t really effect skiers on this mountain as much as it does on others.

Northstar’s Weaknesses:

  • Northstar has the smallest mountain of the three.
  • The fact that it is the smallest mountain means that it gets crowded more easily. Saturdays tend to be the worst with crowds.
  • There are no insanely difficult slopes. If you are an expert skier, then this resort is for you.
  • No night skiing.
Author Image
Chris Cagle

I love traveling the United States. I hunt down fantastic places to visit in the summer and great slopes to ski down in the winter. The first national park I ever visited was the Smokies, but since then, I've been to dozens. However, my favorite by far has been Zion.