Lake Tahoe: A Directory of Winter Fun - My Family Travels
The busy firepit at Northstar. Photo c. Corey Rich
Snowboarding at the Lake Tahoe resorts. Photo by Corey Rich

Seven mountain resorts make the Lake Tahoe mountain district straddling the California and Nevada borders one of the country’s most diverse and exciting snowsports destinations. Heavenly, Kirkwood, Mt. Rose, Northstar California, Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort and Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows), each overlook the emerald waters of America’s largest alpine lake, enjoy some of the highest annual snowfall in North America, and bask in over 300 days of sunshine a year — no wonder it’s a winter wonderland.

The region’s location — less than an hour from the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, a few hours from Sacramento, and within 3½ hours’ drive of San Francisco — makes it popular with a large population of active families and second homeowners. Recent consolidation in ownership means that multi-resort lift tickets (for example, Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood on the EPIC Pass) are available too.

Great Value Skiing and Snowboarding for Families

But Tahoe is no longer the locals’ secret; snow enthusiasts travel from all over the world for a bit of the action, some of the laid-back California vibe, and the pleasure of being part of a slew of interesting eco-initiatives (in water conservation, food service, online reservations systems, car pooling and more).  You can obtain more information and regional lodging packages at each mountain’s website, as well as a free “Skiers and Boarders” and “Lake Tahoe Planning” guide from the Ski Lake Tahoe marketing group.

Remember also that the always-upgrading Tahoe resort has many activities for the snow-haters and couch potatoes in the family. There are new day spas; periodic culinary events and wine festivals; hip boutiques in downtown Tahoe City; lots of shops and restaurants in Truckee; a manmade kayak course and casinos in Reno; and ice skating, snowshoeing, indoor rock climbing, sledding, fishing, yoga, biking and hiking for the more active family members year-round.

Alpine Meadows

2600 Alpine Meadows Rd # 1C
Alpine Meadows, CA 96146
This smaller resort is located about 6 miles from Tahoe City, Nevada and boasts 2,400 acres of forested trails on a sunny, scenic mountain with full lake views. The powder-crowned terrain is groomed for all ability levels and a single base lodge adds to the unhurried, cozy ambiance that makes newly independent skiers feel safe. Note, there’s no mountainside lodging and it’s very crowded on weekends. However, a gondola connecting it to its owner-neighbor Palisades Tahoe (just 10 minutes away by free shuttle bus) means more change to come. Check out the resort’s ‘family ski zone’ and special teen tickets, plus a kids camp for ages 4-6 and Mountaineer lessons for ages 7-12 attract families; private lessons available for ages 4 and under. Kids under 4 can also ski free all day. Additionally, new GPS tracking technology is used for all kids enrolled in daycamps, and each child’s route is stored online so favorite runs can be remembered. The easy check in process (automated registration kiosks and easy slope access) is also a plus.

Heavenly Mountain Resort

Corner of Wildwood and Saddle
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
(775/586-7000, 800/HEAVENLY)
Heavenly is one of the country’s largest resorts, with enough varied terrain to entertain all skill levels for a least a week. Families with novices take heed: beginner runs are mid-mountain and require ability to use a lift to descend to the base camp. Both the California and Nevada sides have long, long trails with lake or desert views from over 10,000 feet. Heavenly Village, the ‘in’ spot for dining, shopping and entertainment is busy at all hours and provides some indoor fun. Heavenly’s big new Tamarack Lodge — one of Vail Resorts’ capital improvements — is the latest dining and hangout venue, with a budget foodcourt housing a grill, artisanal pizzas (this is California), salad and liquor bars. The resort’s high-speed gondola carries skiers, riders and sightseers to the top of the ski resort a a breathtaking view. State-licensed daycare is available at the California Lodge for ages 6 weeks-6 years. The excellent ski school, known as the Bear Cave,  is modeled on those at Vail and Beaver Creek; 250 instructors cater to skiers ages 4-13 and riders ages 7-13 at three locations. The resort’s family recreation area Adventure Peak on East Peak includes a four-lane tubing hill accessed by a state-of-the-art magic carpet reminiscent of the Jetsons, as well as sledding and ski bikes. Off the slopes, families can choose from an entire array of activities such as sightseeing, ice skating, dogsled rides, snowmobiling, arcades, spas, boat cruises, sleigh rides, incredible shopping and a variety of dining options.

Kirkwood Ski Resort

1501 Kirkwood Meadows Drive
Kirkwood, CA 95646
This smaller, top value resort typically gets the largest powder dump of any around Tahoe – up to 600” — perhaps why it was scooped up by Vail Resorts for $18 million in a surprise 2012 acquisition. Having long drawn a commuter crowd from throughout the region, Kirkwood just may become Tahoe’s next big thing. Just 45 minutes from South Lake Tahoe at Carson Pass, Kirkwood is a quiet, heavily wooded, self-contained resort that is a delight for beginners. The Tahoe Learning Center provides quick access to lessons, rentals, and an outfitter so you don’t have much running around, and if you park the car in the preferred lot reserved for families with pre-purchased lessons, it’s a short stroll away. There are 65 trails on 2,300 skiable acres, comfortable condos at the mountain’s base, and a little nightlife. The mountain has daily daycare for ages 2-6 in a state-licensed facility, a ski school for ages 4-12 and a snowboarding program for ages 5-12. The resort’s new two-hour “parent and me” Small Fry program, introduces children aged 2 to 4-years to winter sports. The Junior Expedition Program teaches kids mountain safety techniques and tips. The tubing park is located near the heart of the Mountain Village and offers fun for all ages. Watch out for some upgrades at The Wood!

Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe

22222 Mt. Rose Highway
Reno, NV 89511
Mt. Rose, with the area’s highest base elevation at 8.260 feet, is just a half-hour from the town of Reno and a favorite with Nevada locals. The appeal is low rates for 1,200 acres of skiable terrain, carved into only 60 trails served by six chairs and two tow lifts. Within its small and homey learning center (not a daycare), “Rosebuds” or kids ages 4 and up can tackle the basics of skiing and riding. Classes are limited to certain age ranges (ski school for ages 4-10, snowboard classes for ages 7-10) and kids are divided into turtles, squirrels, foxes and bears according to their skills. The reasonably-priced school offers two-hour programs in the morning, mid-day, afternoon or full-day and asks parents to remain on property. These are group lessons; private lessons are available for almost all ages and ability levels and those with special needs. The resort offers well-priced Family Packs which include lift tickets for two adults and two children under 17 years. They also offer interchangeable lifet tickets for parents taking turns with the kids. The new Winters Creek Lodge provides improved traffic flow for parents as they pass from the slopes to the lodge with their children in tow. The fun “Wild Horse Adventure Trail” on the mountain winds through the trees and is made up of whoops, rollers and banked turns.

Northstar California Resort

100 Northstar Drive
Truckee, CA 96161
Since its purchase by Vail Resorts in 2010, we’ve seen a lot of luxury upgrades at what used to be called “Flatstar” by those who feel its expert runs are overrated. We love this place for upscale families: the 2,904-acre property has many scenic beginner and intermediate runs, 50 kms of cross-country trails, local snowtubing and snowmobiling, and high-touch service. Hotels, condos and rental homes adjoin both a pedestrian-only lower Village and a mid-mountain ski base served by a gondola or private bus, so your kids can be comfortable getting about on their own. Families will appreciate the new highspeed quad, mid-mountain lodge, enhanced snowmaking, tree thinning to make for improved glade skiing, and wider ski area boundaries. A just-for-boarders run designed by Burton has been created to replicate glade and “natural” terrain conditions for those ready for a challenge. Minors’ Camp is the mountain’s licensed childcare and outdoor play area for non-skiing children ages 2 – 6. Ski school and snowboard lessons are given for ages 4-6 and 7-12 in separate age groups. The resort’s popular Mommy, Daddy and Me program involves you in helping to teach your beginners ages 3-4. For those more experienced, check out the new ‘EpicMix Racing’ where skiers and snowboarders can record their own performance to see how they compare to pro skier, Lindsey Vonn.

Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort

1111 Sierra-at-Tahoe Road
Twin Bridges, CA 95735
(800/AT-TAHOE, 530/659-7453)
S-A-T is preferred by locals as a less crowded, yet pretty interesting hill outside South Lake Tahoe, and it’s the closest option to Sacramento. Beginners can take advantage of a snowboard teaching accessory – the Burton Progression Park – which has a designated drop-in zone before each terrain feature, along with signage offering guidance on how best to approach it. S-A-T is great for self-taught beginners, while the instructor-led classes that focus on riding or freestyle skiing are well regarded. Their Family Private Lesson offers a personalized class with an instructor who is specially trained to teach multiple ability levels in the same lesson; everyone rides the lift together then selects their line of choice down, receiving instruction on how to better carve the groomers, hit the park, launch tricks out of the Superpipe, or enjoy the gladed runs. In a nod to the themeparks, a “Parent Predicament Ticket” allows two adults to share a lift ticket and take turns holding baby or skiing/riding throughout the day. Similarly, the “ParentZone” with bleachers and tables gives guardians a spot to relax and cheer on kids participating in ski and snowboard school. New themed Adventure Zones complete with sound effects and interactive features add some history and local color to runs. This season the resort’s latest edition is Yoda’s Riglet Park, which feautres life size characters from Star Wars Galaxy. No mountainside accommodations here, but very good value beginner packages and free lessons for Advanced Skiers (Level 7-9). Daycare is available for ages 18-months to 5-years; intro to skiing classes begin at age 3 and snowboard lessons at age 4. Take advantage of the cheap, season-long Learn-to-Ski or Snowboard package that the resort is offering.

Palisades Tahoe

1960 Squaw Valley Road
Olympic Valley, CA 96146
(800/403-0206, 530/583-6955)
The United States’ second largest ski resort (six peaks spread over 4,000 acres) and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley USA) has a wide variety of expert and intermediate trails, and well run learning programs that teach ages 3-12 how to ski and ages 6-12 how to ride. Beginners will love being able to snowplow at the peak, where there are scenic vistas of the lake and surrounding mountains from several green runs. Families will relish the resort’s three terrain parks, half-pipe, free ski clinics throughout the day, and an outdoor mid-mountain barbecue. A lateral tram runs mid-mountain over to Gold Coast, so non-skiers can do some aerial sightseeing as well. Palisades’s enclosed cablecar takes skiers and non-skiers up to the play areas at High Camp, where energetic teens and kids can chill at the amazing sky-high skating rink, lagoon pool, bungee jump course, scenic vista restaurants, and night-lit snow tubing and ski trails. The resort’s newest feature is the Kid-O-Rama Kastle, a 5,000 square foot snow castle that has four towers, three slides, and four stair cases. Check out some parades and dance party during the Kid-O-Rama weekend, held February 15th-23rd. Celebrating more than 50 yeras since the Olympics, the mid-mountain Olympic Heritage Museum has been revamped too. The resort’s European-style base village offers posh hotels and condos (with amenities such as outdoor hot tubs, a kids’ club and theatre), shops and over 30 restaurants. IKON Pass lift tickets from Palisades can also be used at the smaller and cozier Alpine Meadows resort.

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2 Replies to “Lake Tahoe: A Directory of Winter Fun”

  • anonymous

    Mention the night skiing at Squaw Valley. It has one of the longest night-lit runs I’ve ever skied — 3.2 miles from top to bottom. Plus the terrain park is lit at night and that includes a half-pipe. Really fun.

    Susan F.

  • anonymous

    Northstar at Taoe is a great place for teens because all of the housing on the resort site is served by a bus. That means they can sleep in and get themselves to the slopes. It also has really fun terrain park features for both skiers and snowboarders. It would be nice to see daycare for infants, though.
    – Laura S.