Ski Heavenly Tahoe's #1 for epic terrain and vertical

snow action team 22.09.2020

Have Epic Australia Pass, must ski Heavenly!

With an Epic Oz Pass in your jacket sleeve you get almost unlimited access – just a handful of holiday date blackouts – to Lake Tahoe’s biggest, highest and tallest ski resort.

Not many better views in skiing than after a storm cycle at Heavenly © Vail Resort

Heavenly Ski Resort stats

  • 4,800 acres / 1942 ha of magnificent varied terrain sprawling across state lines from Nevado to California, Tahoe’s largest
  • 3,500 feet / 1067m vertical drop, most on the entire West Coast
  • 10,067 feet / 3068m summit elevation, Tahoe’s highest
  • 360 inches / 9.14m plus season snowfall (summit) plus 74% snowmaking coverage; 125 inches / 3.175m lake level
  • 97 trails split 35% Advanced, 45% Intermediate, 20% Beginner

OK, so you know it’s big and gets a lot of snow, but that’s just the start. The views are amazing, the 35 mile long sapphire blue lake making the perfect selfie back drop.

Heavenly has some of the best glade skiing anywhere © Vail Resorts

Ski terrain at Heavenly

With 47 blue runs Heavenly is generally billed as cruiser heaven. Which is perfectly true. The upper mountain area is the best place for these, headlined by the spectacularly scenic Skyline and Ridge Run trails. Great runs, great views, lots of snow, and a choice of pumping chill and eat zones mean most people spend most of their time up here.

But hands up if you love tree skiing! Heavenly is glade ski heaven too. It seems like a giant 4000 acre glade – you can ski pretty much anywhere in bounds, with a lot of intelligent tree thinning and nature combining to leave space for limitless tree lines. There are plenty of these where the gradient kicks into the 40s. That includes the fire trail line down under the gondola, a one shot almost 3000 vertical foot home run if you are staying near the California base, and a powder day must do regardless.

Over the Nevada backside are the best steep runs and chutes, accessed through the gates into Killebrew and Mott Canyons. These will keep experts happy – 1600 feet / 488m vertical of had charging lines looking down into the drier Nevada side of the Sierras.

No lake views, but the drop into Mott Canyon is pretty sweet © Vail Resorts

Some of the steepest lines are found on the lower section of the California side base, underneath the Heavenly tram and Gunbarrel Express. Cruisers may prefer to download, especially if they’ve been partying already.

The Tamarack zone at the top of the gondola has the largest restaurant and kid’s activities centred at the Bear Cave kids’ ski lodge. Tamarack Lodge’s happy hour from 3:30 – 5:30 with 50% off drinks is a good way to end a ski day, you can just download afterwards. It is not as super convenient for ski in/ski out with kids, but they will like the gondola ride up anyway.

Plenty of nice family cruising options too © Thomas Coen / Vail Resorts

Speaking of bears, getting into spring you have to watch out for bears on the prowl in the Tahoe area too.

“We got home and saw one taking off with a 50lb bag of dog food” says long time South Tahoe resident Mike Frye, who was snow Action’s ski guide at Heavenly. It had climbed in through their then 5 year old son’s window, fortunately when the whole family was out. They’re not grizzlies though, so are more easily scared off.

If a bear did decide to go the chomp on a skier it’d be like a shark at Bondi, plenty of choice. Heavenly is one of the most popular American ski resorts, clocking over a million skier days annually.

That includes a huge weekend influx from San Francisco and the Bay area, less than 4 hours drive away. Vail Resorts have invested in the lift network to cope and keep things moving.

Midweeks are obviously a better time for international visitors to make the most of it. 

Heavenly is so big it would take a couple of seasons or more to really get to know the ins and outs of the tree runs. It sure adds up to a lot of ski value basically for free if you got your days at home at Perisher, Hotham and/or Falls with your Epic Oz Pass.

Getting to Heavenly

Reno/Tahoe International Airport in Nevada is the closest airport for Heavenly. It looks a lot like your local RSL, slot machines are everywhere. Heavenly is 54 miles / 90km, or around 80 minutes from Reno airport (drive or bus/shuttle options available), past several more casinos and the equally legal brothels.

Sacramento is 110 miles / 177km, 2 hours drive; San Francisco 204 miles / 328km under 4 hours drive depending on traffic.

Driving along the South Lake Tahoe shoreline has a bit of a Gold Coast 70s vibe, a lot of tacky strip developments with a cluster of high rise 70s looking casinos just inside the Nevada state line. More upmarket resorts hotel complexes dot the lakefront itself.

Where to stay and what to do at Heavenly

“We’re not pretty” admits says South Lake Tahoe tourism representative Mike Frye, who spent a long career ski race coaching at nearby Kirkwood and knows the skiing here better than most, “but we’re a hell of a lot more fun than anyone else in the Sierra!”

He means all the stuff to do – shopping, casinos, entertainment (some surprisingly big international acts appear here), dual 8-plex movie theatres, paddle steamers on the lake, golf in the valley, “and hell, even the Bunny Ranch just down the road a bit.”

It’s true. A bit of a mini-Las Vegas and plenty of choice for accommodation makes Heavenly Ski resort great value and quite different from more self-contained mountain village style resorts with less options.

There is a reasonable local transport system, but you really need a car to get around easily and visit other Tahoe areas – with two of those, Kirkwood and Northstar, also Epic Australia Pass options.

For visiting Aussies using their Epic Australia Pass looking for cheaper, you can stay in motels down the road in South Lake Tahoe just a few minutes from the California Base, while for mid-range value the casinos on the Nevada side are hard to beat.

Riding back to the Heavenly Ski Resort California Base Lodge
Riding back to the California Base Lodge © Vail Resorts

To get started daily the 4 base areas have their pros and cons, well explained on the resort site here

Heavenly Village/Gondola has the most upmarket accommodation choices are available, notably the Zatalanta next to the gondola, opened in 2017. A short walk to the gondola makes access quick and easy. You won’t need a car in that case; the casinos are also only a short walk or taxi ride across the border into Nevada.

California Base Lodge is the largest parking area and main drive up option, with choice of the tram or Gunbarrel Express out of the base. Plenty of facilities and food and beverage outlets. It’s handy for those staying in South Lake Tahoe.

Stagecoach Lodge on the Nevada side is a local’s favourite for fast access to the good stuff like the Canyons. The parking lot is pretty small and fills up early.

Boulder Lodge the second Nevada side base has a dedicated beginners and kids area and ski school options, so it’s fine for that but no fast lifts means it’s a slower option to get up higher to the main mountain.

Snowboard class riding the glades at Heavenly Ski Resort
Glades, glades and more glades .. © Vail Resorts