Suggest a midwinter holiday in California, and most Canadians picture balmy weather and rugged Pacific coastlines, not epic alpine terrain, luscious stashes of fresh powder, and a deep-rooted culture of alpine adventuring that dates back generations. But that’s what you’ll find high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the Golden State’s eastern border, where three iconic ski resorts have been making downhill dreams come true for decades.
Tucked into northern California’s scenic Lake Tahoe region, Northstar California, Kirkwood, and Heavenly rival some of the top snow sports destinations in B.C. and Alberta. Like their northern neighbours, they offer plenty of seasonal snowfall, gloriously sunny slopes, and varied enough terrain for everyone from hardcore daredevils to first-time snowplowers. Toss in that signature laid-back California attitude, and you have an intriguing trio of ski and snowboarding destinations unlike anywhere else on the continent.
This ski season, Kirkwood and Northstar California are both celebrating 50 years of skiing and riding. Because Vail Resorts owns both, along with Heavenly Lake Tahoe, the Epic Pass will get you onto all three, as it does at Whistler Blackcomb and over 20 top resorts worldwide from Australia to Switzerland. And with Reno, Nevada, the closest airport, you can combine a holiday on the slopes with playing the slots or taking in a show.
Straddling the California-Nevada border, Heavenly, as the name suggests, is an occasionally otherworldly mountain. Especially during its famously sunny days, when Lake Tahoe’s sapphire-blue surface glimmers far below as you descend the resort’s signature Ridge Run.
Draped across both states, Heavenly’s 96 other runs cover nearly 2,000 hectares of skiable terrain. Many are accessible via a gondola that ascends roughly halfway to the 3,000-metre-high summit, but it is often closed due to high winds. Alternative bases on the California and Nevada sides offer lift access to runs that range from tight ancient pine tree descents and famously wide glades to bumps, chutes, and plenty of beginner and intermediate slopes, making this hill a favourite for families. And with an average annual snowfall over nine metres, supplemented by an extensive snowmaking system, Heavenly seldom has a shortage of the fluffy white stuff.
Fantastic powder skiing aside, Heavenly’s other claim to fame is the cluster of casinos just across the state line from South Lake Tahoe, the town on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe that contains the resort’s village. One afternoon, you might peruse souvenir shops and enjoy après ski refreshments, or you could simply cross the street and roll the dice or play the slots at Harrah’s, Harveys, or Bally’s in Stateline, Nevada. It’s not unusual to spot a fully geared-up skier emerging from one of these casinos, ready to try their luck on a tight Heavenly tree run. Either way, Heavenly is worth the gamble.
Located in the densely forested Martis Valley region of North Lake Tahoe, Northstar California is more compact and mellower than its neighbour.
Occupying the slopes of Mount Pluto, an extinct volcano that hasn’t erupted in more than two million years, the resort features over 70 beginner and intermediate-level runs, making it a great choice for learners. Designated family-learning zones allow novices to progress at a relaxed pace, and the kids ski school program is highly regarded. Seasoned skiers flock to Lookout Mountain’s nearly 200 acres of more advanced terrain, which includes several gladed runs with stunning views of Lake Tahoe and one of America’s largest progressive terrain parks.
After a day of cruising Northstar’s fastidiously groomed slopes or searching for off-piste powder stashes, you can celebrate with a glass of bubbly (or apple cider) at Lake Tahoe’s only ski-up, mountain-view champagne experience. Or enjoy fireside s’mores and cocoa in the resort’s purpose-built village, which features a large outdoor skating rink.
While on-mountain accommodations range from condominiums and hotel-style units to spacious ski-in/ski-out mountain rental homes, the jewel in Northstar’s crown is the swanky Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe. This luxurious midmountain hotel features a 17,000-square-foot full-service spa and fitness centre, heated outdoor pool, ski concierge, and fine dining. If poshness is as important to you as powder, Northstar California is an excellent choice.
Steep and Deep
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kirkwood, just a 45-minute drive from South Lake Tahoe. With nearly 1,000 hectares of terrain, over 600 metres of vertical, and one of the highest resort snowfalls in the world, it’s California’s answer to the more technically challenging offerings on B.C. mountains like Kicking Horse and Whistler Blackcomb.
The Wood is a powder hound’s dream, as legendary for its sharp summit ridgeline full of vertiginous chutes, cornices, rock faces, and cliffs as for its ultradeep snowpack. Extreme aspects aside, Kirkwood also offers plenty of smooth blue cruisers and a smattering of green runs, along with a dedicated beginner area.
Smaller and less glitzy than Heavenly and Northstar, Kirkwood prides itself on maintaining a low-key, laid-back ski town atmosphere. Here, old-school ski culture is said to be cultivated by a long-standing community of big mountain skiers and riders who still get their adrenaline pumping at the prospect of shredding some of America’s gnarliest lines. It’s an attitude you might call California cool.
If You Go
From Reno, you can drive or take an hour-long shuttle to South Lake Tahoe. Conveniently located across the street from the Heavenly gondola, Zalanta Resort at the Village offers spacious condo-style accommodation complete with ski concierge service. Recommended restaurants in town include Riva Grill, Izabella for upscale Italian cuisine, Kalani’s Hawaiian-style seafood and fish, and the Loft, a tapas-style restaurant, lounge, and live-performance theatre.