Every March or April, it’s been a tradition of mine to go ski a new set of mountains in the United States. I’m fairly well traveled and have skied in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. This last spring, I decided to grab some friends and family and go hit the California/Nevada border to see whether all the hype about the Lake Tahoe region was justified. When planning the trip, we did some basic research as to which were the main resorts to visit and settled on renting out a condo hill-side at Heavenly. We came to this decision primarily because it is the largest resort in California at a whopping 4800 ski-able acres (skiheavenly.com), and because its location is in relative proximity to all the other big name resorts at Tahoe. Since it was the first place we ended up skiing out there, I will give an extensive review of the mountain and draw some comparisons to other places I’ve been.
The first thing that strikes you when you visit Heavenly is the size. Having been to large resorts like Vail, vast resorts like these really get me excited and anxious to try out all the different sides of the mountain. Another thing that stands out is how the border between California and Nevada actually divides the mountain in half and if you spend enough time there, it almost feels like you are skiing two different places. The locals always specify where they are skiing with either “California-side” or “Nevada-side”. Enough about the mountain layout, let’s talk snow.
The snow quality during spring skiing by nature is very unpredictable and some times during the season one place will get dumped on, while another place will have packed down and slushy conditions. One thing l can say for sure about Tahoe is that there is no lack of fresh snow, at least not when we visited. Our first night there, it snowed about 7-8 inches and apparently they have been getting new snow the previous week as well. A few days later when we wanted to visit other resorts, we essentially got “snowed in” and enjoyed a glorious powder day on Nevada-side. Unfortunately, this experience also highlighted some negative consequence of long-lasting snowfall at Heavenly. Apparently, at least during the spring time, Heavenly mountain staff is fairly slow to open access throughout the mountain. That day there considerable periods of time where there was only one lift operational and as result, there was a problem with long lines. Furthermore, some lifts failed to open at all despite weather improving dramatically the rest of the day. This weather-induced inaccessibility really made traveling from one side of the resort to the other a nuisance. The consistency of the powder that day was a bit on the wet, heavier side and compared with the granulated and light powder seen in the Salt Lake City area, it wasn’t as much fun to ski on. Nevertheless, if you’re worried about low snowfall and just want to be able to ski some fresh, Heavenly is definitely the place to be.
Unless you are a complete novice, Heavenly has something for everyone in terms of terrain. There are plenty of groomed blue runs, black diamonds, and double diamond chutes for the experts. One thing you do notice over time is that most of the mountain is pretty forested and there is a noticeable lack of vast and open bowls to ski. So if you prefer tree skiing and chutes, Heavenly is definitely your cup of tea. If you like lots of open space or bowls, then Heavenly will probably disappoint. In fact, there is only one bowl designated by the trail map and it is only accessible by hiking a considerable distance. This means that access can likely to be blocked entirely depending on the weather conditions and avalanche blasting schedule. The way the terrain and lifts are laid out between the California and Nevada side, you really do have to be wary of the trail directions because it is easy to get stuck on a lower lift and have no way of getting back to the top short of having to take a shuttle back to a major lift. During the normal season this wouldn’t be a concern, but during spring skiing, resorts frequently have certain lifts closed. In our case, some critical traverse lifts were shut down. On the plus side, there were plenty of express lifts and once beyond the base lifts, crowding is never an issue.
Given its size, its unique location, and the healthy amount of snowfall it receives, Heavenly should definitely rank high on the list of resorts to visit at Lake Tahoe. In fact, even with a ski-in, ski-out living arrangement you would be hard pressed to ski all the terrain in a week. In my opinion Its biggest weaknesses are lack of open terrain as seen in places like Snowbird or Vail. I don’t know if I can really blame my other criticism on the resort itself, but the mountain is laid out in such a way that really isolates one side from another and makes traversing difficult and inconvenient. Overall, the rest of the attractions of Heavenly are pretty much on par with the rest of the resorts that are comparable in size.