Winter visitors flock to South Lake Tahoe's
Heavenly Ski Resort
By CARY ORDWAY
With around a million skiers and snowboarders visiting Heavenly Mountain
Resort each year, sometimes it can feel a little bit like they’re all there the
same weekend. But careful planning can help make your visit an experience more
memorable for the mountain’s unbelievable amenities than for the time you spent
waiting in line.
There’s a good reason California’s skiers and snowboarders flock to Heavenly
each year. Situated high above the south shore of Lake Tahoe, the spectacular
views leave no doubt how the resort came upon its name. Majestic, breathtaking,
incredible – choose your adjective for the scenery and it would be difficult to
overstate your case. Add to that the area’s diverse terrain and trail options –
95 trails over 4,800 acres – and it’s not hard to see why this place is at or
near the top of everyone’s California must-do ski areas.
We returned this winter to Heavenly after more than a decade since our last
visit and our first impression was how international this area has become. We
don’t remember hearing so many foreign languages back in the mid-90’s, nor do we
remember the fashion parade on the Heavenly slopes. This visit, most skiers were
wearing the latest clothing and equipment which tells you they are serious about
their winter sports – or at least about being seen where people are serious
about their winter sports.
The crowd seems to be younger these days – or are we just getting older?
Probably a little bit of both. But there is no question the crowd is bigger, and
most of that seems to be a growing population of boarders who don’t bother to
learn how to ski because, well, boards are just cooler. We choose to use those
relics they call skis, but we have made a concession to the modern world by
switching over to the shorter, fatter skis than we had back in the 90’s.
The Heavenly gondola leaves conveniently from a village that has grown up
along the main highway in South Lake Tahoe. There is now a great selection of
accommodations all within easy walking distance of the gondola. In fact, the
gondola is so close to the Nevada state line that we were able to walk to the
gondola in just five minutes from our Stateline Nevada hotel, Harrah’s.
that brings us to that good planning we were talking about. For starters, it’s
hard to recommend a weekend visit to Heavenly unless A/ you don’t mind lines,
and/or B/ you want to be around a LOT of people. Sampling Heavenly on both a
good-weather weekday and a good-weather weekend day, the difference was
dramatic. Our weekday was less crowded by far, which made the overall experience
much more enjoyable. Instead of having several near-misses with out-of-control
boarders and skiers on the weekend, the weekday gave us the opportunity to relax
and – because there is so much terrain to choose from – find places that were
totally away from crowded slopes.
On our weekend day, we made the error of having breakfast while we waited for
the weather to clear and then leisurely walking over to the gondola about 10:30
a.m. We were greeted with long lines to get tickets, and then an additional,
seemingly endless line that wrapped around the gondola building to actually get
on the lift. Planning tip No. 2: If you do go on a weekend, be at the lift by
8:30 a.m. regardless of the weather. There’s a reasonable chance that even foggy
or snowy weather will change to better conditions once you get on top of the
mountain. And remember: Heavenly gets 300 days of sunshine each year.
The eight-passenger gondola takes a few minutes to get you up to the main
skiing areas where a total of 28 additional lifts will disperse you to a variety
of trails – about 65 percent either intermediate or beginner terrain, all fairly
well groomed. Ten of those lifts are either four- or six-passenger high speed
quads so lift capacity is generally quite good and our weekday experience
included little time waiting in line.
The weekend, of course, is another story and lines were considerably longer.
We should also note it took us our first full day of skiing before we had any
sense of where we were on the mountain, so this is one of those places you want
to keep a trail map close at hand.
To be fair, one reason for the weekend crowds during our visit was that the
word was out about the several feet of snow
that had dumped on the Tahoe area a few days before our arrival. If there
doesn’t happen to be a dump of snow before your visit, Heavenly’s got your back:
state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment can cover as much as 75 percent of the
area’s runs with man-made snow.
Heavenly is an attraction in and of itself, but adding to its allure is that
the area is so conveniently located. The village of South Lake Tahoe has made
great strides in recent years to build modern lodging facilities and get away
from the over-abundance of tacky, cheap motels that lined the streets many years
ago. Most of the lodging units in the area have been spruced up, re-built or are
new from the ground up.
Harrah’s turned out to be an excellent choice, not only because it was close
to the gondola but because of the many restaurants in Harrah’s and nearby hotels
that are all easy walking distance. The Heavenly Village, where you’ll find
upscale shops, eateries and bars, is just a five-minute walk from Harrah’s. And
the rooms at Harrah’s are remarkably spacious, generally upscale and offer great
mountain and lake views.
A little aside here about Harrah’s: We had booked non-smoking rooms, but
there were none available when we arrived. The desk clerk gave us the bad news
in a very pleasant tone of voice and then she pointed out that not all may be
lost. She told us they had heavy duty ionization machines that could clear all
traces of any smoke within an hour and to call her if the room was unacceptable.
Surprisingly, our "smoking" room had already been ionized and she was right –
even though we are usually sensitive to it, any remnant of the smoke seemed to
be completely gone.
For many people, the hotel’s gaming is a big reason to choose Harrah’s or one
of the other Stateline hotels. While not as opulent as some Vegas casinos, the
Stateline casinos offer plenty of gambling options and were wall-to-wall with
patrons throughout the weekend. Someone in our party actually won a few bucks so
we do know it’s possible to come out ahead.
Another recommendation we would have for visitors traveling any distance is
to consider flying into Reno-Tahoe International Airport., about 60 miles from
South Lake Tahoe. The Reno airport has more than 100 flights daily and is served
by several major airlines. On this particular trip we drove to Lake Tahoe from
San Diego but it was a long, arduous drive and complicated by weather conditions
in the passes between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Friends flew into Reno, and we
just felt like their trip turned out to be much less hassle and well worth the
cost of airfare and car rental.
AT A GLANCE
Heavenly Ski Resort is located in South Lake Tahoe, CA and straddles the
California/Nevada state line. The area is close to a booming infrastructure of
hotels, restaurants and shops.
WHAT: Heavenly Ski Resort is one of the most popular ski resorts in
California and is known for its variety of runs and terrain.
WHEN: Ski season is from mid-November through mid-April.
WHY: The combination of excellent lodgings, great restaurants and
excellent skiing in one of California’s most scenic mountain locations.
HOW: For more information on Heavenly Ski Resort, go to
www.skiheavenly.com or phone
1-800-heavenly. For more information on Harrah’s Tahoe, go to
www.harrahs.com. For more information about
South Lake Tahoe, visit
Photos by Cary Ordway
Captions, from top: View from top of the gondola at Heavenly; morning
lines on a weekend; mother and daughter enjoy Tahoe's winter waterfront; view of
lake from Harrah's
Please visit California Weekend for more information on California travel .
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway