The Snow Gauge

Running the rule over the ski & snowboard industry since 1995

Why you shouldn’t overlook California this winter

Posted by on Oct 3, 2016 in United States | 2 comments

Heavenly views

Paul Scells enjoys some Heavenly views.

After four pretty ordinary seasons many felt California had lost its mojo.

Already playing in the shadows of the Rockies and Wasatch ranges, Sierra Nevada was starting to become more synonymous with its eminently drinkable pale ale than as base for a ski or snowboard trip.

But season 2015/16 brought it back to the fold. The numbers weren’t through (or over) the roof snow-wise but it was a solid season that again demonstrated just how good California can be. And some are suggesting a good to better one this season.

I’ve done Colorado and Utah and while it can’t compete for dry snow in most seasons there’s plenty of things to like about the Lake Tahoe district. Stick with me and I’ll take you through what tickled my fancy …

Lake Tahoe – what’s the story?

Tahoe ski map

Lake Tahoe is about four hours’ drive from San Francisco. You can fly into Reno from either San Fran or LA, leaving you anywhere from about 30 mins to an hour or so from one of the 14 resorts. But if you want to make the best of the region it’s not such a bad option to get yourself a car from San Fran and then drive. You can pretty much circumnavigate the lake by road in about two hours so it’s great to have wheels and be flexible.

Where to base?

I reckon either South Lake Tahoe or Truckee. South Lake is the spot for Heavenly (ie you can base right near the gonodola), casinos, partying and reasonable access to Kirkwood. Truckee gives you ready access to the North Lake resorts such as North Star and Squaw Valley. It’s a cool town about 20 minutes north of the lake.

Using the Epic Pass

Say what you will about Vail Resorts but the Epic Pass does make a standalone trip to Tahoe worthwhile. On it you can access Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood – three very different resorts that should satiate most people on a ski and snowboard trip. I did that over a week and a half last season and here’s what to expect from each of them …


Richard Jameson

Aussie Richard Jameson bases himself in Tahoe, California for a reason.

The steezy set like to give this place a hard time but god knows why. Around 1000 metres of vertical, 29 lifts and riding across California and Nevada over 97 marked runs make it a superb option for a week when the snow is on. On a blue sky day Heavenly quite simply offers one of the best mountain vistas in the world with jaw-dropping views to Lake Tahoe. There’s a good selection of beginner and intermediate terrain while experts are best heading to the Nevada side where the steeps of Killebrew and Mott Canyon await.



Northstar: the park and pipe facilities are some of the best in America

The former home of snowboard star Shaun White, Northstar has, as you might expect, a superb halfpipe and terrain park. The freestyle facilities are amongst the best in the state if not the country and if this is your thing it’s really worth a visit for that alone. Groomers here are uniformly excellent and there’s some surprisingly good tree skiing on offer too on Lookout Mountain and the Backside. Missing real top end terrain, Northstar is still worth considering on a powder day because the hardcore set will more likely pack in to Squaw and Kirkwood. The village here is modern and very well-appointed and worth a cocktail or coffee at the end of the day.



Only Colorado and Utah get powder in the US. Kirkwood politely disagrees.

About 45 minutes’ drive (on a good day) south of Heavenly lies a ski area with one of the most fearsome reputations in California. The interesting part is there’s actually a good beginners’ area at Kirkwood – just not a whole heap of the cruising terrain that you’ll get at Heavenly. But if you’ve come to ride the steeps there’s few better. The fabled Kirkwood lies high in the Sierras and is dosed with up to 15 metres of snow a year. Doesn’t have the big vert of Heavenly or the views but opens up like the Tardis with an amazing array of colouirs, drops and powder bowls that seem to change in personality with each storm. The excellent Expedition: Kirkwood team can sort you out with expert lessons, back country training or even some cat skiing to bookend end your trip here.

Where else?

Squaw Valley  gets the kudos of Kirkwood but is on a bigger scale so if you were flirting with another day or more outside side an Epic Pass this would be the way to go. It could be partnered with Northstar if you are spending some time north of the lake. Again, there are some homier, less-visited options which I can’t speak for yet but am led to believe the likes of Boreal, Sierra at Tahoe and Homewood are well worth checking out. Mammoth Mountain is another three hours south of Lake Tahoe.

The Snow Gauge’s other Tahoe tips

Lake Tahoe

Lakeside in Tahoe

  • If you’re with a family consider a trip around mid to late January. We found airfares as low as $1000 return to San Francisco with United after the school holiday rush. You could sneak a week on the slopes with a couple of days add-on to San Fran/LA and still just about get the kids back to school on time.
  • The Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel (South Lake Tahoe) is well-priced, has good facilities and a great breakfast. Fill your boot and just have a light snack for lunch to avoid the on-mountain restaurant costs. This particular hotel has $2 happy hour (cocktails included) between 4.30-6.30pm. As far as bars go there is more atmosphere on the moon but at that price you’d be a space cadet not to at least start your après there.
  • Shop around on the car. We had a painfully tough time getting a confirmed 4wd but eventually sorted one out on the ground with Alamo in San Fran. It’s about a 4 hour drive from there so do your math on getting the car there versus paying for a return flight to Reno which is till about an hour away from Heavenly.
  • For a sneaky lunch or early dinner off the mountain try Freshies at South Lake Tahoe. It’s a hidden away locals joint but the food is organic, inexpensive and great!
  • On the way back from Kirkwood take a detour to Markleeville and visit the Grover Hot Springs. Low key, cheap as chips and well worth it for a soak.

Finally, anything I didn’t like?

  • The stuffing round with the car did surprise me (it is markedly easier for instance to get a confirmed 4wd at a decent price in NZ)
  • I reckon it’s on the cusp with the exchange for Australians. Obviously you’ll get that anywhere in the US but personally I’d consider not doing the States if it dropped much under 70c.
  • Rain. We got a little and split a day early. It can happen anywhere but more so in Cali than Utah and Colorado.



  1. Actually it’s Killebrew – Park City & Jackson Hole can get as much rain as Tahoe at times. Mammoth Mountain main lodge is higher than the TOP of Squaw Valley, goes up more than 2000 feet from there/over 3000 total vertica, the lifts top out at 11,053ft, has more lift capacity/skiable 4,500 acres of terrain than all the Aspen areas combined & is part of The Mountain Collective along with Thredbo, so you can get your Thredbo mojo on skiing in the California sunshine at maybe -4 to -10 [on a really cold day] Fly into LA, connect to 1 hour flight on Alaska Air, be skiing before lunch ‘cos the airport is only 6 miles from the ski area & Town of Mammoth Lakes.

    • Thanks Robin – fixed that.

      You raise some great points about Mammoth. I personally haven’t been there so was reluctant to get into too much detail though I’ve only heard good things.

      I will say this – it is something of a separate destination resort as it is a little far from the Tahoe resorts; though three hours isn’t a huge stretch for the keen.

      As for the Mountain Collective pass I don’t want to seem like an Epic Pass fan boy but I’m not sold on it. As a minimum it needs a couple of resorts with at least a week access. Easy for Vail when they own the resorts I know but look at it from the perspective of most international travelers – you are not headed to these places for a day or two.

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