With 15 downhill ski resorts nestled around the shore and between the nearby peaks of Lake Tahoe, California, it’s clear that this region is prime for a family ski vacation. But which resort to pick? Nearly all Tahoe resorts have robust ski schools, rental services and extensive terrain, but not all have onsite lodging, backcountry acreage or village areas.
As a Tahoe native, I grew up skiing these resorts and still return annually with my own family for our ski vacations. My breakdown below does not include every property in the area, and is subjective by nature. The good news: With so many differently styled resorts in close proximity, you really can’t go wrong.
The resorts in this category have it all: a village with ice skating rinks, nightlife, shops and dining; ski-in/ski-out lodging; onsite spas; family-friendly extras like sleigh rides and s’mores by the fire pit. You can park your car on arrival and never get back in it until it’s time to leave.
Known for: Family-friendliness; luxury
Reputation deserved? Yes
Great for: Families with young kids, families with beginner skiers or riders, families who want plenty of off-slope activities.
What to expect: Excellent ski school, including a Burton Snowboard Academy; ski-in/ski-out accommodations; wonderful dining on the mountain and in the village; some of the best grooming in Tahoe; plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain; fun gated terrain for experts (when there’s enough snow).
A Vail Resorts-owned Epic Pass resort, Northstar California is one of our all-time favorites. We’ve enjoyed many vacations here, each quite different — we’ve experienced a relaxed, pampered stay at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe, a fun-packed weekend in a village condo slopeside and a stay in a rental house with three generations of family. Each of these was either ski-in/ski-out or connected to the slopes by the free Northstar shuttle system.
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Known for: Serious terrain; hosting the winter Olympics
Reputation deserved? Yes
Great for: Families with mobile, self-sufficient kids (there’s more schlepping here than at Northstar) and also families with advanced/expert skiers. Best if you have at least three to four ski days.
What to expect: Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows (part of Tahoe Super Pass) joined forces a few years ago, combining for more than 6,000 acres. Honestly, it’s so big it’s overwhelming, so pick a side to focus on. Stay in ski-in/ski-out accommodations at the Squaw Valley village for the easiest access to the snow, or choose one of the large number of vacation rentals within a short drive.
The most relaxed way to approach your ski day is via the Alpine side, where the lodge is quieter and the parking lot less full, but there’s no onsite lodging there. We love that the beginner terrain is at mid-mountain at Squaw, affording newbies the same pretty views as everyone else (no parking lot skiing). Experts can find wonderful terrain at both mountains, and older kids love the tram ride up to the ice skating rink at the top, which is transformed into a heated swimming pool by spring break.
Known for: Singles (think bachelor parties and ladies’ weekends)
Reputation deserved? Yes and no … the party scene is alive and well, but families will find plenty of suitable programming.
Great for: Families who want to stay on the South Shore; parents who want to add some Nevada gaming fun to the vacation
What to expect: Heavenly, another Vail Resorts-owned property, wins big on epic views. This resort is located on the lakeshore, and the village blends into South Tahoe’s bright and lively “strip.” If you’re looking for a quiet, wilderness-inspired vacation, this is not the one to book, but if you want easy access to casinos, restaurants and the like, Heavenly will be, well, heaven. It’s not my personal favorite, because I dislike the proximity to South Tahoe, but parents and kids will find slopeside lodging, ski schools and family services aplenty.
These resorts may not have all the amenities as the ones above, but they still provide what’s most important: quality lessons, terrain and lodge services. They’re all a short distance from the lakeshore, perfect for families who want a quieter, more rugged experience.
Known for: No-frills hometown skiing with challenging terrain
Reputation deserved? It once was, but now this rep is outdated. Sugar Bowl has been updated and refined for a luxury resort experience.
Great for: Families who want an upscale ski lodge experience without the bustle of an entire ski village; families with strong skiers and riders
What to expect: It would be impossible for me to hide my love of Sugar Bowl, so I won’t even try. This resort is truly special: It’s tucked away by Donner Pass, removed from the lake and its high-end winter vacation vibe. The lodge is gorgeous, with onsite dining options (you’ll need them … you’re a distance from Truckee and Tahoe), and families can rent slopeside vacation homes too.
The terrain at Sugar Bowl is amazing, with plenty of backcountry options for those who like the other side of the ropes. There’s still plenty in the way of lessons and beginner terrain, and all amenities are compact, so there’s no driving, shuttling or extensive walking. If you want a full-service vacation but don’t need things like ice skating rinks and bungee trampolines, head to Sugar Bowl.
Known for: Incredible terrain; daredevil skiers
Reputation deserved? Definitely. Kirkwood is the show-off shredder of Tahoe ski resorts.
Great for: Families who are ready to take their skiing to another level, such as those with teens who want to get into backcountry terrain or parents who want specialized lessons
What to expect: Families can indeed expect epic terrain at this Epic (Vail Resorts-owned) resort. Kirkwood is definitely off the beaten path, located far off the South Shore, but they do have luxury ski-in/ski-out condos. You won’t find a village atmosphere here, but there’s a chill, relaxed vibe at the après-ski scene. Although families with young kids may like the quiet of their condo, bars will be hopping with plenty of young adults swapping tales. You can find cat-accessed terrain at Kirkwood, and they’re known for their adult clinics and camps.
Known for: Excellent ski school; day-trippers
Reputation deserved? Yes, but Sierra’s rep doesn’t do it justice.
Great for: Families driving to Tahoe from the Sacramento valley area (it’s closest); families with young kids; families looking for one of the best ski schools in the area
What to expect: The resort is about 25 minutes from South Tahoe and there’s no onsite lodging, so families can expect a relaxed atmosphere but few services off the slopes. We like to rent a home about a 5-minute drive away; winter cabins are affordable and adorable, but you may need 4-wheel drive to get in your driveway.
Sierra’s the only mountain other than Northstar with the Burton snowboard experience, which I cannot recommend highly enough if you have a young chid who wants to snowboard. The mountain is manageable in size, and runs funnel into one central lodge area, which means older kids and teens can have some independence and still find you for lunch. If you have advanced skiers or riders, I have two words for you: Huckleberry Gates. This system of gated, off-piste terrain is second to none. We love it.
Why pay full-service ski resort prices if your entire family will only use the bunny hill, or if your young kids may only ski a few hours of the day? These Tahoe resorts fit the bill for a short day or for those just trying out the sport.
Known for: Focus on kids and fun
Reputation deserved? Yes
Great for: Families who don’t need extensive acreage, want snow play areas and want value
What to expect: Soda Springs and Tahoe Donner are two different ski resorts, but they’re similar enough to lump them together for this guide. Both are in the Donner area, about 15 miles apart, and both have two lifts and a couple dozen runs. Soda Springs has Planet Kids, which combines their learn-to-ski area with snow play zones for tubing, snowman-making and the like. It’s ideal if you have kids who would rather dig in the snow than ski on it. Tahoe Donner has more snowboard terrain parks, so if that’s your niche, go there. Both offer really good value for your dollar; neither offers slopeside lodging.
Known for: Views and locals
Reputation deserved? Yes
Great for: Families who want all types of terrain, from beginner to cat-accessed powder, but don’t need an extensive resort
What to expect: Homewood is another of my favorites. Locals who love this mountain probably won’t appreciate our listing it on a guide for ski vacationers, but it’s too good for them to keep all to themselves. Homewood is directly on the lake on the west side, with the best views of Tahoe anywhere in the region. Going up the front face of the mountain, you just might fall off the lift trying to get photo after photo (or at least, I almost did).
At Homewood, families can find plenty of groomed intermediate runs, though that face is surprisingly steep (be sure to take the green route down if you’re a beginner). You can ski most of the resort by midafternoon, but there is tree skiing acreage and a few years ago, Homewood introduced their cat-accessed skiing, which is a great option if you need more. There’s no lodging onsite, so rent a vacation home nearby!
Honorable mentions go to Diamond Peak, another local favorite with something for everyone but without an onsite village; and to Granlibakken, the old-school rope tow resort on the west shore. Go there if you’re looking for a morning of DIY sledding or single-run skiing with a homey atmosphere.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amy Whitley except where noted.
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