My family has been on a mission this winter to ski some of the smaller and mid-sized resorts in Lake Tahoe to see what is the right fit with our kids, ages 6 and 2. Last month, our destination was Sugar Bowl Resort in Norden, California. We found that Sugar Bowl has quite a lot to offer skiing families: an excellent location, a wide variety of terrain, and a family friendly vibe.
With 103 Trails and 1650 skiable acres, Sugar Bowl is probably the largest of what might still be called a mid-sized resort. As a point of reference, Palisades Tahoe (formerly known as Squaw Valley), Northstar California, and Heavenly have double or triple the acreage but Diamond Peak (which I’d call on the smaller end of mid-sized) only has 655 acres. With that larger size, Sugar Bowl does have a few of the inconveniences of bigger resorts, but only minimally. We found it was still a very manageable size with smaller children. It also has some of the big resort pricing, but not across-the-board. As a result, there are opportunities to do it in a more budget-friendly way.
Even before we visited with our kids, I knew Sugar Bowl already had something in its favor likely to make it a family-friendly favorite: Disney! When the resort was founded, Walt Disney was an early investor and one of the peaks at Sugar Bowl now bears his name. (See: I can’t escape my love of Disney even on a ski weekend hundreds of miles away from the closest theme park.)
Family and Kid-Friendly Highlights
- Robust ski school: The resort offers full day, half day, and private lessons daily for kids ages 4-12.
- Terrain variety: Sugar Bowl has excellent beginner runs while still having lots for parents who might want to ski more difficult terrain. In fact, the double black diamonds are some of the most challenging in Tahoe.
- Kids ski free until they turn 6: Many ski resorts in Tahoe begin charging for lift tickets once your child turns 5, but you can get an extra year of free skiing for them at Sugar Bowl.
- (Note: Sugar Bowl used to offer an interchangeable parent lift ticket, but that benefit has been discontinued for the 2017-2018 ski season).
Location, Location, Location
One of the biggest reasons that families should consider Sugar Bowl is its location. So many families that ski Lake Tahoe come from the San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento. Sugar Bowl is the closest larger ski resort to those major metropolitan areas. It’s located just over Donner Summit along I-80. When the roads are clear and traffic is reasonable, you can make it door-to-door from San Francisco to Sugar Bowl in about 3 hours. That means less “are we there yet” from your kids, and you can’t put a price on that!
What also works about the location is that there are a few much smaller ski resorts right nearby. Within a 5-10 minute drive off of the same exit of I-80 are Boreal, Soda Springs, and Donner Ski Ranch. These smaller resorts offer further options (many of them quite budget-friendly) for your family for a vacation of several days in the area. For example, Donner Ski Ranch offers a $20 tubing hill where you could entertain a non-skiing child for a few hours. Boreal offers night skiing hours so parents could squeeze in some extra time on the slopes even if they have to trade off caring for young kids. The variety of options makes the entire Norden area a good fit for families who need flexibility.
Sugar Bowl’s Ski School
Sugar Bowl offers a full service ski school. Before you go, it is important to know that ski school is offered at both of the base lodges: the Village and Judah. Make sure to know which one you are headed to before you park in the wrong place! We chose Judah for our daughter’s lessons and found it quite easy in terms of logistics. Parking next to “The Den” (the name of the ski school location on that side) was very close and from there, it was just a few minute walk across the snow to get to the Judah base lodge. Check-in and equipment rental took maybe 15 minutes but keep in mind that my family tends to be early birds! For ski school at the Village, you need to park at the gondola and take it across to the base lodge, so plan for more transit time and for more lugging of gear if you bring your own.
During our weekend visit, my 6 year old daughter was enrolled in a full day ski school class on Saturday and a morning half day lesson on Sunday. Her instructor her first full day in ski school was stellar and we saw a huge improvement in her skills. The second-day lesson was a bit more mixed. She found the instructor a bit brusque with her (our normally fearless child had been spooked skiing a difficult run with my husband the day before and the instructor didn’t do a good job of allaying her fears). It was not an ideal personality match and actually resulted in a bit of a setback in her skiing confidence, but no permanent damage done. Overall we were very happy with the ski school, so this was the one negative in an otherwise very positive experience.
At $240 for a full-day group lesson for kids ages 6-12 (and $340 for the 4-5 year olds) in 2018, Sugar Bowl’s ski school is one the priciest in all of Tahoe. For that reason, Sugar Bowl might not be the place to go if you are planning on putting your child in ski school for more than a day or two. But it might be well worth the premium if the resort offers other savings for your family (lodging, time, etc.).
The most important advice I can offer about ski school at Sugar Bowl is to make reservations! On the (non-holiday) weekend my family visited this February, ski school sold out both Saturday and Sunday at least a day in advance. We barely managed to squeeze my daughter in the right level when I booked the Thursday before. I’d plan on booking about a week in advance for regular weekends to avoid disappointment.
Where to Eat at Sugar Bowl
Sugar Bowl has two main base lodge areas (the Village and Judah) and both have plenty of family and kid-friendly food choices. You’ll find the usual skiing comfort food nearly everywhere: pizza, BBQ, chili, burgers and more. I had a super-delicious and reasonably priced breakfast sandwich one morning that lasted well through lunch.
I spent most of my time on the Judah side and found that it had ample seating both indoor and out. This is one advantage of Sugar Bowl’s much larger size. Many smaller ski resorts we’ve visited have very cramped lodges but Sugar Bowl could handle the crowds, even in the mid-day lunch rush. There were small food and coffee kiosks outside where you could even grab a quick bite if you didn’t want to go inside and sit down for a full meal.
There’s a third dining option on the mountain at the base of Christmas Tree and Mt. Lincoln Express lifts: the mid-Mountain Lodge.
Tips for the Best Sugar Bowl Family Ski Experience
Ready to head for Sugar Bowl for some spring skiing before the season is up? Here are a few final tips to make the most of your experience.
- Make reservations in advance for ski school to secure your child’s spot.
- Park at the Judah Lodge side and follow the signs toward the left for “Children’s Center” to get the best parking for the Judah-side ski school early morning.
- Get tickets in advance. As with so many ski resorts these days, you’ll get the best price by purchasing lift tickets early and not paying walk-up prices. 2016 walk up prices are currently $103 adult, $84 young adult (ages 13-22), and $60 child (ages 6-12). Sugar Bowl offers up to $16 off of the regular walk-up prices if you buy online 3 days in advance. Discount tickets are also available at Sports Basement in the SF Bay Area for $88 (adult), $71 (young adult), or $51 (kids).
- Spend extra time reviewing the map. Even though my husband and I had skied Sugar Bowl before pre-kids, we found the mountain layout at Sugar Bowl a bit tricky even for veteran skiers like ourselves. The various peaks sit at a bit of an angle to one another and it is hard to visualize how the connecting and crossover trails work from a quick glance at the map. We had to pay extra attention to the signs and found ourselves in the wrong spot a few times. If we had spent some extra time with the map before our trip, it would have been time well-spent.
Get a sneak peek at a bluebird ski day at Sugar Bowl in the video below, taken on Mt. Judah!
Disclosure: Sugar Bowl kindly provided my family with 2 day lift tickets for review purposes. We paid for ski school and all other expenses ourselves. As always, all opinions are my own.