If you’re wondering why the Lake Tahoe resort is called Heavenly, you’ll know why a few minutes after boarding a ski lift. The resort has breathtaking views of the clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe below from many of its peaks. When the clouds clear and the sun peeks out, it truly feels like you are skiing in the heavens.
My husband and I have skied at Heavenly many times in our Tahoe travels. We were season pass holders for several years before we had kids – way back when Heavenly was the first ski resort in the Tahoe area acquired by Vail. After adding kids to the mix, our ski habits evolved and we found ourselves skiing more often in North Lake Tahoe, most commonly at Northstar California Resort (now also Vail-owned).
BREAKING: Thanks to some early winter weather in California, Heavenly is opening early for the 2022-2023 ski season. Opening day is November 12, 2022!
But Heavenly called us back! We took the kids for one weekend a few winters ago and just returned from another weekend of Heavenly skiing with them in March 2022. We had a lot of fun in our 20s at Heavenly, but it was illuminating to uncover the resort’s family-friendly side as well. Ultimately, Heavenly is a destination that has a lot to offer a wide variety of skier and rider types and demographics.
If you’re considering a winter ski trip to Heavenly, preparation and research are key to making the most of a vacation. Here is everything a first time Heavenly visitor needs to know, as well as plenty of advice for returning visitors as well.
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Heavenly Mountain Resort Basics
Heavenly is located in South Lake Tahoe, California. The resort straddles the state line, with many of the slopes and several lodges located in the neighboring town of Stateline, Nevada.
Heavenly has about 4800 skiable acres and offers terrain that tops out at just over 10,000 feet elevation – the largest and highest in the Tahoe region. Heavenly is an intermediate skier’s paradise with dozens of blue cruisers (for skiers like me!) along with quite a bit more challenging terrain (for skiers like my husband!). Green (beginner) slopes are plentiful in learning areas near several base areas, but there isn’t much beginner terrain higher up on the mountain. Snowmaking coverage is solid and grooming of the beginner and intermediate terrain is highly reliable.
Like most Tahoe ski resorts, Heavenly also has a thriving summer season as well that this post isn’t even going to attempt to cover. Hiking, a mountain coaster, ropes course, and many other warm weather activities make it a destination to consider outside of winter.
How to Get to Heavenly By Car or by Air
Most visitors to Heavenly arrive by car, with many hailing from the drive markets of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento. The main thoroughfare to reach South Lake Tahoe is US Highway 50, which splits off from Interstate 80 in Sacramento. It goes up and over Echo Summit and descends into the lake level below. Driving conditions on this route can be treacherous when winter weather hits, so be sure to check out my tips for driving to Lake Tahoe in winter to make the drive safely and to know where to get reliable information on road conditions.
Related: Closest Ski Resorts to San Francisco
Visitors arriving to Heavenly by air most often arrive into the Reno-Tahoe Airport (RNO) which is a little over an hour away in good weather driving conditions. Sacramento (SMF) is the next closest airport option at about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Lift Tickets & Passes at Heavenly
If you want to ski or ride at Heavenly, there are a lot of lift ticket and pass options to choose from. Walk-up single day lift tickets are the most expensive and are beginning to approach prices of $200 per day. But planning even a few days in advance and pre-booking online on Heavenly’s website can save you quite a bit off of the same day price. Buying multi-day tickets unlocks additional per-day savings.
Another option for saving on lift tickets is a season pass – and you don’t have to ski a lot to find value in the various pass offerings. Heavenly is owned and operated by Vail Resorts, which means it participates in the Epic Pass along with two other Tahoe area resorts, Northstar and Kirkwood. Passes usually remain on sale most years until early December (often with price increases as the fall goes on), so the only way to access these savings is by planning your season and travel plans ahead of time.
We have been Epic passholders most years since our kids have been old enough to ski and find the passes offer a lot of value and flexibility. We break even on the Tahoe Local pass after about two weekends of skiing, as the pass also unlocks a lot of additional discounts on dining and lodging. This pass is meant for skiers who mostly ski the three California Vail-owned resorts, but it also gives 5 total days of access to select resorts in Colorado and Utah (convenient for our ski trip to Park City, Utah a few years back).
Another option that makes a lot of sense for saving money at Heavenly is the Epic Day Pass. This pass is customizable for 1-7 days of skiing per season. There are different price points based on which resorts you plan to ski and whether you need holiday access. If you know you plan to ski a couple of non-holiday weekends at Heavenly in one season, this pass is likely the best value of all the options.
Epic Passes go on sale in the spring for next year’s season so it’s never too early to be looking ahead and locking in the deals.
7 Tips for a Successful Heavenly Ski Vacation
With the basics out of the way, now it’s time to turn to all the tips we’ve learned from our hundreds of rides up Heavenly’s lifts over the years. If you want to make the most of your time at Heavenly and minimize logistical hassles, here are the essential tips (with special attention to the challenges family travelers may face).
1. Select Your Base Area Carefully (Before You Plan A Trip!)
It holds the title for the most total skiable acres in of any ski resort in California, so it probably goes without saying that Heavenly is a sprawling resort. It takes a long time to travel from one end of the property to another – whether that be by car or on skis or a snowboard. For trip planning purposes, it’s vital to understand the general layout of the resort before you book lodging or anything else that is location-driven (like ski school).
Heavenly has has four separate base areas where you can start your day. The first step in the planning process should be choosing the base area(s) that fits your traveling group’s needs, because all the options at each base area are not the same.
The California Lodge is the westernmost base area and where Heavenly first was founded. This base area doesn’t offer any true ski in/ ski out lodging (although there are a few independent rental properties across and down the street). It sits a lower elevation than much of the rest of the resort, meaning snow conditions can get a little icier and slushier in spring months.
But the California Lodge base area has a couple of major pros working in its favor. It’s usually the base area that Heavenly focuses on opening first to start the season. Another huge advantage of this base area is free parking. The next is that both ski school and daycare for non-skiing kids are located here (more on ski school and daycare below). Finally, this base area is less often affected by weather and wind holds (again, more on that later).
Also on the California side of the resort is the Gondola/Heavenly Village base area. This base area is right in the center of town, with a number of lodging options just steps away from the gondola. It sits among a ton of restaurants and stores that offer a thriving après scene.
There is no free parking at the gondola, but paid $25 parking is available in an adjacent but small city lot. Ski school pickup and drop off is also available at this base area. The gondola can sometimes be put on wind hold, so the risk of this location is that you may have to shuttle or drive to another base area when weather hits.
Across the state line in Nevada are two additional base areas. Boulder Lodge is the third and final base area that has a ski school drop off location and beginner terrain at its base. A lot with free parking is also located here, but there is no real ski-in/ski-out lodging in the immediate vicinity.
The easternmost base area at Heavenly is at Stagecoach Lodge. It also has free parking but it has no beginner terrain here and no ski school drop off or pickup. The base area is surrounded by a lot of lodging options, but none really as physically close as several of the hotels and condos by the Gondola. Stagecoach and Boulder are connected via a shuttle system between the two (but not to the two California base areas).
Which Base Area is Best?
So which base area is right for you? It depends! Personally, our family prefers the Gondola/Heavenly Village at this stage in our ski life. The Gondola provides quick instant access to some of the higher elevation terrain on the Nevada side where the snow conditions are best while also having ski school available for our kids. Of course, it’s a tad riskier for reliability when windy weather hits.
Related: Why Ski School is Worth it for Kids
When our son was younger and went to Heavenly Day Care (more on that below), however, the California Lodge best suited our needs. For skiers and riders who can handle intermediate terrain and above and who don’t need any of the amenities like ski school, Stagecoach is probably your best bet. Boulder is a mix – it has a little of everything for everyone but is probably the best fit for families with older kids in ski school (who don’t need the daycare access at the California Lodge).
For more information on base areas, see the map and descriptions on Heavenly’s site.
2. Study the Trail Map Early & Know Key Traversing Routes
Once you’ve figured out which base area is best for your skiing and riding group, it’s smart to study up on the mountain layout itself. Heavenly’s trails and lift network can be a little bit tricky to navigate. It’s essential to know where you are going and watch for signs so you don’t end up at the wrong lift or separated from your skiing party.
Take some time to study the trail map before your trip and pay special attention to the connections between peaks. There are most notably quite a few cat tracks that connect these different areas to one another. Heavenly’s website has a “Navigate Your Day the Right Way” cheat sheet that shows the major connections if you are traversing between sections of the resort.
Be aware that some of these connections are made on fairly flat trails. As long as you know where you need to keep up a little speed on the flats and follow the lead of others, it’s not that hard to traverse most of them on skis (snowboarders have a harder time in places).
Traversing from the far east Nevada slopes all the way to the base of the California Lodge though is a long and tiring endeavor. As a result, we usually pick one section of the resort each day to focus on instead of crossing all over.
3. Watch the Weather and Wind
All ski resorts are at the whims of Mother Nature, but it’s essential to plan for the unique challenges that each ski resort faces when different weather conditions hit. At Heavenly, your first look at the weather should be in planning your drive to the resort. Highway 50 up and over Echo Summit can close when winter weather hits and the snowplows can’t keep up. And on our most recent trip, a boulder fell at the pass blocking this main artery which meant we had to take an alternate route on Interstate-80 to get to South Lake Tahoe at all!
The other reason to keep an eye on weather conditions – even once you’ve made the drive successfully – is because some of Heavenly’s lifts are more exposed and can shut down when wind gusts get too high. We luckily have not yet had a day at Heavenly where lifts were closed due to wind, but it does happen quite a few times each season.
The gondola and lifts at the top of the gondola (like Tamarack) are usually the ones affected first, but lifts that are in more protected locations at lower elevations (Stagecoach, Gunbarrel Express) often can keep operating. This means that if you are staying near the gondola, you need to head to one of the other base areas to start your day if the gondola is on wind hold. Have a plan to drive and park (but watch for parking areas that can fill) or take Heavenly’s shuttle as needed.
4. Use the EpicMix App
One thing a number of ski resorts have really improved upon the last two years is in making the most of technology. And since Heavenly is part of Vail’s network of resorts, it has reaped the benefits of a major investment in app technology.
All Vail-owned resorts share the EpicMix app. Simply select the resort you are going to ski and unlock a number of features that will streamline your day and improve the logistics of your overall trip. We used the app to make dining reservations to eat lunch indoors at the on-mountain lodges (reservations are available up to 6 days in advance), which cut down on lines and the struggle to find a table during peak lunch hours.
The app has a ton of additional information like wait times for lift lines (including predictions for later in the day), an interactive trail map, weather forecasts, contact information for ski patrol, and more. Although not linked in the app, there is also mobile ordering at a number of on-mountain lodges for lunch – QR codes are posted at lodge entrances.
One of the most intriguing features for the competitively-minded is that the EpicMix app can track stats about your ski day. There’s a “Track your Day” feature that you can use to measure vertical feet skied. Turn on GPS tracking to unlock all the stat tracking features. It’s still buggy (my husband had trouble getting it to accurately track all his vertical feet), but it’s a fun record of your ski progress across a season or a lifetime.
One word of warning about app use – we did notice that we had trouble getting data service in several locations on the mountain, so you may not always be able to access it everywhere. There’s WiFi to connect to at each lodge, so be sure to get connected to that right away to improve your connectivity. And be sure at least to download the app and get logged in before you are out on the mountain for the day.
5. Ski Defensively & Seek Out Terrain Away from the Crowds
This tip is important no matter where you ski – as the sport has grown more popular and slopes have gotten more crowded, things have gotten a little more dangerous at ski resorts. If you want to stay safe as a skier or rider, you need to be taking steps to protect yourself like stopping where you can be seen, always looking uphill before starting, and yielding to the downhill skier (check out the Skier’s Responsibility Code).
But I think it’s especially important to call out the importance of skiing defensively and intelligently at Heavenly. Heavenly attracts a younger crowd on average, and that does mean you’ll probably witness some reckless skiing or at least feel a little crowded and get cut off by fellow skiers and riders in places where slopes get narrower. And on the flip side, because Heavenly doesn’t have a lot of beginner/green terrain beyond the bunny hills, some beginners not quite ready for the blue slopes end up on them. This can make things dicier when they are mixed among the speed demons.
Thankfully, Heavenly is big enough to adjust to these challenges in a couple of ways. We quickly found some less trafficked trails where there was more room to spread out (Upper Stagecoach is a steeper blue with literally no one on it that I just adored). The runs that spill into the base of the Comet and Dipper lifts tend to get the busiest so ski those early and then move elsewhere as the crowds arrive.
Additionally, if you can ski on weekdays instead of weekends at Heavenly, you’ll have a lot more elbow room from your fellow skiers that can alleviate this issue.
6. Take Advantage of Heavenly’s Childcare and Ski School (But Book Early)
Heavenly deserves high marks for the wide variety of options it has for kids. Sometimes these offerings are overlooked, but the resort is truly a standout for families because it offers both ski school and daycare – a rarity in the ski resort world these days! In 2022, Heavenly is actually the only ski resort in Tahoe with an on-site childcare option (a few other resorts that offered it have not reopened their day care centers since the 2020 closures).
Ski school is offered at three of the four base areas (all except Stagecoach), so there are drop off locations convenient to a lot of area lodging. Heavenly offers programming for kids ages 3-14 in 2022. Full day group lessons for both skiers and snowboarders are available starting at age 5. For 3-4 year olds, half day ski school (for skiing only) is available.
Daycare is offered at Heavenly Day Care, located in the California base lodge building. The program takes kids ages 6 months to 6 years old for standard day care and also offers two unique hybrid programs that give 3-5 year olds some time on the slopes too. My son did a program at Heavenly a few years ago when he was five that included skiing in the morning and daycare in the afternoon. It struck the perfect balance for his more cautious personality and still gave my husband and me a full day on the slopes.
The bottom line is that Heavenly really offers a variety of options that meet kids where they are. And that’s a rarity to be celebrated! The only hitch? These offerings can book up early. If you want to put your kids in ski school on weekends and on holidays, you need to book many weeks in advance. Heavenly has a generous cancellation policy offering full refunds up to 24 hours in advance. So it’s better to book early and cancel later if your trip doesn’t take shape than find yourself without a spot at all!
7. Stroll the Village and Beyond for Entertainment & Dining
Heavenly’s Village at the base of the gondola has really expanded in recent years and has a lot to offer – from a movie theater to ice skating rink to a variety of restaurants and shops. You can definitely keep busy and entertained here. And everything is within easy walking distance. So even when you may not want to drive when winter weather sets in, it’s all pretty accessible.
While we peeked in on all the restaurants in the Village, we also found that demand for those dining options quickly exceed supply unless we committed to dine very early. Multiple restaurants in the Village on Saturday night had a 2+ hour waiting list for dinner during our visit! With hungry kids, that kind of wait was a no go.
We had great luck walking just a little bit farther afield beyond the Village for more options with shorter waits. We had two fantastic dinners during our stay just one block farther away – one at Blue Dog Pizza at the Village Shopping Center (by the Raley’s where it’s easy to get groceries for your ski condo) and the other at Taste of Europe, a Czech and German restaurant at the Chateau at the Village just across Lake Tahoe Boulevard.
Where to Stay Near Heavenly on a Ski Trip
Because Heavenly is located in the hub of activity in the center of town in South Lake Tahoe, CA and Stateline, NV, there are a lot of very convenient lodging options to the slopes. The competition also helps keep prices at a somewhat reasonable level for a ski vacation, making it possible to ski Heavenly on a budget.
Lodging options with especially convenient locations and amenities (especially for families) include:
Marriott Grand Residence Club, Lake Tahoe
Our family stayed at the Marriott Grand Residence Club, Lake Tahoe on our 2022 trip and found it to truly be one of the most convenient ski hotels we’ve ever stayed in. It takes all of two minutes (in ski boots no less) to walk from the hotel lobby to the gondola line and gondola ski school drop off area. And on that pathway in the tunnel between the two is a shop where you pick up and check your skis for overnight storage – complimentary with your stay. Because it’s a Marriott timeshare property (and the timeshare crowd is very DIY), service is a little spotty but the rooms and amenities are in tip top condition.
This property has some standard hotel rooms but most accommodations are villas with full kitchens. We stayed in a 1 bedroom penthouse residence that was enormous and very reasonably priced for its location on a weekend during peak ski season. We will definitely be back here on future Heavenly vacations! Take a peak in my full room tour video below:
Marriott’s Timber Lodge
On the other side of the Heavenly gondola just steps away is another Marriott timeshare property that is equally convenient – Marriott’s Timber Lodge. It’s sometimes a little less expensive than Grand Residence Club, so I’d recommend checking both properties to find the room type that fits your family’s needs best at the best price. The property has a mix of accommodations from standard hotel rooms all the way up to three bedroom residences.
Zalanta Resort at the Village
Just across the street from the gondola is the newer Heavenly-owned property Zalanta that is operated by Vail Resorts. Like Grand Residence Club and Timber Lodge, condo style accommodations with full kitchens are available for rent with either 2, 3, or 4 bedrooms. All units include a washer and dryer making this an ideal spot to stay for longer trips or for larger families (definitely eyeing this property for a multi-generational ski trip next year).
A few blocks away from the Heavenly gondola is the state line. And just on the other side are several high rise casino hotels that can double as excellent ski lodging options – often at very good prices with some fun amenities for after hours. Harrah’s Lake Tahoe is the closest walk to the gondola, but Harveys isn’t that much farther. Other options include Bally’s Lake Tahoe (formerly MontBleu) and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe.
My husband and I made the walk from Harveys in ski boots carrying our equipment back in the day. But it’s probably a tad far to walk from these hotels with younger kids and gear, so consider your traveling party’s mobility carefully.
Other Lodging Options
There are a wide variety of properties both near and far in South Lake Tahoe and Stateline. Just check the Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews carefully if you are picky – some of the budget options offer only very basic accommodations that may be a little too bare bones for some.
Also be aware that vacation rentals on sites like VRBO and Airbnb in the area are quite limited. The rules have significantly tightened up the last couple of years as South Lake Tahoe has struggled to strike a balance between local interests and housing needs vs. out-of-town visitor demand. Many short-term rentals are now a no go in this area, unless you sign a lease longer than 30 days. But if you plan to ski Heavenly for a longer period of time these lodging options can present a real value.
One popular neighborhood with a lot of rentals is the Tahoe Tyrol neighborhood. These houses are an 1970s style Alpine winter wonderland. We’ve rented several houses in the neighborhood with a big group of friends and found them to be an excellent value well-located for accessing the California base lodge.
Disclosure: Heavenly provided complimentary ski school for our kids and food vouchers on our March 2022 trip; our family paid for all our other trip costs. All our other Heavenly ski vacations have been at our own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.