One of the best parts of traveling with kids as a parent is taking them to destinations that had meaning in your own childhood. For my family, Northstar California Resort in North Lake Tahoe is one such meaningful place. The resort is where my husband grew up skiing with his brothers (in their 1980s and early 1990s cheesy ski gear, naturally).
Northstar California Resort has changed a lot since his childhood, but it remains one of the premier ski resorts for families in the country. My husband and I skied it many times before kids, and we now return regularly with our two children. We have dozens of Northstar trips under our belts, including a season during 2016-2017 where I was lucky enough to be a brand ambassador for the resort.
We’ve kept our Epic Passes the last two seasons since then and still return regularly to Northstar each year. We have had some triumphs and the occasional misstep, but we certainly have a lot of Northstar experience. So, I figured it was long overdue for me to update my review and guide of Northstar for skiing families, complete with all my family’s Northstar tips, advice, and secrets.
Here is how to make the most of a ski vacation at Northstar California Resort with kids.
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Northstar California Resort Overview & Basics
Northstar California Resort is located in North Lake Tahoe about 20 minutes from the town of Truckee on Interstate-80. Northstar is connected to the town by Highway 267. From the San Francisco Bay Area, the drive is about 3.5 hours in best case traffic conditions. Of course, winter weather and heavy weekend warrior traffic can make it much, much longer (check out my winter driving tips to Lake Tahoe to learn all my tips and tricks from the driving trenches for avoiding the worst of it).
After turning off of Highway 267, Northstar Drive takes visitors up to the center of the resort – the Village. Northstar’s Village is full of restaurants, shops, and activities like a movie theater and ice skating rink. It’s a long walk from one end to the other with quite a few stairs in certain places, so don’t attempt it in ski boots if you can help it. There are both hotel rooms and condos available for rent in the Village proper above the stores. The Village is also where the main ski school drop off and gear rental shop are located.
The other hub of activity at Northstar can be found at mid-mountain around The Lodge at Big Springs. Skiers and boarders reach mid-mountain by taking the high-speed Big Springs Gondola on the far end of the Village (pedestrians can go up the gondola as well but must buy a ticket). The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe is within view of the mid-mountain lodge. Take the beginner Big Easy ski lift to reach it. It can also be reached directly by a low-speed non-skier gondola (the Highlands Gondola) that originates at the other end of the Village.
Northstar Ski School
One of the first factors families consider in selecting a ski resort for a trip with kids is ski school. Northstar’s is one of the best, with instructors who truly love kids and have much more patience than I would ever have teaching so many munchkins day after day!
Standard ski school is available at the Children’s Ski & Snowboard School. Northstar has also pioneered smaller group ski school lessons that present some unique advantages. Called “Ultimate 4” lessons, this ski school guarantees an instructor to child ratio no greater than 1:4. The lessons are offered for drop off in the village or slopeside at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe.
Regular ski school on most days during the 2018-2019 winter season is $232 if you book online in advance ($242 at window). For kids who need a lift ticket & ski rental, the all-in price is $285 ($295 window). Peak pricing around Presidents Day was $30 more than that. Skiing is undoubtedly not a cheap hobby and it comes at even more of a premium at a luxury property like Northstar. (Related: Why We Think Ski School is Worth It!)
Ultimate 4 lessons are $357 per day when booked online ($410 all in with lift ticket & gear rental), so there is a definite price markup. The ski day is a bit longer (U4s are dropped off first and picked up last). The individualized instruction justifies the higher price in my opinion, especially if you only plan to enroll your child in a day or two of ski school. Sometimes you luck into an even smaller lesson when there are not enough children in your child’s level. My daughter has been in two U4 lesson groups that only were her and one other child, so they were like private lessons at a big discount.
Whatever lesson you choose, kids get plenty of quality instruction, snow play time, hot cocoa and cookie breaks, and an included lunch. You can select a ski school package with ski and boot rental as well as a helmet and a day’s lift ticket or opt out of those additional charges if you have your own.
Northstar is one of the very few ski resorts in Tahoe that teaches 3 year olds. They must be potty trained and the lessons are either half or full day. For families who have young children who are ready to ski, this offering makes Northstar one of the top Tahoe resort choices in my mind.
Some important parting tips for ski school at Northstar — it books up fast. For a peak date like Presidents Day week, you may need to book several weeks in advance to get a place. Northstar allows you to cancel until up to 24 hours in advance with no penalty. As a result, I highly recommend making ski school reservations as soon as you know you are going. You can always pare them back at no cost as your plans become more clear or weather forecasts firm up.
If you don’t book in advance and can’t get a reservation, all hope isn’t necessarily lost. Because of Northstar’s generous cancellation policy, you may be able to find an opening thanks to someone else’s cancellation. Check often starting about 48 hours before your preferred day, as most cancellations will come in at the 24-48 hour mark.
Minors Camp Childcare
For kids too young or not yet ready to ski, Northstar offers on-mountain daycare at Minors Camp. Minors Camp is for kids ages 2-6, and little ones need not be potty trained. Only three ski resorts in all of Lake Tahoe offer group childcare, so this is a huge benefit to families with toddlers and younger kids.
The center is fully licensed and located on the golf course, so it’s a bit away from the ski action at the Village. Plan your logistics accordingly. The center does have a free parking lot and is right on the Northstar shuttle so you have a lot of options for transportation. You can drop-off kids as early as 8:30 a.m. and final pickup is at 4:30 p.m., so it gives you time to get from the Village down the mountain if you are picking up older kids at the end of the day from ski school.
At $220 a day ($238 peak), Minors Camp is certainly pricey – close to the same price as ski school. But it saves having to bring grandma and grandpa or a babysitter along which obviously brings extra lodging costs. Lunch and snacks are included. Pack a set of snow clothes (including boots) because the kids love going outside onto the enclosed playground in the snow when weather allows.
My son went to Minors Camp on multiple different occasions during the ski season when he was 3 years old. He simply adored what he called “snow preschool.” The teachers are loving and caring and all the toys and games are pretty much a children’s wonderland. In fact, he loved Minors Camp so much that he was disappointed to have to go back to his very amazing regular preschool that year – oops!
Where to Stay at Northstar with Kids
Northstar has a wide variety of lodging, from the most luxurious Tahoe accommodations to budget vacation rentals not far away. Lots of the choices work well for families if you know what to expect and can plan for logistics and scheduling.
Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe
For the ultimate in luxury, the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe has no peer in all of the Tahoe area. With ski-in and ski-out access and an on-site rentals center and Ultimate 4 ski school drop location, the location cannot get any better.
The hotel is luxurious while not being pretentious – a rare balance that many luxury hotels are not able to find. I have always found that staff members have a welcoming and laid back local Truckee vibe while still delivering five star service. Rooms are exceedingly spacious for families. The hotel’s ski valet means you never even have to touch your skis except when you are actually skiing. And the on-site dining is high-end while still being kid-friendly. If I could afford to stay there every time, I would! Alas, I save up my Marriott points and splurge once every season or two. See my full review of the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe for more details.
On-Mountain Lodging at Northstar
There are a number of hotel rooms and condos available to rent all over the mountain – in the Village, off Northstar Drive, and around the Highlands area where the Ritz is located. Just about every price point and size is available. And there are a million and one ways to rent them. The most straightforward way is from Northstar Realty which has an office right at the corner of Highway 267 as you turn onto Northstar Drive. I’ve stayed in both the Timber Creek Lodge hotel rooms right in the Village as well as the Aspen Grove Condos and Gold Bend condos further down the mountain. All are a bit dated but ultimately have mountain charm and location, location, location.
Private owners often will rent many of these same units themselves through vacation rental sites like VRBO. They may also use another off-site realty service to rent. The rooms and condos in the Village are ultimately easiest for logistics with kids, but a shuttle service connects the vast majority of the other mountain lodging options so there’s no need to worry with parking if you are on Northstar property. Just be aware that the shuttle can get quite busy during peak times.
Lodging Outside Northstar: Truckee, Kings Beach & Beyond
For more budget prices, there are a lot of lodging options within a 15-20 minute drive of the resort. Probably the closest and nicest off-mountain hotel option is the Hampton Inn by the Truckee airport. The town of Truckee has several hotels too and plenty of vacation rentals.
I happen to think the Kings Beach area is a smart and underutilized option for families just because of traffic patterns. Most of the traffic (and there is traffic on busy ski weekends!) in the morning comes from Truckee into Northstar and leaves Northstar headed to Truckee in the evening. Kings Beach is in the other direction so it gives you a reverse commute. The drive to Kings Beach does require going over another summit that may have chain restrictions, so that is the only concern on bad weather days.
The Mountain & the Ski Runs
So what about the skiing and snowboarding? Families won’t be disappointed. For years, Bay Area residents used to joke that the mountain should be named “Flatstar” for its lack of advanced terrain, but that reputation just doesn’t hold true today. Even my expert husband finds that there are runs at Northstar on the Backside and Lookout Mountain that stretch him to his ultimate ski limit. Black diamond skiers will not be disappointed.
For families, there are a lot of perfect wide groomed greens and blues to ski together as your children work on their skills. The busiest corridor is all of the runs off of the Arrow Express lift (Main Street, Lumberjack), so ski them early in the morning then head elsewhere to avoid crowds. We particularly like some of the blues off of the Tahoe Zephyr lift (Upper & Lower Pioneer, Christmas Tree) as well as Luggi’s, Axe Handle, and East Ridge to Powder Bowl off of Comstock Express lift. And the end of the day, one of the hidden gems for families to ski is Logger’s Loop connecting to the Woods, which takes you all the way back down to the Village on a peaceful and scenic tree-lined path.
One word of warning to families skiing together – there are quite a few lifts at Northstar that lead only to blue and black terrain. Check the map and the grooming reports closely before taking your kids (or yourself) up a ski lift that will lead to runs you cannot ski.
Northstar has the most snow-making capacity of any ski resort in Tahoe, so they are able to open more runs faster in the early season and better manage through dry spells. Of course, in this epic record-breaking 2019 winter season, that hasn’t been necessary, but I’ve greatly appreciated it in a few seasons the past decade when Tahoe has had droughts.
Finally, although no one in our family snowboards, there are increasingly more options for boarders too – lots of terrain parks and pipes over off the Vista Express lift in particular.
Dining at Northstar with Kids
The food and dining choices are far more extensive than at most every other ski resort in the Lake Tahoe area. Foodies will not be disappointed. All the restaurants welcome kids – even high end Manzanita at the Ritz – so no worries about choosing too carefully. I have a complete dining guide to Northstar published separately, but here are a few of our favorites to get you started.
Zephyr Lodge: For on-mountain dining, we are big fans of Zephyr Lodge, located at the top of Tahoe Zephyr lift. It’s less crowded, newer, and more spacious than the Lodge at Big Springs located at mid-mountain. The food choices are extensive and include a lot of fresh and healthy options that you don’t see elsewhere at most ski resorts. It’s only served by blue and black terrain, so you need to wait until your kids are at least intermediate skiers to make it your lunch spot of choice.
Rubicon Pizza Company: After a hard day on the slopes, it’s hard to argue with pizza (and for parents, a cold beer to go along with it). Positioned right in the Village by the ice skating rink, Rubicon is well located and family-friendly with generous portions that won’t break the bank. It’s also very popular, so I recommend trying to dine around 5:30 pm to beat the dinner crowds on weekends.
The Living Room at the Ritz-Carlton: The lobby area of the Ritz does double duty as a restaurant. It’s one of my family’s favorite places to eat. Relax on the couches – even in your ski gear – and enjoy options like burgers, salads, and appetizers. The kids menu is very reasonably priced and has generous portions. If you aren’t staying at the Ritz but drive up to dine, ask for parking validation which makes valet parking only $10. Note that on busy weekends, the restaurant may reserve most of the tables for overnight guests, but we’ve always managed to snag one.
TC’s Pub: Although we thought we had eaten everywhere at Northstar, we discovered TC’s Pub just last year, and it was a big hit. Because it’s located in a less trafficked area of the village, it’s easy to miss. But that also means it isn’t quite as crowded as some of the other restaurants. Food is usual pub fare like burgers and nachos, with plenty of beer on tap and TVs to watch the latest sporting events.
Non-Ski Activities and Things to Do at Northstar California Resort
Northstar is a smart ski resort fit for families because there is a lot to do outside of skiing and snowboarding. Even if you have kids who don’t ski or snowboard or who just want to take a day or two off of the slopes, you will not be bored. Here are a few of our family favorites.
- Ice skating: In the heart of the Village surrounded by fire pits, skate rental available nearby.
- Snow tubing: There’s a brand new tubing hill at the Village Overlook (upstairs from the ice rink) for the 2018-2019 season. No more needing to go to mid-mountain! For an additional fee, kids can tube until they drop. Subject to weather availability of course.
- Movie theater: Shows first-run movies daily.
- S’mores!: There are two opportunities for complimentary access to the ooey gooey stuff – at 4:00 at the Village Overlook for S’moresapalooza and at the Ritz’s 4:30 “Marshmallogy” session.
11 Insider Tips for Skiing Northstar with Kids
For those of you still reading all the way to the end of this super-long article, here’s the payoff – my insider tips, tricks, and hacks to skiing at Northstar. After many trips and a few mistakes along the way, here are all the extra tidbits we have learned to get the most value out of a ski weekend or week at Northstar.
- Follow @northstarmtn on Twitter for real time mountain updates. While the official Twitter feed for Northstar is a @Northstar_CA, this additional account offers grooming reports, weather holds, and more several times a day.
- Parking does fill up. If you are planning to ski Northstar on a busy weekend or holiday, arrive early. The resort’s parking can max out completely leaving you out of luck. I’d say to arrive no later that 10am to be certain to be able to get any space at all. Arrive well before 8am if you hope to get parking in the closer Village lot. If you are staying in Truckee, consider taking TART public transit.
- Preferred parking can be worth it. One of the best extras at Northstar can be paying for preferred parking which is right below the Village. Price varies depending on crowds and season but plan to have $40 cash on hand for most times of year if you think you might want to use it. It too can fill and fill early on busy weekends – mid-week on Presidents Day week, we saw it fill to capacity by 8:55 am this year!
- If all else fails, drop off. If the closer Village and preferred parking is full, I highly recommend dropping some of your party off at the Village drop off zone with your ski equipment. Northstar has wagons to borrow to carry gear so one parent can manage even with kids. Send the other adult to park the car and take the shuttle back. It’s very hard to lug gear and young kids from remote parking lots, so save yourself the hassle.
- Think through ski school & Minors Camp timing. Have one kid in ski school and one at Minors Camp? The drop-off times are right about at the same time (8:30am) and the two are located quite a ways apart (often with traffic in between). The best method is to divide and conquer if you have two adults in your traveling group.
- Store your stuff overnight at the gondola. Hate lugging your skis? Leave them overnight at the Big Springs Gondola storage area as soon as you get off the slopes if you plan to ski more than one day. The first night is free and subsequent nights are just $5.
- Shortcut the afternoon traffic. Traffic leaving Northstar can often back up along Northstar drive at the end of a ski day. Bypass some of it (especially if headed south on 267) by turning right towards the Ritz onto Ridgeline and exiting at Highlands View Road. Note that this road does close during some winter storms though.
- Avoid the Comstock lift lines. The worst lift lines at Northstar can usually be found at the Comstock Express lift, especially as the day goes on. Use Rendezvous lift instead! It’s not a high speed lift so your ride will be slower, but the much shorter lines mean you ultimately get more time skiing.
- Recharge at lunch. While I highly recommend carrying an external battery pack for your cell phone (my fave: the Jackery Bar Premium at about $17 on Amazon), you can also recharge your phone at one of several charging stations in the lodges at lunchtime in a pinch.
- Get parking validation for Ritz dining. Want to dine at the Ritz? Get parking validation from your server, which takes valet prices from $50 to $10. Just don’t try to use this to ski for the day. They’re on to that. In fact, the Ritz no longer allows off-loading of any skis or boards unless you are an overnight guest.
- Monitor road conditions. If you are driving from the Bay Area or Sacramento to Northstar and need to monitor winter weather and road closures along the way, the best social media accounts to follow for real time updates are CalTrans District 3 (either on Twitter or Facebook) and CHP-Truckee on Facebook. See my full guide to winter driving to Tahoe for even more details.
Disclosure: I was a paid ambassador for Northstar California and Vail Resorts during the 2016-2017 ski season when I initially published this guide. Northstar has provided other complimentary items to me in subsequent seasons for review purposes. As always, all opinions are my own.