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 totally rad ski gear, naturally).
Northstar California Resort has changed a lot since my husband’s childhood, but it remains one of the premier ski resorts for families in the country. My husband and I skied it many times together 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 most seasons 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.
We just returned again to the resort for a ski weekend in February 2022. Now that skiing is returning back to (closer to) normal in this season, I figured it was time to again update this 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 15-20 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 don’t have to. There are both hotel rooms and condos available for rent in the Village proper above the stores. The Village is also where the ski and snowboard school drop offs 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 is owned and operated by Vail Resorts, like its Tahoe neighbors Heavenly and Kirkwood as well as resorts all over North America (and increasingly, the world). That means it participates in the Epic Pass program, giving more frequent skiers lots of options for purchasing more ski days at a discount. Our family has purchased the Tahoe Local Pass most years, which provides all-season access to the three Tahoe resorts on all but a couple of blackout days as well as 5 additional ski days at resorts in Colorado and Utah. There are a variety of pass types that can work for families who plan to ski several days, including 4-7 day Epic Day Passes that may offer substantial savings off of regular multi-day lift tickets.
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! I peeked in a lot on ski school again in 2022 to see how it was faring after so many changes and remain just as impressed. Instructors are just fantastic with the kids, and the whole operation is a well-oiled machine.
The format of ski school has changed a bit in the last couple of years. Northstar used to offer both standard larger group ski school classes as well as smaller group ski school lessons called “Ultimate 4” lessons that guaranteed an instructor to child ratio no greater than 1:4.
In 2022, those have been consolidated into a single offering for both skiing and snowboarding – “Max 6.” Like the name implies, classes are capped at no more than 6 kids per instructor. Sometimes you luck into an even smaller lesson when there are not enough children in your child’s level, particularly as kids get more advanced. My daughter has been in two lesson groups that only were her and one other child, so they were like private lessons at a big discount. In 2022, group lessons leave exclusively from the Village (in previous years, a pickup at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe was also available and may return in future seasons).
Kids in full day ski school get plenty of quality instruction, snow play time, hot cocoa and snack 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 any or all of those additional charges if you have your own.
So how much should you budget for ski school at Northstar? Skiing is undoubtedly not a cheap hobby, and it comes at even more of a premium at a luxury ski resort like Northstar. But we definitely think ski school is worth it! Full day ski school group lessons on most days during the 2021-2022 winter season are $259 per child if you book online in advance. For kids who also need a lift ticket & ski rental, the all-in price is $321. Peak pricing around Presidents Day week is $350 for ski school only and $412 all in with lift tickets and rentals. Additional 20% discounts are available to EpicPass holders, which can add up to major savings if your family opts into season passes at the many Vail-owned ski resorts worldwide.
Northstar’s kids ski schools offer group lessons for kid ages 3-14. Northstar is one of the very, very few ski resorts in Tahoe that teaches kids this young. Most Tahoe ski resorts have never offered lessons for 3 year olds, and quite a few of them cut offerings for 4 year olds this season due to instructor shortages. For families who have young children who are ready to ski, Northstar’s commitment to teaching the little ones makes it one of the top Tahoe resort choices in my mind. Note of course that young kids must be potty trained. Half day lessons are also available if you don’t think your little one can last a full day.
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 are considering a trip. You can always pare them back at no cost as your plans become more clear or the 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.
(Editor’s Note: Northstar has traditionally also offered childcare called Minors Camp in a separate location for kids too young or not ready to ski. My son went to this childcare center many times several years ago when he was a toddler and simply adored what he called his “snow preschool.” Minors Camp remains closed for the 2021-2022 season. Stay tuned for potential announcements about next season.)
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 at mid-mountain and an on-site rentals center, the location simply 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, with a number of rooms with two queen beds that are more than sufficient for a family of 4 to share.
The hotel has a ski concierge which 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. The hotel is undoubtedly a splurge, but given how logistically challenging skiing with kids can be, it’s a splurge that can be well worth it. 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 to rent is from Northstar’s website. You’ll stop by the Northstar Realty office right at the corner of Highway 267 as you turn onto Northstar Drive to check in to almost all of these options. I’ve stayed in the Timber Creek Lodge hotel rooms right in the Village as well as the Aspen Grove Condos and Gold Bend condos farther down the mountain. I’ve also stayed in the Ski Run condos just above the Village. Some of these are a bit dated but ultimately have mountain charm and location, location, location.
Private owners often will rent many of these same units themselves (often at a discount) through vacation rental sites like VRBO. They may also use another off-site realty service to rent or rent directly as owners. 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. (Check out VRBO vacation rentals in Kings Beach here.)
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 have more than enough to do for days.
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.
What are our family favorites after dozens of Northstar ski days? We particularly like some of the blues off of the Tahoe Zephyr lift (Upper & Lower Pioneer, the Gully, Christmas Tree) as well as Luggi’s, Axe Handle, and East Ridge to Powder Bowl off of the Comstock Express lift (insider tip: Powder Bowl can also be accessed off of the Rendezvous chair which almost never has a line). 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. 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 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 clothes – and enjoy options like burgers, salads, and appetizers. The kids menu is very reasonably priced and has generous portions. Note that on busy weekends, the restaurant may reserve tables for overnight guests, but we’ve always managed to snag one.
Manzanita: Also in the Ritz-Carlton, Manzanita is the hotel’s signature restaurant. It’s probably the most expensive restaurant option at the resort, but the food will knock your socks off. We dined here in 2022 with our family and had the best meal we’ve had in years. The kids were able to choose from a buffet with a mix of a few sophisticated choices as well as some reliable kid cuisine while the adults chose from the a la carte menu. If you have older kids or foodies in the family or are just celebrating a special night out, Manzanita is a must-do.
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 tubing hill at the Village Overlook (upstairs from the ice rink) that is open once again in 2022. For an additional fee, kids can tube until they drop. Subject to weather availability of course.
- Movie theater: Shows first-run movies daily.
Special Considerations for the 2021-2022 Ski Season
Although skiing is returning more to normal this season, there are several special rules in place this year and considerations to keep in mind when visiting Northstar.
First is vaccinations. Like all Vail-owned resorts, Northstar has a vaccine mandate for all of its employees. So you can trust that all the instructors who will be in charge of your kids in ski school will be fully vaccinated. All visitors ages 12+ must also be fully vaccinated if they wish to dine indoors at on-mountain quick service restaurants like Zephyr Lodge and The Lodge at Big Springs. There is additionally a vaccine requirement for all kids in ski school ages 12+. Photos of vaccine cards are acceptable as proof. If you have a season pass, your card will be checked once and then a special sticker will be affixed to your pass for easy access on future visits.
The second big consideration this year is masks. California lifted its indoor mask mandate as of February 16, 2022 but Northstar is keeping its own indoor mask mandate for the moment in lodges, indoor spaces, and on the gondolas. Be prepared, however, for the possibility that this may change before the season is up as conditions improve. We visited just before the state change and found the vast majority of guests to be following the rules. Outdoor masking (like on chairlifts, in lift lines, or in ski school groups while outdoors) is not required although you will see some guests choosing to wear masks. While not as protective, we found a gaiter or buff to work best as a face covering during the ski day because of the challenge of putting a mask with ear loops on while wearing a ski helmet. Almost everything is outdoors, so you may not need to wear a mask much except for picking up lunch, bathroom breaks, or the occasional gondola ride.
The last change of note is that technological shortcuts have improved dramatically all over the resort – a silver lining of the pandemic in many travel destinations. Some of the on-mountain lodges now offer convenient mobile ordering where you can skip the long lines of old. It’s easier than ever to make bookings for offerings like lessons online in advance as well. The EpicMix app that all Vail Resorts tap into continues to become more robust. These are welcome changes that will continue to improve the ski experience in years to come.
10 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 $40-50 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 a few years ago we saw it fill to capacity by 8:55 am!
- 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.
- Plan ski school timing carefully. Getting kids geared up and to ski school on time can be a challenge, so leave plenty of wiggle room. In 2022, ski school starts at 9:30, but plan to arrive to the center of the Village between 8:45-9:15 to check in (and even earlier if your kids need to rent gear for their ski day too).
- 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. Storage is just $5 per set of skis and is free for rentals at the Village.
- 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 Anker PowerCore 10000), you can also recharge your phone at one of several charging stations in the lodges at lunchtime in a pinch.
- 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. I was additionally a guest of the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe during my most recent 2022 stay. Many of our family’s other trips to Northstar have been fully at our own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.