Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Tahoe comparison: Heavenly vs. Northstar

March 2, 2013

One of our goals this winter was to evaluate the ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area: Heavenly (one of the best-known Tahoe resorts), Squaw Valley (site of the 1960 Olympics), Alpine Meadows, Northstar and Kirkwood. There are also several smaller resorts, but if we are going to drive all the way up and put on the ridiculous amount of gear that skiing entails, we want good skiing.

We enjoyed our day trip to Kirkwood at the beginning of February, but there wasn't enough snow to get a real feel for California skiing. After it snowed last week, we decided to bite the bullet, rent a car, get a hotel and get in two good days on the slopes. Since Squaw and Alpine Meadows merged a few years ago, we decided to leave them for a future trip and focus on the two remaining Vail-owned resorts: Heavenly and Northstar.

First, an overview of skiing at the two resorts:

Heavenly is the much larger resort, with 4,800 acres of skiable terrain. Several bowls and canyons consist exclusively of double black diamonds. These areas don't have trails, you simply get down any way you choose. It's steep, there are trees, and nothing is groomed. With more snow, expert skiers could spend all day skiing these steeps, but without fresh snow last weekend, no one looked like they were having much fun getting smacked around by the crusty terrain. And without those areas to enjoy, the rest of the mountain is basically an intermediate resort; there are very few black diamonds outside of the designated expert-only zones. The resort straddles the California-Nevada border and it's difficult to traverse between different sections of the mountains. The veteran Heavenly skiers we met were focused on avoiding the crowds, but if you guess wrong, you're going to spend a lot of time making up for it.

Northstar is much more compact. The front side of the mountain is set up traditionally, with a lower area for beginners, and a mix of expert and intermediate terrain off the top. For us, the best part was the back side of the mountain, which features mostly black diamonds. The division between expert and intermediate terrain meant these trails weren't crowded and that we didn't have to worry about colliding with beginners who overestimated their abilities. The trees are thinned between the trails and there was enough snow to pop into the glades and have a little fun, before exiting back onto the main trails. There were also several bumped trails, but like at Heavenly, the snow was too hard to enjoy these much.

Our experience at Heavenly:

We had decided to spend Saturday at Heavenly and boarded the gondola that morning for a ride midway up the mountain. On the advice of our gondola-mates, we headed to the California side of the resort and for the first few runs were amazed at the quality of the resort. The ski was nice, the lifts were fast and the views were fantastic. Color us impressed.

But by 11 a.m., the crowds had arrived and we fled to the Nevada side. We endured the flat trail back across, and veered off into the Milky Way Bowl, one of the expert-only areas. The snow was good enough and the grade was manageable, so when we reached the gate for Mott Canyon, we decided to go for it, even though it's supposed to be considerably tighter and more difficult than Milky Way. We got down fine, though not very elegantly, and headed straight in for lunch.

See photos of us at Heavenly.

This is where our positive impressions of Heavenly really got shot to hell. Every seat in the lodge was taken, with five people circling every table looking for a possible seat. We ended up sitting on the floor and an annoying drunk man spilled beer on me. It was the least relaxing lunch break imaginable. (We thought maybe we had just chosen the wrong lodge, but one of the others looked just as packed when we passed it after lunch.)

Desperate to escape the crowds, after lunch we headed to the Stagecoach area, at a lower elevation with mostly intermediate trails. It was nice to have room to turn, but the terrain wasn't very challenging and the snow quality wasn't as nice as it had been up top. Overall, not a bad day of skiing, but definitely not overly impressive, and not worth the hassle of the crowds.

And finally, why we preferred Northstar:

See photos of us at Northstar.

As soon as we arrived at Northstar on Sunday, we made a beeline for the back side with its 10ish black diamonds, and no beginners. We picked a trail at random and started skiing. I'm not sure I stopped until I reached the bottom. The snow was soft and well-groomed, the grade was steep enough to work up plenty of speed and you could just roll from edge to edge on your skis. It was glorious.

We loved the trail so much, we did it again. And again. We spent the rest of the morning exploring the backside, including a bump run just before lunch (Ben has gotten much more comfortable on the steep stuff, but neither of us is an expert mogul skier). This time we were much smarter and went in for lunch before the main rush, and enjoyed a much more relaxed meal.

After we headed to Lookout Mountain, another area with almost all blacks (!). Like Mott and Killibrew canyons at Heavenly, this area seemed mostly designed for better snow, but we got in a few good runs. We explored a few glades then spent the last hour of the day seeing what the front side had to offer. The runs there were shorter than on the back side, but it was nice to switch it up a bit, and for the last run of the day, we devised the longest route possible back to the lodge.

Overall, we definitely enjoyed Northstar the most of the three mountains we've skied so far, but you know what would be really awesome? Fresh powder. We're still waiting.

- Steph


  1. Sucks that you didn't have any fresh pow! We were so lucky with snow in my four years in CA that we didn't have that problem--though I went back from TN for a conference last January, and no joke, there had been no snow all season so only like four of Heavenly's 97 trails were open! It was insane.

    Give Heavenly a second chance and go during the week to escape the annoying weekend crowd.

    And I agree with you on Tamarack. It only opened last year (or maybe the season before?) but it's near impossible to find a table. I prefer Northstar for the food and lodges.

  2. Thanks. We went to Kirkwood on a Friday with fresh snow last week and it made a world of a difference. I'll give Heavenly a second chance (and avoid Tamarack).

  3. Truth be told: Kirkwood with fresh powder is my FAVE HANDS DOWN out of the Vail-owned resorts, although Heavenly has the best lake views no doubt. And nothing beats the backside at Northstar for good black diamond runs.


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