March 10, 2015
Spanning California and Nevada, Heavenly Lake Tahoe Ski Resort can be a bit overwhelming for the first time visitor. It is a massive place that draws an international crowd and certain parts of the mountain become like crowded expressways for those who don’t know where to go. Having been a ski patroller there for several years, I’m going to try to give you some useful tips and tricks to get the most out of your day(s) on the mountain.
In the early season, generally the time before Christmas, snowpack levels are still pretty low and often the lower part of the Nevada side is closed which means you should plan to stay on the California side in order to avoid a long morning drive. The main parking lot on the California side is right in the heart of South Lake Tahoe. There are a lot of lodging choices from roach motels to upscale luxury retreats within easy driving or walking distance of the major lifts.
The mountain can be broken up into four major parts: upper and lower California, and upper and lower Nevada. In general, the California side is more crowded. Let’s start with where it’s best for beginners. If there is enough snow and it is open, the lower Nevada side, specifically Boulder lift, offers a nice wide-open space for beginners to practice without too much traffic. If you need to stay on the California side, stick to the lower part of the mountain. There is a dedicated beginner lift called First Ride and there are some greens just off Patsys and Powderbowl chairs as well, but there will be more people.
For intermediates, or those who just love a nice groomed blue run, there are many choices. My favorite areas are actually off the upper Nevada side, with Orion off the Dipper Express chair topping my list. The intermediate runs off Dipper and Comet chairs are pretty similar and there is some fairly sparse trees between them making for some fun skiing in powdery conditions. If there are a lot of people at the Dipper chair, try heading over to either the Galaxy chair or the Olympic Express chair. These only serve small areas, and are not high speed, but they are often less busy and offer a choice of skiing the groomed snow or some easier trees. The upper California side blue runs, serviced by Sky and Canyon Express chairs, are often icier and because they get a lot more traffic (Ridge Run in particular is like a superhighway), they end up being difficult to ski by the end of the day because of all the pushed piles with ice slicks in between. Do this side in the morning when the snow is best and then take the Skyline Trail traverse to the Nevada side.
If black diamond runs are more up your alley there are three major areas for you to explore. Lower California is the easiest to get to as both the Aerial Tram and Gunbarrel Express service it. However, the only groomed trail in this area is the Round-About Traverse (which isn’t even a black), but if you want steep moguls, this is the place. Note that you may not want to tackle this terrain in your best skis though as it is not uncommon to hit rocks or stumps.
For a more off-piste experience there are three expert-level bowls off the upper Nevada side. Milky Way Bowl is the easiest to access and can be amazing after a new snow. If you’re brave enough to venture down the double black diamonds then Killibrew or Mott Canyon is where to go. Accessible only by traversing across Milky Way Bowl and entering through access gates, steep chutes and trees comprise this gem of an area. Mott is the easier one to get to and also has a lift to cart you back up whereas Killibrew Canyon often requires a bit of a hike to get back to the main trails. If you ski these areas it is better to do it with a buddy because they are not crowded and if someone gets injured the other person can get help. Another benefit of all these areas is that they are considered in-bounds, which means they are avalanche controlled and serviced by the ski patrol.
Lastly, regardless of your experience level, sometime during the day take a few minutes to enjoy the stunning vistas seen from this mountain. Particularly good photos can be taken on either of the long traverses to get from one side of the mountain to the other. Skyline Trail has great views of the Nevada side whereas California Trail has great views of Lake Tahoe.