We were supposed to be up at Tahoe for the next few days making use of our season passes one more time before winter officially ends in California, but alas, that day may already have come; warm 50-degree weather paired with drizzle do not great ski conditions make (or so the weather forecast said…apparently, they got some powder after all), so instead we decided to stay put in the equally rainy Bay Area. But in honor of Spring Break—er, not that either of us get Spring Break anymore, but I imagine many of you are reaping the benefits of such a fine concept—I’m designating the next few days Ski Week! at Camels & Chocolate. Hopefully, you’re not too sick of snow just yet…enjoy it now, because spring is just around the corner!
When we bought our passes to Heavenly, we were in luck that this year Vail Resorts acquired Northstar-at-Tahoe and, therefore, our passes are valid at both. Though we know many of the Tahoe ski resorts like the back of our hand—SVV, being a born-and-bred Northern Californian, in particular—for a first-timer landing in the area, it can be daunting. Do you splurge, break out your designer snow duds and head to Squaw? Or stick to the economical route and go to Mount Rose? Meet somewhere in the middle and plan a day at Sugar Bowl? Given that we logged more days at Heavenly and Northstar this year than anywhere else (with visits to Kirkwood and Sierra on the side), I thought I’d break each resort down, blow by blow. Thus, I present to you: The Smackdown.
Heavenly is the biggest resort in all of Tahoe, straddling two states. This means it’s also extremely difficult to get from one end of the resort to the other. The trails connecting the Nevada and California sides of the mountain are long, flat catwalks, which are difficult enough for skiers to traverse but even more impossible for boarders. Each time we’re at Heavenly, SVV resigns himself to taking off his board and walking the very lengthy trail.
Northstar (above) has a much more logical layout, with minimal time spent traveling between the various sections of the mountain. I don’t know about you, but I prefer more time flying downhill than I do skating my way across flat terrain, sweating under all my snow garb from all the effort put forth.
The Winner: Northstar
At Heavenly, intermediates and more advanced skiers who prefer to stick to wide open, but steep blues and challenging blacks rule the mountain. At the same time, Mott Canyon on the Nevada side is a series of double blacks that your most expert skiers will devour on a day of powder. When we got to Northstar, we went straight for a single black (on a no-powder, slushy day) and surprisingly, I found it not much of a challenge. In my opinion, Heavenly seems to have a lot more diversity in terms of the runs; plus, it’s so big—4,800 acres, 30 lifts, 94 runs—you can ski the resort for days on end and not even see everything. For someone like myself who gets bored with repetition, this is key. Northstar, on the other hand, has 93 trails and 16 lifts spread over its 3,000 acres, and yet I felt like we were constantly going down the same ol’ runs, as much as we tried to cover the entire mountain.
The Winner: Heavenly
This one is undisputed. You have lakefront views at both resorts, but Heavenly is open all the way across the top of the mountain on the California side. I could never tire of looking at this vista:
Northstar is a bit more protected by the trees, which is nice if you need wind coverage but it’s harder to see the lake through all the pine.
The Winner: Heavenly
Heavenly has some amazing food in both its Lakeview Lodge and new Tamarack Lodge. The problem? It’s so pricey! You can’t get a burrito for less than $13. Plus, there’s nothing on top of the mountain; all the dining options are at the resort’s access points far below, making grabbing a quick bite on the go an impossible feat. After a few days of skiing Heavenly, we started stuffing SVV’s Camelbak with granola bars and making due with that until we’d get back to the cabin late afternoon. I was stoked then to return to Northstar for the first time in 20 years (I did ski school there when I was 8!) and find waffle, crepe and hot dog stands on top of the mountain, in the Village at the bottom of the gondola and at the base of all the lifts. A huge, delicious and filling Nutella-and-banana crepe for $7? Winning.
The Winner: Northstar
It’s true: The South Shore is a bit gaudy, with strip malls and casinos once you reach the Nevada border, while the North Shore enjoys more luxury. (See: Resort at Squaw Creek, Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe.) While our cabin share was on the South Shore this winter, we stole away to the North Shore for two brief nights, and I much prefer the old Western feel of Truckee and Tahoe City to that of South Lake Tahoe.
The Winner: Northstar (unless you like to gamble, which I don’t, in which case opt for Heavenly instead)
All that summed up, which would you choose? At the end of the day, I’m a Heavenly girl through and through. For me, the diversity of the mountain and large area it covers trumps affordable food and a chic après-ski environment any day. But my diplomatic, yet honest conclusion: You really can’t go wrong with either.
What’s your favorite ski resort? If you’ve been to Northstar or Heavenly do you agree/disagree with my analysis above?