Heavenly vs. Northstar: The best California ski resort for your needs. | CamelsAndChocolate.com

Heavenly vs. Northstar: A Smackdown

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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.

The Layout

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

The Terrain

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

The Views

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 that 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

The Grub

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

The ‘Hood

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 

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?

COMMENTS
  • March 14, 2011

    Between the view and the nutella crepe, you are slowly convincing me to give skiing a try…

    • March 14, 2011
      Kristin

      Haha, the crepe IS a selling point. You’re strong and athletic–you’d make a great skier!

  • March 14, 2011

    We didn’t make it to Northstar when we visited Tahoe because we got snowed in near Heavenly, but I agree with the Heavenly vista being amazing and the trek between the Nevada side and the California side being a pain in the butt.

  • March 14, 2011
    Kathie

    As a North Tahoe resident I can say that Northstar is definitely our family’s favorite place to ski. We were there on a semi-crowded day during Feb. break (they have a great deal where local kids can ski for $5!) and probably did 20+ runs – we only repeated runs a couple of times and only because we wanted to.
    Heavenly on the other hand, while it definitely is HUGE, is all about making money and nothing else – their outrageous prices (lift tickets, food, etc.) reflect that. As a family with children that ski race all over the Tahoe basin, I can tell you that Heavenly is our LEAST favorite place to race – they are the only resort that really does nothing for the race families that attend, again because they are greedy, greedy, greedy! I am sure the skiing there is great but I have a hard time supporting their philosophy – definitely the worst around here.

    • March 14, 2011
      Kathie

      P.S. I forgot to mention that our home mountain is Diamond Peak (we are in Incline Village) and it definitely has THE BEST view of any ski resort around the lake! Not very big, but definitely family and budget friendly!

      • March 14, 2011
        Kristin

        Kathie, thanks for your input. I almost put a family category in there, as I know Northstar is known as THE family resort, but as it’s just SVV and me, I have little experience in that realm. (SVV’s brother, our sister-in-law and their kids always ski Sugar Bowl, so I have the impression that’s a very family-friendly one as well.)

        Since we lucked into an absolute deal of a cabin share ($300 for the whole season), it made sense for us to adopt Heavenly. I will echo your complaints on the pricing, though. Since we bought the season pass (and in December when it was still super cheap), it’s worked out to about $30 a day for us–a definite steal. However, when my mom and sister came out, it was a blackout week (AFTER President’s Day) and thus you couldn’t buy discounted tickets online in advance, and it was $92 a day! And more than half the resort was closed (plus the gondola) for a heavy snowstorm. So needless to say, we passed. I don’t know how families afford that pricing; plus, if you want to do the tubing, it’s another $30 an hour per person.

        But overall, I really enjoy Heavenly Mountain and the terrain, so I’ll continue to ski it–as long as I have a season pass and it works out economically for us, that is.

        I’ve never been to Incline Village, but my parents used to live in the Bay Area and ski Diamond Peak regularly, and they can’t say enough good things about it.

        • March 15, 2011
          Kathie

          Wow! $30 an hour for tubing! That is incredible! I am glad you got such a great deal with the Heavenly passes – I totally understand why people like to ski there – I just thought I would add a little “locals’ perspective” 🙂 Actually, many locals don’t like Northstar simply because they feel it takes too long to get from your car to the lift. We just plan ahead, arrive early, and we are always on our first chair before 9am. Anyway, I am glad you had a pretty good ski winter – this was definitely the best (in terms of how much snow we have had) in years!

  • March 14, 2011

    I’ve never skied Heavenly, so I can’t say which I prefer, but I will say that as a kid growing up, Northstar was hard to beat. Squaw was intimidating, and the smaller places like Donner Ski Ranch were good for an inexpensive day or two but not nearly big enough to keep you occupied much longer than that. And I agree with you that I much prefer Truckee to South Shore.

  • March 14, 2011

    I’ve never been to either- in fact I’ve never been skiing anywhere on the west coast. On the east coast I like Stowe Mountain because the resort is so luxurious. But for something less expensive I like Killington. I used to go there with my HS ski club 🙂

    • March 14, 2011
      Kristin

      Ooh I’ve skied Killington before (the weekend before I moved away from NYC), and it was about 10 below zero and icy and a holiday so not desirable conditions. (Still fun, though!) But I hear Stowe is even better, and I’ll put that on my list should we ever move back to the East Coast =)

    • March 14, 2011
      Kristin

      Also, if you’ve grown up skiing on the East Coast, heading out West to ski will be pure HEAVEN for you. I had never actually skied powder until I moved to California. Growing up skiing North Carolina, Indiana and everywhere in between, I just assumed everyone skied on ice and artificial snow!

  • March 14, 2011

    The crepes!! Loooove the peanut butter and nutella crepe from Northstar. And the $3 hot chocolate at the top? Worth every penny.

    I have never been to Heavenly (Jack has) and was okay with it until I saw that picture of yours from Heavenly. Now I know what I’m missing… aaargh!

    • March 14, 2011
      Kristin

      Oooh PEANUT BUTTER and Nutella. That’s a crepe combo I’ve never tried! Now I need to plan a return to Northstar just for that reason!

  • March 15, 2011

    I don’t ski, so i choose the Heavenly view!

  • March 15, 2011
    SVV

    Northstar on a big powder day for the TREES. Heavenly for the groomed runs and views.

  • March 16, 2011
    Granet

    Just stumbles across this site and I need some advice from some locals. Family of 3 (Mum, Dad & 13yo son) all experienced skiers were going to ski Japan next January 2012 but after the recent events we are thinking of the US instead for 10-12 days skiing (we live in Sydney, Australia). I was thinking of either Heavenly, Northstar or Mammoth and driving from LA so should I base myself at Heavenly (near the gondola) and get a early bird locals pass that covers Heavenly and Northstar and how long does it take to drive between the two resorts and what are the roads like. Or should I do Heavenly and Mammoth?

    • March 16, 2011
      Kristin

      If you’re planning to spend 10-12 days just skiing, then I have a couple suggestions:

      -Split time between Heavenly and Northstar, with 5 nights on the South Shore and 5 nights in Truckee. It takes an hour to an hour and a half to drive between the two resorts depending on the snow conditions. It took us on the higher end of that without much snow, so if it’s falling down hard, you might be looking at upward of two. We only ski Northstar when we’re staying in Truckee, not when we’re staying at our cabin on the South Shore, as the drive isn’t worth it just for a day trip.

      -Base yourself on the South Shore, get a multi-day pass to Heavenly, and when/if you get bored there after several days, do some day trips to Kirkwood (about 45 minutes from the South Shore) and Sierra-at-Tahoe (25 minutes). They’re both really fun mountains–two of my favorite resorts in all of California–and the lift tickets are significantly cheaper than those at Heavenly.

      -Spend 5-6 days in Tahoe, then 5-6 days in Mammoth ONLY if you have a day to burn in the middle. It will take you five hours AT LEAST to drive between the two, and it’s very likely some of the roads could be closed in super snowy conditions. (I checked and right now it seems to be open, but we’ve had a relatively warm/mild winter in California.) But Mammoth is gorgeous (some photos here: https://www.camelsandchocolate.com/?p=4906), not as crowded as Tahoe and worth it if you have the time to transit between the two. I’ve only done that drive in summer, and it’s unbelievable so I bet it would be incredible under a blanket of snow.

      Something to bear in mind is that Northstar is known as the “family ski resort,” but seeing as you all are experienced skiers and your son isn’t a child, then I don’t think that should matter as much…I think it has more options for younger kids who aren’t so good on skis just yet. Additionally, depending on how expert of skiers you guys are, if you wind up doing part of your time on the North Shore, you’ll probably want to check out Squaw Valley for a couple days. It’s where they held part of the U.S. winter Olympics and is a favorite among pros. Also, it’s known for being a bit snootier than the rest of Tahoe, just so you know =)

      I’m also going to write a “How to Ski Cheaply” at Tahoe post tomorrow, so check back–by then I should have more tips for you =)

      Hope that helps!

      • March 17, 2011
        Granet

        Thanks so much for the excellent advise and I’ll let you know what I decide.

      • November 30, 2012
        jose

        north star by far the best of all powder jumps people rippn it up gotta love it i hate walking thru the flats it sucks id rather be boarding then walkn sucks for teaching newbies as well north star all the way

  • December 10, 2011
    ben

    Wow! great post. Your photos just make me want to go snowboarding a Lake Tahoe. I have never snowboarded in the US before but I know it has some of the best resorts in the world. And so much sunshine. I live in Hokkaido Japan and we have tonnes of awesome powder every season but hardly any sunny days, which I really miss. You can’t beat those bluebird powder days hitting the back country with your friends.

    Maybe next season, I’ll try out the US.

    • December 15, 2011
      Kristin

      And likewise, I was in Japan last month (mid-November) and wished I’d had some time to do some skiing there! Such a beautiful country. I’m hoping to spend more time there in the future and see more of it.

  • March 2, 2013

    Interesting… I read this before going to Heavenly and Northstar for the first time, and I’m not sure I would agree as an expert skier. (Though granted, I’m basing this on a weekend of skiing, not a whole season). But without good snow, which the mountains haven’t had in weeks, Heavenly seems like an overcrowded intermediate resort (Mott, Killibrew, Milky Way aside, but the skiing wasn’t any good in there). The back side of Northstar was a lot more fun, and much less crowded than anything we skied at Heavenly. (More of my thoughts on the subject: http://www.stephandben.com/2013/03/tahoe-ski-resorts-heavenly-northstar.html)

    • March 3, 2013

      We did the Vail Resorts thing in Tahoe for four consecutive seasons and I’m standing behind my love for Heavenly! However, I’m a single black diamond skier, not a double, so maybe that makes a difference? Plus, owning my own business means we were always able to do midweek skiing–I don’t care where you go, weekend skiing on the lake sucks. So we’ve never had trouble with crowds at Heavenly.

      Also, I should point out that my husband is an expert boarder, which means we avoid all bumps. So Heavenly has more black runs without moguls than we found in Northstar.

      That said, I do LOVE Northstar–it’s where I went to ski school back in 1990!

      • March 14, 2013

        I think the bad snow on all the double blacks definitely limited the interesting terrain at Heavenly when we were there. I’ll give it another chance though (hopefully with the Heavenly-Kirkwood-Northstar season pass next year). I’m with your husband on avoiding bumps (at least for the most part), so that’s good to know. Thanks.

        • September 12, 2013
          Simone K

          Hi! We’ll be in Lake Tahoe for 4 days and it will be our 1st time skiing, with 2 children (9 and 10). We like quiter places and don’t care about casino, although I’d love to see as much as Lake Tahoe as possible. Which one should we go: Northstar or Heavenly? Tks a lot!!

          • September 13, 2013

            My vote for a family of four would be Northstar. It’s a more scenic part of the lake and a bit quieter. It’s also very kid-friendly.

  • December 17, 2013
    Luciana

    Hi!!! Thanks for all the advices. I’m from Brazil and will be staying and skiing for 5 days at Northstar. I’d like to know if it’s worthy going to heavenly for one day or if it is too far. Do you know how long it takes by car? Is there a shuttle service between the two resorts?
    Cheers!

    • December 17, 2013

      It all depends on the snow really! If you’re going early season and the snow isn’t that bad, it could just take 45 minutes or so. There is a bus, though, that’s slated for an hour trip: http://www.skiheavenly.com/groups/group-bus-trips.aspx. You could easily spend all day at Heavenly and justify the drive.

      There are also other resorts closer to Northstar that are good, too: Alpine Meadows and Squaw. Not sure what pass you’re getting, though, as they are owned by a different company than Northstar/Heavenly.

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