With around a million skiers and snowboarders visiting Heavenly Mountain Resort each year, sometimes it can feel a little bit like they're all there the same weekend. But careful planning can help make your visit an experience more memorable for the mountain's unbelievable amenities than for the time you spent waiting in line.
There's a good reason California's skiers and snowboarders flock to Heavenly each year. Situated high above the south shore of Lake Tahoe, the spectacular views leave no doubt how the resort came upon its name. Majestic, breathtaking, incredible — choose your adjective for the scenery and it would be difficult to overstate your case. Add to that the area's diverse terrain and trail options — 95 trails over 4,800 acres — and it's not hard to see why this place is at or near the top of everyone's California must-do ski areas.
We returned this winter to Heavenly after more than a decade since our last visit and our first impression was how international this area has become. We don't remember hearing so many foreign languages back in the mid-90's, nor do we remember the fashion parade on the Heavenly slopes. This visit, most skiers were wearing the latest clothing and equipment which tells you they are serious about their winter sports — or at least about being seen where people are serious about their winter sports.
The crowd seems to be younger these days — or are we just getting older? Probably a little bit of both. But there is no question the crowd is bigger, and most of that seems to be a growing population of boarders who don't bother to learn how to ski because, well, boards are just cooler. We choose to use those relics they call skis, but we have made a concession to the modern world by switching over to the shorter, fatter skis than we had back in the 90's.
The Heavenly gondola leaves conveniently from a village that has grown up along the main highway in South Lake Tahoe. There is now a great selection of accommodations all within easy walking distance of the gondola. In fact, the gondola is so close to the Nevada state line that we were able to walk to the gondola in just five minutes from our Stateline Nevada hotel, Harrah's.
And that brings us to that good planning we were talking about. For starters, it's hard to recommend a weekend visit to Heavenly unless A/ you don't mind lines, and/or B/ you want to be around a LOT of people. Sampling Heavenly on both a good-weather weekday and a good-weather weekend day, the difference was dramatic. Our weekday was less crowded by far, which made the overall experience much more enjoyable. Instead of having several near-misses with out-of-control boarders and skiers on the weekend, the weekday gave us the opportunity to relax and — because there is so much terrain to choose from — find places that were totally away from crowded slopes.
On our weekend day, we made the error of having breakfast while we waited for the weather to clear and then leisurely walking over to the gondola about 10:30 a.m. We were greeted with long lines to get tickets, and then an additional, seemingly endless line that wrapped around the gondola building to actually get on the lift. Planning tip No. 2: If you do go on a weekend, be at the lift by 8:30 a.m. regardless of the weather. There's a reasonable chance that even foggy or snowy weather will change to better conditions once you get on top of the mountain. And remember: Heavenly gets 300 days of sunshine each year.
The eight-passenger gondola takes a few minutes to get you up to the main skiing areas where a total of 28 additional lifts will disperse you to a variety of trails — about 65 percent either intermediate or beginner terrain, all fairly well groomed. Ten of those lifts are either four- or six-passenger high speed quads so lift capacity is generally quite good and our weekday experience included little time waiting in line.
The weekend, of course, is another story and lines were considerably longer. We should also note it took us our first full day of skiing before we had any sense of where we were on the mountain, so this is one of those places you want to keep a trail map close at hand.
To be fair, one reason for the weekend crowds during our visit was that the word was out about the several feet of snow that had dumped on the Tahoe area a few days before our arrival. If there doesn't happen to be a dump of snow before your visit, Heavenly's got your back: state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment can cover as much as 75 percent of the area's runs with man-made snow.
Heavenly is an attraction in and of itself, but adding to its allure is that the area is so conveniently located. The village of South Lake Tahoe has made great strides in recent years to build modern lodging facilities and get away from the over-abundance of tacky, cheap motels that lined the streets many years ago. Most of the lodging units in the area have been spruced up, re-built or are new from the ground up.
Harrah's turned out to be an excellent choice, not only because it was close to the gondola but because of the many restaurants in Harrah's and nearby hotels that are all easy walking distance. The Heavenly Village, where you'll find upscale shops, eateries and bars, is just a five-minute walk from Harrah's. And the rooms at Harrah's are remarkably spacious, generally upscale and offer great mountain and lake views.
A little aside here about Harrah's: We had booked non-smoking rooms, but there were none available when we arrived. The desk clerk gave us the bad news in a very pleasant tone of voice and then she pointed out that not all may be lost. She told us they had heavy duty ionization machines that could clear all traces of any smoke within an hour and to call her if the room was unacceptable. Surprisingly, our "smoking" room had already been ionized and she was right — even though we are usually sensitive to it, any remnant of the smoke seemed to be completely gone.
For many people, the hotel's gaming is a big reason to choose Harrah's or one of the other Stateline hotels. While not as opulent as some Vegas casinos, the Stateline casinos offer plenty of gambling options and were wall-to-wall with patrons throughout the weekend. Someone in our party actually won a few bucks so we do know it's possible to come out ahead.
Another recommendation we would have for visitors traveling any distance is to consider flying into Reno-Tahoe International Airport., about 60 miles from South Lake Tahoe. The Reno airport has more than 100 flights daily and is served by several major airlines. On this particular trip we drove to Lake Tahoe from San Diego but it was a long, arduous drive and complicated by weather conditions in the passes between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Friends flew into Reno, and we just felt like their trip turned out to be much less hassle and well worth the cost of airfare and car rental.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Heavenly Ski Resort is located in South Lake Tahoe, CA and straddles the California/Nevada state line. The area is close to a booming infrastructure of hotels, restaurants and shops.
WHAT: Heavenly Ski Resort is one of the most popular ski resorts in California and is known for its variety of runs and terrain.
WHEN: Ski season is from mid-November through mid-April.
WHY: The combination of excellent lodgings, great restaurants and excellent skiing in one of California's most scenic mountain locations.
HOW: For more information on Heavenly Ski Resort, go to www.skiheavenly.com or phone 1-800-heavenly. For more information on Harrah's Tahoe, go to www.harrahs.com. For more information about South Lake Tahoe, visit www.bluelaketahoe.com.
Photos by Cary Ordway
Captions, from top: View from top of the gondola at Heavenly; morning lines on a weekend; mother and daughter enjoy Tahoe's winter waterfront; view of lake from Harrah's
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Los Angeles, Beach Boys hometown, Huntington Beach and Getty Museum.
Getaway Media Corp publishes websites focused on getaway travel, including www.californiaweeked.com and www.northwesttraveladvisor.com. If you enjoyed reading about the Heavenly Ski Resort, be sure to visit our sites and read the hundreds of feature articles on the many getaway travel destinations in our coverage areas. Like the Heavenly Ski Resort, these other attractions are worth including in a your upcoming vacation or getaway. If you think about it, we're fortunate to live in a place where we can enjoy destinations such as the Heavenly Ski Resort without traveling thousands of miles. This is why Getaway Media Corp sites are so popular with the traveling public -- they showcase attractions that are close by and easy to visit on your next vacation or getaway.