Tahoe Alpine Skiing

Heavenly Lake Tahoe
By Peter Oliver
  |  Gorp.com
Grabbing big backside air at Heavenly

Heavenly has always been an enigma to me. It's got the most substantial vertical—almost 3,500 feet—in the Tahoe area. But because of the mountain geography, the ski area never comes close to skiing its full height. Heavenly looks frighteningly steep at first; heavily moguled, in-your-face Gunbarrel, rising straight out of the South Lake Tahoe base area, creates the illusion of an experts-only area. Yet most of Heavenly is pretty tame—in fact, on a powder day, there isn't enough pitch on most of the mountain to get up a head of steam in the deep snow.

Heavenly is huge—4,800 acres—and hugely popular. For anyone staying in busy South Lake Tahoe, it is the closest and most obvious place to go. The skiing doesn't always enthuse me—there are too many flat roads between lift rides—but it is forever entertaining. It's the kind of place where people ski in hats with moose antlers attached. It is the kind of place where many people come for the views, which are stunning, as much as they come for the skiing. It is the kind of place where bleary-eyed gamblers, sleepless after a long night at the slots, wobble around on skis. If you come for a day of easygoing fun, for the views, or to hang with a party-happy (or gambling-weary) crowd, you can have a gas at Heavenly.

On the Mountain
Heavenly is unique in that it sprawls across state boundaries. Part of the ski area is in California and part is in Nevada, and for my money, the Nevada part is the better part. The fall line is more sustained, meaning that runs tend to be longer.

For novice skiers, Heavenly can be deceptive. One look at super-steep Gunbarrel and the typical beginner is apt to pack it in and seek out another sport. However, much of the terrain hidden beyond Gunbarrel on the California side is easygoing. Even many of the intermediate runs are generously rated as such.

For intermediate skiing, I'd head straight for the Nevada side, although “straight” is a relative term at Heavenly. At least three lift rides from the California base area are required to get to Nevada. Once there, however, the runs accessed from the high-speed Dipper and Comet lifts make for the best cruising on the mountain.

The steep chutes of Mott and Killebrew canyons, also on the Nevada side, are prime expert terrain. Unfortunately (at least in my experience) they are too often closed. Snow conditions must be just right; insufficient snow won't cut it, of course, whereas too much snow invites avalanche danger. Otherwise, experts can pound the moguls of Gunbarrel and neighboring East Face, where being a showoff helps—both trails are in full view of the California base area.

East Peak Lodge, about halfway up the mountain on the Nevada side, is the place to go for lunch; the sun deck on a sunny day is made for serious people-watching. The California Lodge, at the California base, and the Stagecoach Lodge, at the Nevada base, have a kind of minimum-security ambience, although the California Bar—in the California Lodge, of course—summons up a modicum of character. Credit taxidermy for that; there's a life-size stuffed bear to keep you company.

Ski School
As one of nine resorts under the American Skiing Company umbrella, Heavenly is tied into ASC's Perfect Turn program. I wouldn't say Perfect Turn instruction is dramatically different from the usual ski instruction. But if you've enrolled in Perfect Turn classes elsewhere, you'll at least be familiar with the slight variations in terminology and technique.

For Families
For families, Heavenly is a good-news, bad-news deal. The good news is the abundance of gently rolling terrain and high-speed chairs, which are easy for kids to climb on to. The bad news is Heavenly's general sprawl. God forbid that your six-year-old is in Nevada at the end of the day when you are in California.

Mountain Contact: Heavenly Lake Tahoe


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