The sun warms my shoulders as I steer a pair of newly waxed skis through a layer of heavy snow. The wide slope unfolds below me and then fades into the azure horizon. But the brilliant swatch of color is not the bluebird sky of Colorado. In fact, it’s not the sky at all. It’s Lake Tahoe, one of the jewels of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
It’s my first time skiing in the Tahoe region, and the gentle rollers of Heavenly Mountain Resort make for a leisurely afternoon punctuated by gorgeous lake vistas and giddy slopeside snapshots. It’s difficult to describe why the 97-run, 29-lift mountain is so compelling; although it’s a large ski area at 4,800 acres, the terrain is not altogether different than the lower section of Breckenridge’s Peak 7. Straddling the state line between California and Nevada, Heavenly tops out at 10,067 feet, and though it offers green- and blue-level skiers plenty of wide-open groomers to explore, serious terrain junkies may be left wanting.
I, however, feel completely satisfied. Maybe it’s that I’ve escaped the daily grind for a few days. Maybe it’s that the sun—which shines here 274 days a year—is out and the snow is softening up nicely. Or maybe it’s that my eyes can’t seem to drink in enough of what is one of the most stunning views you’ll ever see on two skis.
Tahoe may be beautiful, but why would I leave Colorado—we’ve got more than two dozen resorts that don’t require a plane ticket and a rental car to reach—to hit the arguably less legendary slopes three states away? Well, because I can.
Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass holders, like me, can ski at any Vail-owned resort in Tahoe—Heavenly, Northstar California Resort, or the recently acquired Kirkwood Mountain Resort—as well as Colorado’s Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin resorts, plus Eldora and Utah’s Canyons (both new to the partnership). Throw in Vail’s just-purchased Midwest ski properties—Mt. Brighton in Michigan and Afton Alps in Minnesota—and a five-free-days deal at ski areas in France, Switzerland, and Austria, and you’ve got access to 26 mountains on one season pass. Going “Epic” isn’t cheap at $709; but considering that a single-day lift ticket to a Vail ski mountain can cost more than $100, it’s practical if you’re planning to ski more than six times a year.
The nearly 300,000 season passes (not all of them are Epic Passes, of course) Vail issues each year suggest a lot of folks think the company’s ever expanding real estate is worth the price of admission. Vail’s executives say the company’s expansion into Tahoe and beyond over the past decade has been strategic as much as opportunistic; it’s not about quantity, they’ll tell you, but rather, it’s about adding depth and character to its already extensive portfolio of ski mountains. (It’s also clearly about the bottom line: Vail’s net income increased 22.7 percent to $97.6 million for the third quarter of fiscal 2013, compared to the same period in 2012.) The purchase of Heavenly (on Lake Tahoe’s southeastern shore) in 2002 introduced a sprawling, mellow mountain that came with a casino and a nightlife scene new to Vail Resorts; the 2010 acquisition of Northstar California (an hour northwest of Heavenly near Lake Tahoe’s north shore) brought a luxury family atmosphere—almost like the California version of Beaver Creek—to the mix; and the addition of Kirkwood (50 minutes south of Heavenly) in 2012 delighted Epic Pass holders who prefer a no-frills mountain with gritty terrain. For me, the draws were less…well…strategic. I had my Epic Pass in hand, an open weekend on the calendar, and cheap airfare staring back at me on the computer screen. I also had a friend in San Francisco who had no problem driving a few hours northeast to rendezvous with me for a weekend of schussing.
In contrast to the elegant-yet-rustic chalets that dot the hills in Colorado’s Summit and Eagle counties, South Lake Tahoe, where Heavenly lies, boasts A-frame cottages and a woodsy shoreline reminiscent of a family camp resort circa 1960. But Heavenly is an apt name for a mountain that towers over the crystalline waters of Lake Tahoe. We hop on the gondola in Heavenly Village, which is within walking distance of South Lake Tahoe’s hotels, and gape at the views during the 2.4-mile ride to the top.
We spend the day cruising unhurriedly, skiing both Nevada and California via the midmountain Sky Express chair, until we find ourselves peering over the lip of an infamous trail that is most definitelynot a cruiser: Gunbarrel. Plunge into the double-black moguls and there’s no way out. Bravado coaxes me into the minefield, and I pick my way to the bottom. My descent isn’t graceful, but it more than justifies my lunch: a beer and a build-your-own burger at Booyah’s Exotic Burgers and Brews inside the Lakeview Lodge at the top of the Gunbarrel Express lift.
Our midday burger doesn’t stop us from checking out the après happenings a couple of hours later. And though I’m no stranger to Colorado’s post-powder entertainment, the Heavenly version—a midmountain weekend party at the Tamarack Lodge just off the top of the gondola—is a different scene entirely. The discounted cocktails go down easy as a DJ spins bass-heavy tunes and go-go dancers—the “Heavenly Angels”—gyrate on an elevated stage. On the gondola ride back down the mountain, we decide to skip the casino action on Nevada’s side of town and head for Base Camp Pizza Co. in Heavenly Village to split a gourmet pie.
That hustle and bustle is all but nonexistent at Vail’s newest Tahoe property, Kirkwood. About half the size of Heavenly, the avalanche-prone terrain at Kirkwood is strewn with black diamond runs and double-black chutes. Situated atop a mountain formation called the Sierra Crest, Kirkwood receives more snowfall (an average of 600 inches annually) than anywhere else in the region. Coloradans like to refer to the tucked-away mountain as the A-Basin of California. Locals are partial to a Jackson Hole comparison: rugged steeps, beckoning cornices, and the purest slice of nature you’ll encounter at any Lake Tahoe ski area. On my first lift up, I notice the tranquility—no highway snaking into my panoramic view, no gondola, no big-name hotels, no EpicMix photographers snapping my photo. Kirkwood doesn’t feel like a property aligned with Vail Resorts’ guest-centric ideals and luxe standards. But that’s the point: Visitors to this mountain come to ski, they come to ride, and that’s it. And, for now, Vail is OK with that.
Exhausted from our South Tahoe adventures, we arrive in Northstar California the next day ready to treat ourselves. Northstar California, nestled into the northern shore of the lake, is, in every sense, a resort. Just walking though the base village will make you feel deliciously indulged. In the morning, my friend and I bounce from crêpe stand to waffle cart, peruse boutiques with names like “Kalifornia Jean Bar,” and put our feet up in the cabana-style seating around the ice rink for coffee and people-watching. The upscale yet family-friendly vibe is by design: Vail Resorts has invested more than $30 million in Northstar California’s infrastructure, amenities, lodging, and dining since it purchased the property nearly four years ago.
That infusion of cash is obvious everywhere, including on the mountain. We ski all afternoon, sneaking down the open sides of the terrain parks in search of the new Shaun White–designed 22-foot superpipe and testing our mettle in Northstar California’s best asset—its glade runs. At the new midmountain, 700-seat, LEED-certified Zephyr Lodge, I load my tray up with an Asian noodle bowl that puts most mountain-cafeteria eats to shame. Later, we splurge on après with sugar-rimmed “martinis” and herbed pommes frites on the patio of Manzanita at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. All of which is the perfect precursor to a low-key dinner at TC’s Pub in the village followed by a s’mores session—all the fixin’s are available at retail locations in the village—over an outdoor fire pit beside the skating rink. As I watch my marshmallow turn golden brown, I realize I’m glad we’ve saved the relaxing part of our trip—so distinct from the nightlife of Heavenly and the go-hard-all-day mentality of Kirkwood—for last.
The next morning, I rise early to take a few solo runs. There’s almost no one on the mountain yet, and I’m relishing the quiet of the untouched corduroy. As a Coloradan, it’s difficult to say this, but I’m loving the time away from my home slopes. It’s thrilling to have never skied these trails. I don’t know where they end or what’s around the corner or if I’ll find a powder stash I couldn’t have known was there. It’s exhilarating.
It also gets me wondering about the future of Vail’s empire. Part of the draw to Tahoe right now, in the early stages of Vail’s presence there, is that these three resorts are unfamiliar to Coloradans. They’ve built their own characters over the years and thus far, as Vail Resorts has folded them into the family, managed to maintain their distinct identities. It feels like a whole new experience. Perhaps the best example is Kirkwood, which occupies its own little corner of the ski world. But the company’s ultimate goal is clear: consistency in its guest-centric policies and service-oriented standards. What that means for the allure of these mountains down the road as branding becomes stronger isn’t clear. Perhaps that brand familiarity is the appeal for Coloradans, but I can only hope that Vail Resorts finds a way to achieve that consistency while letting its charges stay true to their roots. Five or 10 years down the road, I want to visit Tahoe for a ski experience I can’t find in the Rockies—and I hope it will still be there.
IF YOU GO
Reno-Tahoe International Airport is 70 minutes northeast of South Lake Tahoe. San Francisco International Airport is a 3.5-hour drive.
Heavenly Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel, tahoeresorthotel.com; Basecamp Hotel, basecamphotels.com
Northstar California Northstar Lodging & Vacation Rentals (rooms, lofts, condos, lodges),northstarcalifornia.com; Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, ritzcarlton.com
Heavenly Base Camp Pizza Co., basecamppizzaco.com; Stateline Brewery & Restaurant, statelinebrewery.com
Northstar California Tavern 6330’ or TC’s Pub, northstarcalifornia.com