Heavenly Ski Resort Review

Heavenly, California

Heavenly ski resort is one of our three home resorts, about 15-mins from our house in South Lake Tahoe.  This review is based on hundreds of days of skiing our home resort under every condition.

Top of California - March 2009

Top of California – March 2009

Stats and Rating

Real Vertical ? 3,280′, Rank: 18
Size 4,800 Acres, Rank: 7
Annual Snowfall ? 360″ claimed / 321″ actual, Rank: 38
Lift Pods ? 12, Rank: 13
Distinct Trails ? 97, Rank: 35
Review Date  (multiple visits from 1972-current)
Number of visits 200+
Our Rating ★★★★
Resort website https://www.skiheavenly.com

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Heavenly Review

The Heavenly ski resort is our home resort since 2005. So we have a lot to say about this place.  It’s one of our favorites places we have skied in North America. The bottom line is that some of our best skiing experiences have been there, and we almost always have a great time whether the condition is good or not.

Our routine

We usually park at the California lot. We like to get there by 8:15 on a weekend so we can get first chair at 8:30.

The Gunbarrel

The lower California runs are very steep, bumpy, and at low elevation which makes it pretty grim at times. There are many distinct lines on Hogsback which are steep and fun when there is enough snow to cover the rocks.  When the East Bowl is groomed or there is more than a foot of new powder it’s a great run.  The trees in Avalanche Bowl to skier’s right of East Bowl are some of my favorites on a powder day when there is an adequate base.

East Bowl Trees during a storm - February 2011

Avalanche Bowl Trees during a storm – February 2011

The Powderbowl

The next chair up is Powderbowl.  On a windy day storm day when the upper mountain is closed, this is your only option.  Powderbowl trees are fantastic before they get plundered.  The trees above and to skiers right of Waterfall are a “secret stash” of ours for untracked powder. The power line to skier’s left of Waterfall is steep fun.

Sky and Canyon

Upper California, access via Sky and Canyon chairs, has some great groomers on a non-powder day. This is especially the case if Ellies or Liz’s is groomed.  On a powder day, there is a huge area to skier’s right of Ellies and Pinnacles that stays relatively untracked due to the difficulty getting there. When Sky is closed on a windy powder day but Canyon is open (which happens a lot), it is possible to traverse all the way over to Ellies and ski untracked powder on the wide open run.

Liz's Run - March 2013

Liz’s Run – March 2013

The Nevada side

When Sky gets too crowded, we often head over to Nevada from top of Sky chair. What we ski depends largely on conditions.  On a powder day we most likely won’t even touch the groomed runs.  Our usual first run in Nevada is through the trees in Milky Way bowl.

Dipper and Comet

We work our way from Milky Way over to the runs off the Dipper chair, then Comet.  You can find good tree runs of skiers left and right off the Comet chair.  Little Dipper run itself is a bumpy challenge if you feel like punishing yourself.

The Olympic

Next we head over to the Olympic chair.  That is where we do our “top to bottom” run on the Nevada side It starts at the top of Olympic all the way down to the bottom of Stagecoach.  It’s a certain leg-burner.  On a powder day, we will go do “North Bowl Trees” to skiers left of the Olympic and North Bowl lifts. There are a couple of lung-burning long powder runs.

Stagecoach

Stagecoach chair is the main access lift if you start from the Nevada side. It has some great groomed runs skiers right of the chair with great views of the Carson Valley below.

Special mention

From the top of Olympic it is possible to ski all the way down to the bottom of the Gondola by using the Firebreak gate.  It’s technically out-of-bounds and is definitely not patrolled. So ski at your own risk.  Realistically, it’s full of people on a powder day and you would have a tough time getting lost if you tried.  Note that the bottom third can be really difficult to navigate sometimes. But  after a big snowfall, you can find all the powder you want on the upper 2/3’s, which is somewhere around 2000 vertical feet of perfectly pitched open tree skiing.

The good

  • We are tree skiers, and Heavenly has the best tree skiing on the planet as far as we are concerned.  The trees are widely spaced and there are plenty of less steep areas with great tree skiing after a storm.
  • The grooming is also 2nd to none, so after the powder firms up off-piste, a great day can still be had on the groomers.
  • Most of the lifts have been converted to high-speed quads over the years.
  • The views of Lake Tahoe and the desert to the east are spectacular.
  • There are 3 gates that provide easy access to some great sidecountry, with the firebreak gate providing 3000′ vertical of “lift served sidecountry”  (if there is such a thing) via the gondola.
  • The attitude is more positive and laid back at Heavenly than places like Squaw.

The bad

  • Heavenly gets a little less snow being on the east side of the lake than places like Kirkwood, Sierra at Tahoe, and Squaw do being on the west side.
  • The lines on the Sky and Dipper chairs are often long.
  • Wind often closes the upper mountain before and during a storm, which makes it impossible to ski between the California and Nevada sides.
  • They need to put a lodge on the California side where the Sky Deck is now because sitting outside at 8600′ in January is not usually comfortable.

Don’t Miss

The “Top to Bottom” run (see above), Killebrew Canyon up to 3 days after a storm, the steep chutes in Mott Canyon, groomers on the California side, views of Lake Tahoe, lunch at the Lakeview Lodge.

Our best experience

So many to choose from, but a good example is the day after Christmas, 2012 with 12″ of fresh powder on top of several feet of fresh powder which fell the previous week.  Ellie’s run had one track down it when we first skied it that day.  I’ve never seen AiRung enjoy a powder run as much as that one!

The bottom line

Heavenly may not be at the top of everyone’s list due to typical variable conditions, crowds at some of the strategic lifts, parking issues, and Vail ownership ($$$).  But for us having seen all the good and bad it has to offer, it is still one of our favorite places to ski.  Being only 15 minutes from our house means we will continue to spend a lot of time there!

Maggie's Bowl - February 2011

Maggie’s Bowl – February 2011

11 thoughts on “Heavenly Ski Resort Review

    1. skyfree Post author

      Hully Gully is the easiest run down Mott Canyon, but I can’t actually remember which gate I go through to ski it. On the map it looks like #3 is the closest. I only ski that run when I’m taking someone who has never skied Mott before down or it’s right when the gate drops on a big powder day because the lower angle is actually better for enjoying the powder turns. It’s doable for a strong intermediate who can handle mixed snow conditions, trees, and off-camber. I usually ski Bill’s most often because it’s a perfect north-facing chute steep enough to not form big moguls.

      Reply
  1. Bryan

    I always thought Heavenly seemed like a bunch of little ski areas stuck together in an awkward manner. Maybe new lifts have helped, but it doesn’t flow very well from one area to another- lots of flat cat tracks.

    Reply
    1. Ron Thompson Post author

      Agree, Bryan. The first time we skied there around 2000 we thought we would never go back and it was because of the awkward way you have to get from California to Nevada among other things. Circumstances led to us having Heavenly as our home resort, and then our opinions changed as we explored more and found ways to optimize our skiing. I often feel sorry for the tourists who don’t know the secrets of the place and end up wasting a lot of time going back and forth. It really takes a lot of time to explore the whole 4,800 acres and you need to be there on a good day — not when it’s blowing hard or it’s refrozen bulletproof ice!

      Reply
  2. Vrad Levering, PhD

    This guide was gold during the big snow dump Jan 2023. I was in powder and trees the whole day even with the upper lifts closed. I was doing laps on trees above and to skiers right of Waterfall, and getting fresh every time. Loved it.

    Reply
    1. Ron Thompson Post author

      That’s the spot on a storm day when nothing higher is open! Glad you enjoyed it. Hogsback and Avalanche Bowl off Gunbarrel / Tram has been really good this season as well. Some years those are not even skiable but this year is the deepest I’ve ever seen.

      Reply
  3. Tahoe skier

    Why would you give away the secret stashes? Thanks a bunch! (Heavy sarcasm). May all your lines be tracked out.

    Reply
    1. Ron Thompson Post author

      OK, I get it, but with 4,800 acres I’m sure you will still find some pow! This review has been up over 10 years and I can’t tell you how many times in the past few that I’ve gotten first tracks.

      Reply
  4. Chase Kelley

    Heavenly has been getting worse and worse over the years in my opinion and just when I thought the money hungry Vail Resorts couldn’t get worse after charging $209 for a day pass for a mountain that is maybe 10% open they charge $131 for a so called discounted “Buddy Pass” for the day.
    Then we stand with thousands of oversold ticket holders at the top of Gunbarrel for over two hours after hiking with hundreds of other paying customers cause lift lines were so long just to get down the mountain and exit the God for sakes “Heavenly Ski Resort”.
    Kids freezing, people passing out in line, no heavenly employees directing the heard of shoulder to shoulder customers suffering due to oversold crowded conditions.
    I have been skiing heavenly for 35 years and this was the last experience I will have there. I can tell you that I’ve never seen people so disappointed with an operation in my life. So sad.

    Reply
    1. Ron Thompson Post author

      I’m not at all surprised by your story. Heavenly is HUGE when it’s all open and with fresh snow all 4,800 acres are skiable. This Christmas holiday there were only a handful of runs open — maybe 150 acres with thousands of people on the slopes.

      I tell people that are not local to not plan a trip to Tahoe until at least late January when most of the lifts and runs are open.

      Day ticket prices are deplorable these days. It amazes me that people are still taking the sport up. The barriers to entry are very high now, but demand keeps rising anyway. A lot of people have a lot of money to burn apparently. When Vail first bought Heavenly I think buddy tickets were $40! We just paid the $131 ourselves when family was up. Kirkwood is about $30 less.

      In the South Lake area, I recommend Sierra at Tahoe as having a much more reasonable BFF (buddy) ticket price. It’s $75 during peak periods. It’s also less crowded with better, more reliable mountain operations.

      Reply
  5. Phu Huynh

    Had a good time until the closing time. The rescue people, this particular this white blonde girl, was extremely rude and obnoxious when she TOLD us to get off the trail. Not asking, just yelled like no one taught her respect or manners before. I get it’s their job to help people down, but this one was pushy and rude. She continuously told us to hurry up and get off the trail, not understanding that we were tire and just needed some time to rest. The whole time was not asking but telling with the most condescending attitude like she’s better than us because she can ski. I wanted to wait for my friend because she was exhausted but she kept telling me to go down. I don’t see how much things changed if I go down at the same time my friend does, because we going to get down at the same time. This girl’s gave an attitude for no reason ruined the whole experience. Probably not going back again with people I know for the price and the lack of empathy and professionalism, by the rescue staffs specifically.

    Reply

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