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Like many families based in the San Francisco Bay Area, my family heads to the mountains of Lake Tahoe every winter for our ski vacations. Lake Tahoe is a vast area, with more than a dozen ski resorts of varying sizes, prices and ski conditions so narrowing down where to ski in the Tahoe area takes some knowledge.
Over the years, I’ve managed to ski nearly every ski resort in the Lake Tahoe area, including many with my kids in tow. While all of them have their redeeming features, there are a few that are standouts for family travelers. Some offer easier logistics (and logistics can be everything when dealing with a grumpy toddler in a snowsuit and ski boots). Some offer discounts or deals that benefit families the most. And others offer a wide variety of non-ski activities that make for a fun family vacation even if everyone in your family is not a skier or snowboarder.
Here are my recommendations for the top Lake Tahoe area ski resorts family travelers will enjoy most, with a few tips for using hotel points for your family ski vacation in Tahoe, too.
Northstar California Resort has carefully cultivated its family-friendly vibe over the years, and it shows. Vail Resorts owns Northstar and it is one of three Tahoe area resorts to participate in the Epic Pass program. This resort also makes the TPG list of Best Ski Resorts in North America for Families.
Vail has put a lot of money into the resort over the past decade, turning it into a family-friendly winter wonderland on and off the slopes. Northstar’s high-end Village has shops, dining and activities galore. My kids can’t get enough of the ice-skating rink, bungee trampoline, movie theater and free s’mores at the end of the ski day.
Parents will be most impressed by the quality ski school and instructor staff. Northstar is one of only a few Tahoe resorts that teaches kids as young as 3 years old to ski, so it has a real commitment to starting kids early with proper technique. The resort also pioneered small group lessons for kids called “Ultimate 4” that have no more than four children per instructor. Ultimate 4 lessons are more expensive than standard ski school, but the more individualized instruction helps kids learn more quickly.
Northstar is also one of only three resorts in the Tahoe area to offer child care. Minors Camp takes children from ages 2–6 (potty training not required), so parents can get a day on the slopes together. My son was a frequent winter season visitor when he was 3 years old and not quite ready to ski. He still talks about the fun times he had in “snow preschool.”
For the ultimate in ski-in and ski-out luxury, families should book a stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. As a Marriott Category 7 hotel (from 60k Marriott Rewards points per night), it’s a pricy points redemption, but the hotel’s location and amenities can really help simplify the logistics of skiing with kids. Award rooms on weekends in winter tend to disappear fast, so be sure to book as early as possible if you plan to use points for a ski stay.
Diamond Peak is a midsized ski resort in Incline Village, Nevada, in North Lake Tahoe. After skiing pretty much every resort in Lake Tahoe, I can say with certainty that Diamond Peak is truly a Tahoe hidden gem for families. It’s probably the Tahoe resort I recommend the most to friends with beginner skiers, especially toddlers/preschoolers and younger elementary-aged kids.
Diamond Peak is large enough to have plenty of challenging terrain for parents, but small enough that the logistics of skiing with kids are a breeze. Being able to pay $20 for preferred parking that is just 50 steps from the ski school can’t be beat. There’s no lodging on-site, but there are a wide variety of resort communities in the surrounding neighborhoods with moderately priced vacation rentals. The Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe (World of Hyatt Category 5, from 20k points per night) is also a short drive away. If you are short on Hyatt points, they transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards and cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card at a 1:1 ratio.
The big draw for families at Diamond Peak is the significant cost savings. Ski school is considerably less expensive and just as high quality as the ones at the major ski resorts. Diamond Peak also alleviates the financial burden of skiing with kids by offering the most generous Kids Ski Free policy in Lake Tahoe. Children ski free at Diamond Peak until their seventh birthday.
A lesser-known offering that also saves money is Diamond Peak’s Parent Switch ticket. This ticket can be shared by two parents who are trading off caring for babies and toddlers too young to ski. It costs the same amount as a regular individual ticket, so it doesn’t penalize parents with little ones.
In South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly is another Vail-owned resort that participates in the Epic Pass. Like its Vail-owned cousin, Northstar California, Heavenly has invested deeply in its infrastructure, both on and off the slopes. The resort has a wide variety of restaurants and activities, like tubing and an alpine coaster (summer only).
Heavenly has the most urban of locations of the Tahoe area ski resorts, which means lodging options are plentiful. Families can redeem points at two Marriott properties within walking distance of the Heavenly gondola: Marriott’s Timber Lodge and Grand Residences by Marriott, Lake Tahoe (both Category 6 properties, from 50k points per night). Independent vacation rentals are also a popular choice, as are the many more budget hotels that the big casino business over the Nevada state line helps support.
Ski school for kids is convenient no matter where you are staying, with three locations for drop-off (Boulder Lodge on the Nevada side, the Heavenly Gondola or the California Base Lodge). Heavenly starts ski school for kids at age 4 and snowboard school at age 5.
Heavenly is also another Lake Tahoe area resort that offers child care for non-skiing kids. Heavenly Day Care offers programming for kids as young as 6 weeks up to 12 years old. But Heavenly’s programming gets even more innovative, offering a hybrid day care/ski school for younger kids. Kids ages 3–5 can ski part of the day in the morning and then return to the child care center for lunch and afternoon activities. This program is an excellent way to introduce preschoolers to skiing without having them commit to a full-day lesson where they might melt down. The most important thing at that age is that kids associate skiing with fun, and not some sort of over-tired punishment!
4. Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows (Olympic Valley, California)
Squaw Valley is probably the biggest name in Tahoe skiing, thanks to its role in hosting the Winter Olympics in 1960. It merged with nearby Alpine Meadows in 2011, creating a two-resorts-in-one setup with an impressive amount of skiable terrain and plenty of lodging, dining and other off-slope activities. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are the only resorts in the Lake Tahoe area to participate in the Ikon Pass.
While bigger can sometimes create more logistical challenges for families, it also creates opportunities. Off the slopes, Squaw Valley’s selection of activities is probably the most varied of any resort in Tahoe. The resort offers tubing, snowmobiling (including mini-snowmobiling for kids ages 6–12), a bungee trampoline, dog sledding, an aerial tram ride and a museum dedicated to Olympic history. The dining options are also quite extensive.
Squaw has a wide variety of ski-in and ski-out accommodations, which can make for much easier logistics when traveling with kids. The Resort at Squaw Creek and the Village at Squaw Valley are two options that work well for families.
Families with tweens and teens who have skied a bit should check out Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Luxury-seeking families with kids of all ages will find it checks the right boxes, too.
Near Donner Pass on Interstate 80, Sugar Bowl has the distinct advantage of being the closest major ski resort to Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. As many parents know from road trip experience, a shorter drive is always better with kids. Although many ski resorts are only 20–30 miles farther down the road, those extra miles can be significant when driving in winter weather to Tahoe. Skiing at Sugar Bowl can often mean an hour or two less time on the road in each direction.
But location isn’t the only reason Sugar Bowl is a great fit for traveling families. It has an excellent ski school with two drop-off locations for easier logistics (insider tip: pre-book lessons online in advance and get access to exclusive up-front parking at the Judah Kids drop-off location). Sugar Bowl also allows kids to ski free until their sixth birthday, which is a more generous policy than most of the large resorts in Tahoe that start charging a year earlier.
Although Sugar Bowl can probably no longer be called a midsize ski resort, it doesn’t have the extensive après-ski activity options of Northstar or Squaw. This is a resort for families who want to make time on the slopes the focus of their trip.
The closest major airport to resorts in the Tahoe area is Reno/Tahoe and it is served by most major US airlines including Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue and Southwest. You really can’t go wrong with any of these family-friendly ski resorts in Lake Tahoe, but all offer something different to families looking for fun in the snow. What’s your favorite Tahoe area ski resort?
Need more ski vacation advice? Check out…
- Best Ski Resorts for Families in North America
- 15 of the Best Ski Towns in the US
- 10 Top Ski Schools for Kids
- Planning Your Ski Trip With Points and Miles
- Kids Ski Free: Save on Your Family’s Next Ski Vacation
- How to Score Majorly Discounted Lift Tickets When You Ski
- Using Miles and Points to Book an Affordable Vail Ski Trip
- Ikon Pass Offers Unlimited Skiing at Select Resorts
Leslie Harvey is a mom of two children, ages 9 and 5, from the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs at Trips With Tykes, is the co-host of the podcast Disney Deciphered and co-owns the Disneyland planning Facebook group, Disneyland with Kids.
Featured image by author.
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