Lake Tahoe bans most visitors — What it could mean to your ski trip

Dec 10, 2020

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Lake Tahoe has joined other California counties and regions that have banned leisure travelers from visiting.

Related: California crackdown: Stay-at-home orders, quarantines and more

California is dealing with a major resurgence of coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals across the state. Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom authorized local governments to issue stay-at-home orders that match the strictest shutdowns experienced early in the pandemic.

As a result, Lake Tahoe is banning travel to the area beginning Friday Dec. 11 and lasting for at least three weeks.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research, told TPG, Lake Tahoe made the difficult but correct decision to halt tourism for now. Amidst the massive surge in COVID-19 cases, Lake Tahoe’s tourism leaders have put safety first.”

Read on for all you need to know, and what it might mean for your ski trip in California or beyond.

In This Post

What’s closed in Tahoe?

Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort at Lake Tahoe, CA. (Photo by JT Henderson)

Much of Tahoe will now close — again.

Hotels, lodges and vacation home rentals are cancelling reservations for out-of-state visitors. Some could shutdown altogether. Hotels are only allowed to be open for select groups. This includes essential workers — first responders, health care workers and those offering infrastructure support, those who need to isolate or quarantine, or who are homeless or otherwise displaced.

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There will be no more outdoor dining, and non-essential travel is banned. Stores can only operate at 20% capacity.

Chris Fiore, communications manager for the city of South Lake Tahoe, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Unfortunately, yet again, Tahoe is closed. If we can get things under control in the next three weeks, we can reopen just in time for New Year’s.”

Harteveldt told me:

“I’m sure their decision wasn’t met with cheers either by local businesses that rely on tourism, nor by travelers. Tahoe’s decision aligns that region with the nearby Bay Area, which has also recently stopped accepting non-essential travelers at its hotels, and is a major source of Tahoe visitors. With the CDC practically begging us to stay home to help reduce potential virus spread, Tahoe appears to be doing its part to support that request.”

Traveling across county lines to ski isn’t allowed under lockdown, but many are likely to ignore that order.

My brother, JT Henderson, is currently in Tahoe using an Epic Pass. He said, “It’s kind of a ghost town.” He told me several hotels where he usually stays “had their offices locked and no one answering phones.That seems pretty common for a lot of hotels here.”

What if I have a hotel booked in Tahoe?

It’s unclear, what will happen to existing reservations made by non-locals. Some hotel reservations have been cancelled in other parts of California, but it generally happens only if the whole hotel shuts down and that is fairly uncommon so far. Time will tell how hotels and lodges handle this, but it’s likely up to individual properties to enforce it (or not).

What about vacation homes in Tahoe?

Interestingly, those people who own vacation homes in the Tahoe region are still allowed to use them even if they are coming from out-of-town. Owners are being asked not to rent them out. Also note the restrictions on activities like skiing for visitors from outside the county.

What is skiing like in Tahoe now?

Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort parking lot Dec. 10, 2020. (Photo by JT Henderson)

Henderson told me that ski slopes would stay open, but that officials were encouraging only day trips for those who don’t own property in the area. He said that it seemed pretty deserted, and it was largely only single riders on chairlifts.

As you can see from the above photograph, Heavenly Mountain’s parking lot it is pretty empty, though it is also fairly early in the season.

Related: Reservations required for skiing this winter

In fact, even before the additional restrictions impact the area, ski resorts have put in place fairly strict safety protocols including requiring skiers to book and buy online in advance so they can regulate the number of skiers on the mountains at any one time.

Kirkwood Ski Resort only allowing single riders on ski lifts December 2020. (Photo by JT Henderson)

Related: 7 mistakes to avoid when planning a ski trip

What about nearby Nevada or South Lake Tahoe?

In a confusing twist,  South Lake Tahoe has territory in two entirely different states — California and Nevada.

That means if you are staying on the Nevada side of the border, restrictions are comparatively relaxed. All lodging in Nevada is open, restaurants are open for outdoor dining, and casinos are even open (with 25% capacity).

Related: L.A. COVID-19 crackdown

So that means you could conceivably stay in South Lake Tahoe and hit the slopes in California, though that is not permitted under the new restrictions. With such different rules all impacting the same area, it is confusing for many tourists, and will be difficult to enforce. You can find more information, and other resources for travelers at Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

Local officials recommend anyone planning a trip get familiar with restrictions, but with that said, it is probably not the time for leisure travel from outside the area.

What about enforcement?

Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort December 2020. (Photo by JT Henderson)

Unfortunately the new restrictions are unlikely to dissuade some folks from going anyway.

During the lockdown in March, in fact, Tahoe saw a flood of visitors who wanted to find open space and natural settings outside of urban areas. Area residents even lled protests when crowds became too much for many locals.

Eventually, local officials did issue some fines of $1,000 to violators of lockdown measures, but those punishments were few and far between.

Related: CA, OR and WA order recommended quarantine 

Tahoe leaders say there is little they can do to enforce the rules aside from encouraging compliance.

In fact, the El Dorado County sheriff said a few weeks ago that he would not even enforce the state’s required 10 p.m. curfew order. El Dorado County borders Lake Tahoe.

For all things California, take a look at our Golden State hub.

What about ski areas outside of California?

Most ski resorts across the country remain open, but many have numerous restrictions on capacity.

All of Vail Resorts’ 34 North American resorts require advance reservations. Social distancing is requested at most resorts, including a requirement for face coverings and strict limits on the number of people allowed on lifts and gondolas at any one time.

Related: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopening

In Colorado, there are limits on the number of reservations, and parking spots are being restricted to keep crowds down.

The areas in Summit County, Colorado, are have now eliminated indoor dining and prohibited more than one household from sharing lodging after another surge there. Some areas of Colorado are at a less restrictive level for now, but unfortunately more and more counties are hitting the more restrictive “red” level as cases increase and hospital capacity becomes strained.

It’s a different story in Vermont where ski resorts are open, but quarantines are in place for most out-of-state visitors.

Our best advice? Avoid California skiing for now, and make sure wherever you are headed to hit the slopes, that you know the very latest local rules and restrictions.

Featured image of Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort at Lake Tahoe, CA by JT Henderson.

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