I’m guilty of quite a few one-day-stands in my ski love life; that is, visiting a fun, far away ski area for one day and one day only. But I’m not sure I’ve ever tried a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am ski interlude with a doll as big and beautiful as Heavenly at Lake Tahoe. The Heavenly ski area is certainly the type of place that merits a multiday examination, but one day is all my two daughters and I had on a sunny Tuesday in early March, 2005. We were determined to make the best of it.
The Heavenly trail map indicates it has a 3,500 foot vertical drop, 4,800 acres of terrain spanning two states, 30 lifts including eight high speed quads, one tram, and one gondola. Trying to make a reasonably paced reconnoiter of this complex, occasionally chaotic place in one day is like trying to cover the humongous Louvre Museum in Paris, France in two hours. Oops, now I’m guilty on two counts of grand tourist gluttony.
But the thing about a kid running amok in a candy store is that later on they forget the bellyache and just remember how sweet it was. From the Louvre blitz I’ll always remember the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. From my Heavenly visit I’ll always remember the cobalt blue Lake Tahoe and the sepia checkerboard floor of the Nevada desert, both striking in vastly different ways, and both occasionally visible from a single vantage point on this most scenically blessed of ski mountains.
My daughters and I drove in to Tahoe from points south and started our day at Heavenly by taking advantage of the free parking at the California base. We caught the stately 50-passenger Heavenly Aerial Tram at about 10 a.m. The day was already very fair when we boarded, heading towards a high in the fifties with intense sunshine.
The tram attendants had opened the windows and it seemed like we were transported to a hot air balloon ride as that big, beautiful Lake drifted into view. Pointing out the awesome Gunbarrel mogul run below us, I recounted for the kids the infamous family lore of how Grandpa mistakenly led Grandma down it 30 years before on a vacation the two had made to Heavenly. My kids assured me there would be no semblance of family history repeating itself!
After some photo opportunities around the Tram we took a warm-up run in the mellow area served by the Powderbowl Express six-pack chair. Then it was promptly on to the Sky Express quad chair for a gander at the Lake from Heavenly’s highest lift served point, 10,040’. My camera came out again for 30 minutes of nonstop snapshots on Ridge Run and a couple other easy intermediate trails in this area. At one point, joking with a fellow with a British accent, I mentioned, “the views of the Lake sure are distracting.” He agreed, but was a struggling novice and paid much better attention to the trail surface than I.
It was fairly busy on the day we visited and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many gapers on a ski mountain at one time. I mean that in a totally affectionate way, because my pair of Virginia girls and I could certainly be counted among them. People were snapping photos around every curve and I saw many in mid-syllable placing “guess where I’m calling from” cell phone trophy calls. Given the variety of accents, clothing, and ski styles, the national/international draw of guests to Heavenly was unmistakable.
In the vicinity of the California summit there is also a huge terrain park and a popular restaurant/rest stop called Sky Deck at the confluence of the Sky and Canyon express chairs. This section of the mountain features the best views of that gorgeous blue Lake from a plethora of gorgeous blue square runs. Much of Heavenly was unexpectedly well suited for intermediates.
Skyline Trail, the run leading from the California summit to the Nevada side of the resort, is really just a high traverse, but you would be hard pressed to find a more scenic one anywhere, especially when it winds around a corner and the panorama shifts from alpine lake to brown desert, sort of like goodbye Waterworld, hello Road Warrior. On our first run into the Nevada side we kept descending until we got to one of the lowest points on the mountain, Stagecoach Lodge, elevation 7,480’. That run seemed to go on for three or four miles and dropped about 2,600 meandering vertical feet.
I was surprised to find how important the Nevada side of Heavenly is to the overall ski acreage of the resort. It seemed to comprise every bit of 50%, perhaps more. The Nevada side is also loaded with easy blue cruisers and that was our modus operandi for the day. Some of the nice ones we sampled included Orion’s Wave, Big Dipper, California Trail, and the Nevada Trail. I didn’t get to explore the double black diamond Nevada terrain of nearby Mott and Killebrew Canyons, choosing instead to stay close to my intermediate level daughters, but I’m told this area delivers hundreds of acres and 1,500 vertical feet of expert level credibility for Heavenly. The entrances looked bumpy and challenging.
The East Peak Lodge is an important mid-mountain nexus for the upper section of the Nevada side and is highly favored as a lunch stop by many snowriders. But I had other plans. I had backpacked our lunch on this day and at about 1:30 p.m. I told my daughters to start looking for a picnic spot. We found a scenic outcropping of rock just a short hoof uphill from the top of the Comet Express chair with complete privacy and a commanding view of Lake Tahoe.
That picnic will go down in my personal annuls as one of the all time greats: 55 degrees, good company, killer views, no wind, and no horseflies. I wouldn’t trade that meal of cheese, sourdough bread, and bottle of tap water for chateaubriand and Dom Perignon at the Ritz. We placed our own trophy cell phone call to my wife from the 9,500’ vantage point. She was happy for us as we excitedly described our location, but eventually bid farewell to get back to after-school homework with our son. Praise be to those who keep the home fires burning.
After lunch we took a long easy run called Perimeter back down to the lower reaches of the Nevada side. It was very quiet and reminded me of the Salamander trail at West Virginia’s Timberline ski area. Also reminiscent of Timberline, it is served by a slow chair (Galaxy) and I had plenty of time to talk with my lift mate, a gentleman from Florida visiting for 10 days of skiing. He had also come to gamble at the famous nearby casinos. I asked him “up or down?” The answer wasn’t pretty, down enough to fund about five ski trips to Heavenly. I guess that is one of the hazards or joys of a Heavenly vacation, depending on whether - Luck Be A Lady Tonight.
After some more interstate cruising it was time for a final spin through the California side of the mountain in the vicinity of the upper terminal of Heavenly’s gondola. The gondola was constructed in 2000 and is one of three lifts at Heavenly that permit downloading (the others are the Aerial Tram and the Gunbarrel Express quad chair). At the top of the gondola, around an elevation of 8,000’, the resort has built an “Adventure Peak” complex. It is a popular venue for snow tubing, cross-country skiing, sledding, and a beginner downhill ski center, all made feasible by the reliable snow pack at that level.
The gondola also provides an important link making the Nevada town of Stateline “lift served.” Stateline offers 5,000 hotel rooms, several high-rises, and some serious casino-based nightlife. This is quite a contrast to the access road sprawl in South Lake Tahoe adjacent to the California base of the resort. Both environments have their pros and cons and present vacationers with plenty of accommodations and diversions at varying costs.
At precisely 4 p.m. we downloaded on the gondola for a final, scenic 12-minute ride to its base station from where we’d take a free shuttle bus back to our car. Two young Englishmen and a woman from France shared the descent with us to Stateline’s primo setting by the Lake.
The older of the two Brits was an avid snowboarder and dressed rather nattily with some sort of hard body armor underneath his sweater. He was greatly enjoying his sunny California visit, but also talked of his fondness for Chamonix, France, and the exquisite joy of riding powder. Our epic California ski day ended on a nice note of universality among young and old, skiers and boarders, domestic and international; appreciation of powder and the incomparable scenic beauty of Heavenly at Lake Tahoe.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.