HEAVENLY MOUNTAIN RESORT, CALIF. & NEVADA
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Published February 1998. Italicized updates/revisions May 2006.
Heavenly's ski area permit covers 4,800 acres, but this overstates the useable ski terrain relative to other Sierra areas. The mountain has three layers on the California side and two in Nevada, with chair rides or relatively flat catwalks connecting the layers. Its variety is comparable to Alpine Meadows or Kirkwood, but considerably less than Mammoth or Squaw Valley. Heavenly's main attraction is its upper mountain intermediate runs, with memorable scenic views of Lake Tahoe in California and well over a hundred miles into the Great Basin in Nevada.
|SNOW CONDITIONS||Altitude||Season||Standard||High Mths||Low Mths||Maximum||Direction of Exposure|
|Range||Average||Deviation||GE 90 in.||LT 30 in.||Base Depth||North||East||West||South|
|Heavenly Resort, Calif. 8,400||6,500-10,000||248||79||17%||34%||91||60%||10%||25%||5%|
|Heavenly Resort, Calif.& Nev. 10,000||6,500-10,000||389||112||39%||18%||N/A||60%||10%||25%||5%|
Heavenly Valley is southeast of Lake Tahoe and several miles east of the Sierra crest. Therefore average snowfall at its 8,400 foot tram station is only 248 inches. The ski area extends up to 10,100 feet but also down to its 6,600 foot California base. Heavenly used to have a 7 mile 4,000 vertical foot run on the Nevada side, but it was skiable so infrequently that in 1982 the ski area management relocated its lowest Nevada chairlift to a higher elevation. Heavenly's location near the casinos and most of Tahoe's lodging also brings high skier density, thus aggravating the coverage problems relative to the ski areas with higher snowfall. Therefore in the late 1980's Heavenly invested in Northern California's most comprehensive snowmaking system. This has greatly improved the reliability of Gunbarrel and East Bowl at the California base, which are probably the most expert runs in the West with snowmaking. The more extreme Mott Canyon area in Nevada is still subject to natural snow only. Due to snowmaking, Heavenly had a successful 1991 season while its rivals were in very limited operation until March. Fortunately the popular intermediate terrain is on the upper mountain that gets the most snow.
For intermediates, the Sky and Dipper chairs offer the highest altitude at Tahoe, and snow preservation will be superior to the other Tahoe areas, though not as good as Mammoth. February and March are the best months to ski Heavenly due to maximum coverage and relatively good preservation. Gunbarrel will usually have spring conditions and is best skied in the afternoon when the bumps have softened.
Since Heavenly has trees to the top, it has fewer weather closures than the other major Sierra ski mountains. However, the popular Sky chair is the one which will close in high winds, separating the California and Nevada sides. When warm storms hit Tahoe, it will usually rain about halfway up Heavenly and still snow in the Sky and Dipper areas.
Cruising: The scenic cruising runs of Sky and Dipper are what Heavenly is most famous for, but there is now a lot of lift capacity. Therefore, if you want to go for speed in California, get to Sky chair early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Skier density is still lower on the Nevada side, where the longest cruise is Olympic Downhill, 2,300 vertical.
Moguls: Gunbarrel is the classic, 1,800 vertical, continuously steep with a panoramic view of Lake Tahoe. Shorter, less grueling, and with better snow conditions are Little Dipper and North Bowl in Nevada.
Steeps: There were very few until Mott Canyon was opened by snowcat in the late 80's and finally got a chairlift in 1990. Mott has several narrow chutes which are very comparable to Squaw's in difficulty. Be prepared, because the approach is through trees and you'll have to hike back out if the chutes appear too tough upon close inspection. It can take until February (in nearly 40% of seasons) to get Mott covered, but snow preservation is excellent.
Wide Open Spaces: Minimal, as Heavenly is forested to the top. As you enter Nevada on the Skyline trail, traverse right as soon as possible to get the maximum vertical in Milky Way Bowl. If you want more steeps or open terrain, try Kirkwood.
Trees: Heavenly's trees are perfectly spaced for skiing nearly everywhere. Just be careful to avoid getting stuck in flat areas or in Sierra cement at the lower elevations.
Powder: While Heavenly's snowfall is lower than most Tahoe areas, it is a good choice for skiing during storms because of the trees. If the wind shuts Sky chair, drive to the Nevada base and ski untracked snow all day. On fair weather powder days, it won't last long because the mountain is so convenient to reach and there is a lot of lift capacity.
Backcountry: Formerly not permitted by the ski area, backcountry gates were opened in 2005-06. From the new gondola to the old California base there are 2,500 vertical of trees overlooking South Lake Tahoe. On the Nevada side the drainage beyond Killebrew Canyon drops nearly 5,000 vertical (expect to hike the bottom of this) to the Carson Valley. Partners, rescue gear and advance scouting of the often sketchy low elevation terrain are strongly recommended.
Crowds: Heavenly's proximity to most of Tahoe's lodging, plus the views and the intermediate terrain mean lots of skiers. However, there are now five high speed lifts on the upper mountain to keep the lines manageable. With all the nightlife in the area, it's easy to beat the crowds by starting early. The new gondola provides walk-on access from the Stateline casinos and several South Lake Tahoe hotels. The gondola often has a long line to download at the end of the day, but Heavenly provides free shuttles from the California and Nevada bases back to the Stateline area. For skiers with a car using the Nevada base at Boulder or Stagecoach is still the best way to escape crowds, especially early and late in the day.
Skier density is fairly high in the upper and middle sections of California. Heavenly gets plenty of both weekend and destination business. The weekenders tend to ski Heavenly on Saturday and somewhere else on the way back to the Bay Area on Sunday. Reverse this pattern to minimize waiting on the weekends.
Intermediates: There are no real terrain gaps except for Mott/Killebrew Canyons being far beyond anything else. For a steep cruise, East Bowl at the California base is sometimes groomed.
Novices: In my opinion, Heavenly remains a problematic mountain for beginners. One green section in California is the middle of the three layers, consisting of two trails with heavy traffic from more advanced skiers, and the other is at the low and sun-exposed base. The Boulder base area in Nevada and Big Easy at the top of the gondola are better, but only Boulder of these 4 distinct areas has as much as 400 vertical. The Galaxy chair of 1,100 vertical is actually the best novice area, but you have to ski at least 1,000 vertical of blue runs to get to it, and over 2,000 vertical of blue runs to get back to either base area. The other South Tahoe areas, Sierra at Tahoe (20 minute drive) and Kirkwood (40 minutes) are much better for beginners.
Children: For the reasons above Heavenly is best appreciated by children of at least intermediate ability. Supervision or good navigation skills are needed to avoid finishing the day in the opposite state from where one started.
Miscellaneous: South Lake Tahoe is a bargain for lodging. Besides the tacky motels, there are many houses to rent for a reasonable price because there is more tourism in summer than winter. The Heavenly Village at the gondola base adds some more upscale and convenient lodging options. The Stateline casinos make South Tahoe one of the top apres-ski destinations in North America. Having a car is very important if you want to sample a variety of ski areas. The drive around the lake to Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows is at least 45 minutes and can be a real ordeal in traffic or bad weather. Week long visitors should consider staying half the week at North Shore and half the week at South Shore to minimize the driving.