Updated: Dec 7th, 2021
The first time I skied in Lake Tahoe, the binding on my snowboard broke, and I had to skid down the bunny slope on my bum. It made me wonder why anyone would want to ski or snowboard. Fast forward a couple years, I was reintroduced to skiing at Diamond Peak in Lake Tahoe, and this time with properly working equipment. I’ve since gone skiing in Tahoe almost every season and have just upgraded to using intermediate skis. I’ve come a looong way. To save you the agony of figuring out Tahoe’s best ski resorts for beginners, I’m here to pass on my wisdom from several years of trial and error.
But before I dive into a comparison of the ski resorts in Lake Tahoe, here are a few things to know about skiing for the first time in Tahoe (or you can skip directly to the ratings):
North vs. South Lake Tahoe
There are two general areas for activities in Lake Tahoe: North and South Lake Tahoe. Resorts in North Lake Tahoe include Diamond Peak, Squaw, and Northstar. On the South there’s Heavenly and Kirkwood. There’s amazing views on both sides of the lake, so where you end up really depends on which ski resort you decide to go to. It does take an hour to an hour and a half to drive from one side to the other, so make sure you decide on the resort first before booking a place to stay!
If you decide to look for a place in the north, search for “places to stay in North Lake Tahoe” or “places to stay in Truckee” (a town near North Lake where there are plenty of lodging options). If you’re hoping to get some gambling in while you’re in Tahoe, you can even consider staying in Reno. However that’s still about an hour drive to North Lake. If you’re thinking of staying in South Lake, a search for “places to stay South Lake Tahoe” should be give you lots of options.
Wanderer Tip: Keep this page bookmarked to stay up to date on any potential travel restrictions due to the Omicron variant.
A Guide to Ski Trail Levels
Once you arrive at a Tahoe ski resort, you’ll notice the trails are marked with one of the following symbols: a green circle, a blue square, a black diamond, two black diamonds, or an orange rectangle. This tells you how difficult the runs are, with greens being the easiest, followed by blues, black diamonds, and double black diamonds. The orange rectangle indicates a terrain park.
If this is your first time skiing or snowboarding, definitely start with the green circles to get yourself acquainted with the equipment and how they feel on the snow. When in doubt, go on the bunny slopes (the greenest green slopes) until you feel comfortable enough to traverse elsewhere.
I was riding bunny slopes and greens for a few seasons! Obviously, if you feel great after one or two runs, and have much more courage than me, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and try out a blue too. I think I did a blue trail the second time I skied. It scared the sh*t out of me, but I still did it and came back in one piece.
Skier vs. Snowboarder Preferences
After that one incident with the snowboard strap breaking, I’ve only skied. However, a lot of my friends snowboard and they make it very known that their preferences differ from a skier’s.
Snowboarders tend to like steeper slopes because it’s really difficult to move on a snowboard without somewhat of a slope, whereas skiers can still move using their poles or by doing an ice skating motion with their skis. As you read through my list of best ski resorts for beginners, keep in mind that I’m speaking from a skier’s perspective and snowboarders may have slightly different preferences.
Finally, we’re ready for a comparison of the ski resorts in Tahoe and how beginner friendly each of them are.
A Comparison of Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts for Beginners
1210 Ski Way, Incline Village, NV 89451
Beginner friendliness ⭐⭐⭐☆☆ (3.0 out of 5.0)
This is where I learned how to ski for the first time. And if memory serves me right, this place was solid. There are sufficient bunny slopes and green runs that it’s totally possible to start out skiing here. And it’s one of the cheapest ski resorts with weekend lift tickets starting at $124.
However it’s also one of the smallest. When you’re just beginning to learn how to ski or snowboard at Diamond Peak, you don’t get access to the good views, so it might be harder to stay incentivized when you don’t see the beautiful vistas that you’re working so hard for. On top of that, it can get pretty busy especially on the bunny slopes, so that may cause anxiety for someone starting out. All these factors considered, I gave Diamond Peak a 3 out of 5. It’s not a bad option at all!
629 Sugar Bowl Rd, Norden, CA 95724
Beginner friendliness ⭐⭐⭐⭐☆ (4.0 out of 5.0)
I’ve only been to Sugar Bowl once, but I loved it! It’s more of a local’s ski resort, so it doesn’t get as crowded – this is perfect because you can fall all you want and not be afraid that someone might crash into you.
Sugar Bowl is one of the cheapest places to ski in Northern California, with lift tickets starting at $125 for adults. The runs are also fairly wide so it’s easy to make large S’s while skiing – the key to not descend uncontrollably when you’re a beginner skier.
Overall, I gave Sugar Bowl a 4.0 out of 5.0. I didn’t rate it 5.0 out of 5.0 just yet because I want to go a few more times before I decide if it’s really the perfect ski resort for beginners. It’s also technically outside of Lake Tahoe, so you might not get to do all the activities you want besides skiing and snowboarding.
1501 Kirkwood Meadows Dr, Kirkwood, CA 95646
Beginner friendliness ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5.0 out of 5.0)
Kirkwood is one of my favorite ski resorts in Lake Tahoe. Not only does it have lots of options for beginner to intermediate skiers, the runs tend to be wider, and the staff there are so friendly! On top of all that, the views are amazing.
I also took a ski class there and the instruction was both informative and pushed me to improve. Out of all the Tahoe ski resorts, Kirkwood is definitely a top best ski resort for beginners. A 5.0 out of 5.0.
Wanderer Tip: Try skiing here when it’s snowing. The place turns into a winter wonderland and it’s GORGEOUS. This is probably true for other ski resorts too, but I’ve only experienced it here so…
3860 Saddle Rd, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
Beginner friendliness ⭐⭐⭐☆☆ (3.0 out of 5.0)
Oh Heavenly. This is probably the most popular ski resort in South Lake Tahoe, and not without reason. The ski resort has a nice village at its base. With coffee shops, restaurants, and seating areas with fireplaces, it’s what you would imagine a bougie skiing vacation to look like.
But because it’s so popular and gets so many tourists, it’s one of the most crowded resorts and can be really challenging for beginners to learn at. If you do want to come here though, I’d recommend coming during a week day or maybe really early in the morning to avoid the rush.
5001 Northstar Dr, Truckee, CA 96161
Beginner friendliness ⭐⭐⭐⭐☆ (4.0 out of 5.0)
I went to Northstar for the first time in December of 2020 and fell in love with it instantly. The place wasn’t packed (I did go on a week day though), and the runs were wide enough for me to make my big S’s without feeling like I was taking up the whole trail. I also thought the other skiers were around my level so there wasn’t a ton of advanced skiers clashing with me on the blue trails.
I do want to go back and see if it’s the same on a weekend. But the fact that my boyfriend who’s been skiing since he was in middle school considers Northstar one of the best ski resorts in Tahoe makes me feel a little better about giving it such a high rating!
1960 Squaw Valley Rd, Olympic Valley, CA 96146
Beginner friendliness ⭐⭐☆☆☆ (2.0 out of 5.0)
Similar to Heavenly, Palisades (formerly known as Squaw) is a popular ski resort among avid skiers and snowboarders. The 1960 Winter Olympics were hosted there, the mountain is HUGE, and the views are second to none.
However, it’s probably one of the worst places to ski for beginners! With all the reasons that makes it attractive, the mountain attracts a lot of skiers and snowboarders, and a lot of them advanced at their sport.
When I visited Palisades, I noticed a lot of the beginner to intermediate ski trails (green and blue) overlapped with advanced ski trails (black diamonds), so it was common for fast skiers and snowboarders to be whooshing by me all the time. I was shouting “no more!” in my head by the end of it all. If you’re up for the challenge though, give Squaw a try, and the great views might just be worth all the effort dodging those other skiers.
Lake Tahoe: The Best Place to Ski or Snowboard for the First Time
Whether it’s your first or second time skiing/snowboarding or it’s been a minute since you last hit the slopes, you’ll find that there’s something for everyone at Lake Tahoe.
In my opinion, the best ski resorts for beginners are Kirkwood, Northstar, and Sugar Bowl. And for the more daring beginner skiers or those advancing to intermediate, you can give Heavenly and Squaw a try. No matter where you go, you’ll probably be taken away by the amazing winter scenery that is Lake Tahoe and forget about your nerves from learning the sport.
Not sure what to pack for your first ski trip? Check out my top 13 essentials to pack for skiing!