Family-Friendly Skiing in North Lake Tahoe

by  Amie O'Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino | Feb 3, 2011
Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake Tahoe
Resort at Squaw Creek, Lake Tahoe / Photo courtesy of the property

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If you’re dreaming of a California ski vacation with kids, Lake Tahoe offers an array of fantastic resorts for families. The stunning scenery is a plus, but what makes this area exceptionally kid-friendly for ski vacations is the resort set-up and the huge selection of accommodation options including cabins, condos, and amenity-packed hotels.

The main ski resorts in Lake Tahoe are located on the North and South shores of the lake. It’s not easy to get from one side of the lake to the other over the winter months, so families should choose one side as a home-base.

Which destination is best for families? Everyone has a different answer to this question.  In short, both sides of the lake have excellent resorts for kids. I grew up going to the North Shore and that’s what I know best. Here’s a review of three family favorites in that area.

Sugar Bowl

Sugar Bowl is timeless. It’s the kind of place where the same families return year-after-year. The Inn at Sugar Bowl is the historic center of the resort and always has kids loitering around the lobby lounge. Despite the fact that the resort is smaller than some of the other Tahoe options, there is terrain to suit all abilities and the resort has consistently invested in ski infrastructure.  Sugar Bowls’ ski school is excellent. The resort is committed to being a top family resort; this is key in all respects as it creates a kid-friendly attitude that is pervasive from the lift operators to the ski instructors.

Sugar Bowl has few activities for non-skiers, no ski village, and a limited list of accommodations. That said, if skiing in a convenient and comfortable environment is a priority, the resort is a terrific choice. The Inn at Sugar Bowl is ski-out and consistently offers deals, particularly if your kids are young enough where you can go midweek. Another plus is the location before Donner Summit – you save at least 30 minutes of driving time when you come up from the Bay Area. This distance difference is meaningful, particularly on notoriously traffic-heavy Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Squaw Valley USA

Squaw Valley has over 4,000 acres of skiable terrain (versus Sugar Bowl with 1,500 acres). The sheer size of the resort is a pro and con for families. A mind-boggling array of runs and routes satisfies skiers of all abilities, although Squaw is known for extreme skiing and attracts a high concentration of the expert, not-so-kid-friendly crowd.

That said, there are a few beginner-focused areas. The tricky part for families is that at any point in Squaw – particularly mid-mountain – you can encounter a range of skiers and snowboarders in one place as trails converge, a nerve-wracking experience when you are skiing with little kids.

Squaw Valley is perfect, however, for tweens and teens as there’s always some sort of hip ski event in progress. This description of the Squaw Sessions Teen Camp communicates all – kids this age love Squaw and if you’re staying in accommodations within the resort, they can have some independence too.

Convenient accommodations are plentiful; we recommend an array of options on Ciao Bambino that are all within minutes of a ski lift including Resort at Squaw Creek (deluxe condos within a full service hotel), Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn (kid-friendly boutique hotel), Squaw Valley Lodge (value-oriented condos), and The Village at Squaw Valley (deluxe condos in the heart of the village).

Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort

Vail Resorts acquired Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort last fall. It’s too early to tell how this will impact the ski experience here, but the resort has a number of elements that makes it a top choice for families.

The base village area was redeveloped recently and is a prime example of a job well done where many other ski base areas have failed. The setting is idyllic and has everything skiers and non-skiers alike need to relax blissfully including interesting shops, excellent restaurants, and an ice rink in the middle of it all. This matters with young kids given that at least one parent is likely to loiter in the village with children that aren’t old enough to ski or between lessons.

The vibe at Northstar is family versus cool and the resort has put together an entertaining program with skiing and non-skiing family activities. The kids ski school here is popular and has different options for a variety of ages and abilities. The only real downside of Northstar is that it gets crowded – miserably so – during peak holiday periods with long lift lines and more hassle accessing facilities.

There is a range of accommodations including cabin rentals (not necessarily ski-out). VRBO can be a great way to find and book great deals in Northstar – see the VRBO Northstar page for the selection. For a full service luxury resort, the new Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe is extraordinary with some of the best guest rooms I’ve encountered, glorious mountain architecture, and pampering for all ages.

Skiing is an expensive sport for families and unfortunately none of these resorts have a kids ski free program in place (although kids under 12 ski for $12 at Squaw Valley). If you plan to put your kids in lessons and/or need childcare, be sure to check out our summary of ski lesson and childcare rules and pricing on Ciao Bambino.

For general trip-planning information, see our Lake Tahoe Travel Guide, and for other kid-friendly slopes throughout the U.S. check out the Top 10 Family Ski Resorts.

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