Some secrets are meant to be kept. And others are simply too good to keep.
With apologies to the locals of Carson Valley, Nevada who perhaps like their towns unknown, I’m spilling.
Carson Valley, Where?
First, let’s get oriented. Like all good secrets, Carson Valley — just 45 minutes south of Reno and 15 miles from Heavenly Ski Resort— has been largely unsung in the ski world.
Home to three small towns, Minden, Gardnerville and Genoa, Carson Valley is a window on the American West, a broad valley tucked into the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The Sierra rise sharply here, climbing from just under 5,000 feet to surpass 10,000 feet at the summit of Heavenly ski area. The landscape is classically western, a mix of ranches and grazing lands, forested foothills etched with dramatic cliffs and tight drainages, soaring raptors, and even a beloved herd of wild horses.
Genoa, location of the first pioneer settlement in Nevada, is also arguably Nevada’s first ski town. This is thanks to the legacy of Snowshoe Thompson, a Norwegian immigrant who navigated winter in the wilderness, skiing the mail between Genoa and Placerville, California for twenty years from 1856-1876.
Now known as the “Father of California Skiing,” Thompson is buried and memorialized in Genoa.
On Heavenly’s Backdoor
The number one reason to why Carson Valley is a great skiing destination is the quick access to Heavenly Mountain Resort.
A top-notch ski resort, owned by Vail Resorts and on the Epic Pass, Heavenly is known for beautifully-groomed cruisers, leg-burning moguls, widely spaced glades of old growth trees, bowl skiing, and expert-only adventure in two gated canyons. It’s also known for stunning views of Lake Tahoe, and its stateline straddling location, makes it possible for Heavenly ski area visitors to ski two states — Nevada and California — in one day.
With 4,800 skiable acres, Heavenly is the largest resort at Lake Tahoe. With 3,500 vertical feet, it’s got the biggest drop on the West Coast. Heavenly’s summit tops out at 10,067 feet, making it the highest resort in the area, with excellent snow conditions to match. Regarding snow, Heavenly receives an average of 360 annual inches and 60% of the mountain has snowmaking.
Heavenly has four access points, two in California, both busy with skiers and sightseers, and two in Nevada, which are quieter and offer fast, efficient access to the heart of the mountain.
Coming from Carson Valley, it’s less than a 1/2 hour to Stagecoach Lodge with free parking, dining and the high-speed Stagecoach Express. Parking spots fill, so arrive early or come for the afternoon when others are leaving.
You’ll want to arrive early anyway, because the fresh corduroy goes fast. Nevada and California skiers get up early to get the groom and arguably the best cruisers are on the Nevada side. Once they’re tracked out, it’s time to explore the trees, bowls and canyons.
Stagecoach Lodge doesn’t serve any beginner terrain. For that, follow the signs right instead of left near the resort and park at Boulder Lodge. Boulder Lodge has beginner terrain, ski and ride school lessons, all-mountain access and free parking.
Epic Adventures At Kirkwood
While it only takes one ski resort to make a ski town (especially when that resort is Heavenly), Carson Valley has easy access to two additional class California ski areas.
Kirkwood Mountain Resort, is a no-nonsense destination with gentle terrain at the bottom and a series of advanced and expert peaks and bowls rimming the top. Like Heavenly, Kirkwood is on the Epic pass, making it a natural add-on for visitors seeking a “two-fer” ski vacation.
Kirkwood is just 45 minutes from Carson Valley on quiet roads.
(For details on skiing and riding at Kirkwood, see our full 2020 review)
Deep in the Forest at Sierra-At-Tahoe
Skiing at Sierra-At-Tahoe offers great value, especially if you purchase tickets in advance or have a Powder Alliance pass.
With 2,000 skiable acres, but only 47 marked trails, Sierra-At-Tahoe is all about playful terrain. Navigate massive moguls and buried boulder fields. Enjoy the popular park scene. Explore beautiful, moss covered glades.
West Bowl offers the most designated runs, while Huckleberry Canyon provides a more backcountry experience.
Just 40 miles from Carson Valley, Sierra-At-Tahoe is a popular learn-to-ski and ride destination, for all ages. Of note, if you’ve got little snowboarders check out Yoda’s Riglet Reel park.
When You Go…
Reno-Tahoe International Airport is the gateway to Carson Valley. Generally uncrowded, with lots of flight options and on-site car rental, it’s possible to deplane and be driving away (in a 4WD vehicle, please), within 30 minutes.
Once in Carson Valley, most lodging options are in Minden and Gardnerville.
We stayed at the Carson Valley Inn, which has a casino with a separate entrance. The entire facility has been completely remodeled in the last few years. The rooms are large, modern, clean, and quiet. The sleeping is good, as is the breakfast, which is a great value. Speaking of value, my husband’s mind was blown when he purchased a beer and a soft drink for a total of $3.25 at the bar. And bonus for your tired legs: there is a large indoor pool and hot tub area, too.
Other lodging in the area is available Holiday Inn Vacation Club with condos at 1862 David Walley’s Hot Spring Resort. If you like hot springs, the multiple pools are really nice, but very pricey.
The local food and beverage scene in Carson Valley is burgeoning, as befits an area with a strong agricultural heritage. Cook’d, across from Carson Valley Inn, serves up locally-sourced burgers and authentic Italian favorites. The nearby Overland Restaurant and Pub features an old west atmosphere with local foods and smokehouse favorites.
In Genoa, The Pink House and Sierra Chef are excellent lunch options, while bellying up at the Genoa Bar and Saloon takes you back in time and anchors you squarely in today, with creative cocktails served at Nevada’s oldest “thirst parlor.”
But for hungry skiers, the “don’t miss” meal is found at JT Basque Bar and Dining Room. A multi-course Basque meal served family style, you choose your entree and ice cream, while everything else just comes to the table, course, after course. Pace yourself! It’s all so very good.
Carson Valley, Nevada is much more than skiing and winter tourism. Wildlife tours, art walks, air shows, mountain biking, hiking, and fishing make for four season adventure.
To facilitate this post and these experiences, we were hosted by Visit Carson Valley in January 2020. As always, all opinions are my own and are exactly what I would tell my family and friends.
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