We got to experience opening weekend at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California in November. Of course, this ski season during a global pandemic is like no other. Everyone needs to closely follow local guidelines, restrictions, and be prepared – including the chance that plans may need to be cancelled. Even if a resort is open, the capacity for local hospitals to manage additional cases on top of COVID-19 should be considered.
In fact, as of today, December 10, Lake Tahoe is essentially closed to visitors for three weeks. (This is less clear than it seems, as ski resorts are still open, and hotels and restaurants across the border in Nevada – literally walking distance from Heavenly – are operating at limited capacity.)
My goal here is not to encourage or discourage ski trip planning, but simply to share our experience at a popular Western US resort with new protocols in place.
After three years at Sky Tavern, a wonderful local co-op ski program where the kids went from complete novices to training with the race team, we decided to take advantage of our proximity to several world-class resorts in the Lake Tahoe area. An Epic Local Tahoe Pass allows us to explore different ski areas, and also provides some flexibility if there are closures among the participating resorts. (There are three major ski passes in the US with varying options. It’s pretty complicated. )
We made lift ticket reservations in advance, which were only available to pass holders opening weekend. Heavenly is a doable day trip from home, but we decided to book a hotel one night to give us time to ease into the new protocols at a new-to-us resort. This was a good decision.
We booked Marriott’s Timber Lodge for its location in Heavenly Village, right next to the gondola. Since our Epic passes hadn’t yet arrived in the mail we had to pick them up at the gondola ticket booth. However, the only slopes that were open yet for skiing were a short drive away at the California Lodge. We would have been hard pressed for time if we tried to do it all in one day.
Overall I was impressed with the clear and consistent safety protocols in place at the Marriott. Our room was tight for the four of us but contemporary and clean, which was good since we spent a lot of time there.
- Valet staff wore masks and gloves, and wiped down the interior. (There is no self-parking at this property.) The valet ticket was texted, with a link to click in advance to have our car ready to go. This link was also used for contactless check-out.
- Baggage carts were available outside the entrance, in clearly marked sections of “Sanitized” or “Used”.
- Front desk staff were masked and behind plexiglass. The check-in service was streamlined, with minimal touch points. (Contactless check-in and keys are available at other properties through the Marriott app.)
- Masks were mandatory, and all guests we saw in public areas of the hotel were complying. Hand sanitizing stations were available in several places. Elevators had signs to limit each ride to only one person or a group traveling together.
- Book a room with a kitchenette or mini fridge. Not only can you store food from home for snacks on the slopes, but a fridge and microwave come in handy if you don’t/can’t eat out.
- Read up on the hotel’s new cleaning protocols from their website and online reviews. Bring antiseptic wipes for the tv remote and other high touch areas.
- If your favorite part of apres ski is relaxing in the hot tub, check the hotel rules before arriving. Hot tubs at Timber Lodge were available by timed reservation only, and were already booked for the evening hours by noon.
Heavenly Village Experience
The Village is a complex of shops, restaurants, and public areas surrounding the gondola, all connected by outdoor walkways. In “before times” I loved this type of social atmosphere at a ski resort where you can browse shops, have a relaxed meal, and sit around the fire pit with a drink while the kids play corn hole. This year, even though we were outdoors, it was just too crowded for our comfort.
- Most people, but not all, were wearing masks. Because of the crowds, social distancing wasn’t really possible.
- Restaurants had ample outdoor seating. However, the waits were long, and there seemed to be a lot of unmasked groups just hanging out like in before times. We ended up eating at the hotel restaurant’s outdoor patio, with a window for ordering and distanced tables. The food was pricey, but surprisingly good.
- The outdoor booths for the Epic Pass and gondola tickets were understaffed. People in line were masked and distanced, but we had to wait over an hour to pick up our passes that we already ordered and paid for.
- We took advantage of the fact that our passes include the Heavenly Gondola ride even when the slopes aren’t open. The kids loved the novelty of the ride, and the views of Lake Tahoe are spectacular. It was a fun family excursion, although I don’t know it’s worth the full ticket price.
- After our late lunch and the gondola ride, we decided to just relax in our hotel room for the evening. We ate snacks for dinner, and desert selected by Rita for her birthday.
- Be prepared to spend more time in your hotel room or Airbnb than you normally would. It would have been nice to hang out around the Village, but we found it just too busy for our comfort.
- Have a few options in mind for meals. For us it was the crowds, but it may be restrictions that limit your options. Getting to eat out and support a local business is ideal, but be prepared with food from home or a nearby grocery store to supplement take-out meals.
- Consider going out for breakfast. I picked up coffee in the Village before 8am and there was hardly anyone else around. (I will always make the effort to get fresh brewed coffee over the stuff available in a hotel room.)
Sunday morning we checked out and drove to California Lodge for the limited runs that were open. Shuttle buses are also available from the Village.
- In the parking lot, cars were spaced every other spot during the morning rush to allow distancing as people unpacked and got their gear on.
- In addition to reservations, masks are required on lift lines and anywhere around or inside facilities, including gondolas. In other words, masks should be on when not actively skiing or eating.
- Heavenly staff were great about consistently monitoring and enforcing proper mask wearing, up and down the lift lines. It was clear that the staff was well-trained and empowered, critical for full compliance.
- Skis and snowboards allow for natural social distancing in a lift line. Multiple lines were cordoned off and spaced well apart. Distancing is enforced on the lifts themselves by limiting capacity and spacing out riders who aren’t already in a group.
- I only went inside the California Lodge to use the restroom, but they were prepared for food service with clearly marked and divided walking paths, plexiglass barriers, and one-way flow through an entrance and exit on opposite ends of the building.
- Try different masks on with your helmet. We wore buffs/gaiters that are fine for hiking, but pulling them up and down under helmets made them loose, and we had to keep adjusting for the kids.
- Arrive early. This is a good rule anytime, but especially now. The slopes and lift lines were steadily busier as the morning progressed.
- Bring snacks and water. The one outdoor dining place open was super expensive. Indoor food service is available with protocols in place, but based on typical lunch crowds I wouldn’t risk the time inside. If you do purchase food, be prepared to eat outside.
- Use a backpack or outdoor lockers at the lodges for packed food and drinks.
- Take it easy! Being back on skis plus being around so many people for the first time in months was a lot to take in. We were happy to get a few runs in and leave by noon to enjoy lunch in town.
Bottom line: be flexible, be patient, be respectful, and support local businesses when you can. Wear a mask. Be prepared to cancel plans and stay home. Most of all, be safe, including on the slopes. This is not the year to push your limits and risk injury. We hope to get many more ski days in, but will be making game day decisions based on changing regulations and our own comfort.