Updated October 6, 2022
In the last few years Tahoe has seen plenty of mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships that directly caused fluctuations in season pass pricing and value. All Tahoe mountains are after the same customer, and the competition for skiers continues to grow fiercer.
The two major ski passes of consequence, Vail Resorts's Epic Pass and Alterra's Ikon Pass, have made California one of their primary battlegrounds.
Vail, as the owner of Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Northstar, offers a special Epic Pass for Tahoe-specific skier—the Tahoe Local Pass—in addition to its no-blackout full-throttle Epic Pass. The Tahoe Local Epic Pass saves skiers about $400 from the $900 full Epic Pass and grants access to the three Vail-owned Tahoe resorts minus some select blackout dates around the holidays.
The full Epic Pass, priced less than $900 remains quite a value for skiers who can use it enough. Skiers who prefer Northstar, Kirkwood and Heavenly will get incredible value here, but it's probably best to try and dodge those peak crowds as even more people are going to hold Epic Passes at this price.
In addition, skiers get five total days at other mainline Vail-owned mountains: Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Crested Butte and Park City. There is no access to Whistler-Blackcomb.
The other major pass, offered by Alterra, which owns Palisades Tahoe and Mammoth, is the Ikon Pass, which gets skiers unlimited access to its mountains (Mammoth is not really in the Tahoe region, we know). The Ikon Base Pass, which comes at about a $300 discount to the $1049 full Ikon Pass, gets skiers unlimited skiing to these mountains with some blackout dates (which might seem familiar):
Both the Ikon and Epic passes offer incredible terrain, decent vertical drop, powder stashes, and bountiful skiable acreage…so which pass is better?
A Quick History of the Ikon and the Epic Season Passes in the Lake Tahoe Area
I've lived in Lake Tahoe for 13 years, and I can trace the local season pass wars to 2008-09 when Vail introduced the Epic Pass to Tahoe through its portfolio of ski resorts. The company had acquired Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe in 2002, then Northstar on the North Shore in 2010 and Kirkwood in 2012.
Meanwhile over on the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, JMA Ventures sold Alpine Meadows to KSL Capital Partners in 2011 who was managing Squaw Valley Ski Resort (now Palisades) at the time. The two resorts are right next to each other offering skiers more than 6,000 acres combined of skiable trails (although not physically connected) and KSL began promoting the two ski resorts as one called Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. Then in 2017, KSL and Henry Crown and Company bought Intrawest, Deer Valley, and Mammoth, calling the new conglomerate Alterra. Soon after, Alterra created a season pass to encompass all its properties and called it the Ikon Pass. For Tahoe skiers, they not only got access to Squaw Valley and Alpine, but unlimited skiing at 24 other ski destinations as well.
Now going into the 2019-20 season, both the Ikon and Epic season passes offer incredible value to both local Tahoe skiers and especially winter destination travelers thus prompting the question- which season pass is right for you? Let's see...
Vail Resorts has a few types of season passes depending on where you're at in the world. The Epic Pass ($939 adult rate*) is the big one that includes unlimited skiing at 17 ski resorts in North America and 3 resorts in Australia starting in 2020, as well as a few free lift tickets sprinkled in to use at Telluride, Sun Valley, Snowbasin, and resorts in the Canadian Rockies, Japan, and Europe. So yeah, if you're a hardcore skier and world traveler who is looking to enjoy the snow year-round, then this one's a good option. Vail also just purchased 17 "Peak" resorts in the Midwest and East Coast that will be folded into the mix as soon as the acquisitions are finalized.
But what Tahoe skiers are probably most interested in is the Tahoe Local Pass ($589*) or the Tahoe Value Pass ($499*). The Tahoe Local Pass provides unlimited skiing and riding at Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood (except during the holiday blackout periods) and 5 holiday-restricted daily lift tickets at a few Colorado resorts and Park City.
The Tahoe Value Pass is basically a Sunday-Friday pass which works well for locals who take midweek days off to ski. It also cannot be used during peak or holiday periods.
Pros: The ski resorts that Vail owns in Tahoe are some of the best rated in the area, offering a variety of terrain and other wintertime activities such as snow tubing, alpine coasters and ziplines to entertain skiers of all ages and abilities (as well as give families something to do in the summer months). For those who travel, Vail also has a large concentration of ski resorts in the US and a few worldwide so that you can ski year-round.
Cons: The Vail-owned Tahoe resorts are spread out, and not convenient to all users. And the Epic Pass can concentrate skiers in just a few places.
Bring it on! This is why you buy a pass—to ski on Wednesdays! Courtesy: Heavenly
It was a big deal last season when Mammoth jumped on the Ikon Pass because it added yet another popular world-class ski resort within a 3-hour drive for loyal Palisades skiers. And like the Epic Pass, Alterra keeps adding more ski resorts in the US and around the world to its quiver, thus boosting the value of its offerings to dedicated skiers.
There are now 40 resorts included in the 2019/20 Ikon Pass ($1,049 adult) with no blackout dates, or skiers can opt for the Ikon Base Pass ($749) that has more restrictions. Both passes have connections with ski resorts all over North America, but Ikon passholders get unrestricted skiing at a few more mountains including the newly added Arapahoe Basin in Colorado. The Ikon Pass also has global partnerships with a few resorts in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Chile, and Canada.
For Tahoe locals who plan on staying close to home and are loyal to Palisades, then the full Ikon Pass is practically the only option as it allows you to ski Palisades and even Mammoth whenever you want. The $749 version has blackout dates on all those same resorts during the holidays (which could be the better option for those working in hospitality).
Additional Pros: The new base-to-base gondola at Palisades Tahoe, which unites what were the separate areas of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, now makes the Palisades play even more compelling. A trip to Mammoth, which is the best mountain for snow in the Sierra, is always a good play.
Cons: It's a bit more expensive than the Epic Pass and with Palisades on to it, more destination skiers are streaming into the area filling up the parking lot fast on powder days.
Heavenly skiers, along with everybody else in Tahoe, can see some epic days. Courtesy: Heavenly
Additional Benefits Between the Two Passes
Since season passes are getting up there in price and you don't plan on chasing the snow year-round, then you may be interested in other season pass perks.
Even though it's all about the skiing and quality of snow, it's worth mentioning that an Ikon pass comes with several other perks: summertime access; discounted lift tickets for family and friends; a 1-year membership to POW (Protect Our Winters); access to exclusive lounges and on-mountain workspaces; discounts on retail, food, and beverage; and there are discounts available to military/college students on Ikon pass rates.
If you buy it early enough, the Epic pass comes with six Ski With Friends tickets and access to EpicMix, which is a pretty cool smartphone app that tracks your vertical feet, speed, where you skied that day, and you can even see how long lift lines are.
Bottom line, for Tahoe skiers who value variety and skiing both North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe, the Epic Pass should win out. Epic includes access to Kirkwood, of course, which is our highest rated ski resort for snow in the region, as it gets more and preserves it better than any other mountain in the area.
Palisades is a flagship destination and there are scores of skiers who wouldn't dream of skiing anywhere else on a regular basis. For this group, the Ikon Pass is the play, of course, with the added benefit of getting the Mammoth outlet when wanted.
In short, Palisades devotees should buy the Ikon, and everybody else line up for the Epic.
There can be circumstances that make you switch passes for a season, however. For instance, one year when I was living in North Lake Tahoe, I planned a summertime 2-week ski trip to visit friends in Australia/New Zealand. If the Ikon pass was around at the time, I would've definitely purchased it because most of the resorts I visited when I was in the land down under during our summertime (Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, Mt. Hutt, and Thredbo) are all on that pass. And then I would've skied Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, and probably taken a couple of overnight trips to Mammoth in the wintertime a lot more, too.
And just as Squaw has an ardent following, the Epic Pass has its own boosters. They love riding Northstar midweek and then taking a staycation or two down to Kirkwood and Heavenly if they don't have the time to venture too far from home. Many people have family and friends in Colorado and the plethora of Vail-owned ski resorts in that region gives them a reason to go visit.
Base & Top Elev.