A ski resort with terrain for all levels and closeby lodging, lots of apres ski activities and a good ski school make for great vacations on snow.
California has the largest population of any state in the U.S., and the gazillion skiers and riders who live here have a wide variety of in-state choices, some relatively close to the big cities and others a solid road trip away. But, Californians are used to being in their cars so they will make the long treks, even for a weekend.
Southern California’s San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains provide easy access from Los Angeles to resorts like Bear Mountain, Snow Summit, Snow Valley and Mountain High. Farther north, the Sierra Nevada range is the most popular ski destination among California ski resorts. Mammoth Mountain and its sister resort June Mountain in the Eastern Sierra has steeps and bowls for a variety of skill levels. Within the Sierra Nevada, the Lake Tahoe region has the most concentrated amount of high quality ski areas in all of California. On the lake’s north side, Palisade-Tahoe’s steeps and cliffs will suit the extreme skiers while Sugar Bowl receives enough snow to satisfy most powder hounds. On the south side, Heavenly crosses the border into Nevada with more skiing than most can handle in a week and Kirkwood provides a broad range of advanced skiing and snowboarding terrain.
There are too many choices to describe them all here, so we’ve chosen some in Southern, Central and Northern portions of the Golden State, both day areas and destinations so you get the picture.
Mountain High in the San Gabriel Mountains near Wrightwood is a mecca for the younger snowboarding crowd from Los Angeles. Mountain High is actually three ski areas with differing terrain all merged into one exciting, happening place. Skiers of a certain age will fondly remember Blue Ridge and Holiday Hill, but will be just as thrilled with the combination that makes up what is now known as Mountain High. The resort has a vertical drop of 1,600 feet with top elevation of 8,200 feet and rolls out over 290 acres about evenly spread among beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain. There are 14 lifts, including 2 high-speed quads. It is likely the most popular resort in the southland of the state.
A little farther east are the San Bernardino Mountains (The San Berdoos as they are nicknamed), home to the Big Bear Mountain resorts of Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, which are 1.5 miles apart, above the southeast shore of Big Bear Lake.
Bear Mountain Resort covers 748 skiable acres and has a top elevation of 8,805 feet and a 1,665 foot vertical drop. There are 62 runs: 15 percent green, 15 percent low intermediate, 40 percent intermediate and 30 percent advanced. All are serviced by 12 lifts with a lift capacity of 16,590 skiers per hour. Bear Mt., like parts of Mountain High in the San Gabriels, is a snowboarder's prime time. Meanwhile its sister, Snow Summit, has a totally different personality. Snow Summit, where many believe modern snowmaking was invented, has 14 lifts and caters to a more traditional type of clientele, i.e., skiers and snowboarders who simply wish to cruise on groomed runs. Both are accessible by a free shuttle bus, and both have an interchangeable lift ticket.
Snow Valley is the best kept secret delight, however. Long known as Fish Camp, the 80-year- old ski area became Snow Valley when Norwegian skier Sverre Engen thought it needed a new moniker way back when. It’s the first ski area you come to driving to Big Bear Lake on Hwy. 18 at Running Springs. Don’t overlook it. This a solid ski resort that rivals both of those at the Lake 13 miles down the road. You'll ski and ride on 240 acres (164 available at night). There are 32 runs spread out on 32 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 34 percent advanced and 13 percent marked expert.
Read more on Southern California ski resorts here.
Mammoth Mountain ski area really is in Central California though generally considered to be part of the SoCal region because most of its myriad of fans make the nearly 6-hour drive from the City of Angels and a few hours more from San Diego. There are more than 3,500 skiable acres with 3,100 feet of vertical and 175 runs, serviced by 25 lifts including 9 express quads, 2 six-packs and 2 gondolas. There are 10 terrain parks and 2 halfpipes, some ranked as the best in the county. And here's the best part of a Mammoth ski trip - their average number of sunshine-filled days is 300 per year. Yes, it is indeed mammoth in all respects. Mammoth, for certain, is among the top ski resorts in the United States. Its little sister, June Mountain, is about a 30-minute drive up the highway and has a distinct family vibe all its own. Many make a big mistake by not taking at least one day out of their Mammoth vacation to ski and ride June.
China Peak Mountain, on Highway 165, east of Huntington Lake, has more than 1,200 skiable acres with a total of 45 runs serviced by 11 lifts. It can be overlooked with big names north in the High Sierra Lake Tahoe area, but give it a whirl. It’s family owned and very popular among those who live in Fresno (50 miles away) and other Central Valley towns. The longest run is 2.25 miles, and there are 3 terrain parks. The name comes from Chinese Mountain. The original name is China Peak and it returned after some years as Sierra Summit when owned by Snow Summit in So. California.
The 15 High Sierra resorts ringing gorgeous Lake Tahoe include some of the best ski vacation destinations in the country and because they are within a few miles of each other – think the North Shore – your vacation can have as much variety among big and small mountains as you can handle.
Heavenly Ski Resort on the South Lake Tahoe Shore at Stateline is the kingpin at the lake along with Palisades-Tahoe on the North Shore. Heavenly is owned by Vail Resorts and offers enormous amounts of skiable terrain – 4,800 acres - crossing into Nevada as well. Its magnificent views of the lake alone are worth skiing here. It’s no slouch in height, either, topping out at 10,067 feet. There are 97 trails served by 28 lifts for all skill levels. Intermediates, for example, enjoy 48 percent of the terrain.
Palisades-Tahoe, known as Squaw Valley until recently, hosted the first televised winter Olympic Games in 1960 with Walt Disney producing the pageantry and that memorable USA vs USSR hockey game. Today, with the acquisition of Alpine Meadows and a new base-to-base gondola shuttling skiers and riders between them, this is indeed a world-class resort experience. Explore 6,000 acres of uninterrupted terrain and be transported by 29 lifts including an aerial tram, 4 six-packs and 3 express quads. Palisades is an Alterra Resort.
Northstar Tahoe, another Vail-owned resort, has an upscale family vibe at Truckee on the North Shore. This, too, is a big resort with 3,170 acres of skiable terrain, and a vertical drop of 2,280 feet. There are 20 lifts including 3 gondolas, 2 six-packs and 6 quads. The village has a cozy magic to it and the mid-mountain Ritz Carlton offers a pricey, but wonderful, vacation.
For a really good off-the-beaten-pass experience, head north to Mt. Shasta Ski Park near the tiny town of McLeod in Siskiyou County, some 50 miles south of the Oregon border. The excitement this season is the opening of the Gray Butte lift, a long-awaited multi-million dollar 4,050-foot quad lift opening up new terrain and backcountry. Mt. Shasta covers more than 631 skiable acres with 38 trails served by 6 lifts. The run-off from the mountain forms the headwaters of the McLeod River, one of the most revered trout streams in the world. Did we mention scenery? No need.
There are 34 public downhill ski resorts. Some have formidable vertical drops and more than 100 trails, while others are smaller with gentle terrain and rope tows. The resorts are spread across the state from the south just east of Los Angeles to the northern edge near Oregon. Most are defined by Lake Tahoe to the north and extending south through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The High Sierra is the highest range, extending along the eastern edge of the state. However, there are plenty of other ranges in California keeping skiing within driving distance – sometimes an hour or two, sometimes a good trek - for nearly all its skiers and riders.
California’s best ski resorts compare well with those to Utah and Colorado. The Sierra Nevada ranges form the eastern edge of the state, and the local history includes plenty of stories about settlers caught in blizzards (visiting famous Donner Pass in the summertime is an interesting trip). Ski resorts throughout California are known for some of the highest snowfall in the country, and it’s world-class destinations such as Mammoth Mountain, Heavenly and Palisades Tahoe should be on every skier or snowboarder’s wish list. The day ski areas ringing Los Angeles have a youthful vibe and are clearly worth the short drive from L.A. or San Diego.
Mammoth Mountain sits at a higher elevation and gets more snow than do the Lake Tahoe resorts. Mammoth also has more open terrain compared with Lake Tahoe. Mammoth Lakes has one huge mountain (and a smaller family sister - June Mountain up the road a bit) and Lake Tahoe has several towns and smaller mountains that are more spread out on the North and South sides of the lake. If you prefer to ski or snowboard in April and May—or even into parts of June or July during some years—Mammoth is your ticket. Lake Tahoe is much busier than Mammoth Lakes, especially along the South Shore where most of the restaurants, shops and big casinos are located. Mammoth Lakes is much quieter during the week, but hordes of Angelenos make the 6-hour drive every weekend. Both make terrific vacations.
Mammoth is home to the state's highest ski peak and highest base elevation of 11,053 feet. Mammoth legitimately earns its name. The mountain is California’s highest lift-served four-season resort.
Palisades Tahoe is located on the North Shore of the lake. There are a200 km of slopes and 50 km of ski routes available. 43 lifts move you around. The resort sits between the elevations of 1,890 and 2,745 m. The longest ski run is 5.1km. A new $65 million, 2.2-mile-long Base-to-Base Gondola will connect the resort with nearby Alpine Meadows for the first time in the 2022-23 season, providing skiers and riders with access to more than 40 lifts and 6,000 acres of terrain between the resorts.
Lake Tahoe sees roughly 215.4 inches of snow a year (about 18 feet), and up to 500 inches at its highest elevation areas. Truckee (home to Northstar Tahoe) receives about 204.3 inches of snow per year. A favorite type of snow for California skiers to complain about is known as Sierra Cement. That’s a nickname for the snow that sometimes falls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This heavy wet powder often occurs in ranges close to the Pacific Ocean or other large bodies of water, like Lake Tahoe. But, usually the snow is just fine.
Fly into Reno-Tahoe International Airport or Sacramento International Airport for ski resorts in the Sierra Nevada range including those at Lake Tahoe. For smaller ski areas in Southern California, fly to Los Angeles International Airport. Best way to get to those resorts is by renting a car and driving or taking a shuttle bus (where available). From Los Angeles International airport it’s a 1.5-3 hour drive to reach some of Los Angeles area resorts. From Reno-Tahoe International airport, it’s a short drive of only 40 minutes to reach many of the resorts in Lake Tahoe. There are semi-private charters flying into little Mammoth Yosemite Airport near the mountain and periodically commercial airlines give it a try. But flying usually gives way to driving.
California has several mountain ranges, and their climates vary depending upon their location. The Coastal Mountain range is located near the ocean and extends through two-thirds of the state. The coastal side of the mountain region is moist, cool, and foggy. On the eastern side, the temperatures are higher and have less precipitation. The southern mountains are not that high so they don't get as much snowfall. The highest regions have snow all year round. December is the coldest month in California, closely followed by January and February.
You can’t lose when it comes to skiing in the Golden State. If you live in Southern California, there are excellent ski resorts rimming the Los Angeles basin and not all that far from San Diego. They are small or mid-sized, but wonderful for a day or a weekend with good snowmaking plants and a short drive to get there and home. Many Angelenos head to Mammoth and June Mountains in the High Sierra for the weekends and for vacations when they feel the need for big mountain fun. Skiers and riders in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento have a fast shot to Lake Tahoe and so many choices. Yes, California competes just fine with Utah and Colorado, so look no further.