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.
The first image that may come to mind is one of sunshine and beaches when most people think of Southern California.
Or of Hollywood and movies. Or of desert landscapes and Joshua trees out in the Mojave. Or of endless miles of asphalt and freeways.
But you might want to add this to your mental picture of Southern California: Exciting Southern California ski resorts.
Talk about a market for skiers. At least 13 million people live in the so-called L.A. basin and another 3 million-plus farther south in the San Diego area. Sure, they take off for vacations in the Rockies, Wasatch, Idaho, New Mexico and beyond. But most of the time they either head up all-weather Highway 395 for a bit under 6 hours to world-class skiing at Mammoth Mountain, or 30 minutes further to its lovely little sister June Mountain. It's a 315 mile trek but thousands of SoCal skiers and snowboarders do it every weekend.
But, there are plenty of options in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains that sit high above the City of Angels, providing relatively close-by options. Thanks in part to the late Tommi Tyndall, the snowmaking pioneer owner of Snow Summit at Big Bear, most of the local options have extensive, effective snowmaking operations. How about this for a weekend? Ride your board Saturday at Mountain High in Wrightwood and work on your tan at Santa Monica beach on Sunday. Hey, it's Southern California, dahling.
Here's a look at what's waiting for you in them that hills:
You'll find Mammoth on the east side of the Sierra Nevada range in what is best considered Central California, though its constituency is mostly from the south.
The resort lives up to its lofty moniker: There are more than 3,500 skiable acres to play on, 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. Take that New England.
You’ll find everything from groomed cruisers to steep chutes to powder trees strewn about the massive resort. The terrain divisions are fair to all -- from very easy to extremely difficult.
Mammoth is actually a lava dome complex partially in the town of Mammoth Lakes, one of the most scenic areas of the Inyo National Forest and all of the High Sierra range. Don't sweat much about a new lava flow. The last eruption was about 50,000 years ago, long before Mammoth's legendary developer Dave McCoy was conceived.
There's plenty of lodging available at the ski mountain and all throughout the town of Mammoth Lakes from condos to mountain homes to small inns and large resort properties. Just remember, the town and resort fill up most every weekend so don't wait until you arrive to find a place to stay. Perhaps your best choice sits directly across the way from the main base lodge. The classic Mammoth Mountain Inn has been remodeled multiple times and remains a great place to stay with its variety of rooms and condos.
With so much terrific skiing and boarding at Mammoth, you may not want to take a day or two off those slopes to meander 30 minutes up the road to June Mountain, Mammoth's sassy little sister resort. It is truly a world away from bustling Mammoth with an entirely different, low-key vibe on the gorgeous June Lake Loop. Situated above a string of glacial tarns and hemmed in by the towering Yosemite backcountry, June Mountain, though half the size of Mammoth, is huge on scenic vistas and family-oriented fun.
June bills itself as "California's Family Mountain" and that about sums it up. For many, the drive past the turn off to Mammoth is a no-brainer when looking for the opposite vibe and adventure. Truth be told, this writer first learned to ski at June Mountain many moons ago when it was developed by Bud Hayward and later acquired by its larger neighbor.
The fun part about skiing at June is you purchase or show your already-purchased ticket in the parking lot, then hop on the J1 double chairlift which carries 1,200 skiers per hour up the steep mountain face to the chalet. Yes, you can ski down The Face at the end of the day if snow conditions are really good, but most ride down. It'll feel like a roller coaster at first with an epic break over the cliff from the chalet. The lift has been the sole way to access the mountain since the early 1960s, except for a few seasons when a tram was installed and later removed.
The June Mt. Chalet sits atop the lift terminal at 8,695 feet and is home base for everything from shopping to dining (breakfast, lunch, snacks and apres-ski fun) in the Lunch Box and Antler's Bar. The lifts to the trails roll out from the meadow in front of the chalet. There, you'll find terrain for beginners (15 percent), intermediate (40 percent) and expert (45 percent). There are six lifts including two quads, four doubles and a magic carpet.
The June Lake Loop is ultras-scenic winter and summer. State Route 158 loops away from U.S. Highway 395 for 16 miles along the southernmost rim of the Mono Basin, then returns. It follows a horseshoe-shaped canyon containing four lakes, surrounded by an absolutely dramatic mountainous backdrop. June Lake itself is a modest, yet full-serviced community, with at least 20 lodges and multiple cabins and condos available to vacationers in all four seasons of the year.
Don't forget a side-trip to the historic ghost town of Bodie, once a bustling town with close to 8,000 residents and produced more than $38 million in gold and silver. Today, with the gold mining days of California are a distinct memory, there are almost 200 abandoned wooden buildings in a state of "arrested decay" to photograph and explore. It's about a 45-minute drive on 395 S from June Lake, but it's a fascinating non-Disneyesque side trip.
Closer to the Los Angeles basin area is a handful of resorts that are perfect for day-tripping. Indeed, they are so close that a morning of skiing or snowboarding and an afternoon of surfing is not an uncommon occurrence. Many skiers and riders have second homes, cabins, and condos in these mountain ranges and weekend ski trips are very popular.
Four resorts that will satisfy most skiers and riders are in the San Gabriel Mountains, which form the northern boundary of the L.A. Basin.
Mountain High resort, 90 minutes from downtown Los Angeles off Interstate 15, is the closest Southern California ski resort to the Los Angeles market. In the past few decades it has become a snowboarder’s paradise, with three separate mini-resorts one mile apart and accessed via one lift ticket. There is shuttle service between them. West Peak is essentially an all-mountain terrain park for day and night riding and this is where that boarder vibe is really fun and exciting. The Children's Sports Center is here as well as the Bullwheel Bar and Grill.
East Peak is for cruising groomers with long runs and 1,600 feet of corduroy on which to play. It's also home to Olympic Bowl with its bruising bump run. North Peak is 70 acres of all beginner terrain. The entire resort includes 290 acres with a top elevation of 8,200 feet and a vertical of 1,600 feet. There are 14 lifts including two high-speed quads and multiple terrain parks.
There's plenty of history here largely centered around Frank Springer and the legendary Sepp Benedicker. Mountain High's North Peak was where it all began as Blue Ridge in the mid 1940s. The East Mountain was known as Holiday Hill and was a fave of Angelenos in its own right. Subsequent owners saw the resort go through some booms and busts, but since the mid-1990s it's been non-stop boom. The resort ranks among the most popular in the state and fares well compared to resorts across the country. Mountain High is an apt name.
If you're looking for glitz and glamour, Mt. Baldy won't be your cup of snow, but it does carry quite a bit of history and older Angelenos spent many a winter on its sometimes snowy slopes. Even today, there's minimal snowmaking. The ski area is found 14 miles north of Upland off I-210. The four lifts are all doubles. There are 26 runs, of which six are truly double Diamond "hairy."
That history dates back to nearly the turn of the last century, but became what we call a ski area in the 1940s. Mt. Baldy is also known by its official name of Mt San Antonio, but everyone just calls it Mt. Baldy. It was named for the treeless (bald) face of Baldy Bowl, visible from L.A.
Two other small hills are in the San Gabriels – Mt. Waterman and Kratka Ridge. These are neighboring resorts about an hour from downtown Los Angeles. Both have only a couple of double chairlifts and almost non-existent snowmaking. Hours of operation can be iffy because they must rely on natural snow.
Big Bear Mountain Resorts
A little farther east are the San Bernardino Mountains (The San Berdoos as they are nicknamed), home to the Big Bear Mountain resort of Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, which are 1.5 miles apart, above the southeast shore of Big Bear Lake.
Bear Mountain Resort at historic, throw-back and beautiful Big Bear, 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.
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 resorts have snowmaking covering 100 percent of their respective mountains, both are accessible by a free shuttle bus, and both have an interchangeable lift ticket.
Big Bear Lake has all the amenities you'll need with plenty of lodging, rental cabins, bars and restaurants and shopping. Hundreds of Angelenos have passed on their family cabins to the families over the years and many have been continuously renovated for their use and for rentals.
The first ski area you come to driving to Big Bear Lake is the 80-year-old, venerable Snow Valley Ski Area on Hwy. 18 at Running Springs. What began with a single rope toward then-called Fish Camp, is today a solid ski resort that rivals both of those at the Lake 13 miles down the road. Don't overlook it. The name was changed by Norwegian skier Sverre Engen who didn't think Fish Camp was a name with much allure.
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.
The best tip we can offer if you can pull it off, is head for the L.A. hills midweek. You'll find very light crowds (the kids are in school so the snowboard traffic at Mountain High and Bear Mt. is extremely modest). Be sure to understand the freeway traffic patterns and beat them leaving early or late. The "back way" to Big Bear via the Lucerne Valley helps on weekends.
Be sure to buy your lift tickets ahead of time -- for sure on weekends and holidays. Mountain High is a member of the Powder Alliance while the Big Bear Resorts are part of the IKON pass. Finally, both ranges are easily accessible for day skiers, but staying for the weekend is affordable and gives you far more time on the slopes.
There are 34 ski areas, in the Golden State, with 748 skiable acres, and a top elevation of 8,805 feet.
Southern Californians are avid skiers and one of the biggest ski markets in the country. Many take vacations to the Rockies of Colorado, the Wasatch of Utah and the northern ranges of N.M. Mammoth and June Mt. in the High Sierra draw large weekend crowds and Mammoth is truly a world-class resort. The local resorts in the San Gabriels and San Berdoos all make for good ski and ride days or weekend and are within a relatively short drive.
All the ski areas above Los Angeles are pretty far south, but the true answer to the question lies to the east in Arizona. Mt. Lemmon, high above The Old Pueblo of Tucson, wins the prize.
Well, they don't. They just do what they do best. They hop on the nearest freeway and head to the San Gabriel or San Bernardino Mountains or way north to Mammoth or June.
Yes, there is far more to Southern California than you may have imagined. You don't need to hop on an airplane at all... just a freeway and you're used to that if you live here.