California’s top winter sports
California has a long tradition of extreme sports, from surfing monstrous waves at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay to the renegade skateboarding culture born in Los Angeles. But California’s adrenaline sports aren’t limited to warm days by the beach.
If you're dreaming of a winter vacation in the Golden State, there are world-class downhill runs at Mammoth or Lake Tahoe, cross-country and snowshoe tracks at the Sierra Nevada Mountains and outdoor ice skating next to the Pacific Ocean in sunny San Diego. Want maximum thrills? Daredevils can learn how to do aerial twists while snow kiting or ascend a frozen waterfall with ice axes in hand. All you have to know is where to go.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
Downhill skiing & snowboarding
A water-sport lover’s dream in summer, Lake Tahoe becomes a snowy wonderland in winter. With over a dozen resorts spread across multiple mountains all around the glistening lake, you won’t run out of challenging downhill runs with massive vertical drops or epic terrain parks.
Big-name resorts like Squaw Valley (famous for hosting the 1960 Winter Olympics), Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe and Northstar near Truckee have all the amenities anyone could ever need, and then some: high-speed lifts, equipment rentals, ski and snowboarding schools, restaurants, après-ski bars and resort hotels with spas. You might find shorter lines and less crowded conditions at smaller, less glitzy ski resorts where locals like to go, like Homewood on the lake’s western shore.
In the Eastern Sierra, 11,060-ft Mammoth Mountain at Mammoth Lakes is where a glam SoCal ski crowd jets in from LA. Open-bowl skiing, terrain parks for snowboarding, and convenient lifts that are centrally located in town make Mammoth an easy, one-stop winter vacation destination.
Closer to LA, Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains is a family-oriented ski spot, ideal for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. Further off the beaten path, Mt Shasta Ski Park is another relaxing place for families and novice skiers. It also happens to have Northern California’s biggest night-skiing operation.
Cross-country skiing & snowshoeing
The Sierra Nevada abounds with chances to go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing through thick forests with a scenic backdrop of snow-frosted mountains. Nordic skiers will have over 125 miles of groomed tracks to choose from at Royal Gorge, North America’s biggest cross-country resort, near Lake Tahoe. North of Truckee, Tahoe Donner resort has more than 60 miles of cross-country trails with weekend warming huts and occasional night skiing. At Tahoe Cross Country, groomed tracks for beginners and intermediate Nordic skiers wait; some trails are even dog friendly.
Back in Yosemite National Park, you can lose the crowds while cross-country skiing high above the valley on Glacier Point Rd (closed to vehicle traffic during winter). Backcountry enthusiasts book ahead for overnight stays in the rustic ski hut at Glacier Point. If you’re not quite that ambitious, go snowshoeing instead with a naturalist guide in Yosemite Valley or through a grove of giant sequoias, the world’s largest trees.
Farther south in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, you can snowshoe around the magical Giant Forest, where the Wuksachi Lodge rents equipment. On the back side of the range at Mammoth Lakes, the Tamarack Cross-Country Ski Center has nearly 20 miles of lovely groomed trails that wind around the Lakes Basin. Reserve ahead for full moon skiing and snowshoeing tours.
When you think of Palm Springs, less than 100 miles outside LA, it’s probably having poolside cocktails under the blazing hot Mojave Desert sun that comes to mind. But Palm Springs is also bordered by mountains, which get snowed on in winter. Board the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (operating at reduced service due to COVID-19), which rises almost 6000ft above the desert floor, and rent cross-country skis or snowshoes from the Winter Adventure Center at the top, then trek through the pine-scented forests of wild Mt San Jacinto State Park (closed until further notice).
Ice skating, sledding & snow tubing
In winter, artificial ice rinks pop up in all of California’s biggest cities, including Downtown LA’s Pershing Square and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Plaza, which boasts views of the bay. There’s even a winter skating rink whimsically installed next to the beach at San Diego’s peninsular Hotel del Coronado. (Editor's Note: All the ice skating rings have canceled the 2020 season due to the global pandemic).
In Yosemite National Park, ice-skating at the outdoor rink in Curry Village is a cherished holiday tradition for families. There you can glide and do figure eights in the shadow of iconic Half Dome. For higher-elevation thrills and epic views, the skating rink at High Camp in Squaw Valley sits over 2000ft above Lake Tahoe. Warm up with a creamy hot chocolate afterwards.
For younger kids, many ski resorts around California offer fun sledding and snow tubing hills. Around Lake Tahoe, the best-value sledding and tubing is at Tahoe Donner, north of Truckee. Near the busy hub of South Lake Tahoe, Adventure Mountain offers groomed sledding and snow tubing runs. A short drive from California’s Gold Country, woodsy Bear Valley lets kids whoosh downhill on a sled or a tube.
Near LA at Big Bear Lake, the Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain lights up the hill for night sledding and has a heated, enclosed “Magic Carpet” to zip you uphill in ultimate comfort. If you have your own sled or inner tube, California’s 18 public Sno-Parks spread across the Sierra Nevada charge just $5 for a day pass. (Editor's note: All SNO-Park passes are suspended until April 30, 2020 and all SNO-Park sites have been closed until further notice).
Biking & ice climbing
Mountain bikers have found a way to get their kicks in the winter off-season. Around Lake Tahoe, a few local bicycle shops rent fat-tire bikes so you can ride on snow and some ski resorts have been opening select trails to snow bikers, like at Royal Gorge. For guided tours, contact California Expeditions in Georgetown on the western edge of Tahoe National Forest. Over in the Eastern Sierra, the advocacy group Fat Bike Mammoth is working to open trails to snow biking; check their website for details and trails.
For the ultimate winter challenge, pick up an ice axe and learn how to climb a frozen waterfall. Currently, California’s epicenter for ice climbing is in the Eastern Sierra at Lee Vining Canyon, close to Mono Lake, and around June Lake, heading further south along Hwy 395 toward Mammoth Lakes. For ice climbing lessons and adventurous guided trips, contact Sierra Mountain Center.
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This article was originally published in November 2016 and updated in October 2020.
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