Famous for its sand and surf, California also has lofty mountains that become blanketed by snow in winter. Swoosh down Olympic-worthy ski trails around Lake Tahoe and Mammoth’s double black-diamond runs, bring the whole family to Big Bear Lake near Los Angeles, careen down the slopes of Mt Shasta by starlight, or lose the crowds altogether in Yosemite National Park. Here are our top picks for wintertime skiing and snowboarding all around the Golden State.
If you ask anyone in California about skiing or snowboarding, chances are they’ll exclaim, ‘Tahoe!’. Over a dozen winter resorts ring this Sierra Nevada gem, where the ski season typically runs from mid-November to mid-April, depending on snowfall. Choose among bunny hills for beginners or pro snowboarders’ terrain parks and black-diamond downhill challenges. Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, while the south shore’s Heavenly resort, sprawling across the California-Nevada state line, thrills with a stomach-crunching vertical drop. For experienced skiers and backcountry enthusiasts, Kirkwood is a more remote resort offering terrain parks and tree skiing. Bonus: the snow often lasts longer there than anywhere else in the Tahoe area. Serious snowboarders get their groove on in the terrain parks and superpipe at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Take younger kids to pint-sized Soda Springs, near the historic town of Truckee, to learn how to ski and snowboard. Another favorite among families is Homewood for its gentler slopes and fantastic lake views of the ‘Big Blue.’ After a day on the slopes, grab après-ski drinks in South Lake Tahoe, a buzzing hub framed by picture-perfect mountains, or in Tahoe City on the lake’s western shore.
Mammoth & June Mountains
Over in the Eastern Sierra, 11,000ft-plus Mammoth Mountain wins with downhill speed freaks and extreme boarders who are addicted to superpipes. Luckily, Mammoth often has California’s longest ski season, sometimes with folks still out on the slopes in early summer. Around the base of the mountain, the village of Mammoth Lakes is an ultra-cool adventure base camp filled with brewpubs, beer cellars and cafés for refuelling after a day spent outdoors in the snow and sun. Nordic skiers flock to Tamarack Lodge, a heart-warming 1920s retreat with a revered lakeside restaurant. If the glam LA crowds that descend on Mammoth every weekend get to be too much, escape the hubbub by making the 25-mile drive north to quieter June Mountain, a favourite with winter-sports newbies and intermediate skiers and boarders.
Big Bear Lake
The closest wintertime snow playground to Los Angeles is woodsy Big Bear Lake, a family-friendly ski vacation destination that’s just a two-hour drive from the big city. Bear Mountain calls to freestylers, while slightly shorter Snow Summit has a more traditional layout of downhill ski runs. A highlight of any Big Bear ski vacation is staying in a cosy fireplace cabin by the lakeshore, then waking up early for a big ol’ pancake breakfast before heading up to the slopes again. If there’s no winter storm rolling in and you’ve brought tire chains for your car, take the scenic route to get here by driving the Rim of the World Scenic Byway (fs.usda.gov/sbnf), which abounds with jaw-dropping vistas.
Yosemite National Park
Rather than adrenaline-pumped skiing, Yosemite National Park offers old-fashioned family fun. California’s original ski resort is Yosemite’s Badger Pass, where generations of Californians have learned to ski. Every day during the winter season, novice skiers and snowboarders still test themselves on these slopes. The biggest hill rises 800ft above the busy lodge, where you can rent equipment, sign up for ski and snowboarding school or warm up between runs with hot drinks and cheesy nachos. Back in Yosemite Valley, grab a hot toddy and warm your tootsies by the roaring open-hearth fireplaces inside the grand Ahwahnee Hotel after dark. You can sometimes score a deal with a stay-and-ski special at park lodgings in Yosemite Valley. A free winter shuttle from the valley to Badger Pass eliminates all the hassles of winter driving.
When you really want to get away from it all, this majestic volcanic peak in Northern California beckons. Famous 19th-century conservationist and writer John Muir once said that the mere sight of this solitary peak turned his blood to wine. Sacred to Native Americans, Mount Shasta certainly is an arresting sight, especially when the peak is dressed in dazzling winter white. On its southern slopes, Mt Shasta Board & Ski Park is Northern California’s biggest night-skiing operation – just imagine schussing downhill under a full moon. The park’s trails, which are mostly beginner- and intermediate-level, open varying months of the year, depending on when the snow falls and how long it lasts. Don’t forget to book a bed in advance at one of the quaint lodges or bed and breakfasts in hippy-dippy Mt Shasta City.
This article was published November 2014 and updated December 2015.