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Play in the California Snow

Play in the California Snow
California’s ski and snowboard culture takes its cues from the sunny beaches and skate parks—and vice versa

Surf in the morning, powder in the afternoon. In California, snow and sand are surprisingly interchangeable—perhaps because they both shine under that same Golden State glow. “We have an annual average snowfall of 450 inches—and 300 sunny days,” says Sam Kieckhefer, spokesperson for the Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows ski resorts. “Big snow and big sun are totally unique to California resorts.”

Call it the second coastline of California: Inviting mountains stretch south along the Sierra Nevada, from the peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe down to Big Bear and Snow Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains. And all of the California ski resorts are a surprisingly quick hop from the fish taco stands and surf shops sprinkled throughout Southern California. “We regularly have guests who surf in the morning before hopping the early flight from San Diego or L.A. to hit the slopes in the afternoon,” says Lauren Burke, the social media manager at Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierras.

No doubt, something about that beach culture also translates easily into the higher elevations—and so does that classic California sense of adventure. When Squaw Valley first opened with just one lift in 1949, the owners quickly started lobbying to host a Winter Olympics—and succeeded, getting the mountain ready for the 1960 Games and creating the first Olympic Village. By the ’80s, Squaw and the ski areas around Lake Tahoe became known as the birthplace of the freewheeling “hot-dogging” ski style. The original snowboards, meanwhile, were riffs on both surfboards and skateboards (called SkiBoards or Snurfers), and the first snowboard halfpipe was carved in 1979 outside Tahoe City, by local boarders who wanted to duplicate the skate-park experience in the snow.

Granted, you don’t have to be schussing down the side of a mountain—or even be at a traditional ski resort—to embrace California’s snow season. At the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, the national park takes on a new dimension during the winter season, with 90 miles of marked cross-country skiing trails and 25 miles of groomed track, as well as moonlit snowshoeing tours and decadent winter dining events at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. For more extreme sports, go fat-tire biking on the snow trails of Northstar, or snow-kiting—a kind of wind-surfing across snow—at Royal Gorge, by Sugar Bowl in the Tahoe area. And across the resorts, après-ski is almost a sport in itself, from the brewery tours around Mammoth Lakes to the High Camp Pool & Hot Tub at Squaw Valley, which offers a variety of dining along with stunning views of Lake Tahoe and beyond from its 8,200-feet elevation perch.

While there are plenty of world-class athletes on the slopes—like Olympic boarders Jeremy Jones, who makes his home base in Truckee, and L.A. native Chloe Kim, who’s a regular at Mammoth—the prevailing attitude toward California skiing and snowboarding is kind of like that famous line about surfing: The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun. “California ski resorts tend to have a more laid-back, progressive attitude, and an atmosphere that promotes creativity and individual expression—both on and off the hill,” says Justin Kanton, the spokesperson for Big Bear Mountain Resorts.

That kind of freedom is more than just emotionally liberating. “There is certainly something to be said,” says Mountain High spokesman John McColly, “about skiing in a T-shirt and putting on sunscreen instead of second layers.”

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Discover the High Sierra

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30
February
Average (°F)
Dec - Feb
39°
High
21°
Low
Mar - May
55°
High
23°
Low
June - Aug
72°
High
41°
Low
Sept - Nov
66°
High
26°
Low

Snow-covered peaks in winter, gushing waterfalls in spring, wildflower meadows and glistening lakes in summer, vibrant colors in fall—this is a land of dramatic and wild beauty. World-class mountain resorts circling turquoise-blue Lake Tahoe, and at Mammoth Lakes cater to all, with scenic ski trails in winter and trails and vistas in summer.

Yosemite Valley…is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and gold and wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”  --photographer Ansel Adams

Yosemite National Park, a World Heritage Site, is here, roughly 3½ hours east of San Francisco. Whether you hike a mountain, ski the steeps, or lounge in a hot tub beneath a canopy of stars, you’ll find your perfect getaway. 

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Lone Pine

Discover the natural beauty and another side of California in a historic Owens Valley small town

Head to Lone Pine to see a different side of California—one that is less connected to...

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The El Capitan free-solo rock climber explains his love for Yosemite and more California favorites

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The California Questionnaire: Jeremy Jones

The professional snowboarder’s biggest conundrum is deciding which Sierra Nevada adventure to tackle next

As a pioneer of big mountain snowboarding, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones has climbed treacherous backcountry peaks all over the world just...

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At 14,505 ft. above sea level, Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States.
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Truckee

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This charming mountain town is the central hub for North Shore destinations

Up and over the hill from Lake Tahoe’s north shore, Truckee offers an easy base that’s away from the hubbub. Historically a logging town, Truckee...

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family-friendly resorts, snowy escapes

High Sierra peaks, deep drifts on a Mammoth volcano, family-friendly resorts, snowy escapes on the edge of Yosemite and more—California has enough alpine destinations to keep any skier or boarder...

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Relax after a day on the slopes

Kicking back after you kick off your boots is a snow-country tradition, and there’s plenty of post-slopes fun at California’s top alpine resorts. Have a beer or warm up with an Irish coffee, dance...

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Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.
Ansel Adams
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Trip 6-7 days 10 stops

Sierra Adventure

Granite peaks, alpine valleys, towering trees-the High Sierra is nature's playground all year-round
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Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with...

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On your way to this park, save time to visit the charming Gold Country town of Murphys (a great place for wine tasting and innovative dining along the town’s main street). Then continue north and east to discover peaceful groves of giant sequoias at this under-the-radar park. Established in 1931...

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Spotlight: Lake Tahoe

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Majestic peaks encircle a turquoise-blue, year-round playground

Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list essential. Where else...

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Spotlight: Mammoth Lakes

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Snowy winters, wildflower summers

Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the west, folks in this laid-back mountain town know they’ve got a good thing going. It’s a land of...

As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.
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July - August

With a pine-and-peak alpine setting and a relaxed and friendly ambiance, this appealing event in Bear Valley, roughly halfway between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, includes performances by outstanding...

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Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve

Visit bizarre formations, cinder cones, and a super-salty lake

There are few places in California—and maybe on the planet—that can make you think you might just be on Mars. This is one of them. At this high-...

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Bodie

Tour the eerie remnants of a former boomtown

There's something eerily appropriate about bumping down the dusty desert road that winds the final few miles into Bodie State Historic Park. Round...

November - December

As autumn gives way to winter, slip away to this signature event, presented at the Majestic Yosemite (formerly Ahwahnee) in incomparable Yosemite Valley. Leading winemakers celebrate the fall...

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Courtesy of DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite
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Bishop

Explore an outdoorsy adventure town with an artistic side

Bishop brims with outdoor activities. Situated at the north end of the Owens Valley, with close access to some of the Sierra’s most dramatic high...

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Guided Adventures

Learn to climb, join a pack trip, and more

While there are plenty of ways to play on your own in the High Sierra, there’s a whole host of ways to learn a new activity, like how to catch and...

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Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Look up at (and learn about) amazing giant sequoias

Established in 1931 to preserve a stunning stand of giant sequoias, this park offers one of the easiest places to see these towering trees. Head 4...

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Amy Meredith/Flickr
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The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest (by volume) tree in the world.
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Courtesy of Mammoth Chambers of Commerce

Manzanar National Historic Site

Learn about a sobering time in U.S. history

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Bass Lake

Visit a mini Tahoe south of Yosemite

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