Go ahead and gawk. With wraparound views of lakes, mountains, and winter wonderlands, the Golden State’s alpine resorts offer not just great places to ski and enjoy other snow sports, but legit reasons to pull over, set your phone’s camera on panoramic, and start panning. “I’ve lived and skied all over the country, and there’s really nothing like the magnificence of the Sierra and other California mountains,” says Greg Murtha, president of Xplorit Interactive Multimedia Technologies and past president of the Far West Ski Association. “From the jagged peaks from the Minarets [viewed] from the top of Mammoth Mountain," to taking in, "the spectacular views of Lake Tahoe from Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, and Heavenly, California has some of the most beautiful views in the world.”
Where can you find the best-of-the-best views? We’ve zeroed in on alpine resorts statewide, targeting the ones with jaw-dropper views. The results are here: six special places that are bound to take your breath away—and not just because of the altitude.
Get full-on views of Lake Tahoe
When it comes to beauty on skis, you can’t beat the holy-mackerel views you get from this massive resort. So big it straddles two states—it's the largest resort in California—4,800-acre Heavenly also has the benefit of sitting on the southeast side of one of the world’s most beautiful bodies of water, turquoise-blue Lake Tahoe. For iconic lake views, take Sky Express chair to Heavenly’s 10,067-foot summit. Follow signs for skiers right to Ridge Run, an intermediate cruise that follows the resort’s crest. Near the beginning of the trail, watch for a wide turnout on the left: You’ll see not only Lake Tahoe in all its glory, but snow-capped Sierra peaks marching into the distance. Even if you don’t ski, you can get awesome views at Heavenly: Just climb aboard the Heavenly gondola at Stateline, then turn around and gape.
Climb to rocky spires, dramatic palisades, and Lake Tahoe scenes
Get ready for head-swiveling views of Lake Tahoe, jagged Sierra peaks, and, for excitement, a chance to see mega-expert skiers swooping and whooping down the mountain’s legendary steeps. Ride the main tram (even if you don’t ski) to High Camp, which takes you right up the face of this impressive resort. Turn around as you climb to see the lake, surrounded by snowy summits, bursting into view. Due south, if you see what looks like another ski resort, it is: Sister resort Alpine Meadows is less than five miles away as the crow flies. But while you’re on the tram, look down too, particularly on snow-dump days, when powder hounds strap on their fat skis to carve S-curves through a series of rocky spires. And if some of those rocky crags look vaguely familiar, it’s rumoured that they inspired Walt Disney to design his mini-Matterhorn in Anaheim.
A family-friendly resort with A+ Lake Tahoe views
For runs that make you feel as if you’re zooming down into Lake Tahoe, head for this low-key charmer on the lake’s southwestern shores. Wide-open groomers like Rainbow Ridge head straight for Tahoe’s signature blue waters. “Rainbow Ridge is popular because of its beginner terrain for the whole family,” says Missy Frey, spokesperson for the resort. “On a sunny day, you can have crystal-clear views of both north and south shores of the lake.” And if you’re taking a breather halfway down, look in the opposite direction—back up the slope—for unforgettable views of the signature peak on Lake Tahoe’s western shore, 9,735-foot Mount Tallac.
See the Sierra’s big kahunas
To get better views of California’s highest peaks than you'll find here, you’d probably need to hire a helicopter. Mammoth Mountain resort sits in the heart of the big boys of the Sierra Nevada range, and a trip to the summit—with or without skis or boards—is all you need for incredible views. Ride the gondola (from Mammoth’s main lodge) to the 11,053-foot summit. Take a few minutes to visit the Eleven53 Interpretive Center, where diagrams show you what you’re looking at. (Tallest of the bunch is 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, to the south—the highest peak in the Lower 48.) While peaks flank the resort to the north, west, and south, views to the east showcase the broad Owens Valley and the almost undiscovered White Mountains (some topping out over 14,000 feet), just west of the Nevada border.
Variety of views and a great place to chill
This resort’s expansive trail system allows skiers a huge choice of diverse terrain and alpine settings, but the best views are from the top of 8,610-foot Mount Pluto. Stand here and swivel your head to look north across the Martis Valley, then keep turning east to gaze across Lake Tahoe. But be forewarned: Runs dropping off Mount Pluto are for intermediate and expert skiers and riders only. Want a mellower experience? On bluebird days, snag a table outside on the deck of handsome Zephyr Lodge—you’ll not only get a great lunch, but also terrific views of endless miles of snowy backcountry.
Take in views of piney forests and an alpine lake
It’s all about variety at this something-for-everyone alpine resort in the heart of the San Bernardino Mountains, about two hours east of Los Angeles. Views here range from miles of snow-covered mountains cloaked with pines to sweeping views of Big Bear Lake. “It’s easy to forget you’re in Southern California,” says Tim Leroy, spokesperson for the resort. Its 1.5-mile-long Geronimo run starts at the 8,805-foot summit and offers the best views of the lake, but, notes Leroy, the route switches “from black to double black, and it's one of the more technical runs on the mountain.” For a tamer option, ride Bear Mountain Express for blue runs surrounded by winter-wonderland views.