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Surf and Ski Culture in the California Snow

Surf and Ski Culture in the California Snow
Where to experience California snow culture beyond skiing and snowboarding, from halfpipes to snowkiting to fat-tire biking and even winter surfing.

Surf and Ski Culture in the California Snow

An endless summer atmosphere combines with some of the world’s best snow conditions to create California snow—a winter sports scene like no other at the Golden State’s mountain resorts. With prime breaks just over an hour from the closest slopes—like the quick hop from Los Angeles to Big Bear Mountain and Snow Summit—surfing infuses the California ski and snowboard scene with the kind of carefree, kick-back vibe that most people associate with a day at the state’s incomparable beaches.

That’s because in California, skiers and surfers don’t belong to separate sports tribes. Instead, they’re both seeking that singular connection to the natural world that comes with catching the perfect wave or racing down a slope of deep, fresh Sierra powder. “It’s not so much an intersection of surf and skate culture as much as it is a continuation of that culture in an alpine setting,” says Justin Kanton, a spokesman for Big Bear Mountain. “You see it from the early days of Toms Sims’ pioneering Skiboard that allowed him to surf on snow, to Shaun White bringing the skills he learned at San Diego skate parks to the halfpipes at Bear Mountain. The skiers and snowboarders who frequent our properties today all tend to have a style—riding and aesthetic—that is both influenced by skate and surf culture and uniquely their own.”

That sweet spot between surf and snow goes well beyond traditional skiing and snowboarding too. Here are some cool—and fun—ways to have a uniquely California snow experience.

Disc Golf

The toy company Wham-O produced the first Frisbees in San Gabriel near Los Angeles in 1957, and these flying discs have been a familiar presence on California beaches ever since. A number of sports have spun off, if you will, from Frisbees, and now disc golf has become a favourite at ski resorts throughout the state—such as Mountain High Resort’s 27-hole Sky High Disc Golf Course, which has views of both snow-capped peaks and the desert. In the Sierra Nevada, ride the aerial tram to Squaw Valley’s 18-hole course and its Lake Tahoe panoramas. Or south of the lake, test your skills in the meadows and forests at Kirkwood Mountain Resort’s DiscWood Disc Golf Course, where the base elevation is 7,800 feet.


While California surfers dream of riding the face of such legendary big waves as Mavericks near Half Moon Bay, the state’s snowboarders and freestylers take on the curving walls of superpipes at leading ski resorts. Like a frozen 18-foot wave, Bear Mountain’s superpipe stretches for nearly 600 feet and helped earn the terrain park a number one ranking from TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine in 2016. “When it comes to the art of snowboard parks, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Bear Mountain is the most dedicated resort in North America and, probably, the world,” wrote TransWorld. There’s also an 18-foot superpipe at Northstar California. For something even bigger, try shredding the 22-footers at Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain—the number two terrain parks in TransWorld’s 2016 Park Poll.

Spring Skiing

California may be known as the home of the endless summer, but plenty of skiers and snowboarders love it for something else: the endlessly rich winter. That’s because California’s ski season can extend through spring and sometimes all the way into early summer. Come out for “corn skiing,” the name given to snow textured by spring melting and freezing cycles, and California’s sun-kissed slopes will look more Malibu than Matterhorn. “California’s surf culture is most evident in the spring at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows,” says Sam Kieckhefer, a spokesman for the resorts. In 2014, Outside magazine even named Squaw Valley America’s top spring skiing destination. There’s plenty of spring action in the Eastern Sierra too. As Lauren Burke, Mammoth Mountain’s social media manager, describes the scene, “Think girls shredding in bikinis, the sundecks full of après-skiers, and the terrain parks popping off with U.S. Ski and Snowboard team training.”

Snowkiting at Royal Gorge Cross Country Resort

Sierra Snowkite School’s director Tyler Brown was inspired to bring snowkiting to California after watching a kiteboarder catching perfect waves during a surf trip to Fiji. But what is snowkiting? Imagine strapping on your snowboard or skis and hooking up to a harness attached to a kite. Then, just let the wind power you across deep backcountry powder and the open expanses at Royal Gorge Cross Country Center, the school’s home base near Sugar Bowl. You’ll definitely want to take a lesson before attempting one of California’s hottest new extreme winter sports. If you prefer to keep your skis firmly on the ground, just watch the experts defy gravity as they fly through the air with spectacular flips and leaps.

Fat Tire Biking

When the waves just aren’t breaking, many surfers head to the hills and get their kicks by mountain biking, a sport with origins in Marin County, north of San Francisco. At Tahoe Donner and Northstar California, try the winter variation of fat tire biking. As the name implies, you ride mountain bikes with extra fat tires inflated at low pressures to help you navigate and plow through snow on designated groomed trails. Both Tahoe Donner and Northstar offer rentals, and after getting used to the different sensation of cycling in snow, the going is easy. Worried about a wipeout? Well, at least you can expect a soft landing.

Surf Lake Tahoe!

Given the right conditions, strong winds off the mountains can churn up Lake Tahoe and create waves big enough for winter surfing at such spots as Carnelian Bay, about four miles from Kings Beach. When Tahoe goes off, diehard surfers save the drive to the coast to brave the lake’s sloppy chop, as well as “invigorating” water temperatures of about 4 °C degrees. It’s not for everyone, and if you’re looking for a warm weather surfing alternative on the lake, rent a stand-up paddleboard from Adrift Tahoe, a Polynesian-inspired surf shop right along the lakeshore.

Matt Jaffe

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Thomas H. Story/ Sunset Publishing

Northern California

Discover the High Sierra

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Average (°C)
Mar - May
June - Aug
Sept - Nov
Dec - Feb

Snow-covered peaks in winter, gushing waterfalls in spring, wildflower meadows and glistening lakes in summer, vibrant colours 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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Yosemite in Winter

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Rachid Dahnoun/Aurora Photos

Spotlight: Lake Tahoe

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

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Spotlight: Mammoth Lakes

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Tour the eerie remnants of a former boomtown

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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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