When it comes to a winter ski vacation, it’s all about the slopes and the snow, for sure. But there are those extras—weather, non-ski snow activities, natural beauty, terrain parks, family-friendliness—that can elevate a resort from great to outstanding. Here are 12 ways a California snow adventure can turn out to be one you’ll be returning to year after year.
1. Carve Down Runs with Eye-Candy Vistas
With chairlifts only 280 steps from the water’s edge, Homewood Ski Resort seems to rise straight out of Lake Tahoe’s western shore. As you rip down Rainbow Ridge Run’s gentle curves, it's easy to imagine swan-diving into the indigo depths. Heavenly Ski Resort offers a different perspective on that dazzling blue lake—22 miles south to north—on Ridge Run’s swooping intermediate cruise. But for a peak-to-peak panorama, no place beats Mammoth Mountain. The Road Runner trail’s three miles of groomers deliver a breathtaking wide angle on the Ritter Range. (more)
2. Glide and Stride at the West’s Largest Cross-Country Resort
Swap your alpine sticks for cross-country skis, then glide on Royal Gorge’s 92 trails spread out across 6,000 snowy acres near Truckee. The West's largest cross-country ski resort offers up a huge variety of skiable terrain and amazing alpine scenery. Take it from Hannah Halvorsen, U.S. Cross Country ski team member and Tahoe native: “I have been racing internationally for seven years, and I have yet to ski somewhere as breathtaking and unreal as Razor Back at Royal Gorge. California has a kind of sunshine I haven’t experienced in the winter anywhere else.”
3. Ski into Summer
Skiing in a T-shirt can lead to sunburn, so Californians slather on the SPF50 for bluebird days that extend into summer. Mammoth Mountain has enjoyed three epic seasons that lasted into August (1995, 2017, and 2019), but the lifts typically stay open until July. In big snow years, Squaw Valley, near North Lake Tahoe, puts on a July Fourth celebration with bikini- and Speedo-clad skiers waving American flags as they ski down smooth corduroy.
4. Splurge on Ski-In, Ski-Out Luxury
Skiing is rigorous exercise, so reward yourself with sumptuous bedding, gourmet s’mores, and impeccable service at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. Start your day by meeting your ski valet, who’s waiting with your gear on the patio. Ski over to Northstar Ski Resort’s mid-mountain slopes. Carve up the snow all day, then glide back to the hotel to recharge your weary quads with a massage at the slope-side spa. Cap off a luxurious day with swanky fine dining at Manzanita. (more)
5. Test Your Tricks
Regularly ranked “best overall terrain park” in North America by Snowboarder Magazine, Mammoth’s Unbound Terrain Parks offers more than 100 features and 75 jumps in seven different parks with levels ranging from beginner to just plain insane. This is where Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim trained as a 10-year-old, coached by Ben Wisner. Now that he’s director of Mammoth’s snowboard team, Wisner says, “I have traveled the world as a coach and cannot find a better spot to grow talent. Unbound has every type of feature to spark the fire of a beginner freestyler or service the top pros.”
6. Snowshoe in Yosemite
Trace the powdery steps of famed naturalist John Muir as you snowshoe through the epic winter scenery of Yosemite National Park. Ranger-led tours depart from the base of the Badger Pass Ski Area (also worth a visit for downhill skiing). Clomp through snow between groves of pine and aspen and over shining frost to the 7,700-foot summit of Badger Pass. Seasoned snowshoers and cross-country skiers can go solo on more than 25 miles of groomed track, plus 90 miles of marked trails. For a snowshoeing option in Southern California, consider the San Bernardino Mountains, which offers plenty of adventures as well.
7. Take Your Après-Ski to New Heights
South Lake Tahoe takes après-ski very seriously. Start the fun on the mountain by showing up at Heavenly Ski Resort's mid-mountain Tamarack Lodge, a hip hangout for sipping suds and bumping beats. Once you’re off the slopes, dozens of in-town bars and bistros serve every libation from top-shelf martinis to cans of PBR, plus happy-hour dining specials. For a sudsy après education, tour the eight local California brewpubs along the South Lake Tahoe Beer Trail. (more)
8. Snowmobile Through the Forest
Rev up the adrenaline on a snowmobile ride through snow-cloaked meadows and pine forests surrounded by stunning mountain views. You’ll feel the horsepower—and a nippy wind on your face—as you zoom along groomed tracks or through backcountry terrain in places like Bear Valley, in the central Sierra Nevada, or Hope Valley, about 20 miles outside of South Lake Tahoe. Venture farther north to Deer Mountain Snowmobile Park, where you’ll find more than 250 miles of combined trails throughout Klamath, Shasta Trinity, and Modoc national forests. (Rentals and guided tours are available at mentioned locations.)
9. Try Some Totally Tubular Winter Fun
Gather your tribe for no-skills-required snow play. Anybody who's taller than 36 inches can go snow-tubing—just plop down in a donut-shaped inner tube, then barrel down a snowy hill. You'll hit a few whoop-dee-doos and laugh till your stomach hurts. Operating since the 1950s, Big Bear Snow Play has elevated this simple sport into an art form with its heated base lodge, motorized conveyer belt that transports tubers up the hill, and nighttime “glow tubing” sessions featuring colorful disco lights. (more)
10. Show Off Your Expert Skills
Since hosting the 1960 Olympics, Squaw Valley has lured expert skiers to test their skills on steeps, bumps, and extreme cornices. The resort's KT-22 lift accesses some of North America’s longest and most challenging in-bounds expert runs. Olympic gold medal skier Jonny Moseley got his start there, and it’s still his go-to. “The west face of KT is a perfect spot to test your skills without getting in too much trouble,” he says. “Start with my run, called Moseley’s, and if you want to step it up, work your way into Chute 75.” Warning: Squaw rates KT as double black, and they mean it. If your abilities aren’t quite at that level yet, learn how to train like a winter Olympian in other ways.
11. Ride a Fat Bike
Want to burn some carbs? Pedal a fat-tire bike on the snow. These burly two-wheelers look like mountain bikes on steroids, but their chubby tires carve perfect turns on hard-packed snow. At Kirkwood Cross-Country & Snowshoe Center, you can bomb downhill (and huff uphill) on designated snow-biking trails. There's plenty of room for beginners to skid around, plus steep grades to challenge the experienced. Rental bikes are available, or bring your own.
12. Make Skiing a Family Affair
There’s nothing more family-friendly—and wallet-friendly—than free lift tickets for kids. At June Mountain, kids 12 and under ski or ride free on 1,500 acres of snow-frosted terrain. Instructors provide a fun-focused environment where little ones can learn to “pizza” and “French fry” while their parents knock off laps on their favorite runs. Whatever your ability level, June delivers perfect ski days without the hassle. “I've always enjoyed skiing with the family at June,” says NorCal Ski Shows founder and dad Jim McAlpine. “It doesn't have the big intimidating feel many resorts have, and it's very welcoming.” (more)