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California Backcountry Snow Adventures

Try these creative winter adventure options away from the slopes

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Snowboarding and skiing aren’t the only ways to play in California’s mountain wonderland, where sunny days and varied terrain make for a variety of snowy adventures off the slopes. Whether you are a skier or boarder, consider swapping your downhill gear and changing up your winter game this season—with some cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snow tubing, or even snowbiking.

Head to Yosemite National Park, for instance, to slide and glide 10.5 miles on cross-country skis to Glacier Point’s famous vista, where majestic granite peaks and domes stand in snow-capped glory. Need more incentive? The Glacier Point Ski Hut offers gourmet food and wine, a bone-warming wood stove, and cozy bunk beds. The building serves as a snack stand in summer, but in winter it’s furnished with 20 bunk beds, indoor bathrooms, a dining room, and comfy sofas for lounging. Experienced cross-country skiers can easily make the trip solo, but if you’re new to the sport, sign up for a guided tour.

While in Yosemite, practice your figure-eights and camel spins on the groomed ice of Yosemite Valley’s outdoor Curry Village Ice Skating Rink (formerly known as Half Dome Village). If you can’t nail that flawless triple axel, head for the warming hut fire pit and sip a hot toddy.

Across the High Sierra in Lake Tahoe, the hottest snow toy is the snowbike (aka “fat bike”), a burly two-wheeler with four-inch-wide tires that can carve turns on just about anything, including hardpack snow. At Donner Summit, you can bomb downhill (and huff uphill) on specially groomed snow-biking trails. On days when the wind makes biking too much work, choose air power over pedal power. At Donner Summit’s Sierra Snowkite Center, glide over the snow with your feet on skis or a snowboard and your arms hitched to a kite soaring 70 feet in the air. Take a lesson in the consistent wind and level terrain at Van Norden Meadow, and before long you’ll earn the skills to snowkite uphill, jump off a cornice, and stick a perfect landing.  

For one of the few heli-skiing experiences in California, stay at Hideout Lodge in Kirkwood, where experienced mountain guides take guests on heli-assisted ski and splitboard tours into the Sierra Buttes region. Back at the log-cabin-style lodge, recharge with locavore meals, spa treatments, an outdoor barrel sauna, and an onsite saloon with game room. 

Feel the horsepower of snowmobiles—and a nippy wind on your face—as you zip through the snow.

In Mammoth Lakes, wrangle your tribe for some totally tubular fun at Woolly’s Tube Park and Snow Play. Snow tubing’s popularity lies in its simplicity: There’s no learning curve. You sit down in a big donut-shaped tube, then barrel down a steep hill. Whether you go head first or feet first, this sport beats the heck out of sledding on garbage can lids. Expect to hit a few whoopdeedoos (snow tubing lingo for bumps) and laugh until your stomach hurts. Ready for another run? Clip your tube to the tow-rope and repeat. 

Rev up the adrenaline on a snowmobile ride through Mammoth’s snow-cloaked meadows and pine forests. Snowmobile Adventures offers both guided and self-guided tours that make the most of each day’s conditions, whether it’s a bluebird powder day or a raging blizzard. Drivers must maintain speeds of 20 miles per hour or less, so even young children can ride. You won’t catch big air or break any land speed records, but you will feel the horsepower of these hefty sleds—and a nippy wind on your face—as you zip through the snow.

Maybe you prefer your winter recreation to be a little less, um, physical. Get lazy, and maybe a bit tipsy, with a ride on Mammoth Mountain’s snowcat machine. This monster-truck-style vehicle, designed for grooming snow, rolls on tracks (not wheels) to an Instagram-worthy vista of the Ritter Range. Your task is twofold—sip sparkling wine in the truck’s heated cab, and admire the alpenglow as the sun sinks behind the jagged Minarets.

In Southern California’s mountains, a chilly winter day becomes an adrenaline-soaked adventure when you soar high above the snow-covered treetops. Sign up for the three-hour Action Zipline Tour, which takes you some 8,400 feet high above Big Bear Village. You’ll begin with a jeep ride to the starting line; then your guides will clip you into a harness to zip along a series of nine consecutive cables that descend the mountain. Expect to hear a lot of whooping and hollering as you reach speeds as high as 40 miles per hour.

If you can walk, you can snowshoe, and you can do it anywhere there’s a few inches of snow.

For DIY purists and laid-back adventurers, winter fun can be as simple as strapping on a pair of snowshoes. Needs list: waterproof boots, poles, snowshoes. Experience? Nah. If you can walk, you can snowshoe, and you can do it anywhere there’s a few inches of snow.

For snowshoe rentals, marked trails, and even guided snowshoe walks, head to California’s national parks. At Sequoia and Kings Canyon, rent snowshoes at Wuksachi Lodge or Grant Grove and shuffle your way through the snowy silent Sequoia groves. In Yosemite, rent snowshoes at Badger Pass Ski Area, and follow the trail to Dewey Point, where you can look down at Yosemite Valley 4,000 feet below. And in Lassen Volcanic National Park, sign up for a guided snowshoe walk around Manzanita Lake. Rangers loan snowshoes for free, or bring your own.

— Ann Marie Brown

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