Taking your family to the mountains this winter? Whether your crew is full of avid skiers or contented snowman-makers, the California snow offers a variety of fun ways to spend a winter family vacation, from the resorts such as Heavenly, Squaw Valley, and Alpine Meadows, near Lake Tahoe, down to Big Bear Mountain and Snow Summit in Southern California. “California ski resorts are so cognizant of families now that they do everything they can to make it as easy as possible for parents and kids,” says Mike Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. And while resorts offer plenty of kid lessons, rental packages, and “kids ski free” options, be sure to include other kinds of family fun in the snow. These activities can help slowly introduce snow newbies to the mountain, provide an afternoon activity for kids who can’t ski all day, or just offer easy ways for the whole family to play together. From snowshoes to snowmobiling, sled competitions to Star Wars training camps, here are some of the coolest kid-friendly activities at California ski resorts.
Snowshoeing at Northstar
The Tahoe resort has gotten raves from Forbes for being family-oriented, thanks to its pedestrian-friendly village with an ice rink, and perks like wagons for toting your gear. All ages can enjoy the resort’s family snowshoe tours, offered on select Sundays throughout the winter. Strap on a pair of snowshoes (or rent a ski stroller for tiny tourers) and follow your guide for a three-hour snow walk along family-friendly trails. You’ll end your journey at a red caboose in an alpine meadow where kids and adults can indulge in well-deserved hot chocolate and cookies. All tours begin at 1 p.m. and are open to all ages and ability levels. Just be sure to make reservations early, since this popular tour often sells out.
Snowmobiling at Mammoth
Just in case there are some non-skiers in the family (or those who just don’t ski on the same runs), here’s a nice way to keep everyone in one pack: Experience the snowy backcountry on snowmobiles. Mammoth Snowmobile Adventures combines experienced guides with top-of-the-line equipment to help your family explore large meadows, lush pine forests, historic landmarks, and acres of backcountry trails. Kids 16 years and older with a valid driver’s license and a parent present can steer their own snowmobile, while kids 5 and older can ride with a parent. Snowmobile season begins mid-December; helmets are provided and additional clothing is available for rent if needed. Mammoth’s other big crowd-pleaser, meanwhile, is Woolly’s Tube Park and Play Zone, with its night tubing, merry-go-round, and plenty of room for old-fashioned snowman-building. Recharge with a tri-tip sandwich at The Little Mill, Mammoth's famous snowcat-turned-food truck planted at the top of Woolly's, or dine by the fire pit at its brother restaurant The Mill at the base of Chair 2.
Age-Specific Lessons at Sierra-at-Tahoe
While nearly all ski resorts offer lessons, Sierra-at-Tahoe is an ideal location for families to learn how to ski or ride. Lessons are taught on the resort's Easy Street, a dedicated 11-acre learning terrain that offers new skiers and snowboarders carefully sculpted beginner terrain, including gently banked turns and carefully-shaped snow features to naturally help beginners practice their turns and stops. The resort also offers age-specific lessons for kids—which include fun indoor arts and crafts to break the ice—broken down into three categories: Discovery (ages 3–4), Pioneer (ages 5–6) and Explorer (ages 7–12). For parents who have tried in the past to teach their own kids to ski with more tears than triumphs, there is even a unique class for parents to take with their kids called "Teach Your Child" that helps parents break down the steps of skiing. After a day of focused learning, the whole family can blow off some steam at Blizzard Mountain with two lift-accessible tubing runs, sledding, and a slow play area.
Race to Win at Tahoe Donner
Do your kids thrive on competition? Visit Truckee’s Tahoe Donner—a smaller ski area that’s especially family- and beginner-friendly—during its annual Winter Superstars week, held in February, for ski and snowboard races, sled pulls, and a mini terrain park competition for all ages. Look for the schedule of events to be posted online in early February (this season’s Superstars Week runs from February 17-24) and sign up to compete—or, just come and watch. Stick around until the last day for the free Glowstick Parade and Carnival, a kid version of the Torchlight Parade with glowsticks for ages 10 or younger. Come early for carnival games, snacks, and music.
Ride the Largest SoCal Tubing Park at Mountain High
With up to 12 different lanes, two moving carpets, and custom tubes, Mountain High’s North Pole Tubing Park is the largest park of its kind in Southern California, and offers an easy day of play in the snow (kids should be at least 36 inches tall). Ride solo, challenge family members to races, or make a chain. Space is limited, so grab your reservation early for one of the four different tubing sessions throughout the day, or buy an all-day pass for true tubing enthusiasts.
For skiing and snowboarding, Mountain High offers a deep range of lessons for first-timers. January is Learn to Ski & Snowboard Month, too, with plenty of discounts for bundled classes.
Rock Climb at Snow Summit
Kids can scale new heights on the 30-foot rock climbing wall year round at Snow Summit’s Base Camp. Once they’re helmeted and harnessed, kids can test their strength, determination, and fear of heights as they ascend easy or challenging routes to the top of the rock tower. Buy a ticket for a one-time climb or an Adventure Pass for all-day climbing. The Base Camp’s Adventure Academy, meanwhile, has become the nerve center for families visiting the resort. The 3,000-square-foot learning center offers streamlined access to rentals, tickets, and kid lessons.