You know California’s mountains offer world-class skiing and boarding. But even if you’re not into bombing down the mountain on fiberglass, you can find plenty to do—including lots of luxurious ski resort experiences. Moonlit snowshoe tours, thrilling dogsled rides, and après-ski parties let you revel in the mountains’ beauty, while inside cozy lodges and grand wood-beamed ski resorts you can enjoy curated six-course meals and luxuriate in romantic couples massages.
Guided Tours and Special Seminars
Get the most out of knowledgeable locals who live in these mountains with a guided experience on your trip, and you’ll never forget it. At Northstar California, join a snowshoe tour with Tahoe Star Tours. “We do tours snow or shine when the moon is new, so we are able to see the most stars,” says Tony Berendsen, the owner. The tour is an easy, guided walk that starts at sunset when the mountains are lit with purple alpenglow. At a special viewing spot, Berendsen, a professional outreach astronomer, sets up his powerful telescopes to take you on a tour of the night sky. “We have had guests from all over the world—most from large cities with light-polluted skies—and they are always in awe of the star-studded view.”
Experienced skiers and boarders will be all over the special programs offered by Kirkwood Mountain Resort, southeast of Lake Tahoe. Ride a snowcat (a tracked, truck-size vehicle traditionally used for grooming the slopes) or join a private or semiprivate guided backcountry tour to find secret stashes of powder. Kirkwood also offers avalanche educational courses and steep-terrain clinics.
In Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, on Lake Tahoe’s northwest side, Alpenglow Expeditions offers premium lift-accessed guided tours of outside-the-boundary terrain including Tram Ridge, a zone previously inaccessible, and National Geographic bowl.
At Heavenly Mountain Resort, on Lake Tahoe’s south side, instructors are all about breaking through your plateaus. Want to conquer the ramps, jumps, tubes, and other features in the terrain park? They’ll get you zooming through the course in no time. Feeling fearful of mogul-covered runs? Spend some time with a private coach and you’ll soon be carving down Heavenly’s double-black-diamond Gunbarrel run (or at least working on getting there).
After a day hitting the slopes, one thing’s certain: You’ll be hungry. Turn mealtime into something amazing with a special experience, such as an après-ski mountain tour in a luxury, heated snowcat at Mammoth Mountain. After lifts close, guests climb into the snowcats for a ride up the mountain, then relax with gourmet hors d’oeuvres and wine to watch the sun set beyond the Minarets.
“The tours are really once-in-a-lifetime—the view from the vista is magical,” explains Lauren Burke, public relations manager for Mammoth Mountain. “It looks out over miles of jagged peaks in Ritter Range and the deep San Joaquin drainage.” Ride back down to dine on wild salmon or pan-roasted venison at Lakefront Restaurant.
One of the best winter dining experiences is happening at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, a luxurious hotel surrounded by the slopes of Northstar California. The Chef’s Tasting Counter at Manzanita allows guests to look right into the exposition kitchen and chat with chefs while enjoying a tapas tasting. Craving a more intimate setting? The exclusive Chef’s Table is in a private nook right off the kitchen and has a stunning view of the surrounding mountains—plus Chef Chris Watkins will drop by to describe the six courses he has created for you.
Another memorable meal at Northstar California can be had at the Mountain Family Dinner, held on select winter Saturdays. Diners commune at the rustic Lodge at Big Springs where, after gazing at stars with wine or hot cocoa in hand, a casual dinner is served. At Squaw Valley, farm-to-table dinners at Resort at Squaw Creek include adult and children’s pairings (with appropriate beverages) in Six Peaks Grille, with a stone fireplace and mountain views.
Snow-tubing hills dot California’s mountains, with slopes of all sizes serviced by convenient rope tows or lifts. One hill not to miss is Woolly’s Tube Park at Mammoth Mountain—especially on five special nights each season, when the park is transformed into an electric circus in the forest, complete with DJs, food, drinks, glow sticks, and laser lighting.
Heavenly also has a growing slate of activities at its Adventure Peak area, accessed via the scenic gondola (ride up with or without skis and boards). Clip into zip-line rides: Hot Shot lets up to four people race down the mountain on parallel lines, and Blue Streak offers a 3,300-foot-long version with two zip lines and lake views. At the end of the day, relax at Unbuckle Après Party (drinks, music) inside Heavenly's on-mountain Tamarack Lodge (elevation 9,150 feet).
Adventurous types will love the new fat-tire snow bikes at Royal Gorge Cross Country, sister resort to Sugar Bowl ski resort on Lake Tahoe’s west side. Pedal your snow bike along groomed trails through the forests and meadows.
Near Squaw Valley, Wilderness Adventures leads a team of Alaskan huskies through Olympic Valley. (Warm up afterward with a cocoa at nearby Sorensen’s Resort.) And in the mountains surrounding Mammoth Lakes, woosh across the snow with Mammoth Dog Teams.
Squaw Valley’s SnoVentures Activity Zone lets children strap on helmets and ride mini snowmobiles around a pint-size course. At Bear Valley, south of Lake Tahoe, rent a pull-behind Kid Karrier with your snowmobile, big enough for two small kids to safely ride behind you in style.
Worth-It Wellness Splurges
After a day carving turns, treat your muscles to a Mountain Recovery Massage at The Landing Lake Tahoe Resort & Spa, where therapists customize the treatment to each guest’s needs, resulting in a session that is more interactive, incorporating stretching and movement. For a romantic escape, enjoy private soaking tubs before your couples massage at Double Eagle Resort and Spa, in the mountain-ringed village of June Lake. Truly decadent? The split of champagne you can share after your massage.
At Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, try blending your choice of aromatherapy salt blends with your favorite essential oil, then have your therapist use it during a Cabin Couples Massage, a romantic spa suite that feels like your own cozy cabin in the woods. Try a yoga class indoors at Granlibakken Conference Center & Lodge, in Tahoe City.
For an over-the-top experience, take a spin over epic peaks and gorgeous Lake Tahoe with Reno Tahoe Helicopters (book flights out of Lake Tahoe Airport). Prefer to stay grounded? Ski or ride with Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley at Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows.
Or harness the wind while kiteboarding at Sierra Snowkite Center, near Sugar Bowl. Show up with your own skis or snowboard (note—you should probably be at an intermediate skill level), then follow one of the friendly instructors out to the center’s big meadow. They’ll get you into a harness that hooks you up by a long rope to a huge, parachute-size nylon kite. “Just flying the kite is really fun,” says Tyler Brown, the owner and founder. Then put on your skis or board and learn how to properly control the kite so you can zoom, and sometimes fly, across the snow. “It usually takes about two hours to get the hang of it,” Brown says. “But once you’ve done it, you’ll love it.”