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.”
With ski-tan smiles and serious gear propped in the racks, Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows attracts elite skiers and their families, with all ages welcome on and off the slopes. Long-time fans, many of whom have skied here since they were tiny, think of Squaw as “their” mountain, a perfect club for top skiers such as Olympian Jonny Moseley.
Squaw’s sister resort, Alpine Meadows, is just down the road, tucked between Truckee and Tahoe City. Families and savvy powder-seekers will appreciate this approachable mountain, which features more than 100 trails on its 2,400 acres of terrain, ranging from easy groomed runs to wide open bowls that offer views of Lake Tahoe below.
In addition to its famous terrain, Squaw boasts a few other differentiators. The resort was the host of the 1960 Winter Olympics—take an Aerial Tram ride to see memorabilia at the free Olympic museum—and often holds elite competitions throughout the season. It’s not uncommon to see past and future Olympians training on the mountain.
Squaw Alpine has also set itself apart with a focus on sustainability. In the near future, the resort plans to run 100 percent on renewable energy sources, making it the first major ski mountain in the U.S. to do so. As a visitor, you can spot signs of the sustainable efforts, from the electric car chargers at the base to the lack of single-use water bottles.
For spring skiing, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is one of the most popular places to be, snow permitting (in 2017, the resort stayed open until July 4.) Pack a bathing suit when you ski? If it’s Squaw you do. Starting in March, the heated pool and hot tub complex at Squaw’s High Camp lets you soak surrounded by 9,000-foot peaks (non-skiers can access via the Aerial Tram). Down at the base, get a massage at Resort at Squaw Creek’s posh spa; treatments include access to swirling outdoor whirlpools.
Enjoy the easy, relaxed feel that comes with exercise and exhilaration at Squaw’s base village with live music, a bungee-jump tramp for the kids, and countless tail-wagging dogs. Let your pint-size racers play in Squaw’s SnoVentures zone, where kids ages 6 to 12 can tube, roast marshmallows, and steer mini snowmobiles on a groomed track. SnowVentures also gets pumping with a live DJ and glittering LED lights to host the all-ages Disco Tubing party on select weekend evenings. The deck at the Village at Squaw’s KT Base Bar, with tilt-your-head-back views of legendary KT-22, is the ultimate place to nab an outdoor seat. Another local favorite is the ultra-low-key Le Chamois (“The Chammy”), a nearly half-century base-village institution that serves pizza and beer in a lively après atmosphere. Locals also love to stop by Wildflour Baking Company for warm-from-the-oven cookies.
This pleasantly off-the-grid winter destination feels—and looks—like a secret escape in the middle of rugged alpine wilderness. With its laid-back, family-friendly vibe, this low-key mountain town, roughly half way between Lake Tahoe to the north and Yosemite National Park to the south, has a comfortably retro feel, the kind of place that might make you reminisce about your own favorite childhood vacations. As for skiing and boarding, Bear Valley Mountain Resorts features 9 lifts access 75 trails with nearly 1,700 acres/688 hectares of skiable terrain. Trails range from easy groomers to the challenges of Grizzly Bowl, so everyone can find places to play. Snowmaking keeps things skiable in dryer years.
In snowy winters, Highway 4, also known as Ebbetts Pass and a designated National Scenic Byway, closes just east of Bear Valley. Though vehicles can’t cross the mountains here, the snow-covered highway turns into an easy-to-follow route for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Rent gear in town, then follow the road to views of craggy mountains and hushed forests. For more trails, visit Bear Valley Cross Country, with groomed trails for track and skate skiing, 4 trailside huts and the Meadow Café, plus picnic tables for when the weather obliges, all dotting some 3,000 acres/1214 hectares of varied terrain. There’s also a gentle slope where you can practice your downhill technique on Nordic gear. (Don’t worry—it gets easier with practice.) There are also sledding and tubing hills, and fat-tire snow bikes for a new twist on winter fun.
Snowmobiling is also popular in the region; Bear Valley Snowmobile offers rentals and 70 miles of groomed trails, with the Highland Lakes area a popular destination.
Insider’s tip: Come back in summer for the annual Bear Valley Music Festival, featuring a full orchestra and other top music under the pines.
Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with...
Scan the crowd around the ice rink in the handsome Village at Northstar and you can see this place is all about families—happy families—on the ice, sprawled on comfy outdoor sofas, in shops and restaurants. They just had a great day on a great mountain—a place with some of the region’s best terrain parks for all abilities (including a massive half-pipe designed specifically for mega-star Shaun White). Experts love the snowy acres of endless trees off legendary Lookout Mountain, and access to miles of piney backcountry. Intermediate and beginner skiers cruise on wide groomers, some with Instagrammable views of nearby Lake Tahoe.
And then there’s that village. Many resorts sell s’mores kits, including sticks, to create your own sweet treats at base-village fire pits. But at über-family-friendly Northstar, the whole setup seems especially right. Kids bust their moves (or their buns) on the ice, then take breaks with mom and dad (sipping Irish coffees in heated rink-side cabanas) to make marshmallow-y treats. Slip into a pillowy banquette at edgy-urban-meets-mountain-hip Petra Bistro & Wine Bar, with top wines by the glass and sophisticated small plates like braised short ribs with shaved fennel.
After a day in ski boots, try the “Aching Feet Rescue” at the swanky spa at the Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe, then recharge at the resort’s wish-list restaurant, Manzanita.
Insider tip: Consider getting an Epic Pass for access to Northstar California, Heavenly, and Kirkwood; there are various options and pricings, so check to see which one could work for your vacation plans.