High Sierra peaks, deep drifts on a Mammoth volcano, family-friendly resorts, snowy escapes on the edge of Yosemite and more—California has enough alpine destinations to keep any skier or boarder grinning as wide as a happy snowman. Find the resort that suits your style—from big-mountain/big village resort-style settings to under-the-radar treasures.
On Tahoe’s south shore, Heavenly—one of the world’s biggest ski resorts—offers jaw-dropper lake views from runs as wide and bump free as freeways. This enormous resort has absolutely everything—not just these big groomers with head-swiveling views, but also a wide range of terrain parks, mogul runs with names like Gunbarrel, and peaceful, untracked glades where the world seems to slip away into snowy bliss.
Heavenly has also bumped up the fun even if you don’t ski or board, with on-mountain zip lines, tube runs, scenic gondola rides, and a party-like atmosphere on and off the mountain, making it especially popular with international travelers who might be new to snow sports. The on-mountain Tamarack Lodge gets rockin’ at the end of the day with its late-afternoon Unbuckle après party; you don’t have to be a skier or boarder to join in the fun. Heavenly’s base village is another star attraction, with an ice-skating rink, outdoor fire pits, and a wide array of restaurants. And Heavenly straddles the California/Nevada, and the adjacent Stateline area offers top entertainment and gaming in high-rise casinos and splashy hotels.
Insider tip: Consider getting an Epic Pass for access to Heavenly, Northstar California, and Kirkwood; there are various options and pricings, so check to see which one could work for your vacation plans.
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.
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 who 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/971 hectares 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. 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.
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.
In winter, Mother Nature is good to Mammoth Lakes. Very, very good. The mountain town’s signature peak, Mammoth Mountain, gets, on average, more than 30 feet/9 metres of snow, and lifts and gondolas continue to zoom up the mountain longer than any resort in the state. The nice twist is that even though it’s a winter wonderland here, you’ll still need to layer on the sunscreen. Mammoth boasts some 300 days of sunshine a year, so those après ski chairs out on the sundeck of Mammoth’s mid-mountain complex see plenty of action. The base village hops too, with shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Mix things up with a day on the slopes at nearby June Mountain, a local favourite that’s ultra-relaxed and friendly. Even if you’re not a skier, you can take advantage of Mammoth Mountain’s gondola, which climbs to the mountain’s summit at 11,053 feet/3,369 metres for jawdropper views of surrounding high-altitude peaks.
For quieter wintry pursuits, head over to Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center, with breathtaking vistas from trails groomed for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Even if you’re not staying the night at the nearby Tamarack Lodge, you can unwind in the great room with a mug of hot mulled wine by the fire, then stay for supper (ski clothes are fine) at cozy Lakefront Restaurant.
Wintry splurges abound—choose from motorized Snowcat tours to guided full-moon snowshoe treks. Go tubing with the kids. Glide through the wilderness on a dogsled. Get an après-ski massage at area resorts, such as Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa or Snowcreek Athletic Club. Or just enjoy the biggest splurge—free time—and watch the alpenglow blush the mountains at sunset.
This fun, accessible resort on the way to Lake Tahoe has every right to crow, yet it stays surprisingly under the radar. Accolades are showered on Sierra at Tahoe by a flurry of gold-medal-winning snowboarders and freestyle skiers, including Hannah Teter and Maddie Bowman, who call the mountain home. Yet you won’t find any big banners or flashy signs trumpeting the mountain’s top-notch fans. That might be one reason they love it here—it’s all about the snow and the mountains. There are some super-sweet groomers for beginners and intermediates, and surprisingly long runs too, including the 2.5mile/4-km Sugar ‘N Spice run, the resort’s longest. Another plus—Sierra at Tahoe has some of the best tree skiing in the region, an expert’s-only paradise of steeps, glades, and big fat pillows of puffy snow.
But the big get is the collection of terrain parks and pipes. In fact, those features might make this one of the best places to go if even if you don’t ski or board: the world-class athletes who train here mean you can get a slope-side view of some of the finest snow athletes in the world. Hard to believe it, but that tangle-haired young woman clomping around in her boots in the lodge probably has a closet-full of gold back at her ski cabin.
Insider tip: During ski season, a free shuttle runs between Sierra-at-Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe. Also, the Tahoe Super Pass lets you ski and snowboard at Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Sugar Bowl, and Sierra at Tahoe.
This is the kind of place where parents take their kids to ski for the first time, just like parents did the generation before, and maybe the one before that too. The Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area (formerly known as Badger Pass), on the south side of Yosemite National Park, is a relaxed charmer, and well worth adding to a wintertime visit to Yosemite, or making a destination in its own right.
It doesn’t get much more friendly and unpretentious than this. Here, you can lean back in a chair on the broad sundeck and look up the slopes to watch your little ones learn to ski or board. Of course, you can ski too—10 runs access beginner, intermediate, and advanced runs. If you’ve never tried cross-country skier or snowshoeing, start now--there are more than 90 miles/145 kilometres of marked trails and 25 miles/40 kilometres of machine-groomed track heading into Yosemite’s wintry wonderland. Cross-country track and skating lanes are groomed from the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area to Glacier Point—a spectacular 21-mile/34-km round trip.
Ask powder hounds for their favourite California destination, and chances are they’ll say Kirkwood—if they’re willing to share the secret. This stunning resort, roughly 35 miles/56 kilometres south of Lake Tahoe, often gets the steep-and-deep creds for the region. Its jagged granite peaks tend to snag heavy dumps of snow, making it the go-to spot for in-the-snow locals. Head out early for unforgettable first tracks, particularly on the pristine backside runs. For a real heart-pumper, take on the notorious The Wall, with a dramatic steep start that opens up into a whoop-it-up big-turning dream. Kirkwood also offers an array of build-your-skills experiences with its Expedition: Kirkwood program. Choose from private backcountry guides, Snowcat tours, specialty ski and board clinics, avalanche certification courses, and women’s-only adventures.
It’s not all chutes and off-piste at Kirkwood; the Timber Creek area caters to beginners and families, with an excellent ski- and boarding school and a relaxed base lodge.
Insider tip: Consider getting an Epic Pass for access to Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Northstar California; there are various options and pricings, so check to see which one could work for your vacation plans.
Snow Summit and Bear Mountain make up the resorts of Big Bear Mountain Resorts, an appealing alpine region in the wintry, pine-and-snow San Bernardino Range, often referred to as a place to ski and board that’s “less than a tank of gas away, round-trip” from Southern California cities.
A little more than two miles/3.2 kilometres apart, the two resorts, connected by a free Inter-Resort express shuttle, let you choose from more than 50 runs slicing through the snow. Natural features and terrain parks are big here, so if you’re into tricks (or just watching them) you won’t be bored. The town of Big Bear Lake has a friendly alpine feel, with plenty of places to kick back for some low-key après ski relaxation.
This low-key resort on the western side of the Sierra is a local favourite for Central Valley skiers and boarders. Some 70 miles/109 kilometres northeast of Fresno in the uncrowded Sierra National Forest, China Peak offers nearly 1,700 feet/518 metres of vertical, and sweeping views from its highest point at 8,700 feet/2,652 metres.
The goal is to be a place that’s easy to get to, and that has something for everyone. Kids can build their skills on a Burton Progression Park in Ullmann’s Alley. More advanced boarders and skiers ride the rails, boxes, hips, and spines of popular—and challenging—Tollhouse Park. Canyonlands gives skiers and boarders a place to play on bank turns, rollers, and jumps.
For an old-time end to your day, put up your boots and relax at JW’s Original Bar, in the unpretentious base lodge.
This snow-snagging resort is rightly named—sugary drifts often pile up here, make it a favourite destination for skiers, especially after a big Sierra storm rolls through. An easy drive from the Bay Area and less than two hours northeast of Sacramento, Sugar Bowl is ultra-popular with families looking for an easy ski getaway.
Sugar Bowl has a tucked-away, off-the-grid feel—the road in off Interstate 80 is lined mostly with snowy forests, not condos and hotels, and when it snows, the little base village looks a bit like a snow globe sprung to life. Add the average 500 inches/1,270 centimetres of snow per season, varied terrain on four peaks, and pristine backcountry (much of it laced with trails at Sugar Bowl’s sister cross-country resort, Royal Gorge—the largest Nordic resort in North America), and you’ve got a pretty sweet find in the Sierra.
Insider tip: The Tahoe Super Pass lets you ski and snowboard at Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Sugar Bowl, and Sierra at Tahoe.
The quickest way to snow in the Los Angeles region—short of getting into an airplane and flying to the slopes—is to beeline to this popular mountain getaway on the east side of the San Bernardino Range. Three areas make up the ski resort, each with its own style and atmosphere. If you like the vibe of slope-side music, live performances, night skiing, and on-hill contests, head for West Resort. East Resort aims to deliver a true alpine experience, with a high-speed quad accessing the region’s longest trails, with moguls, glades, and Mojave Desert views. Mountain High North Resort, open Friday through Sunday during peak season, fills the niche as the family-friendly hangout, with 70 acres of beginner to intermediate terrain and a the largest snow-tubing park in Southern California.
The resort offers 290 acres/117 hectares of skiable terrain, with an average of more than 130 inches/330 centimetres of snowfall each season. There’s a nice mix of trails too, with 25% beginner, 40% intermediate, and 35% advanced.
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.