Sure you love to ski or ride, but maybe you also like to enjoy time with your kids or grandkids, or get a massage, or kick back with friends too. To help you find the snowy Golden State destination that best fit your needs, we turned to Greg Whitehouse, owner of California Ski Company, a highly respected source for ski gear based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We get mountain reports several times a day to know what’s going on at the resorts,” he says. “It’s our job to know where’s the best snow, where’s the best après-ski, or whatever people want, and share it with our customers.” Follow Greg’s tips—and a few of ours—to find the California resort that best fits into your snow-filled vacation plans.
1. Amazing views
Go ahead and gawk. With wraparound views of lakes, mountains, and winter wonderlands, the Golden State’s alpine resorts offer not just great places to ski and board, but legit reasons to pull over and be amazed. “I’ve lived and skied all over the country, and there’s really nothing like the magnificence of the Sierra and other California mountains,” says avid skier Greg Murtha, head of Xplorit Interactive Multimedia Technologies and past president of the Far West Ski Association. “From the jagged peaks of the Minarets from the top of Mammoth Mountain, to the spectacular views of Lake Tahoe from Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, and Heavenly, California has some of the most beautiful views in the world.”
2. Gorgeous groomers
Snowmaking and grooming have literally changed the face of skiing in California, particularly at larger resorts that have invested heavily in equipment and experts in all things snow. Northstar California’s impeccable grooming turns the mountain into an intermediate playground with countless options for exploring without repeating your tracks or finding yourself in ungroomed territory that’s above your skill set. Heavenly also has exceptional groomers, such as Ridge Run, which not only lets you cruise with ease but also offer amazing views of Lake Tahoe. “Ridge Run is the ultimate groomer at Heavenly. The snow is great up there and the lake views are so amazing you feel like you’re going to ski right into the water,” says Barrett Burghard, senior manager of snow surfaces at the resort. In the San Bernardino range of Southern California, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit have extensive snowmaking systems and daily grooming.
3. Family-friendly resorts
While just about any California alpine resort can bill itself great for families—and they are—smaller, more intimate mountains can yield wonderful quality time for all, especially if you’ve got little ones. True, smaller mountains like Lake Tahoe’s Dodge Ridge, Sugar Bowl, Homewood, and Bear Valley (roughly two and a half hours east of Sacramento) might not have the deep-and-steep runs, but they have an intimacy that suits families well. Often, they are less crowded, with less schlepping between the parking lot and the slopes. Some smaller resorts have charming ways to play off the slopes too, such as Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area in Yosemite National Park, where a skating rink in Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome Village can be downright magical.”
4. Beautiful base villages
Whether you’re relaxing after a full day on the slopes or enjoying mountain time even without skis or boards, base villages make tempting destinations, with boutiques, eateries, deluxe ski-in/ski-out lodgings, and outdoor spaces with niceties like fire pits and live music. Not surprisingly, California’s biggest resorts have especially appealing base compounds. At The Village at Squaw Valley, browse in quality shops like Patagonia and Oakley, or choose among eating options ranging from quick grab-and-go (Euro Crepe) to sit-down fancy (Plumpjack Cafe). At the Village at Northstar, beeline for the bustling ice-skating rink, where flush-cheeked folks fresh from the slopes relax in comfy banquettes. “Parents can sit back and relax while their kids play,” says Northstar California’s Cassandra Walker, “plus the complimentary s’mores at 3:30 p.m. every day are definitely an added bonus.” Get off the gondola at Heavenly and step right into the sprawling base Shops at Heavenly Village, with an ice rink, movie theater, lodging, and restaurants. (Check out Azul Latin Kitchen, with street tacos, margarita combinations made with just-squeezed juices, and good local entertainment). At The Village at Mammoth, there’s a lively outdoor area where you can play giant Jenga and checkers.
5. Kickback mountain towns
Yes, we love the runs, the views, the winter-wonderland scenery, but we also love the mountain towns that snug up against many of California’s mountain resorts. That means plenty of places to dine, shop, relax, and spend the night. On the north side of Lake Tahoe, Truckee has the feel of an Old West town, and the main drag is lined with galleries and shops. For a fancy night out, make a reservation at excellent Restaurant Trokay, perched above town and serving seasonal foods that are almost too pretty to eat. Just south, right on the edge of the lake, is Tahoe City, where you can shop along the lakefront main street then watch the sunset from a picture window at Jake’s On the Lake. In the eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes feels every bit the mountain town, where golden retrievers thump their tails and relax along the town’s sidewalks. "It’s the kind of ski town you'll see more people with powder skis than fur jackets," says Michael Vanderhurst, Director of Sales and International Marketing in Mammoth Lakes Tourism. Duck into Bleu Handcrafted Foods for fresh cheeses, just-baked breads, and wine tasting, or snuggle up in a window seat at Mammoth Tavern (local Lara Kaylor recommends the kale salad, the roasted bone marrow, and the Tavern burger).
In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, the town of Big Bear Lake makes a great destination after a day on the slopes at Bear Mountain or Snow Summit. Big Bear Village has a bit of Old World charm, with hints of Bavaria in the architecture. Warm your toes by the fire pits, duck into shops, then have supper in the relaxed elegance of the 1920 Knickerbocker Mansion.
6. Spoil-yourself extras
Moonlit snowshoe tours, zip-line rides, and stargazing events deliver new ways to play in snow country. Or step inside cozy lodges and grand wood-beamed ski resorts to enjoy curated six-course meals and luxuriate in romantic couples massages. Need more tempting? Once the lifts shut down for the day at Mammoth Mountain, board a heated snowcat to climb up the slopes you just finished skiing. Up top, 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.
If you’re the kind of über-person who still has energy at the end of a day on the slopes, consider trying out the fat-tire snow bikes at Royal Gorge Cross Country Resort, sister 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, join Wilderness Adventures to be pulled by a team of Alaskan huskies. Another company, Husky Express, offers dogsledding in Hope Valley, an alpine stunner just south of the Lake Tahoe. For family-style fun, Mammoth Mountain has a tubing hill open after dark.
7. Awesome après-ski
After an active day shushing down the slopes, can there really be anything as great as chilling out by a toasty fire pit, perhaps with a craft brew in hand? We think not. That’s just what you’ll find at Mammoth Brewing Company, in the town of Mammoth Lakes. (There’s even a house-made root beer on tap.) Heavenly’s base village is at Stateline, with casinos and headliners such as Bruno Mars, so there’s plenty of après going on into the wee hours. But you’ll find great après-ski up on the mountain too, with Unbuckle revving up the late afternoons at Tamarack Lodge. “You’ve got music, dancing, drink specials, and the Heavenly Angels, all at 9,800 feet,” says Johnny Norman, a longtime Heavenly snowboard instructor who's known as “Johnny Tahoe.”
Northstar California dishes up some decadent après-ski options, including a daily toast at 2 p.m.—with complimentary champagne or sparkling cider—atop the resort’s East Ridge. Another stylish option: have drinks at the Northstar’s elegant Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, then bundle up to join Tahoe Star Tours and discover far-off galaxies in the glittering night sky.
8. Ultra-local vibe
Some resorts just seem to be the "it" spot for locals. June Mountain, the sister resort to Mammoth Mountain, is the heart and soul of the tiny eastern Sierra community of June Lake, and its roughly 500 acres of beginner and intermediate terrain are a cherished favourite. Steep-and-deep powder hounds who live in the Lake Tahoe basin often head for Kirkwood, a roughly one-hour drive south of the lake. Sugar Bowl, where the main peak is called Disney after one of the resort’s early investors in 1938 (yup, Walt), has been drawing families in the San Francisco Bay Area for generations, and, while not quite locals, they give the place the feeling of being a big snowy neighborhood of longtime friends.
9. Sick terrain parks
With jumps, half-pipes, and other features for doing tricks and aerials, California’s terrain parks have become hugely popular for both skiers and riders. Even if you’re not into nose grabs and riding the rails, you can cruise down the side of a park to watch the action. Top picks? Things get really lively at Mountain High, the closest alpine resort to the Los Angeles basin (about a 90-minute drive northeast) and hugely popular with thrill-seeking snowboarders, who often aim for the mountain’s West Resort area. Mammoth Mountain is also known for outstanding terrain parks, with major competitions throughout the season. And smaller Boreal, less than 30 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe, has terrain parks that stay open after dark (thanks to powerful slope-side lights).
Bear Mountain, in Southern California’s San Bernardino range, also touts outstanding terrain parks. “We were ranked No. 1 in North America by Transworld Snowboarding, which is saying something,” says Clayton Shoemaker, spokesperson for the resort. “The favourite park among locals and our Team Riders is the Red Bull Plaza, with a fresh layout every season.”
10. World-class athletes
With its super-steeps and spectacular terrain, Squaw Valley attracts some of the world’s best skiers. Multi-medaled Olympian Julia Mancuso hails from nearby Olympic Valley, and calls the mountain home base. Jonny Moseley, who captured the first gold medal for freestyle skiing at the 1998 Winter Olympics, serves as Squaw’s chief mountain ambassador—on select days in winter, you can join the amiable champion for a free two-hour mountain tour of Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows.
The Lake Tahoe basin has another under-the-radar hot spot for snow-sport athletes. Sierra-at-Tahoe, about a half-hour drive south of Lake Tahoe, produced a slew of medal-snagging snowboarders during the 2014 Winter Olympics. Gold medalists Hannah Teter, Jamie Anderson, and Maddie Bowman, as well as other top pros and amateurs, practise here, offering an amazing opportunity to see these and other world-class riders do their thing on their home turf—uh, snow.