Snowflakes falling outside your window, a crackling fire in the woodstove, down quilts on the bed—these tucked-away cabins and lodges, surrounded by California mountain finery, let you tap into winter without the frostbite. “It’s a rare moment when you get to be in the mountains in winter, just enjoying nature, family, and friends,” says Patty Brissenden, who along with husband John owns the cabins at Sorensen’s Resort, just south of Lake Tahoe. Find your snowy escape at some of our favourite snowy hideaways, listed here south to north. (PS: These resorts stay open year-round, so come back once the snow melts for more alpine escapades).
Cozy Hollow Lodge (Big Bear Lake)
With pillows of snow in the surrounding pines, this comfy resort in the San Bernardino Mountains makes an inviting wintertime retreat. Choose from 14 knotty pine cabins, outfitted with fireplaces and kitchens or kitchenettes. We especially like the deluxe cabins with Jacuzzi spas in the master bedroom. It’s a quick stroll to the village at Big Bear Lake, and an easy drive to the slopes at nearby Bear and Snow Summit mountains, making this a great base for a ski getaway (the lodge also provides discounts for gear rentals). Come on your birthday and get a free ski pass.
Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa (Lake Arrowhead)
This classic mountain resort, in the well-heeled community of Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, lets you live the life of early 20th-century elegance. Relaxing next to the fire in one of the main lobby’s polished leather armchairs, a hot toddy in hand, you half expect Ernest Hemingway to sidle in, brushing snow from his moustache. The resort’s 162 guest rooms and 11 deluxe suites have all the niceties—think flat-screen TV's and fluffy comforters—but the Bath Butler is anything but ordinary: Call for a special visit to bring deluxe amenities for your wintertime soak (ingredients change seasonally).
Rock Creek Lodge (Mammoth Lakes)
Winter wonderlands don’t get much better than this, especially if you’ve got an adventurous spirit. From mid-December through the first weekend of April, chauffeured snowmobiles pick up guests and whisk them to this remote lodge, nestled among some of the Sierra Nevada’s biggest, snowiest peaks, halfway between Mammoth Lakes and Bishop. The lodge is a dream escape for Nordic skiers and snowshoers, who can follow more than nine miles of groomed track, or strike off into spectacular backcountry in the adjacent John Muir Wilderness area. It’s fun to watch the snow fly from your winterized overnight cabin, but the real treat is the nightly gathering in the main lodge, where guests dig in family-style to enjoy a four-course, gourmet dinner. Tip: You can reserve a space at dinner even if you don’t have time to stay overnight.
Tamarack Lodge (Mammoth Lakes)
Mammoth Lakes may be best known for its namesake ski mountain, but don’t overlook this hidden gem on the outskirts of town—especially during winter. Right out the door of your handsome Craftsman-style cabin (from studios to three bedrooms) are cross-country and snowshoeing trails leading into pristine wilderness. (Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center is right nearby, with rental gear and lessons available.) The main lodge has that throwback touch that feels just right in winter: a crackling fire, plenty of well-worn board games, sink-in-deep chairs, and a bartender who knows just how much schnapps to add to your coffee. Each cabin has a fully equipped kitchen, so you can whip up your own meals, but save a night for dinner at the lodge’s acclaimed Lakefront Restaurant—local Alpers trout is a specialty.
Evergreen Lodge (Groveland, near Yosemite)
Insiders know that one of the best times to visit Yosemite is winter, when it can feel like you have the snowy park to yourself. Sneak in during this secret season with a stay at Evergreen Lodge, a short drive from Yosemite’s west entrance. Built in the 1920s but nicely upgraded, the lodge has 88 cabins (our favourites are the 25 deluxe cabins with king-size beds and fireplaces). Join the owners for guided snowshoe tramps to explore sequoia groves and other nearby sites. Note that the owners take a long break at the beginning of the year, so the lodge is typically closed from just after New Year’s until Valentine’s Day celebrations in February.
Sorensen’s Resort (Hope Valley)
This idyllic collection of cabins has been a family favourite for decades. The compound, about a half-hour south of Lake Tahoe, was originally used as a no-frills fishing lodge (the blue-ribbon West Fork Carson River is just across the street). Back in 1982, current owners John and Patty Brissenden knew a gem when they saw it—largely because of the resort’s spectacular setting in Hope Valley, an alpine stunner with sweeping views of surrounding peaks. They bought it, began sprucing up existing cabins, built new log ones, and even added a few imports from a former Santa’s Village in Santa Cruz. Cabins range from mouse-house-size charmers to multibedroom houses, and all come with complimentary snowshoes to explore hundreds of surrounding acres of snowy wilderness. Repeat visits are common, says Patty. “Parents tell us the kids want to come back for the free cocoa.” FYI: Leave electronic gizmos at home. There’s no TV or radio reception, and no Internet access.
West Shore Café & Inn (Homewood)
Winter-white snow seems to make Lake Tahoe look even more spectacularly blue, and this surprising gem on the lake’s west shore is the perfect place to enjoy the view—and feel like a wealthy Tahoe homeowner, too. Just across the road from the slopes of family-favourite Homewood Mountain Resort, the views from this intimate inn are the stuff usually reserved for exclusive compounds. All seven rooms have fireplaces, slate-stone bathrooms, and huge picture windows to take in the blue lake and surrounding peaks. Enjoy discounts for Homewood tickets, as well as cross-country skiing and ice skating, also nearby. Feeling a little less energetic? We won’t tell if you just want to kick back in the café with a West Shore Toddy (house-made toddy syrup, Dickel whiskey, and Korbel sparkling wine).
Rustic Cottages (Kings Beach)
Talk about makeovers! Back in the early 1900s, this complex of 19 renovated cabins once housed labourers for the sawmill of Brockway Lumber Company. Now, look for simply but nicely renovated studios for two (some with Jacuzzi spas), as well as family-style options with a separate bedroom for Mom and Dad and daybeds in the great room for the kids. The resort also rents out several impeccably decorated luxury houses a short walk from the main compound. Sparkling Lake Tahoe is across the street, and area ski resorts are all within reach. (In January, some lucky guests receive complimentary passes to Donner Ski Ranch). Another nice plus: “Once you get here, everything is free—breakfast, brownies, cookies, cocoa,” says resort manager Kathy Mosby. “You can even keep the mug.”
Highlands Ranch Resort (Child’s Meadow, near Lassen)
Kevin Wilsey knew what he wanted: a chance to create an unforgettable experience in the wraparound beauty of Child’s Meadow, the hidden-gem valley near Lassen, where his family had a cabin since he was a teen. This rustic-chic resort, just down the road from the west entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park, delivers his wish in spades. Opened in summer 2015, Kevin’s dream project includes a soaring main lodge and seven tricked-up cottages with names such as Maverick and Night Hawk, with cozy extras like heated floors, fluffy duvets, and fireplaces. In adjacent Child’s Meadow, you can snowshoe and cross-country ski (guided treks too), or drive into the park for more trails. Come back for supper at the lodge’s Artisan’s View Restaurant (open to non-guests too) for hearty dishes like braised short ribs or balsamic-marinated Muscovy duck.