Back in 2016, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones and a few other athletes put together an outing where they went backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the Sierra at sunrise, followed by rock climbing on Donner Pass, then driving to Marin County to mountain bike on Mount Tamalpais and surf Stinson Beach—all in a single day. “This is why I ended up in California,” Jones explains. “We have really good snowboarding, mountain biking, rock climbing, and surfing in close proximity and you can, in theory at least, do it all in a day.”
That proximity to other sports has a big influence on California’s mountain culture. The kick-back, adrenaline-loving spirit extends from the Pacific Coast to the snowy peaks in the High Sierra and beyond. Whether it’s the rush of catching the perfect wave or scoring the first ski run of the day, there’s a common thread among California’s surf and ski tribes. The Golden State’s resorts are the kinds of places where live music streams from outdoor decks all winter long, goggle tans are standard issue, snowboarders throw skate-inspired tricks out of 22-foot halfpipes, and après ski is as much a part of the culture as the skiing itself.
Plus, the quality and accessibility of skiing and snowboarding in California are some of its biggest draws. Jones moved to the Lake Tahoe area from his native Massachusetts to snowboard over two decades ago and never left. He built his career on the famed steeps of Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows). He then went on to launch the nonprofit Protect Our Winters and his snowboarding company, Jones Snowboards, in the town of Truckee, where he lives with his family.
“I just fell in love with this place—big mountains, close to the ocean, an easy-to-reach airport. It’s a very happy, easy place to be,” Jones says. “I’ve traveled all over the world, and I just kept coming back to Tahoe.”
The Golden State’s bright sun not only shines on the coast—it also beams on the high-elevation peaks and world-class ski resorts, which get blanketed in snow. Mammoth Mountain somehow manages to score 300 days of sun a year and an annual average of 400 inches of snow, which is usually enough to keep the mountain open well into June. [As of press time, the mountain had received more than 100 inches at the summit in February 2019.] This is also the home of ski destinations like Kirkwood, where two-foot dumps are a common occurrence, and Sugar Bowl, which received a whopping 751 inches of snow during the record-breaking 2017 winter. You won’t find this unique combination of sunshine and powder days anywhere else on the planet. (Check out this story to learn about the record-breaking February 2019 snowfall.)
The best part about California resorts? The welcome mat is rolled out for every type of skier and snowboarder, from total newbies to hard-charging experts with Olympic dreams. You’ll find everything from steep chutes to mellow beginner slopes, plus lessons and clinics that cater to every level. Even those who don’t want to ski will find plenty of things to do in California’s ski towns, on and off the snow.
Snow for Every Level
Some of the most accomplished pro skiers and riders have developed their skills on the famously extreme terrain around California. Freeskiing pioneers like the late Shane McConkey made the cliffs of Palisades Tahoe famous in ski movies, while Olympic champions such as skier Julia Mancuso and snowboarder Chloe Kim got their starts as kids at Palisades and Mountain High, respectively.
This is the state that bred big-mountain skier Cody Townsend, Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley, and slopestyle snowboard star Jamie Anderson. Many of these athletes came to California for the steep terrain and abundant snowfall the state is known for, but they stayed for one main reason: They fell in love with the vibe, culture, and community of the place.
If you’re an expert skier or rider, there’s plenty of terrain to challenge you. Famous chairlifts and runs like Palisades' KT- 22, Mammoth’s Chair 23, or Kirkwood’s The Wall will push your limits. Want to uplevel your experience? “Hire a guide,” says Townsend. “A guide will help you find the secret powder stashes, get to the resort-accessed backcountry, and enjoy your time that much more.”
Expedition Kirkwood offers guided backcountry tours, avalanche education, and steep-terrain clinics. In 2017, Alpenglow Expeditions began offering first-of-its-kind guided side-country tours into previously closed terrain outside the boundary at Palisades Tahoe, enabling skiers to explore coveted zones like Tram Ridge and National Geographic Bowl.
“This is truly some of the best terrain in Tahoe,” says Adrian Ballinger, founder of Alpenglow Expeditions. “You’ll get 1,500-vertical-foot runs on incredible terrain. It feels different out there and our groups can now access this terrain via a 15-minute bootpack from the lift.”
Of course, you don’t need to be an expert or backcountry skier to enjoy California’s mountains. Resorts across the state offer creative and game-changing lessons for everyone from first-timers to those with disabilities. Heavenly Mountain Resort recently launched a GoPro lesson, where guests learn how to use GoPro cameras to capture their experiences, and Mountain High offers virtual snow simulators to let you test new skills in a controlled environment before taking them to the slopes.
At Big Bear Mountain Resort, instructors help newbies as young as four years old learn the ropes at terrain-based Skill Builder Parks. At Sierra-at-Tahoe, in addition to affordable lessons for the whole family, a technology called Smart Terrain offers gently sloped runs that are custom-designed for learners. “Snow sports can feel hard to get into,” says Steve Hemphill, the director of marketing at Sierra-at-Tahoe. “But at Sierra, we want to see as many people learning to ski and ride as possible For riders with disabilities, Achieve Tahoe teaches lessons at Alpine Meadows and Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra serves up half-day and full-day lessons as well as longer camps at Mammoth Mountain.
Beyond Skis and Boards
Even if you don’t ski or snowboard, California’s mountain towns offer countless activities that embrace the Golden State's classic sense of adventure. Many offerings take notes from popular beach activities.
If you can ride a beach cruiser, you could handle fat tire biking with Tahoe Mountain Guides, which leads trips on the growing number of snowy trails around Truckee. Or take the kids snow tubing at Tube Town in Soda Springs, with 20 lanes, tube rentals, and a lift to carry you to the top. If you love long, peaceful hikes, head to Royal Gorge, atop Donner Summit, where you’ll find more than 20 miles of designated snowshoe trails, plus snowshoe rentals and nine rustic backcountry warming huts you can tuck into for a hot chocolate along the way.
The thrill of kiting across a surface isn’t just for the ocean. The Sierra Snowkite Center, the first of its kind in California, opened in 2012 near Sugar Bowl ski resort. Founder Tyler Brown, a ski-racer-turned-kitesurfer, teaches lessons for first-time snowkiters on more gentle terrain and experienced kiters looking to access steeper backcountry slopes. “You don’t need much experience to learn to snowkite,” says Brown. “We can teach anyone and everyone.”
Surf vibes come out in full force during spring skiing, when it’s common to see girls in bikini tops and guys in T-shirts swooshing down the mountain. At Palisades Tahoe, you can ride an aerial tram to the mountaintop’s newly revamped High Camp, where you can go ice skating or soak in the world’s most picturesque hot tub at 8,200 feet.
A snow trip in California isn’t complete without experiencing the lively après-ski scene. At Northstar, you can enjoy a free champagne bar at 2 p.m. on a mid-mountain slope or splurge for an upgraded setup with a bottle of bubbly, a meat-and-cheese platter, and your own private fire pit.
At Heavenly, DJs spin music atop a retrofitted snowcat that roams the mountain for one of the rowdiest après dance parties around. For a more relaxed ending to your day, The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe at Northstar California hosts nightly “marshmology” and astronomy lessons, where you’ll learn the history of the marshmallow and stargaze through a telescope while roasting s’mores over a campfire.