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 the open road. This enormous resort has absolutely everything, not just these big groomers with head swivelling 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 visitors who might be new to snow sports. The on-mountain Tamarack Lodge becomes lively at the end of the day with its late afternoon Unbuckle après party. But 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. Heavenly also straddles the California/Nevada border, 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 holiday 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 pine filled back-country. Intermediate and beginner skiers cruise on wide groomers, some with Instagrammable views of nearby Lake Tahoe.
And then there is that village. Many resorts sell s’mores kits, including sticks, to create your own sweet treats at base village fire pits. But at super family friendly Northstar, the whole set-up seems especially right. Children show off their moves on the ice, then take breaks with mum and dad (sipping Irish coffees in heated rink side cabanas) to make marshmallow treats. Slip into a comfortable 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 sought after 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 holiday plans.
With ski-tan smiles and serious gear propped in the racks, Squaw attracts elite skiers and their families, with all ages welcome on and off the slopes. Long time fans, many skiing here since they were tiny, think of Squaw as 'their' mountain, a perfect club or top skiers, but delighted to kick back with you at the end of the day. Enjoy the easy, relaxed feel that comes with exercise and exhilaration at Squaw’s base village with live music, a bungee jump trampoline for the children, 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 grab an outdoor seat. Another local favourite is ultra low key Le Chamois ('The Chammy'), a nearly half century base village institution. Locals also love to stop by Wildflour Baking Company for warm-from-the-oven cookies.
Do you bring a swimming costume 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 it via the aerial tram). Down at the base, get a massage at Resort at Squaw Creek’s luxury spa. Treatments include access to swirling outdoor whirlpools. Let your pint size racers take part in Squaw’s SnoVentures programme. Children aged 6 to 12 steer mini snowmobiles on a groomed track. There’s unmotorised fun too, with a three lane slope for snow tubing.
Squaw’s sister resort, Alpine Meadows, is just down the road, tucked between Truckee and Tahoe City. This picturesque playground for families and savvy powder seekers has a truly alpine feel, chalet style lodges and wrap-around beauty. Here you have a full range of choices, from easy riding progression parks to wide open bowls, and 100 trails spread across 2,400 acres of skiable terrain.
Insider tip: The Tahoe Super Pass lets you ski and snowboard at Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Sugar Bowl, and Sierra at Tahoe.
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 meters 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 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 favorite 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 for jawdropping 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 motorised 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 boast, 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 great groomers for beginners and intermediates, and surprisingly long runs too, including the 2.5mile 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 star 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 medals 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 will say Kirkwood, if they are willing to share the secret. This stunning resort, roughly 35 miles south of Lake Tahoe, often gets the steep and deep credit 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 'Wall', with a dramatic steep start that opens up into an incredible and difficult run. Kirkwood also offers an array of build-your-skills experiences with its Expedition: Kirkwood programme. Choose from private back-country guides, Snowcat tours, speciality 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 holiday 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 is 'less than a tank of petrol away round trip' from Southern California cities.
A little more than two miles 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 are into snow tricks, or just like 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 north-east of Fresno in the uncrowded Sierra National Forest, China Peak offers nearly 518 metres of vertical, and sweeping views from its highest point at 2,652 metres.
The goal is to be a place that is easy to get to, and that has something for everyone. Children 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 north-east 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 of snow per season, varied terrain on four peaks, and pristine back-country (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 have 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 aeroplane 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 the largest snow tubing park in Southern California.
The resort offers 290 acres of skiable terrain, with an average of more than 130 inches of snowfall each season. There is 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 favourite childhood holidays. As for skiing and boarding, Bear Valley Mountain Resorts features 9 lifts access, 75 trails with nearly 1,700 acres of skiable terrain. Trails range from the easy to the challenges of Grizzly Bowl, so everyone can find places to play. Snow making 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 cannot cross the mountains here, the snow-covered highway turns into an easy-to-follow route for snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing. Hire snow-shoes or cross country skis 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, four trail side huts and the Meadow Café, plus picnic tables for when the weather is good, all dotting some 3,000 acres of varied terrain. There is also a gentle slope where you can practice your downhill technique on Nordic skis. But don’t worry, it gets easier with practice. There are also sledging and tubing hills, plus fat-tyre snow bikes for a new twist on winter fun.
Snowmobiles are also popular in the region. Bear Valley Snowmobile offers hires and 15 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.