Winter is just around the corner … and that means ski season. Here’s a guide to our favorite California slopes—here, near and up there.
It’s an autumn afternoon, and you’re sitting at your desk in sunny southern California suddenly thinking about, well, snow. More specifically, you’re dreaming of pristine powder and mountain peaks far away from the traffic that awaits you. But just how much time can you squeeze out of a weekend to make it worth your snowy dollar? Fortunately we SoCal residents can ski without leaving the Golden State. Sure, Colorado, Utah and others have their advantages, but for sheer convenience and maximum time on the slopes, consider skiing right here at home.
Ravaged by wildfires and beset by spotty snow, Big Bear nevertheless offers surprising altitude—at nearly 9,000 feet, Bear Peak is the highest mountain in southern California with lift service. And if you time it right with traffic on the 10, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can be on the slopes—sometimes in only two hours.
Obviously reliant on snowmaking, Bear Mountain and its sister resort Snow Summit played host to a young Shaun White and later developed a pioneering freestyle park. One lift ticket accesses both mountains, and while you won’t have the vertical drop of the Sierras, Bear Mountain remains a family and boarder-friendly option for a last-minute alpine getaway.
Go old school and try to score one of the darling cabins at Three Pines Lodge. And don’t miss breakfast at the Grizzly Manor Café, which is nearly as much a draw as the snowboarding action itself. As they put it at the café, “send more tourists, the last ones were delicious.” (bearmountain.com, threepineslodge.com)
Your vertical drop and caliber of snow soar as dramatically as the Sierras as you head north toward Mammoth. Not as far as Tahoe but still a hefty distance, half the fun of a road trip up Route 395 is the sheer staggering beauty of the drive.
Mammoth is just that—at 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, it’s one of the largest of California’s resorts and perhaps the most beloved by generations of natives. Part of Mammoth’s appeal is that its size allows skiers of all abilities to find appropriate terrain. It offers some of the adrenaline of Jackson Hole’s jaw-dropping drops with plenty of bunny slopes and some of the finest ski instructors in the nation. It’s a resort you, your skills and your family can all grow with over a lifetime of visits.
Another highlight is the off-slope action, as Mammoth boasts an impressive array of food and wine destinations and a vast selection of accommodations across all price points. Consider something like the Tamarack Lodge at Mammoth Lakes. With free shuttle service to the lifts, an idyllic shoreline location and the superb Lakeside restaurant, Tamarack is the insider’s Zen alternative to Mammoth crowds. Chef Frederic Pierrel’s cuisine and the surprisingly comprehensive wine list are reason enough to book a stay there. (mammothmountain.com, tamaracklodge.com)
No overview of California skiing is complete without mention of Lake Tahoe. Any drive in Los Angeles will feature a number of “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper stickers. It remains an essential emblem of California, and its myriad of ski resorts are a draw for enthusiasts from all over the state.
While Heavenly and Northstar have their devotees for fans of Tahoe snow, a perennial favorite where nature still trumps nightlife is Squaw Valley, located on the east side of the lake, about eight miles from Truckee. Here’s the best deal around—Squaw Valley is currently offering FREE half-day lift tickets valid with a same-day flight, no matter your point of origin or arrival. Reno on the Nevada side is the closest airport, and with killer discount fares from airlines like Southwest and Horizon (the latter also services Mammoth Lakes), you can fly and ski on the same day for substantially less than the cost of gas.
Made legendary as the site of the 1960 Olympics, Squaw Valley is enticing a whole new generation of skiers with incredible snow and improved amenities. Set up shop at the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn, which offers their signature Napa Valley cuisine and wines just steps away from all those glorious runs. (squaw.com, plumpjacksquawvalleyinn.com)
Check each of these resorts’ websites for late-breaking deals. In a tough economy, the ski industry is increasingly competing for your lift ticket dime, so keep your bag packed and your edges sharp in case you score a last-minute bargain.