I know, I know, it’s 90 degrees in Los Angeles this week and I’m talking about skiing and snowboarding. And I’ve heard it all winter, “But is there even any snow in California?” Yes, there is. A little science lesson: Just because there isn’t any snow on lower elevation mountains, doesn’t mean there isn’t any snow 10,000 feet up. But seriously, what did we do before snow-making machines?
If you haven’t heard, this winter has been one of the warmest winters on record for California. While many ski resorts stay open well into spring, some have already closed, such as a number of the smaller ski mountains at lower elevations. However, that didn’t stop me in my first full winter snowboarding. I bought my first snowboard for myself at the beginning of the year and I was resolved to snowboard all up and down California. And I did.
At one point this winter, at the beginning, Bear Mountain had some of the best fresh snow in California. That says a lot, since Bear Mountain is located in Southern California and doesn’t have the terrain, elevation, and conditions as many California ski resorts. But that doesn’t minimize Bear Mountain. With 12 lifts, 4 peaks, 2 halfpipes, and an average annual snowfall of 100 inches, it’s the best place to ski and snowboard in Southern California. Not to mention that Big Bear Lake Village feels like a legitimate ski town, with a number of great apres-ski locales, including Big Bear Lake Brewing Company (go for the beer, but stay for the beer-battered stuffed avocados) and Murray’s Saloon & Eatery, which I particularly gravitated to since that’s the surname of my mother’s side of the family. It is unashamedly a mountain town dive bar, but has a great craft beer selection and quite possible the best jalapeno poppers I have ever had (they aren’t your 7-eleven’s frozen jalapeno poppers!) However, this weekend is its closing party. So Southern Californians, this is your last chance to do the California double (ski/snowboard and surf all in one day).
South Lake Tahoe
My next snowboarding trip took me to South Lake Tahoe, where the gallivanting Vagabond3, Camels and Chocolate and I piled into a snow-covered cabin on the south shore of Lake Tahoe at Ashton Lakeland Village. But I’ve got to be frank with you. I’m biased to South Lake Tahoe since it was at Ski Heavenly where I was turned onto snowboarding in California. And yes, as a matter of a fact, there was fresh snow atop Heavenly. In actuality, every single place I went snowboarding this winter had either just gotten fresh snow or got it the day I arrived, which was the case at Heavenly.
There are a lot of things I love about Heavenly, not the least of which is that it’s one of the largest ski resorts in the U.S., which on this most recent trip, felt at times like I had entire runs to myself. The best part, however, are the views, which are some of my favorites of any ski resort, where there are unobstructed views of Lake Tahoe as you shred down any number of runs. It’s your own fault if you get bored with 97 runs, an apres-ski party at the top of the mountain at Tamarack Lodge, epic views both from the observation deck and on the runs themselves, and hiking at the bottom of the gondola (at Van Sickle Bi-State Park for skiers and non-skiers). And that’s all without mentioning apres-ski at the likes of Himmel Haus (hello German beer paired with bingo and trivia nights), Basecamp Pizza, and the recently opened Cold Water Brewery and Grill.
However, Ski Heavenly’s prominence and central location in South Lake Tahoe also makes it one of the busiest. For an advanced, intimate, local California ski mountain, there’s Kirkwood, which is 30 miles south of South Lake Tahoe. Kirkwood doesn’t have the views that Heavenly does, but it makes up for it with more snow then a lot of the Tahoe resorts (average of 600 inches annually), nearly 100 trails, and long runs, one of which is 2.5 miles long. It’s snowy, it’s challenging, it’s local. This is the mountain for serious skiers. Both Heavenly and Kirkwood are open until mid-April this year.
From Lake Tahoe I road-tripped down the eastern side of California to Mammoth Mountain, where I rendezvoused with friends, including one of the fiercest and most talented travel adventurers I know, Rachel, of How 2 Travelers awesomeness. We came, we saw, we shredded the gnar, we hot-tubbed, we drank craft beer, we ate malasadas, we conquered. What’s great about Mammoth is its elevation, which with a peak of 11,000 feet is one of the highest ski peaks on the west coast. This results in some of the latest skiing on the west coast, often lasting through May. It’s home to 3,500 skiable acres and at the publication of this, 89 open runs. I’d be remiss, however, not to mention its converted snowcat into a bbq and beer truck that roams the mountain. You guys, it’s a snowcat that serves beer and barbecue! Off the mountain, Mammoth Brewing Company was one of those rare breweries I’ve visited where I enjoyed every beer I tried.
Just 30 minutes from Mammoth Mountain is what’s become part of my favorite, offbeat corners of California, June Mountain. June is home to the area’s small, local ski resort, which is at an elevation of 10,000 feet with 35 trails and 1,500 acres of skiing. On a weekday, you may have an entire run here to yourself, since many travelers stop short of it at Mammoth Mountain. However, June Mountain Ski Area has closed for the winter, but will reopen next December. Nonetheless, no matter what time of year you pass by June Mountain on Highway 395, do yourself a favor and stop at the foodie and drink oasis that is June Lake Brewing. There’s craft beer, there’s foosball, there’s Hawaiian-style plate lunches (kalua pork, loco moco, poke, and more) from the on-site Hawaiian food truck, there’s malasadas. Yeah, you’re welcome.
I couldn’t talk skiing and snowboarding California and not at least mention the north side of Lake Tahoe. One the north shore you’ll find a couple of California’s most notable resorts, Northstar and Squaw Valley–Alpine Meadows, both of which are among the largest and most notable in California, and both of which have gotten fresh snow recently. If you want a more low-key ski town experience, then this is the side of Lake Tahoe to visit. I simply haven’t visited these California ski resorts, although there is still plenty of spring skiing to be had at both.
What are your favorite ski resorts, and why?