There’s much more to the Golden State than beaches and surfing! Head east where the winter storms dump the powder and you’ll see that California’s best ski resorts hold up well compared to Utah and Colorado. We’ve teamed up with local experts up and down the Sierra to bring you the top 5!
- Not as prone to windhold as other Sierra resorts
- Some of the best intermediate terrain anywhere in Tahoe
- Bustling base village with plenty of dining options and an ice-rink
- Lower elevation than any of the major Tahoe resorts
- Can get warm and therefore wet
- Most parking is a long way from the lifts
- Best terrain takes a few different lifts – and a bit of time – to get to
Northstar is a dream come true for skiers and riders who love to carve big smooth turns on the corduroy because almost half of the runs here are rated as intermediate! So if you like long groomed cruisers – in some cases up to a mile long – this is the place for you!
No Wind Holds Here
Just about all of Northstar’s runs are cut through the trees, with very few exposed to the elements. That means that when the storms come and both Squaw Valley and Heavenly have some of their lifts shut down, you can still be making turns here. In fact, according to the local ski patrol, Northstar’s lifts only close due to high winds about once a year! Of course, many of the runs are sheltered by the trees because the resort is lower than most of its neighbours. That means warmer temperatures, occasional rain, and some poor snow conditions. But the good news is that there is a first-rate snowmaking system to help make up for it!
Top-Notch Base Village
Northstar’s base village is one of the best in the area. With a spa, movie theatre, shopping, and an ice skating rink, it’s a great place for families as well as non-skiers. You won’t go wanting when it comes to dining and drinking after your day on the slopes, and there’s a range of accommodations to suit varying tastes and budgets. Outside of the village, things aren’t as well laid out as they are at other resorts, with most parking lots relatively far away from the slopes. At least there’s a shuttle bus to make the trek easier!
Getting there: 45-minute drive from Reno, Nevada; approximately 3-4 hours from the San Francisco Bay area
Combining Squaw Valley’s premier terrain with Alpine Meadows’ powder and views of Lake Tahoe, the two resorts have merged to become Squaw Alpine. Though they’re still not connected (there’s a plan for a gondola in the future, but for now you have to settle for a bus ride), you can ski the both on one pass. Here’s a breakdown of each.
- Terrific grooming, even on the steeps
- Great hike-to terrain
- Most lifts can get you to steep terrain
- More sheltered than Squaw Valley
- Outdated lifts and lodge
- Small vertical drop
- Low elevation means warmer temperatures, occasional rain, and icy conditions
Perhaps overshadowed by its legendary neighbour (and now sibling), Alpine Meadows is a bit “under the radar” amongst Tahoe ski resorts. We think that’s a shame as it has almost everything it takes to make a great mountain!
There are over 100 runs and 2 terrain parks in 7 bowls just at Alpine Meadows, with a nice mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced terrain. And then there's the side-country! There are probably some purists who think lines like this should be harder to get to, but at Alpine, it only takes a short hike! But if that's still too much effort, rest assured you can find some surprisingly steep groomers and plenty of moguls with no hiking required. All of this with over 400 in of snow a year, and much fewer skiers and riders than at nearby resorts.
If there’s a knock against Alpine Meadows, it’s the lift system and the amenities. Both definitely show their age. Of its 13 lifts, 8 of them are fixed-grip doubles and triples (and another two are surface). There's no slopeside lodging, and the base day lodge could use updating. But the good news is that with the recent changes in ownership and a new development plan in the works, there should be some investment in infrastructure on the way!
- The perfect combination of big steeps and big snowfall
- Unmatched grooming on the steeps
- One of the best base villages around Tahoe
- Crowds and long lines on powder days
- Lack of parking
- More windhold than anywhere else around Tahoe
Even if you haven’t been to Squaw Valley, if you’re into winter sports, then you’ve probably seen it. Highlights from the 1960 Winter Olympics still show up every 4 years, it’s a favourite of ski filmmakers like the late Warren Miller, and if you haven’t seen Hot Dog… The Movie, it’s a cult classic! (Think Animal House,but on skis…). Once you get on Squaw Valley’s slopes for yourself, you’ll see that its legendary status is well deserved!
Home to the Best of the Best
Famous for its wildly extreme terrain, Squaw Valley is an instant favourite for advanced skiers and riders. Many of the top pros make their homes here, which is as good an endorsement as you can get! There’s a wealth of black diamonds to be had, but with over 170 trails and 4 terrain parks, there’s plenty of choices for everyone. The snowfall is reliably consistent, with over 400 in in an average year, and the grooming is excellent, even on steep pitches.
The base village is a beautiful complement to the on-mountain experience. It's easy to navigate and has a wide selection of choices for dining, drinking, and shopping as well as convenient accommodations. But since it's one of the most convenient resorts to get to from the populous Bay area, Squaw can draw big crowds meaning packed parking lots and long lift lines. A significant portion of the mountain is treeless and exposed – more so than in any other Tahoe resort – which can cause some of the lifts to close in windy conditions. But when the conditions are right, and you've timed it to miss the crowds, Squaw Valley is a world-class experience!
Getting there: 1-hour drive from Reno, Nevada; approximately 3-4 hours from the San Francisco Bay area.
- The fifth largest ski resort in North America
- Great variety of terrain
- No Sierra cement snow unlike other Tahoe resorts
- Best views of Lake Tahoe, with views of the high desert on the Nevada side
Rising right out of the small city of South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly offers not only a great mix of terrain but an outrageously fun vibe. It straddles the state line between California and Nevada, with the California side offering our favourite views of the lake and the Nevada side giving you unique panoramas of the high desert below.
More than Crazy Steeps
Yes, Heavenly boasts the infamous Gunbarrel – a steep, mogully run so gnarly it has its own sobering warning sign. Yet it still plays host to Glen Plake’s “Gunbarrel 25” every spring where the famous freestyler challenges skiers to ski 25 laps of the run… supposedly, it’s possible! On the Nevada side, it offers double-black playgrounds like Mott Canyon and Killebrew Canyon. But between, there are miles of immaculately groomed blue cruises (almost half the mountain is intermediate) and dedicated beginners’ areas. Even though it sees less snow than most of the nearby resorts, thanks to its location along the lake, the snow here is Tahoe’s driest and lightest. And a powder day is a great time to check out the trees – they reach almost to the top, unlike many places.
The Party Never Ends
Heavenly has three base areas. The Stagecoach Lodge in the east and the California Lodge in the west are practically in residential neighbourhoods (great for vacation rentals), but Heavenly Village at the base of the gondola is in the middle of the city of South Lake Tahoe. The village itself offers plenty of places to stay, shop, and eat (one of our favourites is Fire and Ice, which puts a modern twist and a bit of fusion on Mongolian barbeque). There are pubs for après and nightlife, and a few blocks away, the Nevada state line and a host of casinos and nightclubs. Just be careful – things close late (or not at all), and you don't want to miss your next day of skiing!
Getting there: 1 hour drive from Reno, Nevada; 3-4 hours from the San Francisco Bay area.
- Some of the most exciting in-bounds terrain in Tahoe
- One of the highest annual snowfall averages in North America
- Freshies last for days
- Old lifts
- Not enough parking for busy days
- Longer to get to than most Tahoe resorts; 45 minutes south of Lake Tahoe
Not as many people make the extra effort to get to Kirkwood (it’s 45 minutes and two high mountain passes south of Lake Tahoe proper), but the diehards who are willing to go the distance will be well rewarded!
Steep and Deep
Kirkwood packs some of the area’s steepest terrain and its best powder into its 2,300 ac. Even better, the local ski patrol is famous for getting terrain open quickly after a big dump. With its acreage and its modest 2,000 ft of vertical, it’s certainly not as big as its neighbours, but it often gets more than twice the snow that they do! That and the lack of crowds means fresh tracks even days after a storm (if you know where to look). The high terrain offers some jaw-dropping panoramas across the Sierra – that’s as long as you’ve got the chops to make it down since most of the runs from the top are advanced or expert. And if you don’t mind a hike, the Palisades Bowl high above the Timber Creek base area wins our vote for the best in-bounds powder skiing in the region!
All about the Skiing
Compared to some of the other California resorts, Kirkwood is relatively no-frills. The Mountain Village and Timber Creek base area have what you need, but there’s not the village experience of Squaw Valley or Northstar, and certainly not the robust entertainment of South Lake Tahoe. The lifts could stand an upgrade and there’s limited parking. But for the kind of skiers and riders who make the trek, none of that matters. The deep snow, the exceptional terrain, and the culture make Kirkwood a special spot – enough to warrant a lofty place in our rankings!
Getting there: 1.5-2 hours from Reno, Nevada; 3-4 hours from the San Francisco Bay area
- Huge area and terrain for all ability levels
- Tons of snow
- One of the longest seasons in the U.S.
- Efficient lift system
- Prone to crowding on holidays and powder weekends
- Expensive place to ski
- Relatively out of the way
No, it’s not named after the giant prehistoric beast, but it might as well be! Boasting the highest peak of any California ski resort and over 3,500 ac of terrain, Mammoth Mountain is, well, mammoth! Originally dating back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, it's managed to combine rustic charm with a world-class lift system and a modern resort village to become the ultimate ski resort in California.
Big Snow, Big Terrain
Mammoth combines tons of snow with a nice selection of terrain that offers something for everyone, making it an excellent choice for families and groups. There are over 150 runs including wide boulevards for beginners, miles of cruisers, over a dozen terrain parks, and loads of steeps, bowls, glades, and hair-raising chutes. It gets its big snow totals in the form of massive dumps; when the flakes aren't swarming down, Mammoth sees over 300 days of California sunshine, so remember your shades and sunscreen! Yet despite all the sun, its elevation helps all that snow last a long time – in the 2016-17 season, Mammoth was open into August!
Popular for good reason
It's farther away from San Francisco and Reno than the Tahoe resorts, but it's the closest good skiing to Las Vegas and all the people in Southern California. Holidays and big powder weekends can bring large crowds – and tracked-out snow. The demand makes it a relatively expensive place to ski. But, in addition to the quality snow and variety of terrain, the modern resort area offers everything you could possibly want including a wide array of lodging and dining choices making it our top choice in California. The town of Mammoth Lakes nearby provides an even wider variety, including budget-friendly options, in a friendly small-town atmosphere.
Getting there: Less than half an hour from Mammoth-Yosemite airport, or roughly 5-6 hours drive from San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas.
If you’ve skied California, what are your thoughts? Are any of your favourites missing, or would you rank them differently?