11 Top-Rated Ski Resorts in California
To tourists, California is most famous for its beaches, surfers, and Hollywood movie stars. But to skiers, the appeal of California lies far from the coastline in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which form the eastern border of the state. The ski resorts of California offer majestic alpine scenery, relatively mild and sunny winter weather, and luxuriant powder-covered slopes. In fact, many of California's ski resorts are on par with the top resorts in Colorado and even in Europe. This list ranks the best ski resorts, based on overall skiing terrain and facilities. The resorts are found throughout the state, with the majority in Northern California's Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, and Yosemite. Other notable mentions are in Southern California, in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains that are surprisingly close to Los Angeles. Plan your mountain getaway with our list of the best ski resorts in California.
1 Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows
In Northern California's Sierra Nevada Mountains overlooking the glistening emerald-blue Lake Tahoe, this premier resort boasts some of the longest ski runs in North America. Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Olympic Winter Games and since then has been known for its advanced terrain and excellent ski conditions. Great weather is the norm, with an average of more than 300 sunny days a year. Plus plenty of powder snow blankets the expansive slopes, usually at least 450 inches in the winter season.
A ticket to Squaw Valley also includes entry to the neighboring Alpine Meadows ski resort, which is just a 15-minute shuttle bus ride away. Together, these two ski areas include more than 6,000 acres of skiable terrain and 270 runs accessed by 42 lifts. Skiers of all abilities will find enough runs to suit their skills without having to repeat any trails. Intermediate trails represent the majority of runs, with 43 percent of slopes at both resorts rated as blue runs, while 25 percent of the runs are green (ideal for beginners), and 32 percent of the runs are black diamonds that only experts can handle. Another highlight is the Village at Squaw Valley with its first-rate restaurants and lodging options. Steps away from the ski lifts, the Squaw Valley Lodge is the place for a luxurious overnight stay. The drive to Squaw Valley takes about three hours and 30 minutes from San Francisco if weather and traffic conditions are favorable.
2 Heavenly Ski Resort
As breathtakingly beautiful as the name suggests, Heavenly Mountain Resort is one of the most scenic ski areas in California. About a three- to four-hour drive from San Francisco, Heavenly features 34 miles of groomed trails covering 4,630 skiable acres, making it the largest ski resort in the Lake Tahoe area. Located at the border of California and Nevada, at elevations reaching up to 10,067 feet (with seasonal snowfall averaging 360 inches), the resort overlooks the crystalline waters of Lake Tahoe surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Heavenly's magnificent views are as much an attraction as the fantastic powder-coated slopes. Sometimes skiers stop midway through a run just to take in the sensational panoramas. Surrounded by refreshing pine forests, the extensive, wide-open ski slopes include 97 runs accessed by 28 chairlifts. Many of the trails are lengthy runs extending as much as 3,500 vertical feet. Heavenly has runs for skiers of all abilities, including a good variety of intermediate slopes, and also features classes for those learning how to ski. Expert skiers head to the resort's epic double-black diamonds that feature impressive 1,600-foot chutes. For adventurous freestyle skiers, Heavenly's two challenging terrain parks are a big draw.
3 Mammoth Mountain Ski Area
About a five-hour and 30-minute drive from Los Angeles, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in the Eastern Sierra boasts outstanding skiing and snowboarding opportunities. The gorgeous setting in the Sierra National Forest, plentiful sunshine, and perfect powdery conditions make Mammoth a desirable ski destination. With a peak more than 11,000 feet in elevation and abundant annual snowfall (averaging 400 inches per year), Mammoth is one of the first ski areas to open every year. The season often extends at least until May and sometimes all the way until the 4th of July. Another bonus for visitors, the Mammoth Lakes area has many lodging options and top-notch restaurants.
The Mammoth Mountain Ski Area includes two resorts: Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain. The main resort is Mammoth Mountain, one of the largest ski areas in California, with three base lodges, 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, and 28 ski lifts that provide access to 151 trails. Mammoth Mountain is a great choice for advanced skiers, since more than 30 percent of the runs are considered expert and advanced. However, intermediate skiers will find plenty of suitable runs (40 percent of the trails) and beginners can take advantage of Mammoth's private or group ski lessons. Daring freestyle skiers appreciate Mammoth Mountain for its terrain park, which is considered one of the best in the world. A ticket to Mammoth Mountain also allows entry to "little sister" resort June Mountain, a smaller and less crowded ski area that's popular with families. June Mountain encompasses 1,500 acres of skiable slopes with seven chairlifts and 41 trails. The majority of the runs at June Mountain are intermediate (45 percent) and beginner (35 percent), so it's an ideal place for kids and anyone who's new to skiing.
4 Northstar Ski Resort
Northstar is the most family friendly ski resort in Lake Tahoe, thanks to its kids' activities, ski school, and a wide offering of intermediate runs. The ski resort covers 3,170 acres, with 100 well-groomed trails that are accessed by 20 chairlifts. The majority (60 percent) of the runs are intermediate, 13 percent are beginner runs, and 27 percent are advanced. The longest run stretches for 1.4 miles. Blessed with sunny weather and abundant seasonal snowfall, the ski slopes at Northstar are usually blanketed with fluffy powder snow. At times when snowfall is light, the resort uses snowmaking machines to improve the conditions. Adding to the enjoyment, many of the runs have lovely views and traverse pristine pine forests. A major attraction of Northstar is its European-style village at the base of the slopes. The village is convenient for shopping, dining, and lodging, with its extensive selection of restaurants and hotels ranging from casual to upscale.
5 Kirkwood Ski Resort
Kirkwood has a different, more remote feel since it's farther away from the hubbub of Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe than the other Tahoe resorts. Perched on the Sierra Crest peak, this picturesque 2,300-acre resort is appreciated for its peaceful, unspoiled alpine scenery and challenging, diverse terrain. Kirkwood also has some of the finest powder-snow conditions in Lake Tahoe. Because of the high elevation (7,800 to 9,800 feet), the snowfall here is more plentiful and drier, which allows for better control while skiing even on the steepest runs. Kirkwood is best suited for experienced skiers, who are able to take on the resort's legendary black diamonds. More than half of the resort's 86 runs are advanced (38 percent) and expert (20 percent), and even the intermediate runs (30 percent) are slightly more difficult here than other resorts' typical intermediate runs. Only 12 percent of the runs are rated beginning level. The longest run extends for 2.5 miles along tranquil forest-clad glades.
6 Sugar Bowl Resort
Quaint and small-scale in feel, this historic ski resort is loved for its charming ambience and wonderful powdery slopes. True to its name, Sugar Bowl holds the claim to the most snowfall (an annual average of 500 inches) of any resort in the Lake Tahoe area. The resort is also the closest Tahoe ski area to San Francisco, only a three-hour drive away if traffic and weather permit. Plus there's parking right near the slopes, which makes it an easy day trip. Those staying overnight will feel pampered at Sugar Bowl's old-fashioned European-style lodge that features ski-in, ski-out accommodations and a fine-dining restaurant that serves gourmet cuisine in an elegant setting. Steps away from the lodge are the ski slopes, nestled into the side of the mountain. The 1,650-acre ski area is sheltered from the wind, which makes for a pleasant ski experience. The runs cover four mountain peaks of Donner Summit, winding through spacious glades that are surrounded by dense pine forests, with spectacular mountain views at every turn. With 12 lifts that provide access to 98 trails, Sugar Bowl has slopes for all ability levels. Most (45 percent) of the runs are intermediate level, while 38 percent are advanced runs and 17 percent are beginner "bunny hills." Group lessons and private lessons are available for adults and children learning how to ski.
7 Big Bear Mountain Resort
Big Bear Mountain Resort is in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains, one of the few ski areas in California not found in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The San Bernardino Mountains reach higher than 8,000 feet in elevation, high enough to get outstanding snowfall so close to the Pacific Ocean, only a two-hour drive (100 miles) from Los Angeles if traffic allows. Big Bear Mountain Resort at Big Bear Lake includes two major ski areas (one entry ticket is valid at both): Bear Mountain, with 748 acres of skiable terrain, and Snow Summit, with 240 skiable acres. Known for its high-energy freestyle terrain park, Bear Mountain Resort has 12 ski lifts and 32 trails. Most of the runs are intermediate (40 percent) and beginner (30 percent). The family friendly 240-acre Snow Summit resort has even more intermediate trails; more than 60 percent of the resort's 31 trails are blue runs rated for mid-level skiing ability. Both Bear Mountain and Snow Summit offer ski lessons taught by certified professionals. Bear Mountain has the largest area in Southern California, dedicated to ski and snowboarding classes.
8 Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area
California's oldest ski resort is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in the Central Sierra mountain range, near the world-famous attractions of Yosemite National Park. About a four-hour drive from San Francisco, Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area is less crowded and more affordable than many of the Tahoe ski resorts. Families with kids will find this resort is easy to manage and stress-free. This ski area includes downhill (alpine) ski slopes, as well as terrain reserved for cross-country skiing, snow tubing, and snowshoeing.
9 Mt. Shasta Ski Park
A snow-capped volcanic peak that soars to 7,500 feet, Mount Shasta is a truly awe-inspiring sight in Northern California. The Mt. Shasta Ski Park is found at the foot of this legendary peak (with a base elevation of 5,500 feet), in between the cities of Mount Shasta and McCloud. Most of the hotels, lodges, and restaurants are in the town of Mount Shasta, but the nearby towns of McCloud and Dunsmuir also have a good selection of lodging and dining options. Mt. Shasta Ski Park encompasses 425 acres of skiable terrain with 32 downhill ski trails. Most of the runs are intermediate (55 percent) with the remaining 20 percent beginner and 25 percent advanced level. The longest run extends for 1.75 miles. Cross-country skiers will also enjoy the many scenic trails. For seasoned skiers, one of the most interesting things to do at Mt. Shasta Ski Park is explore beyond the groomed trails. The ski park allows backcountry skiing led by an experienced guide. In the off-trail backcountry area, skiers may stop at the ski park's rustic cabin to take a break and warm up by a wood-burning stove.
10 Mt. Baldy Resort
Mt. Baldy is the closest ski resort to the Los Angeles metropolitan area (50 miles away), just a one-hour drive if traffic permits. A favorite among expert skiers, Mt. Baldy is predominantly covered with advanced-level black-diamond and double-black-diamond runs. There are only a handful of beginner and intermediate trails. However, the resort does have a Learning Center that provides ski lessons to children and adults.
11 Mountain High
About a 1.5-hour drive (80 miles) from Los Angeles, this award-winning resort is the most popular ski area in Southern California. Mountain High ski resort is tucked away in the Big Pines region of the San Gabriel Mountains, part of the Angeles National Forest. Three ski resort areas are available to skiers, with the same entry ticket. The West Resort offers a wide variety of runs, including technical trails used for contests. During the peak season, the West Resort is open for skiing after-dark, seven nights a week. The East Resort has the longest runs, jaw-dropping viewpoints of the Mojave Desert, and expert slopes with challenging moguls. Well suited for families and anyone learning how to ski, North Resort features 70 acres of beginner-level runs. The overall 290 acres of skiable terrain at Mountain High's three resorts is serviced by 16 lifts that lead to 59 trails with 25 percent beginner runs, 40 percent intermediate runs, and 35 percent advanced runs.