An Expert Guide to Ski and Snowboard Resorts in California

Looking for some new spots to ski or snowboard this winter? Look no further! Check out Snowboard Expert Chris Sterner's list of the top 6 resorts in California!

View of Lake Tahoe with snowy ski areas and mountain peaks surrounding it.

Heavenly Summit View. Photo by Chris Sterner

When most people picture California, they think of sunshine, the southern beaches, and the glitz of Hollywood, not the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains covered with trails and powder-coated slopes. Having found this article, you're obviously not most people, cheers to that. California is full of ski areas, 34 in total, and has a destination for everyone.

In the south, you have Big Bear Lake, Snow Summit, and Mountain High, which depend upon manmade snow but are well known for their parks and proximity to the state's major urban centers. Depending on traffic, you can fly into Los Angeles (L.A.) and drive an hour or five to your destination.

A bit off the beaten path in central California, you have Mammoth and its little sister, June Mountain. Mammoth is aptly named for its big peaks and big snowfall. You can fly into Mammoth Lakes or drive five hours from L.A. or Reno. In the north, most of the activity centers around Lake Tahoe, home to major resorts like Palisades Tahoe, Heavenly, and Northstar. The area is known for its beauty and draws travelers from worldwide. Fly into Reno or Sacramento, and all Lake Tahoe Resorts are within a two-hour drive. Winters are often slow to start, so late winter and early spring would be the prime time to visit for great snow and abundant days of sunshine in between.

While California has many amazing resorts, I will highlight my favorites in this article:

  • Best Value: Boreal
  • Best Snowfall: Kirkwood
  • Biggest Vertical: Mammoth
  • Best Nightlife: Heavenly
  • Family Friendly: Northstar
  • Most Famous: Palisades Tahoe

Top 6 Resorts in California

1. Boreal: Best Value

A snowy ski area.

Donner Summit near Boreal and Sugar Bowl. Photo by Chris Sterner

Boreal offers short runs, shorter lift lines, and an amazing terrain park. Boreal is located conveniently on I-80 and is the closest and easiest access to Sacramento and the Bay Area, only an hour's drive from Sacramento. The mountain only sports a 500’ vertical drop and has a high base elevation of 7,200’. It receives an abundant snowfall of 500” average per season due to its position as the furthest west resort in the Tahoe area.

The amazing terrain parks make it a great choice for those looking to enjoy great snow at a low price compared to other Tahoe resorts. In addition, it is the only Tahoe area resort to offer night skiing and boarding and hosts an indoor Woodward training center for freestyle.

What I Love and Don’t

Boreal offers affordable, low-priced lift tickets compared to nearby ski areas. In addition, I love taking park laps into springtime sunsets. However, I wouldn’t go to Boreal on a pow day due to its short runs and limited terrain.

2. Kirkwood: Most Snowfall

A snowy mountain peak with a ski resort visible.

View of the terrain accessible via “The Wall” at Kirkwood. Photo by Chris Sterner

You'll find plentiful snowfall and big mountain terrain. A little more off the beaten path than other resorts nearby, Kirkwood’s location on the west side of the Sierra Crest results in massive dumps of snow, and the resort averages 500” of fluffy goodness per year.

The mountain features a great beginner area at Timber Creek Lodge, plenty of intermediate runs, creative terrain parks, and amazing steeps for experts. Exploration is abundant, and there are some super cool caves you can check out mid-run during low snow levels. Know that if Kirkwood puts up a sign that says "Danger Cliff," it is not a drop for mear mortals.

“The Wall” is their most infamous chairlift and offers many double black options. Kirkwood does a great job maintaining a more snow-focused vibe than most of the nearby resorts with its awesome terrain and cool parking lot vibes despite its ownership by Vail Resorts.

What I Love and Don’t

I love the snowfall and the big mountain terrain. I don’t love driving on winding mountain roads to the resort on a snow day. Accidents are all too common. Take it steezy y’all.

3. Mammoth Mountain: Largest Vertical and Elevation

View of a snowy ski resort from the top of a peak. Skis can be seen in the lower lefthand corner.

View from the Mammoth chair 23 ridge. Photo by Chris Sterner

Mammoth is aptly named as this resort is absolutely massive. Its top elevation is 11,053’ and offers multiple base areas, with the lowest at 7,953’. An expansive network of lifts allows access to long intermediate runs, some amazing big mountain terrain, and some of the best terrain parks in the country. Depending on the snowfall, the resort often stays open into May and June, sometimes as late as the 4th of July. The town of Mammoth is a cool little outdoor-focused town with lots of restaurants and outdoors stores. They do have a small airport but most visitors make the drive up from L.A. along the beautiful and desolate U.S. Route 395. The lower valley is chock full of well-loved hot springs, and Convict Lake to the south offers some amazing scenery and hiking. Mammoth attracts world-class instructors to their ski school as the mountain is a great training ground for experts of any discipline within snowsports and has wide runs for learning.

What I Love and Don’t

Mammoth is massive, and I discover new terrain every time I go and still have plenty more to explore in the future. Springtime park laps are a great way to bump into pros, and everyone who lives in Mammoth Lakes is there for the love of the mountains. The resort’s high elevation can mean upper mountain lift holds during storms. The majority of the resort is situated above the treeline. I love riding in the trees, so this aspect is a downside for me.

4. Heavenly Mountain Resort: Best Nightlife

Top down view of a ski gondola with Lake Tahoe in the background.

Views from the Heavenly Gondola of “big blue” Photo by Chris Sterner

Roll into town in the dark, party all night in the casinos, and you might just think you woke up in Heaven. Situated in South Lake Tahoe, the town and the resort are extremely well interconnected. The main downtown area offers abundant shopping, apres, and lodging options, steps from a gondola that will whisk you away to 9,000’ and two other classic ski lodge access points. The mountain itself is mostly long, winding intermediate runs with breathtaking lake views around every corner. However, it does have some great trees if you know where to look and some expert-level terrain in its gate-accessed canyons, Mott and Killbrew. Heavenly is the furthest east resort in the Tahoe basin and receives less snow than other Tahoe area ski resorts.

What I Love and Don’t

Heavenly is absolutely beautiful and offers a great variety of terrain and nightlife in very close proximity. However, I don’t love the lesser snowfall totals than most of Tahoe and the extreme crowding during peak periods. Snowboarders will find its flat cat tracks between portions of the mountains annoying, but skiers won’t find this an issue. Baby jibs in the Northstar Progression Park. Photo by: Chris Sterner

5. Northstar: Family-Friendly

A snowboarder hitting a feature in a terrain park.

Baby jibs in the Northstar Progression Park. Photo by Chris Sterner

Northstar California offers abundant beginner and intermediate terrain and world-class terrain parks for all ability levels. The resort offers spread-out parking, and the provided shuttle service is often needed to get to the expansive Village base area with lots of lodging, shopping, and dining options. The resort doesn’t have much-advanced terrain but offers some good tree riding, and the parks off of its vista lift flow endlessly from top to bottom through jib and jump lines and end with a well-maintained superpipe. Families will enjoy this resort for its abundance of easy terrain and village vibes. Kids will enjoy the progression parks that offer easy and safe freestyle terrain and the ice or roller rink, depending on the season.

What I Love and Don’t

The parks and groomers are awesome and expansive. The parking situation can be annoying, and the resort lacks the steep terrain that gives me my thrills.

6. Palisades Tahoe: Most Famous

A snowy ski area.

All that you can see, you can ski at Palisades. Photo by Chris Sterner

Previously known as Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, this mountain resort is revamping its brand and its lift system to pay tribute to the Washoe Tribe and offer even more acreage between these two areas, now connected by a new gondola. This new expansion makes it one of the largest ski resorts in the United States by skiable acres. Palisades is the Hollywood of the ski and snowboard world. You are guaranteed to see something impressive on every lift ride. It has world-class terrain for all, from steeps and big cliffs to terrain parks, long groomers, and everything in between. It offers some of the best skiing in the state. The mountain is comprised of many peaks and gets abundant snowfall. Beginners will be stoked on the top of the mountain learning area accessed via the Tram, allowing beginners to experience high-elevation views and snow quality on some of the best learning terrains I’ve ever seen. Experts will be stoked on any of the terrain accessible via the KT-22 lift or the legendary Palisades hike to the zone above the Siberia lift.

What I Love and Don’t

Incredible terrain and snowfall, and Route 89 to the resort is an easy and beautiful drive, even in slick conditions. With fame and great snowfall come big crowds and long lift lines. It takes a great deal of early morning dedication to get most of its classic lines before they get tracked out.

4 Other Resorts Worth Mentioning

A snowy mountain range.

Sierra Nevadas, which translates to “Snowy Mountains,” is the major mountain range in California. Photo by Chris Sterner

Sugar Bowl is a big resort with multiple peaks, lots of snowfall, and great big mountain terrain. Homewood is a smaller resort with awesome Lake Tahoe views and low crowds. Mt. Rose has the highest elevation base area in the state and gets great quality snow. Sierra-at-Tahoe has a great local vibe and some amazing tree riding.

Conclusion

A snowy ski mountain.

Kirkwood. Photo by Chris Sterner

California has a ski resort for every type of snow fan. When snow isn't actively falling, days are often sunny and mild. But time it right with the weather, and you’ll have the time of your life. The season is long compared to other destinations in the U.S. If you have any questions about skiing and boarding in California or need to pick up some new gear that will allow you to make the most of your trip, reach out to myself or another awesome Ski or Snowboard Expert here on Curated!

Winter Sport Expert Chris Sterner
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Chris Sterner
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Grew up dreaming of the mountains while living at the beach in Ocean City, MD. Did a lot more surfing and skateboarding than snowboarding as a kid but I always dreamed of living in a place where I could snowboard more than a few days a year. That dream came true and i've spent the last 10 years of...

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