California’s bounty of gorgeous interior mountains reveals a whole new side of America’s most geographically diverse state. With some of the best ski resorts in the country – rivaling those from Colorado to Switzerland – along with nearly three dozen options to choose from, it’s time to discover why winter in California might just be the best time to visit.
For those wondering about whether to buy a ski pass or purchase lift tickets and renting versus buying equipment, it all comes down to how often you plan to ski. If you’re only going to be skiing once, there’s no reason to plunk down $3750 on the all-access 35-resort Ski California Gold Pass or a brand-new set of pricey skis. Then again, if you plan to stick around for a while and hit a number of resorts located in close proximity to one another, you might want to look into a regional pass like the Tahoe Local Pass.
Here’s our guide to the best ski resorts in California by region and skier type.
Mammoth Mountain is framed by some of the most gorgeous mountain vistas in the country © Cavan Images / Getty Images
1. Mammoth Mountain
Best in Northern California
Mammoth Mountain is a truly majestic winter playground, framed by some of the most gorgeous mountain vistas in the country (if not the world). Located in the high Sierra Nevada mountains about 67 miles from Yosemite National Park, the remote area boasts an abundance of alpine lakes as well as the highest elevation of any California ski resort.
With a peak elevation of 11,053 feet, Mammoth Mountain welcomes everyone from first-timers and families to thrill-seekers and Olympic athletes like Sean White (who often trains here). When you’ve had your fill of skiing, just get out and enjoy the nature all around you or experience the endlessly charming small-town vibes of Mammoth Lakes.
Getting to Mammoth: Nonstop service from Los Angeles and San Francisco on United starts for the season in mid-December. Otherwise, it is a 5-7 hour drive from both cities and from Las Vegas.
Make the most out of every adventure with help from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Big Bear is a spot to check off your list for a great day of skiing in California © Shutterstock / Cavan Images – Offset
2. Big Bear Mountain Resort
Best in Southern California
Located about 100 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Mountains, Big Bear should please everyone in the car making the drive up (if you survive the traffic). This longtime getaway for Angelinos should also be on the radar for visitors as well, with skiing unfolding across the twin resorts of Bear Mountain and Snow Summit.
Offering scenic views of Big Bear Lake (when the water isn’t at its current historic low levels) and a wide variety of terrain from beginner to advanced – with its half pipes and terrain parks making it a particularly popular destination for snowboarders – Big Bear is a spot to proudly check off your list for those looking to complete the epic SoCal combo of skiing and surfing in the same day. Only in California.
Getting to Big Bear: 100 miles east of Los Angeles via I-10 and 145 miles northeast of San Diego via I-15. Big Bear can also be accessed from Palm Springs via several 80-90 miles routes.
3. Kirkwood Mountain Resort
Best for snow and expert terrain
Looking for fresh powder and smaller crowds? Head to Tahoe’s lesser-visited Kirkwood Resort, tucked away in a remote section of forest about 45 minutes south of bustling South Tahoe. With an average snowfall of 500 inches – tied for the most in California and more than any resort in Colorado – Kirkwood is an under-the-radar gem (although the resort has gained in popularity in recent years). From rugged cliff jumps and steep tree runs to massive powder bowls and gnarly snowcat skiing, this isn’t for the faint of heart.
Getting to Kirkwood: 85 miles southwest of Reno via I-580 or 190 miles northeast of San Francisco via CA-88.
Northstar California Resort is perched on a quiet hill in North Lake Tahoe © Alberto Stocco / Shutterstock
4. Northstar California Resort
Best for families and beginners
For a more high-end experience perfect for families and beginners, Northstar is a bit like California’s answer to Vail – which makes sense, being that it (along with two other Tahoe resorts) is owned by international ski conglomerate Vail Resorts. Perched in a peaceful area in quieter North Lake Tahoe, Northstar offers several family-friendly amenities from its popular skating rink to romantic stargazing tours on the mountain.
The highly regarded kid’s ski school is one of the best in the state, and the après-ski options are endless in its quaint European-styled village. Stay in posh accommodations at the mountainside Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe and be sure to spend some time exploring the nearby locals-friendly town of Truckee.
Getting to Northstar: 38 miles southwest of Reno or 200 miles northeast of San Francisco via I-80.
Take a lift up for massive views of Lake Tahoe from Heavenly Mountain Resort’s incredible slopes © Sundry Photography / Shutterstock
5. Heavenly Mountain Resort
Biggest and best for nightlife
California’s biggest ski resort sprawls out across a massive 4800 skiable acres straddling South Lake Tahoe’s California/Nevada border, with a festive party scene and all the requisite crowds that come with it. A popular bachelor party destination with raucous casinos along the Nevada side and plenty of year-round debauchery, they also do a fair amount of skiing here too.
With California’s highest vertical drop at 3812ft, Heavenly checks all the boxes of a major ski resort with all the amenities you could ever need from A-list shopping and dining to massive views of Lake Tahoe from the slopes that simply never get old. Just try to keep up. This is gonna be a long weekend.
Getting to Heavenly: 60 miles southwest of Reno or 190 miles northeast of San Francisco via I-80.
6. Mt Shasta Ski Park
Best off the beaten path and budget option
If you’re looking to take a break from the corporate resorts and really get lost in the wilderness, head all the way up near the Oregon border to discover this most unique of California ski experiences. While it may not have the finest snow or the fanciest hotels, this cozy little resort more than makes up for it in eccentric characters drawn to this one-of-a-kind “spiritual vortex” at the base of the reportedly sacred Mt Shasta.
Famous for its spectacularly life-affirming night skiing under star-blanketed skies, lift tickets are also around half of what you’d pay at the major resorts. Swoosh down the slopes with folks less interested in showing off their expensive gear or perfect slalom form and more keen to just have fun while enjoying being out in nature. Which is kind of what skiing is all about, right?
How to get to Mt. Shasta Ski Park: 280 miles northeast of San Francisco or 370 miles south of Portland via I-5.