From hidden gems to big names: Here are 11 of California’s best ski resorts


When considering California as a destination, many travelers likely first think of sun and surf. However, the Golden State is also a worthy winter destination for those seeking snow.

Head just a bit in from the coast and you’ll find major mountains with plenty of annual snowfall. So, it’s no surprise that California claims several dozen ski resorts, from the smallest of local ski hills to several megaresorts that attract travelers from around the world.

Almost all of the largest resorts are located in the northern half of the state. With a few exceptions, most are near Lake Tahoe or just a bit south in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. You’ll find a few more in Southern California as well, including in the southern Sierras and the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains.

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If you want to trade in your surfboard for a snowboard on your next California vacation, here are 11 of the best ski resorts to consider in the state.

Heavenly Lake Tahoe

LESLIE HARVEY/THE POINTS GUY

Located in South Lake Tahoe just a minute or two from the shores of the lake, Heavenly is one of California’s largest ski resorts. This sprawling property — which is owned and operated by Vail Resorts, meaning it participates in the Epic Pass — has four separate base areas, each with its own vibe and terrain type. As a result, it serves a variety of skier and rider types well. When the sun shines brightly on a cloudless day, the views of the lake below are, well, heavenly.

The resort’s unique location right on the Nevada-California state line means skiers and riders can cross between the states multiple times in a single day. This location also puts Heavenly within walking distance of a thriving casino scene in Stateline, Nevada.

At the casinos, you’ll find some deals on lodging, as well as plenty of entertainment and apres-ski activities. Marriott Bonvoy members can redeem and earn at two well-located properties at the base of Heavenly’s gondola: Marriott’s Timber Lodge and the Marriott Grand Residence Club, Lake Tahoe.

Related: Comparing Epic, Ikon, Mountain Collective and Indy Pass

Palisades Tahoe

KATE ABRAHAM/PALISADES TAHOE

North Lake Tahoe is home to another California megaresort: Palisades. The resort rebranded to this new name in the 2021-22 ski season and is one of four ski resorts in California that participate in the Ikon Pass.

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Most famous for having hosted the 1960 Olympics, Palisades continues to attract skiers from around the world. The resort boasts some seriously challenging terrain, including the well-known and often-feared bowls and chutes off the KT-22 peak. Palisades has plenty to offer beginner and intermediate skiers and riders, too. It boasts a wide variety of terrain, as well as a thriving base village with slopeside lodging, numerous activities and a lively restaurant scene.

The resort is technically two resorts in one, as Palisades acquired the formerly independent Alpine Meadows in 2012. Previously, the two neighboring resorts were only connected via a shuttle between the base areas, but a gondola bridging this gap is under construction for the 2022-23 season. The connection will make Palisades one of the largest ski resorts in North America and the largest in California.

The closest points-friendly hotel to Palisades is a slopeside Category 6 World of Hyatt property called the Resort at Squaw Creek.

Related: TPG’s 16 favorite hotels in California for every type of traveler

Northstar California Resort

LESLIE HARVEY/THE POINTS GUY

Just minutes away from Palisades in North Lake Tahoe is Northstar California Resort. As the first Tahoe-area resort to be acquired by Vail Resorts (back in 2010), this Epic Pass property has benefited from major infrastructure investment. Northstar’s village is now one of the liveliest of any ski resort in California, with multiple restaurants, shops, an ice skating rink and a movie theater.

While it doesn’t have as much legendary, super-challenging technical terrain as a few of its competitors, Northstar has plenty of variety for every skill level. The Backside and Lookout Mountain are favorites of the black diamond-loving crowd. Northstar also offers some of the most reliable snowmaking operations in the Tahoe area, which has been invaluable in recent drought years.

As a full-service mountain resort, Northstar serves both families and luxury travelers well. Its ski school is one of the few in California that starts kids out as young as 3. It is also known for its premier instructors and an engaging Children’s Ski and Snowboard Center location mid-mountain.

The slopeside Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe is the most luxurious hotel in the Lake Tahoe area, though you’ll need to shell out anywhere from 82,000 to 120,000 Marriott points per night to stay here during the winter months. Other nearby points options include the Northstar Lodge and One Village Place, both of which are now affiliated with Hyatt and are listed as Category 6 properties. The Hampton Inn & Suites Tahoe-Truckee, which is located just a couple of minutes down the road from the resort, is another option that’s often a valuable use of Hilton points, as it regularly charges 48,000 to 60,000 points per night for standard rooms in winter.

Related: Why the best big family vacation may be skiing

Mammoth Mountain

MILES WEAVER/MAMMOTH LAKES TOURISM

Home to the state’s highest ski peak and highest base elevation — as well as 3,500 skiable acres of every terrain type — Mammoth legitimately earns its name. Plus, the massive resort usually offers one of the longest ski seasons in the state.

Located in the central Sierras, Mammoth is the largest ski resort in California outside the Tahoe area. It is owned and operated by Alterra Mountain Company and participates in the Ikon Pass.

Like many other large ski resorts in California, Mammoth offers plenty of slopeside lodging, including the full-service Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth, which has standard rooms bookable for 54,000 to 74,000 Marriott points per night in winter. It also features a village area with shopping and dining that connects via gondola to the slopes.

Although Mammoth is the closest major ski resort to Southern California, Angelenos still have to drive five to six hours to reach its slopes depending on traffic and weather conditions.

The resort is even closer to the San Francisco Bay Area, but winter road closures over the Sierras make it a much longer drive for many Northern California visitors. If you’d rather not attempt to drive from the Bay Area, consider flying via United Airlines, which offers seasonal service from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Eastern Sierra Regional Airport (BIH) in nearby Bishop, California.

Related: California dreaming? 10 cool towns to visit in the Golden State

Sugar Bowl Resort

LESLIE HARVEY/THE POINTS GUY

Located by Donner Summit en route to Lake Tahoe, Sugar Bowl is the closest major ski resort to Sacramento (a less than two-hour drive) and the San Francisco Bay Area (a three-hour drive). Its location makes it a popular destination for weekend warriors and even daytrippers from the northern half of the state.

Although it doesn’t have the enormous size of Palisades or Heavenly, Sugar Bowl still offers challenging terrain on par with the best in California. It is also very family-friendly, with ski school lessons for kids and plenty of beginner terrain.

While it fiercely maintained its independence for years as Alterra and Vail moved around the California ski scene, Sugar Bowl finally found a happy medium for the 2022-23 ski season. In addition to offering its popular season pass for visitors who only want to ski at Sugar Bowl, the resort now also participates in the Mountain Collective pass for travelers who visit multiple ski destinations each year.

The only traditional slopeside accommodation is The Hotel at Sugar Bowl, which offers dining and ski-on, ski-off access. However, it’s only available for Wednesday through Saturday bookings. If you don’t mind staying about 20 minutes away, consider the SpringHill Suites Truckee for 30,000 to 80,000 points per night.

Related: 7 ways to make your next ski trip better than your last

Kirkwood Mountain Resort

KIRKWOOD MOUNTAIN RESORT/FACEBOOK

Kirkwood is often described as a hidden gem of California’s ski scene. Its location just south of Lake Tahoe along the less-traveled Highway 88 makes it a little quieter than some of the large, regional resorts.

On average, Kirkwood gets more snow than any other ski resort in the state, making it a favorite of serious skiers and riders looking for the best conditions but not necessarily all the frills. The resort offers several slopeside lodging options and all the essential amenities at its base areas.

Kirkwood is not as developed as the other two Vail-owned Epic Pass/Tahoe-area resorts, and many Kirkwood purists would tell you they like it that way. Even though it has a steep and deep reputation with lots of challenging terrain, Kirkwood’s beginner areas are some of the best in California as well.

While there are no points hotels in the area, The Mountain Club — which features modest ski-in, ski-out condos in Kirkwood’s village — is a solid option.

Related: 5 things you must know before taking your 1st ski trip

Big Bear Mountain Resort

BIG BEAR MOUNTAIN RESORT/FACEBOOK

Big Bear Mountain Resort in the San Bernardino Mountains is the largest ski resort that you can reach in an easy daytrip or overnight drive from much of Southern California.

Similar to its Ikon Pass counterpart at Palisades, Big Bear Mountain is really two resorts in one. Tickets and passes are valid at two base areas on two different mountains: Bear Mountain and Snow Summit. The two are located about a 10-minute drive apart, and skiers can reach them by shuttle.

Snow Summit is lower-key and better suited to beginner skiers. Bear Mountain is more action-packed and adventurous, and it offers a lot for snowboarders. It’s the only Southern California resort with halfpipes and also has several terrain parks.

Neither mountain offers slopeside hotels, but the nearby all-season vacation destination of Big Bear Lake has a variety of lodging options at multiple price points, including Best Western and Holiday Inn outposts.

Related: 15 of our favorite ski-friendly resort hotels you can book on points

Snow Valley Mountain Resort

BOB TORREZ/SNOW VALLEY MOUNTAIN RESORT

Southern California skiers also find the slopes of Snow Valley (not to be confused with Snow Summit) a convenient ski destination, as it’s located not far from Big Bear Mountain Resort. In fact, it’s a little closer for travelers from the Los Angeles area, making it an easy stop for those touring multiple destinations within Southern California in a single trip.

Snow Valley is a small resort compared to the major options in the northern Sierras, but despite its small size, it offers a variety of terrain and a lot of ski bang for the buck. The resort has a well-regarded beginner area with a ski school for kids as well as adult lessons. Still, it also features plenty of black diamonds, especially when the Slide Peak area back bowls are open. Lift tickets and ski rentals cost far less than at some of the state’s medium and large resorts.

The property doesn’t have any slopeside lodging, but skiers can find some independent hotels and vacation rentals in the vicinity of Running Springs a few miles down the road.

Related: From ski-out to gear storage: 10 tips for picking the best ski vacation home rental

Bear Valley Resort

BEAR VALLEY RESORT/FACEBOOK

Bear Valley is a midsize California ski resort nestled in the central Sierras between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. It has a more relaxed vibe than many of the bigger resorts and is popular with skiers and riders on a budget, as well as families.

This resort has a fairly even mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain. It offers many of the amenities of a larger resort — from dining to high-speed lifts — at a lower price than its Tahoe counterparts.

Its village area makes it more of a full-service resort than many other ski properties its size. Though smaller than the typical villages of larger resorts, it offers ski-in but isn’t connected via return lift. The Bear Valley Lodge is the only hotel in the area, but the village has a number of vacation rentals and cabins as well.

Sierra at Tahoe

SIERRA AT TAHOE

A midsize resort in the South Lake Tahoe area, Sierra at Tahoe is known for its family-friendly and laid-back vibe. There’s no slopeside lodging or massive village like some of the largest resorts in the state, but Sierra at Tahoe has a fiercely loyal following for good reason. It offers a wide variety of terrain for its size and is a good value for travelers on a tight budget, especially families with younger kids learning how to ski.

Sierra at Tahoe was hit hard by the Caldor Fire in Lake Tahoe in the summer of 2021, but it was able to complete repairs in time for a partial reopening at the very end of the 2021-22 ski season. It plans a full opening for the winter of 2022-23.

Related: 7 overlooked ski resorts you should visit this season

Badger Pass Ski Area

YOSEMITE MARIPOSA COUNTY TOURISM BUREAU

While Badger Pass can’t compete with most California ski resorts when it comes to size, its unique location makes it a major draw for many California travelers. Badger Pass is located entirely within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park — one of just three ski resorts with the distinction of a national park location.

Additionally, Badger Pass offers other winter outdoor activities beyond traditional skiing and snowboarding, such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tubing. Plus, visitors can enjoy all the majesty of the Yosemite landscape, much of which usually is blanketed with glistening snow.

Because it relies entirely on natural snow, Badger Pass has a shorter season than many California competitors and can have limited offerings in drought years. It usually welcomes visitors from mid-December until mid- or late March, but exact opening dates can vary, so be sure to check local conditions regularly if you plan to visit.

You can stay at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, a full-service resort situated just outside the park’s southern entrance, which is about a 45-minute drive away. There are also the Yosemite Valley Lodge and The Ahwahnee, two options located about 45 minutes away from the resort that offer shuttles to the mountain.

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