Plan Your Trip > Regional Guides > Complete Guide to Skiing from California
Avant Ski's Complete Guide to Skiing from California
Don’t be fooled by sunshine and beaches, California is one of the top skiing destinations in North America. The Sierra Nevada mountain range spans 250 miles, almost the entire length of the state. The mountains are some of the tallest in the U.S. with peaks measuring more than 14,000 feet. Between the elevation and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, storms tend to come in very wet with a single storm potentially dropping snow measurable in feet. Donner Summit, in North Lake Tahoe is one of the snowiest places on earth, averaging more than 550 inches of annual snowfall.
With 35 unique ski resorts in California, there is no shortage of destinations for a family vacation, a weekend trip with friends, or even a day trip. All of this amazing skiing is easily accessible from most of the state’s major cities. California’s ski culture is no secret though, so beware of traffic and crowds. Below are our favorite spots by region and category.
Image Courtesy of Northstar Resort
North Lake Tahoe. North Lake Tahoe is one of the easiest regions to reach from the Bay Area or Sacramento and it is just under an hour’s drive from Reno-Tahoe International Airport. The town of Truckee is a hub for lodging in the area, though there are plenty of accommodations in Tahoe City, Olympic Valley, Tahoma, Kings Beach, and Reno.
For Longer Trips. Palisades Tahoe and Northstar are the two largest resorts in North Lake Tahoe. Both have enough terrain and vibrant villages to spend a weekend or even a week. Palisades Tahoe is the best known for its steep, expert terrain — often referred to as the birthplace of extreme skiing. Not to fear though, there are plenty of groomers along with intermediate and beginner terrain. Northstar has more of a family vibe and is best known for its vast expanses of perfectly groomed, mellow terrain along with being a paradise for tree skiing.
For Day Trips. The sheer number of smaller resorts with great terrain and distinct character is unique to North Lake Tahoe. For deep snow and terrain for everyone, Sugar Bowl is a crowd-pleasing day trip. Towering over Reno and the Tahoe Basin, Mt. Rose reigns supreme as an uncrowded locals paradise, don't miss its unique chutes. For family friendly vibes, few crowds, and incredible lake views, Homewood and Diamond Peak are a must. First timers and those just starting out should look to Boreal; located off of I-80 on Donner Summit, this is one of the first resorts you will reach coming from Sacramento or the Bay Area.
South Lake Tahoe. For those in search of more nightlife, the city of South Lake Tahoe ("South Lake") is ~3.5 hours drive from San Francisco. Here you will find Tahoe’s most popular casinos, bars, and restaurants. Heavenly, part of the Epic Pass, is South Lake Tahoe’s largest and most well known resort. We like Heavenly for large groups and its incredible lake views. For steep, deep and more remote, don't miss Kirkwood. Sierra at Tahoe is South Lake’s premier family resort. While all of the South Tahoe resorts are reachable on a day trip from the bay area or Sacramento, South Lake has plenty of accommodations and we recommend at least a weekend visit to enjoy the full experience.
Eastern Sierras. Although harder to reach, around 5 hours from Los Angeles and up to 6 from San Francisco, the Eastern Sierras offer some of the best and highest elevation skiing in California. Mammoth is arguably home to some of the best terrain in California. At 3,500 acres, it takes multiple days to ski completely. The mountain is also home to one of the best terrain parks in the country. For a quieter scene, head to nearby, June Mountain, best known for its boundless views and epic backcountry access. Mammoth is one of the busiest resorts in California. While lodging in the towns of Mammoth Lakes and June Lake are plenty, these can fill up quickly on busier holidays and weekends. Alternative choices would be the towns of Lee Vining, ~30 minutes North or Bishop, ~45 minutes south.
Southern California. Less well known, Southern California actually has some pretty great skiing! While the slopes in this area tend to be smaller and less steep than their Northern siblings, these resorts are great for those looking to escape the city for a day trip to the mountains. Bear Mountain, Mountain High, and Snow Summit all sit just a 1.5 - 2 hour drive from Los Angeles. Up for a real challenge? Nicknamed the California Double, this region is the perfect place to try skiing and surfing in the same day.
TOP CALIFORNIA RESORTS BY REGION
North Lake Tahoe, Large Resorts
Northstar (Tree Skiing & Family Friendly)
Palisades Tahoe (Extremes & Olympic Village)
North Lake Tahoe, Smaller Resorts
Boreal (Terrain Parks & Night Skiing)
Diamond Peak (Steep Tree-skiing & Views)
Homewood (Deep Snow & Lake Views)
Mt. Rose (Local Vibe & Chutes)
Sugar Bowl (Deep Snow & No Crowds)
South Lake Tahoe
Heavenly (Nightlife & Lake Views)
Kirkwood (Steep Terrain)
Sierra at Tahoe (Family Friendly & Trees)
China Peak (Value, Great for Starting Out)
June Mountain (Remote, Families & View)
Mammoth (Size & Variety)
Travel Time: ~3.5 hours drive from San Francisco
Bear Mountain (Terrain Parks)
Closest to L.A. (Mountain High)
Snow Summit (Snow-making)
Direct Flights from SFO
Our Favorite Bay Area Ski Shops
Our Favorite North Lake Ski Shops
Boreal, North Lake Tahoe
Travel Time: ~3 hours drive from San Francisco
Best known for its world class terrain parks and teaching programs, Boreal exceeds expectations for a resort with a modest 380 acres and 500 feet of vertical. Located just off of Interstate 80, Boreal is also one of the easiest resorts for a day trip from the Bay Area. The resort prides itself on a hassle-free lesson and rental process. Not surprising then that Boreal is where many long-time, regional skiers got started. With dedicated learnings areas, gentle terrain, reasonably priced lift tickets and a variety of family friendly activities, Boreal stands out amongst the nearby, smaller mountains.
Boreal is home to Woodward Tahoe and its 8 terrain parks are some of the best in California. Woodward is a year-round action sports training facility and adventure hub. Though terrain for more advanced skiers/riders is limited, the terrain parks, night riding, and affordability make Boreal a popular destination for regional college students.
Getting To: From the Sacramento/Bay Area driving time of 1.5/3 hours. Take I-80 Take I-80 East towards Reno; then take exit 176 to Boreal Ridge Road
Special Programs: Feel Good Fridays are excellent value; purchase an all day lift ticket for $25 on 5 Fridays — one per month selected by the resort — throughout the season AND $5 from each ticket purchased will go to local charity. Kids ages 8 and under receive a free season pass with the purchase on an Adult Unlimited Pass. Woodward Day Passes are available for 2 hour sessions with access to all of Woodward's facilities including the 33,000 square foot indoor trampoline gym, skate park, and foam pit.
Boreal is not known for long runs or steep terrain; Intermediate and Advanced shredders may feel limited
There are no on-site accommodations; visitors should look to Truckee, ~10 miles away by car for lodging
When the forecast calls for snow, be prepared, given Boreal’s close proximity to the Donner Summit, highways can shut down.
Beware, lesson prices do not include the cost of rental equipment or lift tickets
Convenient as its gets for a Tahoe day-trip; ideal for those just starting out
Home to some of the best, most progressive terrain parks in the region
Reliably great conditions with 400+ inches of average annual snowfall and snow-making on 40% of terrain
The only mountain in Tahoe that offers night skiing; don’t miss the Sierra sunset!
Non-skiing activities including tubing, an indoor skate and trampoline park, a snow sports museum, and nearby XC skiing will keep everyone entertained
Passes: Boreal has its own season pass; choose unlimited access or night skiing only. The 3-Pack is excellent value for skiing three days of your choosing. Woodward Membership works on a monthly basis.
Rates: Go-Time Progressive Day Ticket Rates. Unique program at Boreal under which ticket prices drop the later in the day you start. Book ahead and pick your start time for savings.
Terrain: 41 named trails, 8 terrain parks (Woodward)
Terrain Mix: 30% Novice, 55% Intermediate, 15% Advanced
Average Annual Snowfall: 400+ inches
Vertical Drop: 500 ft
Lifts: 8 total - 2 quads, 3 triples, 1 doubles, 2 surface lifts
Diamond Peak, North Lake Tahoe
Travel Time: ~3.5 hours drive from San Francisco
Don’t be fooled by Diamond Peak’s seemingly underwhelming stats — 655 acres and 30 trails. At Avant Ski, we know the true test for any resort is what’s inside those stats. That is where Diamond Peak has major bragging rights with arguably the best view of Lake Tahoe, a top notch terrain park and an excellent ski school. Diamond Peak is the perfect antidote to the big resorts and their big crowds. A notable amount of the resort’s 1,840' vertical drop is comprised of steep, dreamlike tree-skiing that often takes days to get tracked out.
Owned and operated by the town of Incline Village, Diamond Peak is just minutes from town and has a modest amount of short term rentals and hotel rooms nearby. Located in easy driving distance from Truckee, South Lake and Reno, Diamond Peak makes for the perfect day-trip add on. Plus, bring your pass from another resort and receive $20 off a Diamond Peak day ticket.
Getting To: From the Sacramento/Bay Area driving time of 2/3.5 hours. Take I-80 East Truckee to HW267 Tahoe, to HW28 Incline Village. Diamond Peak is located only 20 miles from Truckee, 25 miles from South Lake and 27 miles from Reno. NV (~35 minutes driving). Flying: Access via Reno International Airport or commercial or private charter into Truckee
Special Programs: Kids under 6 Ski & Ride FREE. Diamond Peak is one of the only resorts to participate in the Bring Your Other Pass Program — season pass holders of other resorts receive $20 off here, even on days when the other pass maybe restricted. Unique Transferable Passes can be used and shared by anyone designated by the purchaser and Parents Interchangeable Tickets that allow parents with young children can share a ticket when one parent needs to supervise the kids
No true expert/extreme terrain; though there is plenty of steep stuff to delight the more advanced shredder
Close-by parking is limited; additional parking along Country Club Diver requires a shuttle ride
Mostly West-facing aspect means the snow melts a bit faster, especially in the springtime
Limited food options, primarily traditional ski resort cafeteria fare
Far from the Sierra Crest, storm totals here can be slightly less than other Tahoe Resorts
Find untracked powder stashes days after a storm
Lakeview is the perfect mellow groomer; it runs top to bottom for 2.1 miles with breathtaking lake views the entire way
The children’s ski school has great teaching terrain and kids 6 and under ski free
More reasonable lift tickets; day passes run ~$100 and sometimes less mid-week
Terrain Variety. There is something for everyone along with snow-making on 75% of its named trails
Passes: Diamond Peak has its own season pass with various options for access and ages; passes come with 65 bonus lift tickets to partner resorts and discounts for services on the mountain
Rates: Unlimited season passes for adults start at a reasonable $494; day tickets are also available
Terrain: 30 named trails, 13 named gladed areas, 500 acres of off-piste tree-skiing
Terrain Mix: 18% Novice, 46% Intermediate, 36% Advanced
Average Annual Snowfall: 300 - 350 inches
Vertical Drop: 1,840 ft
Lifts: 7 total - 2 high-speed quads, 2 quads, 3 doubles, 1 surface lift
Homewood, North Lake Tahoe
Best for Laid-back Tree Skiing & Lake Views
Travel Time: ~4 hours drive from San Francisco
You didn't hear it here, but... Homewood is THE Tahoe mountain to visit when the snow is deep. Often overlooked for its larger neighbors, Homewood is the place to skip the lines and get straight to the snow. The tree skiing is top in the region and the lake views are second to none. Just 280 steps away from the lake, it almost feels like your lap will end in the water.
Homewood opened in 1962, though has been owned and operated by JMA ventures, a San Francisco-based, development company, since 2006. The owners have been working on a Master Plan to expand the resort to include lodging, more parking, faster lifts and other amenities. The lake views here are unrivaled and the mountain has 1,650 vertical feet and over 1,200 acres with room to grow. Though the Plan has faced delays, the potential for this resort is exciting and one to watch.
Getting To: From San Francisco, take I-80 E to Route 89 South. Follow 89 around the west shore of Lake Tahoe to reach the resort. The main parking lot at the lodge is a close walk to tickets, lifts, ski school, and food.
Special Programs: Loyalty program for season pass holders. Returning season pass holders save $200 on their season pass, and returning family pass holders save $600.
Lodging and dining at the resort are limited. Consider a day trip or stay in nearby Tahoe City
More advanced skiers and riders may feel constrained; only 15% of the terrain is rated "expert"
Snow-making coverage is limited
The lift system is slow; most of the lifts are not detachable, but there are no lines
Still under the radar, head to Homewood to avoid the crowds and find more powder
The panoramic views of Lake Tahoe are some of the best in California; it's hard to find scenery like this anywhere else in the U.S.
Easy to access from Tahoe City, only ~10 minute drive and there are buses
Laid-back, family-friendly, local vibe pairs well with reasonable lift ticket prices
Plus, over 750 acres of snowcat-accessed terrain above the main ski area
Top Trails. Rainbow Ridge (best views!); Intermediate — Bonanza; Advanced — The Shoulder on Quail Face
For the kids. Head to the dedicated, on mountain snow play area for sledding and outdoor fun; Nearby, Tahoe Treetop Adventures offers ropes courses and zip-lines for kids (and adults)
Favorite Après Spot. The Pioneer Cocktail Club in Tahoe City serves craft cocktails with a lively atmosphere
Passes: Homewood has its own season pass with access to 2 days at 12+ other ski areas around the U.S., as well as nearby Diamond Peak and Tahoe-Donner
Terrain: 67 trails; 5 terrain parks
Terrain Mix: 15% Novice, 40% Intermediate, 30% Advanced, 15% Expert
Average Snowfall: 450 inches
Vertical Drop: 1,650 ft
Lifts: 8 total - 2 six-packs, 2 quads, 2 triples, 2 surface lifts
Mt. Rose, North Lake Tahoe
Best for Sustained, Steep Terrain
Travel Time: ~4 hours drive from San Francisco
Mt. Rose is synonymous with tons of snow, a lack of crowds, and of course, The Chutes — home to some of the best in-bounds expert skiing in the United States. The resort is privately owned and ticket prices are relatively low (starting $100/day for adults). Layer in a lack of crowds and challenging terrain, and there is no doubt a visit is well worth the extra 30 minutes drive from Truckee.
With two base lodges, easy parking, and ideal teaching terrain, Mt. Rose is as much a family resort as it is an expert skier's dream. Families can opt for a packaged lesson deals that includes a lift ticket and gear. More advanced riders will revel in Mt Rose's legendary steep terrain and breathtaking views. Plus, with a base elevation of 8260', the highest in the region, it's hard to beat the snow quality here.
Getting To: From Sacramento/ Bay Area: Take I-80 East to Truckee and then SR-267 into King's Beach; then, head North on HW28 to Incline Village, NV and follow SR-431 North towards Reno until you reach the resort. From Reno: Take HW580/395 South to the exit for SR-431 (Mt. Rose Highway). Follow the highway up the steep and curvy grade to the resort. **SR-431 is very steep and curvy. Approach with caution and 4-WD and/or snow chains are essential.
Special Programs: Mt. Rose is one of the best value resorts in the Tahoe area. Season passes include discounts on retail, F&B, tuning, rentals, and a 20% discount at the Patagonia store in Reno. For those with flexibility, the MyPass deal for $275, enables the passholder to select a day of the week, non-holiday, and ski that day each week of the season.
Wind Holds. Nicknamed Mt. Blows, this resort is subject to frequent wind closures given its high elevation
This is a no frills resort; there are no on-site places to stay or après venues
Access to the resort via SR-431 can be hazardous during storms; closures may even occur
Relatively small acreage; this would not be our first choice for a multi-day trip
Sitting over 4,000 vertical feet above Reno and the Carson Valley, the scenery is hard to beat
Some of the best quality snow in the Tahoe region. Mt. Rose rarely sees rain even during warmer storms
The Chutes are an experts paradise — north facing with ~1,000 vertical feet of 40-55 degree steeps
Easy to reach. Located on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, Mt. Rose is only ~15 minutes from Incline Village and ~35 minutes from the Reno airport by car
Top Trails. Beginner — Galena; Intermediate — Kit Carson Traverse/Kit Carson Bowl; Advanced — El Cap
For the kids. Head to the Wizard Chair by the Main Lodge to access great beginner terrain
Dining. On mountain dining is limited to the main lodges and is primarily traditional, cafeteria-style
Favorite Après Spot. Alibi Public House, brewery in Incline Village, or head Truckee for more options or Reno for more night life
Passes: Mt. Rose has its own season pass
Terrain: 60+ trails; 2 terrain parks
Terrain Mix: 20% Novice, 30% Intermediate, 40% Advanced, 10% Expert
Average Snowfall: 350 inches
Vertical Drop: 1,800 ft
Lifts: 8 total - 2 six-packs, 2 quads, 2 triples, 2 surface lifts
Sugar Bowl, North Lake Tahoe
Best for Deep Snow & Having the Place to Yourself
Travel Time: ~3 hours drive from San Francisco
For the passionate skier seeking, deep powder, and very few crowds —look no further than Sugar Bowl. One of the closest resorts to the Bay Area, Sugar Bowl sits at the top of Donner Summit and makes for a perfect day trip with friends or family. This no frills resort consistently reports the largest base and highest storm totals in North Lake Tahoe, averaging 500 inches of annual snowfall. Sugar Bowl is a true standout in Tahoe for those who put skiing above all else.
Shhh — this hidden gem is one of the best kept secrets in Tahoe. Sugar Bowl easily compensates for its smaller acreage with eye-popping views and impressive terrain variety. From double blacks to family friendly greens, Sugar Bowl is the ultimate place to progress from the bunny slopes to the steeps.
June Mountain, Central Sierras
Best for Family Friendly with Great Back Country Access
Travel Time: ~5 hours drive from Los Angeles
June Mountain, often in the shadow of its behemoth neighbor, Mammoth, is a real gem and well worth a visit. Those who take the quick trip up the I-395 will be rewarded by a more mellow mountain and the charming village of June Lake. The mountain is the town's heartbeat in the winter, rife with breathtaking views, short lift lines, and fresh snow that can stay fun for days after a storm. Most well known for being family friendly with plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain, experts will reap the benefits of fewer crowds and enjoy the vast lift-accessible backcountry terrain.
Once in town, take a walk down the main street for shops, restaurants, and local watering holes that easily exceed expectations for a town with a population less than 1,000 people. The surrounding lakes provide excellent scenery, and the mountain views will have you taking notes to prepare for a return visit in the warmer months.
Getting To: June may be one of the more remote mountains in California, unless you're making a joint trip to Mammoth. About 3 hours south of Reno on I-395, turn onto June Lake Loop (Route 158, second entrance, the first is closed in winter). After a quick drive through the center of town, you'll see the parking lot on the left.
Special Programs: Kids under 12 Ski & Ride FREE. Save more with options to bundle multiple days and rental gear.
The mountain is upside down, meaning the steepest terrain is at the bottom. Ample snow is essential to open the more advanced areas and beginners will need to ride a lift down at the end of the day
Lifts are limited; there are only 7 of them and most are are older/slower
Remote location; nearly 3 hours from Reno and more than 5 hours driving from the Bay Area or Los Angeles, it is a trek if you don't live in the area
Crowds are scarce and lift lines are non-existent
Family friendly with dedicated learning areas; kids under 12 ski free
The access from to backcountry terrain from the gates within the resort is some of the best in California. A guide is recommended along with bringing a beacon, shovel, and probe
Local mountain feel, yet accessible to Ikon Pass Holders
Après options punch well above the weight of this small town
For the kids. Bucky's Bonfire — hang out with the June Mountain mascot, Bucky, have some hot chocolate, and take a lap with the group
Favorite Dining. Ohanas 395, a Hawaiian food truck located at June Lake Brewing is contributor Mike Friece's pick for best food in ANY ski town. Eagle's Landing is a perfect for a sit down meal with amazing views of the Eastern Sierra
Rates: June adult season passes are $619, kids under 12 ski free. Day tickets are also available
Terrain: 41 trails, lift-accessible backcountry
Terrain Mix: 15% Novice, 40% Intermediate, 45% Advanced
Average Snowfall: 250 inches
Vertical Drop: 2,590 ft
Lifts: 7 total - 2 quads, 4 doubles, 1 surface lift
Our Top Ski Shops in the Bay Area
Sports Basement | 11 locations in the Bay Area
One stop shop for buying or renting with a huge selection of skis, boots, gear and apparel. They offers great value rental packages for the day, weekend or full season. Each location is a large sports equipment warehouse with a sizable winter sports area. More than a store, Sports Basement is a community hub that hosts ~7,000 events a year.
Demo Sport | Marin
True to its name, Demo Sports is our go-to for demoing skis, boots, poles, and snowboards. They have a solid selection of skis and boots and an outstanding selection of bindings. They also have backcountry equipment. Apparel and gear are more limited. This is an independent, family owned store and the owner, Steve, loves to talk skiing.
California Ski Company | Berkley
This is our top pick for custom boot fitting in the East Bay. The selection of skis is outstanding too. Apparel and gear are more limited. Remember to make an appointment for boot fittings far in advance at this family run store.