Whether your family skis, boards, or just plays in the powder, here are ROAM’s picks for the California mountains worth getting geared up for.
By Maria De La O / Feature photo by Northstar California Resort
Sweat-wicking underlayer, bib, warm hat, wool socks, snow boots, gloves and polarized sunglasses—you’ve done the drill. And so has your kid. And there have probably been tears. And chances are they’ve turned around and marched straight back into the cabin after they’ve fallen into a snowbank, or even touched the cold white stuff.
Is it even worth it? We at ROAM say a resounding, Yes! And, surprise, Covid time might be the absolutely best time to go.
After all, snow time doesn’t have to be all about maxing out the credit cards, après ski cocktails and traffic jams on the slopes.
Last month, Outside’s Marc Peruzzi wrote that these fraught times—where ski resorts are at 25 percent capacity, high-end sushi restaurants and designer outwear shops are shuttered, and gondolas and lifts are limited to members of your own small group or to individuals—just might harken back to a place that beckoned us to counterculture adventure back in the ’60s and ’70s. We agree. Because of social distancing, lift lines may be longer than usual, but once you get up the mountain, the actual number of skiers rushing downhill will be a lot fewer than usual.
Of course, there are caveats during Covid. And it’s important to be prepared so you don’t feel unsafe or get shut out of a day on the mountain. And an LA Times article says that some skiers are turning to “uphilling” to avoid crowds on lifts and in lift lines.
The California Department of Public Health has announced that ski resorts are required to minimize capacity. The way to do so will be left up to individual ski resorts—discontinuing day tickets is one option and so is limiting parking. Nevada, Placer and El Dorado counties—where Tahoe’s ski resorts are located—are in the purple and most restrictive tier in the state’s coronavirus reopening plan. So is Mono County, which includes Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. And December’s lockdown is keeping lodging near some of these mountains closed – so we’re talking 2021, for now. (Restrictions on the Tahoe resorts just over the state line in Nevada – Mt. Rose and Diamond Peak – may not be as strict.)
So scan our list of California’s ski areas, pick some new mountains to check out, and book now for what might be the best skiing in years!
Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts — North to South
If you’re flying into the Lake Tahoe area, Mt. Rose is just thirty minutes from the Reno Airport. Its conditions are usually stellar given its base is at 8,200 feet—the highest in the Tahoe area. The parking is close to the lodge and lifts—no shuttles needed. And on a clear day, the views into Nevada are endless.
A small but fun mountain located just outside of town, Diamond Peak is a favorite of families who stay near Incline Village and Carnelian Bay. Season passes and lessons are affordable and views of the lake are extraordinary.
Northstar has gotten rave reviews from Forbes magazine for being family-oriented, thanks to its ice rink and perks like wagons for toting your gear. All ages can enjoy the resort’s family snowshoe tours, offered on select Sundays throughout the winter. Strap on a pair of snowshoes (or rent a ski stroller for tiny tourers) and follow your guide for a three-hour trek along family-friendly trails. Be sure to make reservations early, since these tours often sell out.
The buzz and fun in Northstar’s village makes the resort feel like something from Utah or Europe—but this vibe does not come free. The price of parking alone will keep some parents driving to the next mountain. And some advanced skiers and boarders wish there were more steep spots up top. But for an all-in-one spot, Northstar keeps families coming back, year after year.
The West Shore’s Granlibakken Resort features an intimate ski hill, perfect for beginning through intermediate skiers and snowboarders. It’s a great place to avoid the crowds and get tiny ones up for the first time while skiing right out the front door of the lodge. Plenty of snowplay too! Open all year long, the Tahoe Tree Tops ropes course is right on the way to this West Shore institution, one of America’s oldest ski areas.
Alpine used to be everyone’s favorite family mountain—it has a great beginners’ area and tons of black diamonds for advanced skiers. It’s big, but not huge, which makes it the kind of mountain that your older littles can head off to on their own as soon as they’re finished snowplowing. All this remains true since its merger with Squaw Valley took effect in 2016, the big difference being season pass and day lift ticket prices have gone through the roof. That said, Alpine remains our favorite destination for the best of Tahoe—all levels of skiing and snowboarding, and lake views from the top and back side. And one lift ticket will get the best skier in the family a shuttle bus ride to all of Squaw Valley’s runs—until the long-planned gondola to connect the two resorts is built.
Squaw needs no introduction (though it might when it changes its racially insensitive name in 2021). Home to the 1960 Winter Olympics, Squaw offers some of the best steeps and chutes in California. But if you’re reading this, you are either looking for a new family-friendly mountain or otherwise not already a regular. What’s great about Squaw for beginners is that the beginner area is totally separate from its other runs—not too far away, though, just in the parking lot. The upside? Your 6-year-old will not be taken out by a crazy boarder or out-of-control beginner. Together with Northstar and Mammoth, Squaw Valley is one of the only ski-in/ski-out resorts in California.
If you’re looking for lake views, it’s hard to beat Homewood. This mountain offers easy access to West Shore towns—read: no crazy Tahoe traffic—and both easy and challenging terrain. It’s got some really long beginner runs and some spots to practice your jumps, too—all with drop-dead views of California’s cerulean treasure.
Another Tahoe institution that needs no introduction, Heavenly is just that. To some families just getting into skiing or boarding, it might be a bit too big. But to shredders aiming for the South Lake Tahoe area, it is perfectly expansive with awesome views of the lake from every run. And for parents who like to end the day playing a few hands of blackjack, it is convenient to the many casinos just over the state line in Stateline.
Above South Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood’s high altitude means it gets really great snow. It’s small but loved by snowboarding powder hounds and other South Lake fans wanting a smaller scene.
Sierra-at-Tahoe at Tahoe is an ideal location for families to learn how to ski or ride. There’s carefully sculpted beginner terrain, including gently banked turns and carefully shaped snow features to naturally help beginners practice their turns and stops. After a day of focused learning, the whole family can blow off some steam at Blizzard Mountain with two lift-accessible tubing runs, sledding and a slow play area.
Tahoe-Donner Area Ski Resorts
Donner Ski Ranch
Another family-run, family-friendly mountain, Donner Ski Ranch is bigger than it looks. Parents love the reasonable prices, and staying in a cabin near Donner Lake is less expensive than in other parts of Tahoe.
If you’ve gotta get on the slopes quick, Sugar Bowl is the place to do it. You can be parked and skiing within three hours of downtown SF. Although Alpine and Squaw might seem just a little farther, ski traffic adds about an hour to your journey.
Also a quick run from the Bay Area, Boreal is a smaller mountain on the side of Interstate 80 in Norden. Parents who get ski leases in Donner like to hit Boreal after work for its night skiing sessions.
Another before-the-summit mountain, Soda Springs is a small resort that offers families affordable skiing and snow play. The Family Pass is a killer deal: $509 for 2 adult and 2 kids’ lift tickets and tubing passes. That’s the cheapest you’re gonna get your family skiing in 2020–2021!
Other Central/Northern California Ski Resorts
Bear Valley Resort
Bear Valley is located high in the Gold Country, between Tahoe and Yosemite. It’s little known and perfect for learning how to downhill ski, snowboard or crosscountry. This off-the-beaten path mountain is a favorite, especially for East Bay families who have a bit of an edge in terms of drive time. Most of the route is on smaller two-lane highways through the Sierra foothills, which some city parents prefer to busy Interstate 80 and its tractor trailers. There are some accommodations near the mountain, but many families rent cabins in Dorrington or even Arnold, 30–45 minutes away.
In case there are some nonskiers in the family (or those who just don’t ski on the same runs), here’s a nice way to keep everyone in one pack: Experience the snowy backcountry on snowmobiles. Mammoth Mountain is perfect for snowmobiling with both little and big kids. Numerous snowmobile outfitters, including Mammoth Snowmobile Adventures, combine experienced guides with top-of-the-line equipment to help your family explore large meadows, lush pine forests, historic landmarks and acres of backcountry trails. Kids 16 years and older with a valid driver’s license and a parent present can steer their own snowmobile, while kids 5 and older can ride with a parent. Snowmobile season begins mid-December; helmets are provided. Mammoth’s other big crowd-pleaser, meanwhile, is Wooly’s Tube Park and Snowplay with its night tubing and plenty of room for old-fashioned snowman-building.
Mt. Shasta Ski Park
Families looking for a smaller scene love the Mt. Shasta Ski Park. It’s a bit more time in the car to drive north – almost to Oregon – but a lot more budget-friendly than Tahoe—they’ve even got a KOA with cabins nearby. The mountain is small, but it’ll satisfy most family members’ need to schuss and sled just fine.
Southern California Ski Resorts
With up to 12 different lanes, two moving carpets and custom tubes, Mountain High, features the North Pole Tubing Park, which is the largest park of its kind in Southern California. It offers an easy day of play in the snow (kids should be at least 36 inches tall). Ride solo, challenge family members to races or make a chain. Space is limited, so grab your reservation early for one of the four different tubing sessions throughout the day, or buy an all-day pass for true tubing enthusiasts. For skiing and snowboarding, Mountain High is also an excellent place to learn.
Big Bear also features snowplay areas (try the Magic Carpet ride to get to the top with no walking!) and a ski mountain, boasting 240 acres of skiable terrain. For the truly brave, the Alpine Slide is Southern California’s only authentic bobsled experience. It begins with a scenic chair lift ride to the top, then riders control their speed twisting and turning down a ¼-mile long track.
Maria De La O
Magazine editor. Documentary filmmaker. Copy expert. Mother. Traveler. Maria brings it all to the pages of ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
Oh, the places you can REALLY go - without quarantines, vaccinations or worries
Ski, board, or just play in the powder? We've got your mountain.
Follow these rules and find Aloha
An incredibly array of paddling around the peninsula
A Lesser Antilles isle with less tourists & more action
Time for locals to do these COVID-safe, outdoor parks, hikes and rides
Whether its a “snow globe” or “flip flop” weekend, you can’t lose.
Tales from an environmental expedition to last great wilderness on Earth
Uncovering the mysteries of the Skeleton Coast and beyond
Zambia’s Devil’s Pool is not for the faint of heart.
Unplug from the crazy. Plug into nature.
A fun budget getaway to the mountains near LA
The joy of returning to the wild and the thrill of a memorable tinkle.
Days - or weeks - of beaches, trails, farms and sunsets near Seattle
The power of sparkling water, romping bears, and endless trails.
A perfect wild coast itinerary with hIkes, beach time, and fabulous food
Families reconnect and recharge on the trails.
Locals' favorite family-friendly lakefront destinations
Even a room-without-a-view leads to the perfect multigenerational Hawaii vacation
Same coast. More value. Fewer crowds.