Hidden Gems: California's Best Kept Secrets
California has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to skiing—but it also has a lot of people who take advantage of it.
For example, Palisades Tahoe and Mammoth—two of the state’s best-known resorts and some of the most beautiful places to ski in the country—are within driving distance of California's most populous cities. As a result, the ski areas can be an absolute zoo.
Fortunately, this great state also boasts a surfeit of independently owned ski areas (“resorts” may be a bit misleading) worthy of a day trip, at the very least. Here’s a roundup of our favorite California gems.
Just 30 minutes from the blackjack tables of Reno, Mt. Rose is a laidback spot that prides itself on catering to locals. Its biggest claim to fame, though, is its base elevation—at 8,260 feet, it’s the highest in Tahoe, which means it snows here when it’s raining everywhere else. Though there is a pod of good beginner terrain here and some nice glades off Slide Bowl, the real reason skiers come here is The Chutes, long, steep, north-facing fingers of powdery goodness. It's not on the Ikon Pass, but they have daily deals like two-for-one Tuesdays and ladies’ day Thursdays.
Two skiers enjoy the view from Mt. Rose Ski Resort. Photo: travelnevada.com
Sugar Bowl, off Donner Pass, has 1,650 skiable acres, a base area of 8,383 feet, 1,500 vertical-foot drop, and a run that’s more than 3 miles long. But the only statistic you need to know is that it gets an average of 500 inches of snow every year. The lifts run off a steep ridgeline with four peaks, and the runs off Mt. Lincoln are real deal, with cliffs, chutes, and cornices. Founded in 1936 with the help of Walt Disney, it’s one of the oldest running resorts in the country, and it boasts the honor of having the state’s first chairlift. It’s a history best soaked in over a bloody Mary at the Belt Room Bar in the old Village Lodge, where you can see all the black-and-white photos from the sport’s heyday. It has quaint Euro-style lodging right on the slopes, too.
You may have heard the news that Homewood is transitioning to become a private ski area gradually over the next few years, which means the time to visit is now, especially considering the reason for the change is that not enough people buy lift tickets. (No crowds means more skiing for you.) Homewood has long been Tahoe’s family resort, with mellow, rolling groomers that are perfect for the littles to learn the art of carving. It’s a good thing, too, because the views of the lake are so jaw-dropping that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the hill. That’s not to say there isn’t any challenging terrain—a few double diamonds drop off Quail Face, and the upper mountain has some nice powdery aprons accessible via snowcat. With adult lift tickets starting at $99 (the resort has dynamic pricing), it’s an affordable option for the whole family.
The base area at family-friendly Homewood Mountain Resort. Photo: mountainyahoos.com
Dodge Ridge is one of the closest ski areas to the Bay Area, sitting three hours and 45 minutes east of San Francisco, 2 hours and 45 minutes from Sacramento, and far from the bustle of Tahoe. It only has 862 skiable acres, but those acres pack a wallop. The runs that spill down the ridge off Chair 8 are steep, powdery, and uncrowded—even over the holidays. Storms bring 300-500 inches of snow when it’s actually, you know, snowing, but its relatively low elevation means some years are pretty lean. But when the weather hits, you’ll have powder all to yourself. Lift tickets for adults start at $99.
A lot of resorts tout affordability, but this place means it. With $59 midweek tickets, this little independently owned hill is the perfect spot to take the offspring or just have a little day-trip diversion without any crowds. It has deep roots in California—it was founded in 1937 and named after the ill-fated Donner Party of pioneers who were trapped for a winter on what is now also named Donner Pass—and it’s still independently owned and operated. Don’t miss après at the Old 40 Bar & Grill.
Donner Ski Ranch is a great place to get the kids out on the hill. Photo: tahoedonner.com
Way up north, just an hour and a half from Ashland, Ore., Mt. Shasta Ski Park is one of the most scenic resorts anywhere. The summit of Mt. Shasta proper looms above at 14,162 feet, and the Ski Park’s runs spill down below treeline. While mountaineers love it for its access to the peak, families love it for its affordability and snow. Four distinct pods of terrain offer cruisey blues, powdery blacks, and a handful of mellow greens with 2,036 vertical feet and 635 acres of skiable terrain. If you’re a backcountry skier, you’ll have more than 250 additional acres of powder all to yourself, and you can stay at the resort’s rustic cabins for $150 per night, which includes your lift ticket.
Article by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Steamboat, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.