California’s many winter activities provide lots of reasons to get outdoors
No Time to Hibernate
SKIING MAMMOTH LAKES
Snow play isn’t usually foremost in people’s minds when they think of California, but the state has some of the best skiing in the West, with the area around Lake Tahoe offering more options than anywhere in North America. A couple and their dog crosscountry ski at Mammoth Lakes, above. Southern California has long been known as a warm-weather winter vacation area, with sports and outdoor activities centered in San Diego and Los Angeles and desert retreats like Palm Springs. But the mountains of Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite and across the Sierra Nevada range beckon winter visitors who want to embrace snow-based sports and recreation.
In winter, Southern California is still an oasis for outdoor sports and adventure, from golf to tennis, hiking and horseback riding, whether in the still-baking desert around Palm Springs or the perpetually pleasant vacationland of San Diego or Los Angeles. But for those seeking winter sports, there may be no better place on earth than the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. The area hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley and continues to be home base for many U.S. Winter Olympians who bang moguls, rip the half-pipes and race on downhill runs at more than a dozen area ski resorts. For the non-extreme, plenty of beginner trails, group lessons and smaller hills offer a safe introduction to the sport.
Tahoe ski resorts including Squaw Valley, Northstar and Heavenly also offer ice skating rinks and inner tube runs for those looking for more mellow activities, best complimented with a fire pit and toasted
marshmallows and hot cocoa for dessert. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing courses dot the Tahoe area, offering a brisk aerobic workout amidst pine forests and sweeping mountain scenery. South of Tahoe, Mammoth Mountain boasts a world-class ski resort, while Bear Mountain offers skiing within a reasonable commute from Los Angeles, enabling the highly motivated to surf and ski in a single day. Outside of the ski resorts, snowmobiling provides high-octane motor sport fun, while dogsledding is a way to enjoy a different sort of ride with some furry friends. For the adventurous, remote backcountry skiing, the increasingly popular “sidecountry” Alpine Touring connected to the ski resorts, ice climbing and hut-to-hut hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains can feed one’s winter hunger for adrenaline.
The Great Outdoors
Step away from organized resort sports and there’s still a wealth of winter outdoor activities in California. The bears may be hibernating but that doesn’t mean you have to as well. Avoiding the hot summer months means visitors can enjoy temperate winter hiking and camping opportunities in desert parks such as Death Valley, Joshua Tree and around Palm Springs (but be forewarned that the nights can still get frigid). Prior to snowfall, the Sierra Nevada mountain forests are ablaze with colorful fall foliage, making a hike through the hills a prime “shoulder season” activity.
Wintertime provides an escape from the summer crowds often found in Yosemite National Park. Visit the near-empty wilderness to enjoy a quiet blanket of snow covering towering cliffs, the sun glistening off frozen waterfalls and the muffled clomping sound of guided snowshoe tours— and then retire to one of their lodges for special winter food and wine events. Hot springs around Mammoth Lakes provide toasty outdoor relaxation with a view of snowcapped mountains. Or, perhaps bundle up and climb a mountain for prime star-gazing opportunities in the crisp and clear mountain air, then add a few more layers and try some ice fishing on a high alpine lake.
Winter also is the time when visitors can spot many animals migrating south to follow the sun. From massive gray whales to miniature monarch butterflies, flocks of birds in the central wetlands and pods of seals come to mate on the shores of the Pacific, the world’s wildlife also seems to think that California’s outdoors is a great place to visit in winter.
SKATERS ENJOY the ice in Yosemite Valley, right; a snowboarder gets some air above Lake Tahoe, bottom.