California - Hollywood, hippies and... great skiing

Plan a skiing break in the US and you'd probably think of Colorado, New Mexico or Wyoming. But, says Rupert Isaacson, the West Coast wonderland has plenty to offer the coolest customers
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The Independent Travel
Spring skiing in California, predictably, is a time for getting your kit off rather than on. And the state has some of America's best skiing: the Sierra Nevada mountains are known for deep-packed dry powder that lasts, in places, until July. Yet you don't have to make it a special skiing holiday. Some of California's best skiing lies close to LA and San Francisco and in some cases the resorts are little more than an hour or two from the city. This makes it feasible to have a quick ski if you are flying say, to LA on business. A hired car, a short drive and you're there. Of course, if you decide to make a ski trip of it, then you will have more time to explore to Sierras. But it is reassuring to know that you can escape the smog and be on the pistes or even on back-country trails the same afternoon or evening, and as most resorts have floodlit runs, arriving after dark is not a problem.

Close to Los Angeles (about 50 miles east of the city) is the Big Bear Ski Area, which has several resorts. Snow Summit is the closest, sitting in the San Bernadino Mountains within sight of the smog, but blessedly free from it. A 7,000ft peak with two separate ski slopes, Snow Summit is an easy day-trip from the city. To get there, take Route 330 from Redlands to the junction with Highway 18 and then follow the signs. The snow stays until May, and the weather is almost invariably sunny; 300 days of sunshine were recorded last year. Although most of the skiing in this area is on man-made snow, regular dumps through the mid-winter season create the requisite white landscape, although the only skiable stuff is confined to the pistes.

Snow Summit caters to all levels of downhill ability but, if you are travelling with non-skiers, the resort also has a variety of other activities, including mountain-biking below the snowline and dog-sledding through the snowbound forest. You can also ski for free on your birthday. If Snow Summit is closed (sometimes tickets are limited because of its proximity to the city) try Snowcrest at Snow Park Ridge, Snow Valley (which has more natural snow than most resorts near LA), or Ski Sunrise, all of which are almost as close.

For a weekend, Mammoth Mountain sits under an awesome 8,200ft peak about four hours' drive north of LA. Some people complain that the resort lacks character, and certainly it's no Alpine village, but Mammoth has some of the best skiing in the state. If you're really good, the double black diamond runs will give you something to talk about for a long time to come. About 30 per cent of the runs are for advanced skiers, and the ski area has a vertical drop of about 3,100ft, allowing for some almost extreme-ski sections. Intermediate and beginner skiers will benefit from Mammoth's superb ski school, one of the better resort-based ones in California. Mammoth is far enough away from the city to give a better feel of the wild, and being in the Sierra Nevada proper, the upper runs give heart- lifting views of the ranges.

Cross-country and telemark enthusiasts should head 20 minutes north of Mammoth to June Mountain, where Tamarack Lodge, and the Sierra Meadows Ski Touring Centre, offer groomed trails and cross-country downhill clinics for those wanting to improve their technique.

If you are travelling to San Francisco, the closest ski area is around Lake Tahoe on the border with Nevada. Sugar Bowl, which has been a resort since 1939, is three hours' drive from the Bay Area as Greater San Francisco is generally known. Just take Highway 80 towards Tahoe and Reno and look out for the signs for Sugar Bowl near Donner Pass. The ski area is huge, running over several mountains and expanding all the time. At the back end of the season, right up to July, Sugar Bowl has snow-makers that can cover 400 acres of runs without a problem. There is a ski school, snowboard school and more-or-less guaranteed powder. America's Ski magazine gave Sugar Bowl a gold medal award for snow conditions and challenging skiing, while Powder magazine called the resort a "full-on skiing adventure". You can really check this out if you head up Mount Judah to the Easy Rider black run, which is one of America's scariest, whose natural hits, swales and bowls form a natural half-pipe or chute where you can reach incredible speeds.

Lake Tahoe has several other resorts to match Sugar Bowl, but which involve at least another hour's drive. Of these, Squaw Valley is one of the top 10 resorts in the USA. Laid out to look like a Swiss village, this is where the 1960 Olympics were held. The runs are laid out below five peaks and most California skiers say that Squaw Valley has the most varied and challenging terrain of all the Sierra resorts. Of course, people are always coming up with such superlatives, but the 30 per cent advanced quotient on the runs does back up the claim. If you are good enough, the Palisade Chutes black run has several jumping points from which you can launch yourself into full somersaults and other acrobatics. You do not have to be super-good to enjoy Squaw Valley however - like Mammoth it has a very good ski school. There is also a lot for the cross-country skiers and telemarkers. At Squaw Creek Cross Country Centre, 400 acres of touring, country and cross-country downhill slopes and 28 miles of groomed trails offer more than you can explore in a weekend.

Next in line to Squaw Valley are Alpine Meadows and Heavenly. Alpine is almost as big as Squaw Valley, but a little less smart, with no hotels - you have to stay in Tahoe City, six miles away. However, the runs under Alpine's 6,835ft peak usually stay open until July and there is skiing as challenging as a Squaw Valley. Heavenly is a little more relaxed, and a good place for beginners and intermediate skiers to improve. Mind you, its black runs have the steepest vertical drop - 3500ft - in the Sierras, and you can really get away from crowds, particularly if you ski the runs on the Nevada side of the mountain. One presumes that Heavenly gets its name from the views over wide Lake Tahoe, above whose shore it lies. I suspect, however, that the name comes from the fact that you can ditch your kids - Heavenly has day-care for very young children.

Also in the Tahoe area, Northstar and Kirkwood both make an excellent short break from San Francisco. Northstar, near Truckee, has little challenging skiing, but is good for nervous or beginner downhillers and is seldom crowded. There is also good cross-country skiing in the forest and the setting, under the 8,000ft Mount Pluto, is straight out of a Western. However, Kirkwood 30 miles from South Lake Tahoe, is the place many Californians have recently "discovered". Some even say that the resort is starting to rival Squaw Valley. Certainly it is just as pretty, also being laid out like an Alpine Village, with a 7,800ft peak to make things dramatic. It also has very reliable powder, some of the driest, fastest, glidiest snow you will ever ski on, and it is this that is bringing Kirkwood a solid following. Again, cross-country skiers have good opportunities, with miles of groomed trails, and some of the world's easiest turning snow for telemarking and cross-country downhill.

Cross country and telemarking get the last word for the Tahoe region. The Royal Gorge Cross-Country Resort situated at 7000ft, has everything: intensive telemarking and skating (a technique for going fast along the flat) clinics, its own lodges, and interconnecting trails with Sugar Bowl resort. There are black runs for cross-country downhillers and serious tourers, plenty of intermediate and beginner options, trailside lodges for the long hauls through the forest - even ski lifts for the higher runs. It is rare to find a place so completely geared for cross-country skiing: the place is becoming a mecca for all aspects of the sport and the prices, surprisingly, are not high (see below). Royal George is also on the west side of Lake Tahoe, almost as close to the Bay Area as Sugar Bowl - about three-and-a-half hour's drive from the city. Skiing lasts until midway through April and weekend break packages are available.

The San Bernadino and Sierra Nevada ranges offer such convenience for the West Coast cities, and such excellent conditions that it is surprising how few Brits you find in these resorts compared to those of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. Most people over here simply do not think of California as ski country, even though flights are considerably cheaper than to the Rockies (between pounds 250-pounds 300 low season return with no need to change planes), while the skiing at Mammoth, Kirkwood and Squaw Valley easily matches what the Rockies have to offer. Enough hard-sell. If you are flying to LA or the Bay Area anywhere, set a day or a weekend aside. And if you are looking for a ski holiday destination in its own right, you would be hard put to it to find better value than in California.

FACT FILE

Lift pass prices

Southern California - Snow Summit: adults $42 per day, children $23; Bear Mountain: adults $40 per day, children $5; Snowcrest Snow Park Ridge: adult weekend pass $28, or $15 for day, children weekend pounds 15; Sunrise: same as Snowcrest; Mammoth: adults $45 per day, children $10.

Northern California - Squaw Valley: adults $46 per day, children pounds 5; Sugar Bowl: adults $41, children $10; Heavenly: adults $46, children $20- pounds 31 depending on age; Northstar: adults $45, children $10; Kirkwood: adults $42, children $5-$32 depending on age; Alpine Meadows: adults $46, children $18; Snow Valley: adults $34, children $5; Royal George: adults $16.50, children $8.50.

Most resorts run reduced-rate beginner discount packages including lift passes.

Equipment Hire

For resorts in both Southern and Northern California, expect to pay about $15 per day for skis and boots, or about $22 for a snowboard (be aware that snowboards often require hefty deposits of up to $350). Rental of ski gear usually comes to about $15 for salopettes and jacket.

Further information

Books available from Stanfords London include Skiers' Guide to California (Gulf Publishing Co) pounds 13.99, and Ski America '97 (Portfolio) pounds 13.99. The California State Tourist Board is a little stingey however; for recorded information, call 0891 200278; otherwise send a pounds 3 postal order to ABC California, PO Box 35, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, requesting a standard information pack. The pack includes a spread on skiing in the state, with accommodation listings and phone numbers.

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