By Lena Katz
If you think California only has one season, you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Nine months of the year the beach cities might get all the attention, but from December through February, it’s all about s-n-o-w. The ski vacation season is short, and ski resorts are in just a few areas — mainly Tahoe/Reno, Mammoth and Big Bear — but people make the most of it. And the resorts do their part with enhancements, additions and awesome new events every season. Here’s what’s noteworthy in 2010 at my favorite California ski resorts.
Sugar Bowl, the unofficial People’s Choice ski resort, kicked off its 70th season with a lot of news, including the opening of the Backcountry Adventure Center and the debut of the Summit Chair quad lift accessing Judah Bowl.
Sugar Bowl is kickin’ through the winter with Ski-Cross Races, the return of the Silver Belt Banzai, the annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival Feb. 27-28, and a week-long birthday celebration Jan. 25-31. It’ll also serve as the training facility for some of the country’s best skier-cross/boarder-x racers Feb. 1-17 .
If you’re looking to learn beginner or intermediate slopeside skills, try Northstar at Tahoe. The family-friendly ski vacation destination redesigned and expanded its teaching area, and is also introducing the Northstar Training Lab in conjunction with Burton Snow Academy. Snowboarders should check out the brand new “The Stash” superpipe developed by Jake Burton.
Craving a bit of Alpine romance? Voila — the Snowcat dinner experience at Alpine Meadows is here to fulfill your fantasy. You may not be in Switzerland but after a Snowcat trip up the mountain and a scenic dinner, you’ll certainly feel like, “Toto, we’re not in the Sierras anymore.”
You can count on Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe to bring new and fun ski vacation features every season. This year fun takes the form of a four-lane snowtubing hill with a magic carpet accessing the start point. New thrills can be found alongside a guide, with the new Adventure Sessions program that pairs adventurous skiers up with professional mountain guides. Though Kirkwood hasn’t opened anything new yet this season, they invested $10K in their terrain parks, and they’re currently building a Skier/Boarder X Course for use not only by the pros, but the public.
If you want to strike out on your first backcountry adventure during your ski vacation, start at Huckleberry Canyon in Sierra-at-Tahoe. An introduction to the terrain is offered every Friday afternoon, giving skiers the information and strategy they need before tackling double-black-diamond and backcountry terrain for the first time.
If you’re looking for value over buzz factor in a ski vacation, there are great deals to be had everywhere from upscale landmarks like the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort to the ultra-bargain Cal Neva Resort Spa and Casino.
It has amazing snow, wicked elevation and challenging terrain, but this eastern Sierra ski vacation destination is a trek-and-a-half to access. Hence, any news involving air service is always the most important. And they have a fair bit to report right now, with direct flights now available from San Jose, Seattle or Portland, as well as two flights daily from LA.
For lodging in Mammoth, pick according to your situation: Snowcreek Resort for twosomes, Mammoth Mountain Inn for families and/or groups, anywhere in June Lake, but particularly the Heidelberg, if you’re a nostalgia-seeker, and Snowbird Condos if you plan to stay a minute.
Also worth noting is the opening of the Village Ski Back Trail. Approximately 15 years in the making, this trail leads straight from the mountain to the concessions — tres important if a resort hopes to have any kind of après action. After racing down to the Village (or riding in Village Gondola), visitors may want to check out newcomer Smokeyard Barbecue and Chop Shop, or perhaps new “California lifestyle tribute” venue Boards. Only once you’ve put your Keanu face on, though … the latter is a skier/surfer/skater homage, dude, and you better respect.
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Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.