While California may be known for some impressive ski resorts, its ski towns are sometimes a bit harder to discover. Fortunately, a handful of great communities and ski-friendly locations are sprinkled throughout The Golden State just waiting to be found.
Some can be found in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe, where California’s largest concentration of ski resorts is located. While some have been around for more than a century, a few ski towns are very new and are well-incorporated into their surroundings.
Here are the top ski towns in California to live and visit, in no particular order:
Mammoth Lakes, CA
Although it might seem logical to focus only on the slopes when visiting Mammoth Lakes, the number of geological wonders in the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains should also be on every visitors’ list. It’s the town’s willingness to embrace the outdoors that makes Mammoth Lakes an incredible ski town.
Surrounded by mountains, lakes and hot springs, it’s the only incorporated community in the county. As the former location of the Mammoth Mining Company, the area had its own part in a gold rush between 1878 and 1888.
During that time the population rose as high as 1,500 and then dropped to fewer than 10. Over the next century, the town saw renewed growth and had a population of 7,191 in 2020.
Mammoth Mountain with breathtaking views from every slope is only a few minutes from Mammoth Lakes. A free shuttle transports visitors from downtown to the mountain base, or take the free Village Gondola. As Mammoth is the highest ski area in the state, it’s no surprise that multiple gondolas are necessary to reach the mountain summit.
While the winter months are ideal for ice skating, snowcat tours, or snowmobiling, summer is probably the busiest season in Mammoth Lakes. Once the snow melts, it’s time for kayaking, swimming, fishing, hiking, mountaineering, golf, horseback riding, and camping.
During the spring and fall if there’s snow on the ground visitors can often celebrate winter and summer activities in the same day. Conveniently it’s easy to find dining, shopping, and lodging all within a short distance.
Unlike some other ski towns in California, Truckee has a visible history and wears it proudly. The downtown storefronts have a cool California vibe in their historic western facades, and the surrounding homes have a folky and eclectic style that blends into the surrounding arid hills.
Truckee is possibly best known for its proximity to Donner Pass and the stranded Donner party in 1846. Today’s visitors are all but guaranteed better luck in finding lodging, shopping, and of course dining options.
The area was a popular stop for emigrants heading west, but today more people have chosen to remain in the unincorporated community with a population of around 17,000 in 2020.
The town isn’t far from Lake Tahoe and all the local year-round activities. Horseback riding, rock climbing, and hiking are some of the biggest warm-weather experiences. Once the snow falls, the area is ideal for cross country skiing, backcountry skiing, sledding and snowshoeing.
Truckee is fortunate to be located within a short distance of two ski areas, both accessible via free shuttle. Family-friendly Northstar Resort is one of the largest in the state, complete with five-star slopeside amenities, terrain parks and tree skiing.
Tahoe Donner is closer but with only a fraction of the slopes. Skiers and snowboarders with access to an automobile can drive a bit further to the slopes of Boreal Mountain or Sugar Bowl Resort.
South Lake Tahoe, CA
Along the shores of Lake Tahoe, just west of the Nevada border, South Lake Tahoe is a modern ski town that connects the waterfront with the peaks of Heavenly Mountain Resort. The community is a popular tourist destination known for its club scene at night and incredible views of Lake Tahoe during the day.
The downtown streets of South Lake Tahoe fronted with wooden chalets and rustic timber shops morph into modern casinos at the Nevada border. While certain areas of the town are walkable, the free Tahoe Transportation District shuttle is often the best way to navigate the area.
The City of South Lake Tahoe was founded in 1965 and had a population of 21,330 in 2020. With easy access to California’s largest ski resort, South Lake Tahoe is at its busiest in the winter but has plenty of activities in the summer too. Golf, bike and hiking paths, paddle boarding, and boating.
Olympic Valley, CA
Olympic Valley began as a seasonal ski resort that has emerged into one of California’s most active ski towns. The unincorporated community lies west of Lake Tahoe, yet feels removed from the hustle and bustle of the tourist destination with its surrounding mountains and natural setting.
The potential for the town began when Squaw Valley Ski Resort – now Palisades Tahoe – opened in 1949. It was then developed and expanded with a successful bid as a location for the 1960 Olympics. The community was the world’s first Olympic Village, and its design makes it an easy-to-navigate ski town.
Although the mountain didn’t start with summer activities, it has made up for lost time. Base activities include a ropes course, hiking, biking, and roller skating. In the winter, the area has snowshoeing and snow tubing along with a NASTAR racecourse and backcountry tours.
There were fewer than 1,000 residents in Olympic Valley in 2016, yet there is plenty of variety in dining and shopping options. The village is very walkable with easy access to the gondola at the mountain base.
Big Bear Lake, CA
Not far from Los Angeles, the village of Big Bear Lake is a ski town destination perfect for a weekend getaway at any time of the year. With Bear Mountain & Snow Summit Ski Resort just minutes away, the town gives skiers and snowboarders plenty to do when they’re away from the slopes.
The area is named for the number of grizzly bears who roamed the area until 1906. The bears have now disappeared, and in 2010 the human population was over 5,000.
The eclectic buildings in the village area are filled with shops and restaurants. While the village is walkable, the free Big Bear Trolly is the most entertaining option to get around town and head to the slopes.
The area was once the site of the largest gold rush in Southern California. Big Bear Lake was on its way to becoming a vacation destination in 1928 when the first ski jump was installed, and then in 1949, the first ski resort opened.
Big Bear Lake is located in the San Bernardino Mountains with summertime activities like hiking, biking, and climbing. Its proximity to the lake also means waterskiing, kayaking, pedal boating, and jet skiing. Non-skiers and snowboarders can take a Segway tour through town, or try snowshoeing, horseback riding, and ATV vehicles.
California’s ski areas are situated across the state, along with numerous ski tows to explore. All of these locations are enjoyable during any season, filled with adventure that incorporates the outdoors. They each provide a community spirit that is part of being a ski town and are all the more reason to visit The Golden State.