Most people think of beaches and Hollywood when they think of Los Angeles, but the city is surrounded by mountains that get covered in snow through the winter months. So with the closest ski runs and resorts under an hour and a half from the coast, it's not really surprising that there is also a thriving winter sports scene around LA. Once winter comes, you can hone your moves on a surfboard or kiteboard at the beach and then snowboard in the mountains, all on the same day.
Winter sports areas range from highly developed resorts with many lifts, groomed runs, snowmaking machines, nightlife, and plenty of lodging to simple ski areas with minimal amenities and undeveloped backcountry skiing.
If you plan to visit multiple ski lodges throughout the season, look into buying the Ski California Gold Pass, which allows you or anyone with your pass to ski or ride at 32 downhill and cross-country resorts.
Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains is the most popular ski and snowboarding destination near Los Angeles. It is not the closest ski area, but with two ski resorts, abundant dining, plenty of locally owned accommodations, and lots of other things to do on the mountain, it has the most to offer, especially for families. The two ski and snowboarding resorts are Snow Summit and Big Bear Mountain, both part of Big Bear Mountain Resorts. Your lift ticket for one resort is also valid for the other, and there's a free shuttle connecting the two if you want to switch between them.
Snow Summit is the closest ski resort to Big Bear Lake Village and just 104 miles (or a little over two hours) from Los Angeles. It is more popular with skiers than snowboarders, with more long runs and fewer terrain features than Bear Mountain. The Family Park on the west side of the resort is popular with beginners and kids, since most beginning skiers find the slopes here better than the beginner area at the flatter Bear Mountain. One of the other fun features of Snow Summit is nighttime skiing on weekends and holidays.
Bear Mountain is the most popular destination for snowboarders due to its multiple and ever-expanding terrain parks. Since snowboarding skews young, you'll find young adults and teens dominate "the Scene"—the name that was given to the multiple bars, snack bars, restaurants, and shops at the Bear Mountain base area. There are no mountaintop restaurants at Bear Mountain, so if you're looking for lunch on the mountain, you'll have to go over to Snow Summit. There are no skiing nights, either, so some people head over to Snow Summit for a few night runs after a day on Bear Mountain.
Mountain High Resort in Wrightwood
Mountain High Resort, near Wrightwood, is on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains. At just 86 miles away, it is the closest full-service ski and snowboarding resort to Los Angeles, offering access to on-site dining, equipment rental, and nearby lodging. Many locals also like it because you can avoid traffic and delays by driving around the mountain to get there.
Mountain High is actually three different resorts a mile apart from each other: West Resort, East Resort, and North Resort. The lift pass is good for all three and there's a free shuttle between them. If there hasn't been a lot of snow, some of the trails may not be open, since they only have snow-making ability on 80 percent of the runs. In fact, only a few of the 59 trails may be open, especially at the beginning of the season before the snow builds up, so check the trail status before heading to the mountain.
If you've already skied some of the best resorts in the world, you may be disappointed in the scale and some of the outdated amenities, like the older lifts. However, if there has been good snow and the full facility is open, there are some good technical runs for advanced skiers. Mountain High can also be a great beginner resort, especially if you don't fit the average skier demographic: Special programs include classes for seniors and an adaptive program for learners with special needs, as well as winter weekend ski day-camps for children and teens.
Each of the three Mountain High resorts has differences in terrain, atmosphere, and operating hours. The West Resort is the biggest of the three with 34 trails and eight lifts. It has the most technical trails and unique terrain features for progressive riders and skiers of all skill levels. The East Resort has the longest trails and some of the best views, looking out over the Mojave Desert. The North Resort is the smallest of the three ski areas with 10 trails and only one lift, and is only open Friday to Sunday during peak season.
Most locals ski Mountain High as a day trip, but Wrightwood is home to a motel and rental cabins, and Phelan has additional hotels about 20 minutes away. Mountain High is 30 miles farther than Mt. Baldy or Mt. Waterman but takes only a few minutes longer to get there from LA since there's not a lot of mountain driving.
Snow Valley Mountain Resort is located just outside of Running Springs, about halfway between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake on Highway 18. Its lower elevation—about 1,000 feet lower than Bear Mountain—means that Snow Valley usually doesn't get snow as soon as the resorts at Big Bear. Since the resort only has the ability to make snow on half the trails, it may have just a few of the 28 trails running if there hasn't been a lot of snow.
Still, just 91 miles from Los Angeles, Snow Valley has a nice combination of technical trails and beginner terrain that makes it popular for families and groups with diverse skill levels. It's known for being more economical, more friendly, and less crowded than the Big Bear resorts. One reason it's less crowded is the lack of adjacent lodging; you'll likely have to drive the rest of the way to Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, or down to San Bernardino to find a place to sleep after your tiring day on the slopes. And since there is no place to stay, there are fewer non-ski recreation activities available.
Those shortcomings are a blessing if you're looking for a less crowded, reasonably priced resort within two hours of LA. In addition to 28 trails for skiing and snowboarding, there is a dedicated Snow Play Area for sledding (sleds provided), and they offer nighttime skiing on Friday and Saturday in peak season. There's a special afternoon-evening lift ticket aimed at teens coming up after school on Fridays as well as a Friday after-school program for kids in first through eighth grades.
Refreshments are available at the base area Sun Deck, and Running Springs is home to additional restaurants that are relatively close to the resort.
Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts
Mount Baldy Ski Lifts in the Angeles National Forest of the San Gabriel Mountains is the second-closest ski area to Los Angeles next to Mount Waterman. Mt. Baldy is a nickname for what is actually Mt. San Antonio, but the name is so ingrained that the local ski village decided to keep it.
The ski area is about one hour, 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles and roughly an hour and a half from Los Angeles beaches without traffic, making it the closest skiing to a beach. If you want to do the surf-to-ski challenge, the closest beaches are Seal Beach and Newport Beach in Orange County at 60 miles (one hour, 20 minutes drive time).
Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts offers downhill skiing and snowboarding on 400 acres, much of it backcountry, accessed via four outdated lifts. Locals consider this to be one of the best skiing areas around for residents of the region, and 13 of the 26 runs are considered advanced or expert.
Some visitors find the "vintage" Sugar Pine Chair Lift up to the Notch—the area between the two peaks with restaurants—delightful in the summer. In the winter, many find the 15-minute ride a little cold and unsettling.
If you're an advanced skier who can go mid-week after a good snow and are expert enough to ski your way back to the parking lot, you'll definitely enjoy Mt. Baldy, where skiers dominate the slopes but advanced snowboarders can have a lot of fun, too.
Skiing and snowboarding lessons are available, and equipment rental includes the basics. While it may not the best place for beginners, Mt. Baldy Ski Area does offer beginner lessons. Aside from the skiing and snowboarding, Mt. Baldy is a popular mountain climbing and snowshoeing destination on every local peak bagger's bucket list, but with just a handful of guest beds in Mt. Baldy Village, most visitors go up just for the day.
Mt. Waterman Ski Lifts
Mount Waterman, in the San Gabriel Mountains, is a lesser-known day ski and snowboarding area near Los Angeles and the skiers who love it hope it stays that way. It is actually the closest skiing to LA at just 47 miles from City Hall and was one of the first local areas used for skiing, with the first rope tow installed in 1939.
Mt. Waterman depends entirely on natural snow, so there have been years where there was not enough snow to open for the entire season.
Mt Waterman has three chairlifts serving 24 runs, most of which are advanced or expert level, and is an "upside-down resort" with the amenities at the top of the chairlift instead of the bottom. Like Mount Baldy, non-advanced skiers will have to ride the chairlift back down to the parking lot, since all the bottom ski runs are expert level. Keep in mind that it's a bit of a trek to get farther up the hill to the beginner and intermediate slopes.
During the season, Mt. Waterman Ski Area is open on weekends, holidays, and Powder Days, and locals await those Powder Days with great anticipation. When the base is deep enough to cover the rocks and there's a fresh layer of powder, skiing Mt. Waterman is great.
If you're planning on skiing Mt. Waterman, you should have your own gear or rent it before you drive up as there is no rental available. If the lifts are running, there are restrooms, phones, ski patrol, food, and drinks available at the Warming Hut at the top of Chair 1.
Rim Nordic Ski Area
Cross-country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, has grown in popularity and resources are being developed to meet the demand. Rim Nordic Ski Area, located in the San Bernardino Mountains just across the street from Snow Valley on Highway 18, is the first and only cross-country ski area in Southern California with machine-groomed trails for Nordic skiing, skating, and snowshoeing.
They offer lessons and rentals for traditional cross-country skiing, ski-skating, and snowshoeing, and, in the off-season, the resort is used for mountain bike racing and trail running events.
There is no restaurant on-site, but there is a small shop that sells snacks, souvenirs, and cold-weather gear you might have forgotten as well as a snack bar across the street at Snow Valley or restaurants in Running Springs. There are a few guest beds in Running Springs, too, but otherwise, the nearest lodging is about 20 minutes away at the west side of Big Bear Lake.
Mt. Pinos Nordic Skiing
It's easy to get confused about Mt. Pinos, the highest point of the San Emigdio Mountains in Ventura County's Los Padres National Forest. The county line with Kern County cuts across the top of the mountain, so some think it's also the highest mountain in that county, a few feet higher than the other mountain that holds that title, Sawmill Mountain.
Mt. Pinos is a completely bring-your-own (BYO-DIY) ski and snow-sport area, with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing being the dominant activities. There are some slopes but no lifts, so it's not a great spot for downhill skiing. There are no lessons, no equipment rentals, and no amenities beyond portable toilets because the Mt. Pinos Ski Area is a collaborative effort between the National Forest Service and the all-volunteer Mt. Pinos Nordic Patrol that operates a base station on weekends in a building right at the parking lot.
The reference point to look for is the Chula Vista Campground or Parking Lot at the very end of Mt. Pinos Road. The Chula Vista parking lot is about 21 miles from the Frazier Park exit off Interstate 5 at the top of the Grapevine. Depending on weather and traffic conditions, it is about an hour and a half from Los Angeles.
In addition to a trail map of ski and snowshoe trails, you'll need a National Forest Adventure Pass to park your vehicle, and you can get both at the Nordic Base on weekends, or at the ranger station in Frazier Park any time. You can also get the Adventure Pass at any Big 5 Sporting Goods store before you head up, or stop by the Forest Service Mt. Pinos Ranger District, Don's Liquor Mart, or Midway Market in Frazier Park to pick up daily, annual, and secondary passes.
Check for current Kern County road closures before heading up as roads are not always cleared when it snows.
Tips for Visiting LA Area Ski Resorts
The winter sports scene offers a great break from beach time during an LA vacation, but can require a little bit of planning before you hit the slopes, including gauging the current weather in LA and deciding whether or not you want to drive yourself.
- Check the ski and weather conditions. The websites for the top ski resorts show the current weather conditions on the mountain and on the slopes. Southern California has been known to go through entire seasons without enough natural snow for some resorts to open and even after a snowfall, warm temperatures may immediately turn the mountains into slush.
- Check which lifts and runs are open. You may have heard great things about a particular resort or ski area, but if you get up there to find that one out of 12 chairlifts is running or just a fraction of ski runs are open, the lines are likely to be long and you may not have access to the runs your friends thought were so great.
- Be careful with driving. For all ski areas, tire chains may be required for snowy conditions and some roads may be closed due to snow or construction work. Check the Caltrans website for current road closures or dial 511 for current freeway and traffic information.
- Skip the resort rental line. If you're renting equipment, consider renting it before you leave LA or at rental shops in the nearest town to your ski destination. Rates are likely to be much lower and lines shorter than at the resort itself, so call ahead to check rates and reserve equipment.
- Be considerate. Everyone is on the mountain to have fun and everyone is dealing with the same lines and conditions. If you're a beginner, take a lesson and stay in beginner areas so you don't endanger more advanced skiers and snowboarders (or yourself), and if you're more advanced than the people in front of you, have a little patience and give them some space to be out of your way.
- Manage expectations. If you expect LA ski resorts to be on the grand scale of major ski destinations, you might be disappointed, as the area isn't home to five-star accommodations. But LA's many ski areas will give you a fun day or weekend in the snow.
- Ditch the car. If you don't want to drive the mountain roads or don't have a car, you can take a Metrolink train from Union Station in LA to San Bernardino, and catch the Big Bear: Off the Mountain Bus that stops at Snow Valley and Rim Nordic in Running Springs en route to Big Bear. The travel will be lengthy but you can rest on the train and bus.