Soak up everything that California’s snow-filled mountains have to offer as you hit the slopes with pandemic safety measures in place.
By Ashley Ryan
What began as a stay-at-home order that, for many, allowed extra time for watercolor painting, reading books and taking virtual yoga classes has evolved into months and months of social distancing, waiting on the vaccines to be more widely available and never knowing when things will be shutting down again.
After having to cancel summer vacations and holiday plans, many have taken to the road for outdoor adventures that serve as a safer alternative. During wintertime, a ski trip checks all the boxes: You’ll spend most of your time outdoors, keeping distance from others on the mountain, and there are plenty of options within driving distance.
Enjoying time on the slopes is a winter tradition for many—a chance to escape Orange County’s perpetual warm weather and delve into a snowy wonderland. Whether skiing or snowboarding, heading to the mountains is a great way to avoid the chaos for a little while and make memories that will outlast the rough times.
Those looking for a quick weekend trip or short drive can zip up to the San Bernardino Mountains, a range that is only a couple hours away from Laguna Beach. On the road up, nestled in the small town of Running Springs, lies Snow Valley Mountain Resort, already open for its 83rd season.
The resort’s latest campaign, “Ski Well, Be Well,” puts COVID-19 precautions at the forefront of its operation. Based on the guidance of the National Ski Areas Association, the resort will offer small group lessons for both skiing and snowboarding while also ensuring guests can ride the chairlifts with only their own party. These unique six-person chairlifts will make social distancing easier than ever, as will Snow Valley’s 300-foot moving carpet lift, but there will also be regular wellness checks, increased disinfection strategies and face covering requirements—both indoors and outdoors—when not 6 feet away from other guests. Heated outdoor decks with alpine vistas are also available at all of the food and beverage venues, which currently ban indoor operations in the area.
With 240 acres of skiable terrain, Snow Valley offers a large number of beginner trails, which make it easy to learn or gain confidence before heading up the mountain. The intermediate runs are long, winding trails—some of the longest in the region. A variety of advanced paths are available as well, including a challenging double black diamond trail called The Ladder. Unique to this venue, guests can also opt for discounted night sessions for an alternative on-the-slopes experience.
Farther up the mountain, Big Bear Mountain Resort has been taking similar precautions since opening Nov. 20 for the season, allowing only ticketed guests to access its base areas in order to discourage large crowds from visiting. However, with ample space due to a new deck that opened last year, there is enough seating to keep your distance from others while enjoying sit-down or grab-and-go meals.
In addition, guests can access both parking and ski lifts from the mobile app, ensuring more streamlined processes with less time interacting with staff members. Ski school class sizes and daily lift ticket sales have been set at a reduced capacity as well.
With two peaks on which to ski or snowboard, Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, there are quite a few options here. Both were founded in the 1950s and offer a cumulative 438 acres, with more than 65% of those deemed intermediate or advanced. Each offers multiple terrain parks with numerous features, and Bear Mountain is also home to three halfpipes.
Moving in Mammoth
The Sierra Nevada is best known for housing Yosemite National Park, but the city of Mammoth Lakes is another popular draw. With an average of over 1 million visitors in the wintertime, the region sees a great influx from Southern California in particular.
West of town, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area continues to be the biggest attraction from November through late spring or even summer. With over 3,500 acres of skiable land, the variety and versatility of this mountain upstages that of our local San Bernardino mountains. There are 150 trails, eight terrain parks and roughly 300 days of beautiful sunshine per year.
The resort has already invested more than $1 million in COVID-19-related measures and enhancements in an effort to keep guests safe while still enjoying themselves on the Mammoth slopes. All lift tickets must be purchased in advance for a specific date to manage capacity on the mountain, although Ikon Pass holders are still able to visit without reservations. Rentals and private lessons may also be purchased same day, when available; however, group lessons and snowcat tours have been canceled for the season. Masks are required whenever indoors or outdoors near others, as well as on shuttles, lifts and gondolas.
At the resort, mobile ordering for to-go items is available at select restaurants, but you can also opt to head into town, where a new restaurant will get you warmed up after a day on the slopes. Yama Ramen, located at The Village at Mammoth, allows diners to create their own bowls by selecting protein, broth and toppings; as of press time, meals must be taken to go.
Although United Airlines has canceled service to the area for the season, and Advanced Air Charters’ flights are currently paused (to be reevaluated in February), Mammoth Lakes is only about six hours away, making it driveable but also far enough for a real getaway.
Up in Tahoe
Further north, Lake Tahoe continues to be one of the most popular places in California for winter sports—but Squaw Valley happens to be one of the most prominent ski resorts in the country. Located northwest of the lake, the famous property was the site of the 1960s Winter Olympics and, after merging with Alpine Meadows almost a decade ago, offers 6,000 skiable acres with more than 270 trails.
At the resort, which opened for skiing and snowboarding in late November, spot a tribute sign featuring the Olympic rings. The Village at Squaw Valley also offers equipment rentals, shopping and outdoor patios on which to dine, just steps away from condominium-style suites, with multiple restaurants offering to-go meals plus online ordering. This season, the Mtn Roots food truck will be on-site, too.
Expanded seating will be available on the mountain as well, at Alpine Meadows base lodge, Gold Coast Lodge and KT Base Bar; fire pits and heaters have also been added. Walk-up ticket sales will not be allowed and reservations are also required for all lessons and rentals. Other safety measures include hand sanitizing stations as well as a fleet of large-scale electrostatic sanitizing sprayers, plastic partitions within ticket and dining lines, required face coverings and significantly reduced capacities on chairlifts and the tram. In addition, staff members have been hired solely to assist visitors with mask-wearing protocols and social distancing.
Also on the northern side of the lake is Northstar California, a gem hidden in the trees that offers a relaxed but luxurious oasis to escape to this winter. The well-groomed runs traverse an extinct volcano, with wide trails and views of the lake from above. Adventurous types can take to Lookout Mountain for advanced terrain or enjoy Logger’s Loop, the resort’s longest run at nearly a mile and a half. But Northstar also has plenty of snow for beginners and families to enjoy together as well. In fact, this year, a revamped Kids Adventure Zone makes its debut near the Powder Bowl, where guests can spot wood-carved animals in the snow.
Farther south, at Heavenly, it’s all about the energy. This buzzing property is located in South Lake Tahoe, not far from the Nevada border, and is celebrating its 65th anniversary this season. In fact, the resort’s gondola travels between the lodge and the city of Stateline, Nevada, where visitors can tuck into casinos to gamble, dine and mingle with their crew.
Although Heavenly has only 97 runs, they cover nearly 5,000 acres, making it a wonderful place to explore the alpine terrain. The majority are intermediate trails, but beginning and advanced skiers can feel comfortable on the slopes as well. The Skyline Trail, in particular, offers views of the mountain peaks, slanted valleys and dazzling lake.
Both Northstar and Heavenly, which are owned by Vail Resorts, opened in November with pandemic protection in place, designed with the ever-evolving nature of COVID-19 guidelines in mind. In addition to requiring face coverings and separating groups on chairlifts and gondolas, the properties have made changes to their dining options and lessons to ensure distancing and keep guests safe. Mountain access will also be at limited capacity, with pass holders gaining priority over day lift tickets, and a reservation system has been developed to streamline entry.
While things may look a little different getting to and from the slopes this year, safety measures simply ensure travelers are able to enjoy the crisp air, fresh powder and breathtaking views that accompany any quality ski or snowboard session.
Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19, the information within this article is subject to change depending on the state of California’s safety guidelines. Please reach out to the resorts with any questions or visit their websites for current updates before booking your trip.