The Best Places for Backcountry Skiing in California

The skiable terrain around Lake Tahoe is a major draw for locals and weekend warriors in the Bay Area looking for a quick fix. Neighboring ski towns around Lake Tahoe like Truckee, North and South Tahoe all have tantalizing objectives available just off the road. What’s most interesting about backcountry skiing in Tahoe is that the resorts have begun to embrace it too. Several resorts have AMGA/IFMGA licensed guides who offer programs to skiers looking for a weekend out of bounds.

Tahoe offers varied terrain some of it extremely committing  on piste, just out of bounds, and deep in the backcountry. The combination of Lake Tahoe’s deep blue water, the desert just east, and the classic Sierra landscape make Tahoe an unforgettable bucket-list stop for any backcountry skier.

California

1. Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain

Guide’s Top Choice
Good access to solid terrain
Great corn season
Elevation makes for choice snow
Look out for the wind!
Some find it hard to get to

Mammoth Mountain Resort and the town of Mammoth Lakes offer unique opportunities for backcountry skiers. The resort provides lots of off-piste and slackcountry options and there’s plenty of diversions if you’re looking for a day to take things easy. Mammoth Lakes is also home to plenty of non-resort backcountry options like Mammoth Crest and Mount McGee. There are also many local, certified guides to help you access the rock, ice and snow.

If you want to resort hop, hire a guide and tour the classic traverse from Mammoth Mountain to June Mountain.

If you’re not skiing the resort, there’s plenty of other areas to explore. The Lakes Basin, Duck Pass and Devil’s Postpile areas all offer great terrain. Lake Mary Road provides easy access to many objectives. If you stay close to the road, consider the Sherwin Bowls, where, you guessed it, there’s plenty of bowl skiing. Other good runs within Mammoth include the Tele Bowl (along Sherwin Creek Road) with solid options at higher elevation like the Bardini Chutes and Punta Bardini. Other favorite spots include descents from Mammoth Crest and Mount McGee, where the corn skiing can be had all of the time.

Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain - Good to Know

Skill level:

Intermediate to advanced

Terrain:

Alpine, trees, steeps and the odd cliff

Elevation:

Peak 11,053’

Backcountry access:

The resort’s infrastructure offers easy access to the goods, but there’s plenty of other access via nearby roads

Snow:

Approximately 400” of annual snowfall, considered lighter because of its eastern Sierra orientation

Guidebook:

Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra by Nate Greenberg and Dan Mingori

Best season:

February through mid-April

Location:

Eastern Sierras, California

Coordinates

37.6308° N, 119.0326° W

Nevada

2. Mt. Rose Highway

57hours Top Choice
High elevation makes for consistent powder
Solid route options and good access
The wind can be a major deterrent if you want to summit

Mount Rose is the third highest peak in the Nevada side of the Tahoe basin and is situated in the Mount Rose Wilderness area. Mt. Rose’s namesake highway gives skiers a head start at 8000’ in elevation. While the summit can be more difficult and arduous due to wind conditions in the winter, Mt. Rose’s elevation ensures that it has great powder for much of the season.

Aside from summit objectives, skiing adjacent Tamarack Peak is an option too. The skiing is good on all sides, and the northeast facing Hourglass Bowl is popular and less crowded. There’s also an Hourglass variation that will take you back to the highway. Another option is the east facing Proletariat run, which is steeper, but the terrain is wider, allowing for bigger turns. Another area favorite for skiing is nearby Relay Peak, which makes for good, low-angle touring. It should be noted, though, that this tour shares a snowmobile path. The skiing here is usually great and rarely crowded.

Mt. Rose Highway - Good to Know

Skill level:

Intermediate to advanced

Terrain:

Chutes, trees, corn on the south side and good old trees

Elevation:

10,785’

Backcountry access:

Access is easy off of Highway 431, there is slackcountry available via Mt. Rose Ski Area, too

Snow:

Light and dry, due to elevation

Guidebook:

Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada: Lake Tahoe by Marcus Libkind

Best season:

Late January through April

Location:

Tahoe side of Nevada…

Coordinates:

39.3437° N, 119.9171° W

California

3. Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows

Best for Resort Guiding Services
Squaw Valley - Top notch skiers flock here for a reason
Squaw Valley - Legendary terrain attracts more riders
Alpine Meadows - Family place with awesome backcountry
Squaw Valley - Crowds can ruin the experience

In 2011 the two resorts began to operate as one, which means you’ll need only one season pass to get the goods at both. Although they are technically merged, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows have distinct personalities and cater to different types of skiers.

Squaw Valley is a former Olympic village and ranks on the top of ski destination lists in the US. It has one of the largest skiing areas, good apres, and a legacy that attracts extreme skiers looking to recreate ski jumps from Warren Miller movies. Its diverse terrain caters to all skill levels but its reputation attracts lots of pros and thrill seekers.

For those of you looking for more extreme terrain, consider Granite Peak and the Palisades. With only a moderate hike you can reach Granite Peak and ski wide bowls and steep chutes while you enjoy the lake view. If you are looking for something more laid back there are some great sidecountry options that hardly require any hiking. The lifts give you access to three great zones: Tram Ridge, Nat Geo Bowl and Munchkins, the latter of which is good for backcountry newbs. Easy access shouldn’t lure you into riskier decisions  the backcountry is the backcountry and should be treated as such

The two resorts are connected with backcountry access gates but you can also take a shuttle.

If you get tired of Squaw Valley’s crowds you can find a more relaxed atmosphere at Alpine Meadows. It’s more focused on the ski experience and less on glitz and glamour. Alpine Meadows is also great for family vacations. This location sometimes gets overlooked because it’s low-key compared to the other Tahoe resorts.

Backcountry access here is easy and convenient. The more notable places are Twin Peaks, Grouse Rock, and Stanford Rock. The first two are not for beginners and reaching them is a tough climb. Stanford Rock is mellower but you still need to earn those turns.

Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows - Good to Know

Skill level:

All levels are welcome. Lots of pros flock to the area

Terrain:

Chutes, wide couloirs and even some decent tree runs

Elevation:

6,200′ (Squaw Valley) 6,835′ (Alpine Meadows)

Backcountry access:

For Squaw Valley there’s sidecountry terrain because of ski-lift infrastructure. Alpine Meadows is more true backcountry experience and you need to be more physically fit

Snow:

This area gets great snow but Squaw Valley attracts plenty of people so fresh powder on weekends is tough to find

Guidebook:

Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: California by Jeremy Benson

Best season:

Mid-January to April

Location:

Placer County, California

Coordinates:

39.196°N 120.235°W

California

4. Mount Shasta

Best Spring Skiing
Snowpack makes skiing well into summer possible
It’s a volcano!
Epic and continuous crevasse free run on the south side
It’s a volcano!
Last erupted 1768...

Did we mention it’s an active volcano? Mount Shasta is one of the southernmost and the second largest of the Cascade Mountains’ Ring of Fire. Backcountry skiers have long esteemed its numerous access points and mellow glaciers. But Shasta is no joke: If you’re interested in making the summit, be prepared to work for it and know how to manage the crevasse hazard. Most ascents and descents are for the experienced only, but there are more routes and lines than you can shake a ski-pole at. There are great guiding services in the area if you’re looking for a gentler start. The classic line up is Avalanche Gulch, which some say gets too crowded, especially on weekends. The Hotlum-Wintun ridge on the northeast side is a good alternative and the line off the summit is steep and unforgettable.

Mount Shasta - Good to Know

Skill level:

Intermediate to expert

Terrain:

Open glades, chutes and consistent steep slopes — it’s a volcano after all

Elevation:

Peak tops out at 14,180’

Backcountry access:

Access is relatively easy, though the usual hazards prevail

Snow:

Generally solid maritime snowpack; corn in spring!

Guidebook:

50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney by Paul Richins Jr.

Best season:

February through June

Location:

Southern Cascades in Northern California

Coordinates:

41.3099° N, 122.3106° W

California

5. Sugar Bowl

Best for Resort Guiding Services
Great area for an intro to the backcountry
Diverse terrain
Lots of off-piste options
Less in park vertical
Warmer storms can mean Sierra Cement

Sugar Bowl has great history, and it’s never too crowded and rarely tracked out. The resort also has a great relationship with backcountry skiers. It offers uphill passes, excellent lift access to off-piste areas via the Summit and Crows Nest, and dedicated courses with Alpine Skills International’s (ASI) Backcountry Adventure Center. ASI offers introductory classes, avalanche classes, a tour of Anderson Ridge, and tours from the summit of Mt. Judah to Donner Lake. Regardless of whether you are using the resort’s facilities, you can still get to the goods by parking in the lot and going up the old fashioned way.

There truly is something for every level of skier here. The resort has eight different backcountry gates, all of which provide access to diverse terrain. Be prepared when you leave the resort, as the outside areas are not patrolled and there’s no regular avalanche precautionary control. One run worth checking out is the Heart, which is a line down the center of the north face of Donner Peak. Look out for the cliff drop! Another well regarded line is the Lake Run, which offers a descent of 1300’ with the option to catch some air as you make your way down to Donner Lake.

Yes, there’s tons of other places to check out in the Tahoe area, but Sugar Bowl should be at the top of your list.

Sugar Bowl - Good to Know

Skill level:

Intermediate to advanced

Terrain:

Cliffs, trees, and chutes. There are some good places to catch some air!

Elevation:

6,883’

Backcountry access:

The resort has amazing lift-accessed backcountry access. Some would say it’s the finest in the Tahoe area

Snow:

Plenty, around 500” annually and the area gets hit first by any incoming Pacific storm

Guidebook:

Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: California by Jeremy Benson

Best season:

Mid-January to March

Locations:

Norden, California

Coordinates:

39.3004° N, 120.3334° W

California

6. June Mountain

Best for Families
Affordable and peaceful
Family friendly
Less windy than Mammoth Remove
Less interesting apres scene

Tucked away and unpretentious, June Mountains attracts a different type of crowd compared to the other California resorts. Locals and business owners have put a lot of effort into maintaining June Mountain as backcountry skiing safe haven. And in recent years their efforts have paid off.

Still considered a hidden gem, June Mountain has many sought after qualities that make it an ideal place to get into the backcountry. It receives less snow than Mammoth but with spacious terrain and fewer crowds, the mountain stays untracked longer.

Another important factor is access. Its lift infrastructure isn’t that extensive but it takes you to all the right places. With only half an hour hike, you can have access to some of the finest backcountry in California. Some of the easy to get to and must ski spots are Carson Peak, The Negatives, San Joaquin Ridge, Glass Creek, Devil’s Side and Four Seasons.

The terrain here ranges from steep chutes and couloirs to open fields and tree runs. June Mountain’s steep peaks often draw comparisons to the Swiss Alps. Besides its multitude of options, June Mountain is a cozy, family-friendly place with cheerful and welcoming locals that are trying to keep and maintain a backcountry scene for true powder lovers.

June Mountain - Good to Know

Skill level:

Intermediate to advanced

Terrain:

You can find steep chutes and gullies, milder open bowls and even some tree runs

Elevation:

7,545′

Backcountry access:

The most advertised thing about June Mountain is the backcountry access. It’s almost unbelievable how much amazing terrain can be reached due to ski lift positioning

Snow:

What June Mountain lacks in snowfall it makes with the fact that is not crowded

Map:

Check out the free map HERE!

Best season:

February to mid-March

Location:

Inyo National Forest

Coordinates:

37.7683°N 119.0906°

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