Leave Aspen and Jackson Hole to the see-and-be-seen ski crowds. Laid-back, here-for-the-snow folks flock to the Sierra Nevada mountains in eastern California, where ski areas have exciting terrain for all abilities and relaxed atmospheres. It doesn't hurt that a ski trip in California's Sierras can be significantly less expensive than one to those other ritzy ski towns. Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Valley -- the most popular ski resort in the state -- offer lodging options for a range travel budgets. Check out our picks for the best of the bunch in both areas.
Our Picks in and near Lake Tahoe:
1. The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe
The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe is a 171-room luxury resort in a picturesque mountain setting above Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort, about six miles northwest from the shores of Lake Tahoe. Its location makes it possible for guests to ski to the slopes and then return later in the day via a large gondola. A team of ski valets handles gear, which is stored and cleaned before being delivered back to guests when they return to the slopes. In addition to ski-in/ski-out access to the slopes, this five-pearl full-service resort offers multiple outdoor pools and whirlpools with great mountain views (all are open year round and are saline rather than chlorinated).
2. Tahoe Mountain Resorts Lodging
The family-friendly Tahoe Mountain Resorts Lodging is located within the picturesque Village at Northstar, at the base of Northstar mountain. The four-pearl hotel offers easy access to the slopes -- as in ski-in/ski-out access and the world's only in-lobby gondola easy -- and luxe rooms that are spread throughout the Village in separate lodge-like buildings. Upscale shops and restaurants populate the ground-level floors of the various lodges, making for a self-contained shopping mall. The centerpiece of the Village is an ice-skating rink (roller skating in summer) with several fire pits. Guests can park in the hotel's heated underground garage -- a great convenience in this land of big snows.
3. The Village at Squaw Valley
Resembling a charming European-style village, the upper-middle-range Village at Squaw Valley is the retail hub of the famous Squaw Valley ski resort (about seven miles west of Tahoe City and Lake Tahoe), with shops and restaurants lining the walkways between the 180-room hotel's buildings. Village at Squaw Valley offers direct access to the resort's cutting-edge ski lifts, as well as a bungee-cord-powered sky jump, roller skating, cable car rides, ice skating, and more. (No wonder repeat guests are common here.) In 2016, the Village underwent a $50 million upgrade to some of its facilities, including new lifts and restaurants.
4. PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn
Directly adjacent to the gondola leading to Squaw Peak, this upscale village-style hotel (built for the 1960 Winter Olympic delegation) offers ski-in and ski-out accessibiliy and particularly bucolic grounds, which are crisscrossed by stone walkways (great for skiing in the winter months) and interspersed with Adirondack chairs. The 56 large, apartment-like rooms have elegant decor, coffeemakers, bathrobes, and cement entryways to afford space for removing ski boots.
4. Northstar Lodge, Hyatt Residence Club
Inside the ski community of Northstar Village (a 15-minute drive from Lake Tahoe), The Northstar Lodge, Hyatt Residence Club is an excellent alternative to larger area ski resorts (like The Ritz and Tahoe Mountain Resorts Lodging) because of its proximity to the gondolas and large, homey rooms: two- and three-bedroom units with kitchens and washer/dryers. Rooms have wood floors, flagstone-covered walls, and private balconies -- some with outdoor fireplaces are great features. There are no restaurants or bars on the property, but there is a pool with swimming lanes and adjacent whirlpool with gorgeous surrounding views.
6. Squaw Valley Lodge
With an unbeatable location at the foot of Squaw Valley, ski-in/ski-out convenience, and big condo-style rooms with kitchenettes, the mid-range Squaw Valley Lodge has a dedicated fan base. Squaw Valley is smaller (178 rooms) than many of its nearby competitors and it doesn't have an on-site restaurant, so guests can expect a quieter and more intimate experience than elsewhere. Several amenities -- such as free covered parking, six whirlpools, and a heated pool (seasonal) -- help make Squaw Valley a good value.
Our Picks in Mammoth Lakes:
7. Westin Monache Resort Mammoth
The four-pearl Westin Monache Resort Mammoth is an upscale mountain lodge near the Village at Mammoth. The Village Gondola, which shuttles skiers up to Canyon Lodge and the ski areas, is just across the street from the hotel. Access to the Village and Gondola requires negotiating a long and steep set of stairs, so guests often take advantage of the hotel's free shuttle to get there. The resort gets very crowded during peak ski season, when even catching an elevator or getting a drink at the bar can test your patience. Popular themed dinners and happy hour specials pack the restaurant and bar with a lively crowd. Westin's 230 rooms are spacious and well-equipped, with kitchens, seating areas, and gas fireplaces. Ski equipment rentals and storage facilities are on site.
8. Mammoth Mountain Inn
You'd be hard-pressed to find a ski lodge more classic than Mammoth Mountain Inn, located at the base of the mountain (where there's a gondola to ferry skiers directly to the slopes). The A-frame chalet was built in the 1950s, and in winter it's packed to capacity with skiers here to experience Mammoth Mountain’s excellent slopes. The atmosphere is unsurprisingly mellow and the decor exceedingly cabin-cozy, with wood beams running across vaulted ceilings, stone walls, and a fireplace in the lobby. Clusters of weathered leather sofas and chairs offer plenty of spots to sink into pre/post check-in or after a day on the mountain. The restaurant and bar on the upper level, with a huge window offering fantastic mountain views, is a favorite gathering place, as is the heated outdoor pool and whirlpool.
9. Juniper Springs Resort
Skiers flock to this ski-in/ski-out property, where lessons and equipment rentals can be arranged and ski equipment storage is free. The three-pearl resort has one of the best locations in the area -- right next to the Eagle Lodge ski lift. Other highlights include free shuttles into the Village, two pools, six whirlpools, fitness center, free covered parking, and a coffee shop. But there’s a hefty daily resort fee, and no full-service restaurant/bar on-site or within a short walk. The 284 residential-style condos and townhouses are spacious and equipped with full kitchens and balconies offering great mountain views. However, all lack air-conditioning, and some of the individually owned units are a bit dated.
10. The Village Lodge
This cozy mountain lodge resort has a great location in central Mammoth Lakes. While it’s not technically a ski-in/ski-out property, accessing the Ski Back Trail on skis is possible at times, and the Village Gondola that takes skiers up to Canyon Lodge and other ski areas is a five-minute walk away. Skiers who enjoy a relaxing soak after a day on the slopes will appreciate the heated outdoor pool and five whirlpools that are open year round. Each of the three buildings has ski equipment lockers and laundry facilities.
11. Mammoth Creek Inn
Mammoth Creek Inn is an intimate, mid-range hotel with local mountain character and prime views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Like The Village Lodge, it's not a full-blown ski resort with direct access to slopes, but it is a one-minute walk from the trolley to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Common areas have the charming look of an alpine lodge, and guests can often be found in the handsome lobby on leather sofas in front of the fireplace, or in the second-floor seating area with a wood stove. The hot tub, sauna, and steam room are enticing spots for apres-ski relaxation. All 25 come with flat-screen TVs with basic cable, iHome clock/radios, coffeemakers, mini-fridges, and free Wi-Fi. Free ski and snowboard storage is available.
12. Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa
Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa is a rustic, family-run resort with a star-studded past. The charming ski lodge was built in 1967 by former Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, and it quickly became a favorite hangout of Hollywood stars, from Jerry Lewis and the “Rat Pack” to John Wayne. In fact, Duke’s lobby bar was named in honor of Wayne’s nickname. A huge, four-side fireplace in the lobby is a centerpiece, and there's a billiards table plus lots of comfortable seating, all of which invite guests to linger. The atmosphere is friendly and upbeat, and the resort attracts a diverse mix of guests, from vacationing families to serious skiers. On-site ski equipment fitting and rental services are available.
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