California Skiing, Lake Tahoe, California

California Dreaming: A Nod to my Love Affair Skiing the Golden State

Story by Stephanie Levin.

California Skiing
Let it snow, let it snow! California skiers glide into spring and summer with record-breaking snow. (Photo courtesy of pexels-paweł-fijałkowski)

My love affair with skiing began in the cradle of the San Bernardino Mountains with the first snowfall. Four of us excused ourselves from high-school classes at noon, tossed our skis in the back of an old woody wagon, and headed up the two-lane road to Snow Valley, praying the snowplow had done its job and chains for the tires wouldn’t be required. Pulling over and putting on chains cut into our precious afternoon time on the mountain. Once we arrived at Snow Valley, we zipped the faded- blue nylon pants over our jeans, buckled up ski boots, and crunched through the snow with our lengthy second-hand Head skis, replete with funky bindings you’d find in a museum today. Ski gondolas were an item of the future, so we coupled up on the double chair lift, which capitulated us to the top of the mountain.

Giddy and awed by the snow-capped peak, one might have thought we had arrived atop Mount Whitney’s 14, 495 ft peak rather than Snow Valley’s 6800 ft. Scruffy and wild, we snow-plowed down the hill and carved up the snow until we figured out how to parallel ski. In the novice stage, the snowplow often turned treacherous as our elongated skis crisscrossed sending the skier in one direction and hurling the skis in another. But once we mastered the parallel technique, bodies tucked, we raced each other down the hill, wind wiping through our hair as we bellowed yea ha. The world was ours. At the end of the day, we piled into the woody wagon-no one had seatbelts then –and headed down the hill to reality.

California Skiing, Snow Valley, California
Snow Valley, California (Photo courtesy of Bob Torrez)

Once off to college, our ski foursome broke up. I headed to San Diego, renowned for sun, not snow. Thursday was film night at the university and Warren Miller ski films were the closest thing to snow in San Diego, that is until I discovered fellow skiers and Mammoth Mountain. Mammoth was a revelation of expansive peaks, backcountry skiing, multiple lifts, and powdery snow. Exhilaration reigned.

California Skiing, Mammoth Mountain, Caifornia
Mammoth Mountain (Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash)

Our ski weekend sprints to Mammoth required car chains, food, and a flashlight tucked in the trunk for the ritual Friday night drive in order to ski Saturday and Sunday. Sunday night retraced the trek back to San Diego in time for Monday classes. I marvel I managed to graduate college. Admittedly, I didn’t have a lofty, intellectual pursuit upon obtaining a degree in English Literature. Much to my family’s chagrin, I announced that I wanted to be a ski bum, though I didn’t use the term ski bum; I couched my love affair with skiing by saying I might like to work in the ski industry.

I had fallen in love with one of the skiers in our college group. He wasn’t quite ready for the ski bum life, but he did have a job in a ski shop in San Diego working with ski equipment. The shop was scouting for a fashion buyer. Was I game? Of course!

Turning drab ski attire topsy-turvy, I purchased lemon-colored ski jackets and pants, tangerine–and gingered-colored short jackets, sleek ski pants, and ribbed ski sweaters, signaling a fashion smash on the slopes. Next, I attacked the men’s shapeless navy-blue section in the shop. The shop’s owner was a stout fellow, a non-skier whose wardrobe consisted of drab navy and brown, a change of a foreign word in his vocabulary. We butted heads; the owner had the cash; I had the ideas.

During our first year in business, Ski Haus sold out of the women’s ski clothes mid-ski-season; it was a compliment to my buying skills, though I hadn’t ordered enough, nor was I skiing enough. On the cusp of a ski industry shift, I had access to the best equipment, finally comfortable boots, and stunning clothes, yet I skied less, worked more, and hassled with the owner, who insisted on a more muted color scheme for the following season. “Ski Haus is a bold fashion maverick,” I whined, begged, and pleaded to deaf ears.

The muted colors bombed; the business folded. I was out of a job and ready to move on to a ski resort, waitress or make beds, do anything to ski. My boyfriend wasn’t ready for a live-in commitment, so we stayed in San Diego and skied between Mammoth, Utah, and Colorado for a couple of years until we went our separate ways. Then he moved to Vail, Colorado without me.

Unsettled, I wandered without purpose, mulling over my last decade of skiing and the people with whom I had shared the slopes. It was a heady decade: skiing was cheap, our lives were defined by purity and grace atop mountains, our legs and skis dangling in the air as the lift jettisoned us to the summit, or as I likened it, to nirvana.


California Skiing, Alpine Meadows, Lake Tahoe, California
Alpine Meadows, Tahoe, California (Photo courtesy of John Williamson)

Eventually, I shifted north and settled in San Francisco eyeing the three-hour drive to Tahoe. Much to my chagrin, northern California was experiencing the first of many droughts with scant snow. And to be perfectly frank, after skiing Colorado and Utah, I was a bit of a snow snob; I couldn’t imagine Tahoe weighing in on the ski scale of a Colorado or Utah mountain range; the California Sierras proved me wrong. The Sierra Nevada is Spanish for “snowy mountain range” and it is home to some of the largest trees in the world. In 1939, it opened the second chairlift in the country and the era of alpine skiing in the Sierras commenced.

The drive to Tahoe the first winter of skiing began with battling traffic on Highway 80, lined with tacky car dealerships and strip malls from the Bay Area to Sacramento before highway options diverged. Highway 80 is a shorter, straight shot to Truckee–Highway 50 to South Tahoe is more scenic and slower with less traffic. I opted for the straight shot, and it wasn’t until I passed Auburn that the landscape turned bucolic. The altitude thinned, rewarding me with miles of snow-cloaked pine and fir trees settled in for winter.


California Skiing, Lake Tahoe, California
Lake Tahoe Forest cloaked in winter (Photo courtesy of John Williamson)

Tahoe, as skiers refer to the entire Northern California Sierra range, has seven major ski resorts and several smaller resorts, each claiming a chunk of the Sierra Mountain range. Most of the ski resorts are on the northern section of the lake near Truckee, California, and Reno, Nevada. Both Kirkwood and Heavenly Ski Resorts are located south of the lake, closer to Reno, and 75 miles from the northern ski areas. Alpine Meadows in northern Tahoe was the first mountain I skied. The diverse runs, down-to-the-earth atmosphere, and views of the lake shimmering in the distance suited me just fine. Après ski ended in front of the lodge’s stone fireplace sipping Schnapps. Fifteen minutes from Alpine Meadows is Squaw Valley, renamed Palisades. More expansive than Alpine, it offers head-swiveling views of the lake from the gondola to the jagged peaks and miles of challenging runs. It didn’t matter where I skied in Tahoe; I fell in love with the expansive California Sierra Range, the marriage of water and snow, the stunning winter lake, vast ski runs, and spacious valleys. California skiing at its best, and Tahoe had it all. I garnered a stunning decade of skiing before big bucks swallowed the ski industry, merging resorts with champagne prices and a gaggle of weekend warriors crowding the slopes.

Simultaneously, skis evolved, becoming wider, shorter, and faster. Snowboarders dotted mountains skirting skiers; skiers skirted snowboarders, and often the two tussled. Helmets, once worn only by racers, appeared. I held fast to my hat or headband. Then skiing NorthStar on a windy, icy afternoon, kaboom, down I went smacking my head on hard-packed snow, resulting in a concussion and strict orders, not to ski or exercise until I saw a doctor in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the lure of the Sierras was too strong to stay away. Gathering grit and determination, I gave myself permission, while cursing sore feet, painful knees, and creaky joints, to ski a few more years, to dip a notch from the steep black diamond runs to the less challenging square blue runs.


California Skiing
Skiing Nirvana, blue sky, and fresh snow (Photo courtesy of Almaty)

Skiing has always been a marriage of serenity, silence, and purity that elevates the skiers’ soul; it’s a gleeful glimpse of unbound freedom, the cold splash of mountain air reviving the lungs, poles planting right, and left, assisting and weaving the skier down a challenging slope, the scraping of the razor-sharp ski edge pushed against the snow at a halt, a gloved hand dusting frost off the yellow googles to gaze across a virgin valley of fresh snow. Stress, worry, and tomorrow disappear. The skier wants the moment to last forever.


California Skiing, Lake Tahoe, California
View of Lake Tahoe from the ski lift (Photo courtesy of John Williamson)

Of course, all is not hunky dory on the slopes. There are days when the wind and chill in Tahoe fights you, icy needles pierce uncovered skin, mustaches freeze, fingers turn bone white inside gloves, midair the chairlift stops, sways in the wind, goggles ice. These are miserable ski days, but if you are only on the slopes for a weekend, conditions are a force of nature meant to be conquered. Foolish, perhaps, and yes, these were the conditions that wore down my knees, battered my feet, and where my boots split in half lurching me forward on a hill. For the first time in my ski life, I barreled down the hill in a basket led by the ski patrol. Any illusion I had of being in control was dashed as I lay on my back watching the trees go by.


California Skiing
An end to a perfect ski journey (Photo courtesy of Simon Berger)

Today, I sit with memories and gratitude for decades in the California mountains. My skis rest in the garage, surely outdated by now. Yet, skiing remains etched in my heart, the feel of the body pumped with joy, surrounded by clumps of snow-packed pines witnessing skiers skirting past, the unique whir of the chairlift, the mysticism atop a cold mountain, the view of the pristine lake below. From the moment I stepped onto skis in the San Bernardino Mountains as a scruffy teenager to the skilled skier stepping out of her skis in the northern Sierra Mountains, California skiing has afforded me decades of joy and ease of mind on the mountain.

California’s ski resorts have received historic snowfall in 2023, allowing many slopes to remain open into July.


California ski links: Snow Valley:; Mammoth Mountain; Alpine Meadows:; Palisades :; Northstar :; Heavenly :; Kirkwood:; Guide to all Tahoe ski resorts:

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One thought on “California Dreaming: A Nod to my Love Affair Skiing the Golden State

  1. Stephanie: I had no idea you were such an avid and athletic skier. Your article here captures the beauty and thrill of California’s incredible ski trails. I’m inspired! Lee

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