For some reason, many casual skiers in the United States find it hard to believe that California has good skiing, let alone skiing at all. Thanks to Hollywood, California has long been associated with palm-lined streets and a warm Mediterranean climate. However, any skier who’s ever been to California knows that it’s a legit outdoors destination, with the highest mountain range of any state besides Alaska.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range, reaching heights of 14,505 feet at Mt. Whitney, is home to dramatic granite peaks that offer world-class skiing and massive verticals. California has even more ski resorts than Colorado, with 29 resorts over Colorado’s 28 resorts. California’s ski resorts as a whole are world-class destinations, but two California resorts have gained a special level of prestige in the skiing community.
- Squaw Valley: 3,600 Skiable Acres
- Mammoth Mountain: 3,500 Skiable Acres
The two titans of California skiing are Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain, historic resorts that any skier worth their salt is familiar with. Over the past several decades, a friendly rivalry has brewed between the two resorts. Both resorts compete to see who can have a longer season, and California skiers will often pledge strict allegiance to one resort over the other. It’s worth pointing out that there are other resorts in California (such as Kirkwood, Heavenly, Northstar, or June Mountain) that offer some of the best skiing around.
But for some reason, whether it be word-of-mouth or good marketing, Squaw Valley and Mammoth arguably have emerged as the two quintessential California resorts. Regardless of one’s opinion over which resort is superior, both are can’t-miss destinations.
TOP ELEVATION & VERTICAL DROPS:
- Mammoth’s Top Elevation: 11,053 feet (3,100 feet of vertical drop)
- Squaw Valley’s Top Elevation: 9,050 (2,850 feet of vertical drop)
Mammoth is the highest ski resort in California at 11,053 feet, meaning that it typically gets the driest snow in California, and arguably the entire West Coast. Mammoth also has a slightly longer vertical drop (3,100′) than Squaw Valley (2,850′) – but Mammoth’s vert can be skied in one continuous run. At Squaw, the most vert you can ski in one continuous run is 2,685′. The Sierra Nevada is at times notorious for having heavier snow (“Sierra Cement”) due to its close proximity to the Pacific ocean, but dry powder can easily be found at both Squaw and Mammoth during the prime season between January and March. Both resorts are known for their consistently deep snowpack.
2019/20 ANNUAL SNOWFALLS:
- Squaw reported 719 inches of snow for the 2018-2019 season (*8,200 feet)
- Mammoth reported 492 inches of snow for the 2018-2019 season (*8,909 feet)
Squaw Valley’s position in the Lake Tahoe basin means that Pacific storms are funneled directly into the resort, so Squaw Valley historically has had higher levels of snowfall than Mammoth. However, the stats for the 2018-2019 season come with a catch. Mammoth reported 492 inches at the main lodge (located at 9,000 feet), meaning that the 2,053 feet of skiable elevation above the main lodge received much more than 492 inches. Squaw Valley reported 719 inches at 8,000 feet, meaning that the 1,050 feet of skiable elevation above 8,000 feet received more than 719 inches.
Both resorts get absurd amounts of snow, and they’re notorious for receiving mega-dumps. In January of 2017, Mammoth was pummeled by a series of back-to-back-to-back storms, ultimately receiving 246 inches (20.5 feet) of snow over 20 days. When the chain of storms had finally passed, Mammoth had an insane skiable base of 350 inches (the snowiest resorts on the East Coast get 300 inches a year). With a base like that, along with the additional snow after January, Mammoth was able to spin lifts until August 9th.
AVERAGE ANNUAL SNOWFALLS:
- Squaw Valley: 450″
- Mammoth Mountain: 400″
Squaw Valley is no stranger to mega-dumps either. In February of this past season, Squaw Valley received over 300 inches in one month. It snowed to the point where the resort had to temporarily close, there was literally too much snow for the mountain operations to function properly, and there were massive avalanche safety concerns. The combination of high elevation and consistent snowfall means that Mammoth and Squaw typically have some of the longest ski seasons in the west. Mammoth in particular, due to its high elevation/cold weather, is known to have ski seasons that can break 250 days. At Mammoth, I’ve skied as early as November 7th, and as late as August 8th.
Squaw, with 3,600 total skiable acres, is the home of the legendary Shane McConkey. Squaw has iconic steeps and extreme lines that have been featured in countless ski movies. There’s even a book featuring all the extreme lines in Squaw, Squallywood. The book gave birth to the cult-classic ski movie, GNAR, which features McConkey and probably has impacted ski culture more than any other ski movie in history. KT-22 is consistently voted to be one of the top ski lifts in the country, giving access to some of Squaw’s most intense terrain. Cliffs and steep runs are the name of the game at Squaw Valley. The Fingers and the Headwall have graced the covers of ski magazines around the world, and many skiers claim that Squaw has the most extreme terrain in North America. It doesn’t hurt that a Squaw lift ticket includes full access to neighboring Alpine Meadows (2,400 acres, 1,800-vertical-feet) that holds great terrain, low crowds, and has an open boundary policy with access to some unreal backcountry terrain (never go into the backcountry unless you have proper equipment, proper partner, proper education, proper experience).
But Mammoth is no slacker when it comes to terrain, coming in at 3,500 skiable acres. After all, it’s where the US Olympic Ski Team trains. Mammoth has one of the best park systems in the world, legends from Shaun White to Chloe Kim all have roots in Mammoth’s Unbound parks. Mammoth is known for its upper bowls and chutes. Chair 22 and Chair 23 offer steep chutes that fill in beautifully on a windy day; any Mammoth local will endlessly gush about Mammoth’s famed windbuff. Avalanche Chutes and Wipeout/Dropout Chutes are two of the more prominent chutes on the map, but they can be found off-trail all over the mountain. The Hemlocks and Dragon’s Tail on the opposite flanks of the resort are seriously steep.
Both resorts also have good base areas/towns with lively nightlife and classic bars. It’s impossible to pick one over the other, but a rivalry between the two resorts has brewed regardless. Both have their strengths and notable features, and both are truly worth a visit.
They’re also both on the Ikon pass, meaning California’s two most iconic resorts can be skied with the same pass.
Which one do you prefer?