California

California's most distinguishing feature is the highest variability in snowfall of any region in the West. The late 80's to early 90's drought included two seasons, 1987 and 1991, when there was virtually no natural snow on the ground by New Year's Day. Fortunately, the volatility can work the other way, as in the five consecutive years (1981-1985) or the recent 1995 season, with all areas in full operation on a six-foot base by Thanksgiving. Kirkwood turns out to be the most reliable Tahoe ski area, while Mammoth's altitude gives it the best late-season conditions.

Southern California is a complete crapshoot for natural snow, because the volatility of snowfall is even greater here than in the Sierra. For details, see History of Southern California Snow Conditions. 31% of all winter months receive less than a foot of snow, yet the 4% chance of 90 inches or more is higher than several well known destination resorts in the Rockies. Also see Southern California Ski Area Detail for specific info on the SoCal ski areas. Arizona indexes more closely with Southern California than areas in the southwest Rockies.

There are two tables below: The first contains all the statistics while the second contains summary information plus comments and analysis.
Color-coded areas link to my detailed Resort Guides published in Inside Tracks.
Explanation of Column Headings
Home Page and Other Regions

  Lift Serviced   Season Dec.-Mar. Percent Percent Average        
CALIFORNIA Altitude Season Standard 6+ Inch High Mths Low Mths Maximum Direction of Exposure
  Range Average Deviation Powder Days GE 90 in. LT 30 in. Base Depth North East West South
                       
Alpine Meadows, Calif. 7,000 7,000-8,700 361 123 15.8% 34% 26% 118 45% 18% 25% 12%
 Central Sierra Snow Lab - Boreal, Cal. 7,200  7,200-8,000 385 123 16.2% 36% 24% 114 85% 0% 0% 15%
 Northstar, Calif.   7,800 6,400-8,600 308 113 12.4% 25% 37% N/A 50% 30% 20% 0%
 Squaw Valley, Calif. 6,200  6,200-9,050 270 96 10.9% 14% 41% N/A 50% 40% 2% 8%
 Squaw Valley, Calif.   8,000      6,200-9,050 457 153 18.7% 46% 26% N/A 50% 40% 2% 8%
 Sugar Bowl, Calif.   7,000     6,883-8,383 450 152 18.6% 40% 22% 198 55% 15% 28% 2%
 Mt. Rose, Nev.   8,600 7,900-9,700 340 138 14.0% 24% 35% N/A 58% 30% 12% 0%
 Heavenly Valley, Calif. 8,400  6,500-10,000 250 101 10.8% 15% 36% 94 60% 10% 25% 5%
 Heavenly Valley, Calif.  10,000 6,500-10,000 376 158 16.9% 36% 28% N/A 60% 10% 25% 5%
 Sierra at Tahoe, Calif.  7,746 6,640-8,852 390 148 16.0% 35% 25% N/A 50% 2% 12% 36%
Kirkwood (Carson Pass), Calif. 8,526 7,800-9,800 459 176 20.0% 44% 18% N/A 65% 25% 10% 0%
 Bear Valley, Calif.   7,750    6,600-8,495 352 130 15.7% 33% 26% N/A 55% 20% 23% 2%
 June Mtn, Calif.   8,700    7,545-10,135 279 109 11.5% 14% 35% 88 65% 5% 30% 0%
 Mammoth Mtn, Calif. 9,600 or 8,900  7,953-11,053 351 132 14.7% 31% 29% 135 65% 22% 10% 3%
 Southern California Composite   7,000 - 8,000   6,500-8,800 122 66 5.7% 4% 68% N/A 45%      70%      70% 5%     20%     15% 35%    10%     15% 15%     0%       0%
 Arizona Snowbowl 1, Ariz.   9,500 9,000-11,100 168 68 7.5% 3% 50% N/A 35% 0% 65% 0%
 Arizona Snowbowl 2, Ariz.   10,800 9,000-11,100 238 97 10.5% 11% 36% N/A 35% 0% 65% 0%

  Lift Serviced      
CALIFORNIA Altitude Season Weather Restrictions, Powder Potential  
  Range Average and Other Considerations Best Time to Ski
         
Alpine Meadows, Calif. 7,000 7,000-8,700 361 Good bowls, some trees, less competition than Squaw. Better base area conditions than Squaw in early season or low snow years. 400+ snow avg. in peak area. Entire area closes when avalanche threatens. Then try sheltered resorts east of the Sierra Crest. January for surface conditions, February and March for maximum coverage.
Central Sierra Snow Lab - Boreal, Calif. 7,200 7,200-8,000 385 Small area on Donner Summit, gets good snow. Cool Sierra Ski Museum on site. Central Sierra Snow Lab in forest below. Similar to above.
Northstar, Calif. 7,800 6,400-8,600 306 Very well protected with good trees for storm skiing, particularly on backside.  Snowmaking, grooming and lack of steep terrain mean less coverage required than at other Sierra areas. January and February for surface conditions.
Squaw Valley, Calif. 6,200 6,200-9,050 270 Only KT and Squaw Creek (1,000 of area’s 4,000 acres) remain open in big storms. Premier expert area, so untracked snow doesn’t last long. Needs six foot base to open many expert runs. Steepest runs must close in icy conditions. January for surface conditions, February and March for maximum coverage.
Squaw Valley, Calif. 8,000 6,200-9,050 457 Sierra Crest from Headwall to Granite Chief gets as much snow as Sugar Bowl and Kirkwood, but conditions vary more with east exposure. January for surface conditions, February and March for maximum coverage.
Sugar Bowl, Calif. 7,000 6,883-8,383 450 Often overlooked. Reasonably sized with good terrain and snowfall, and base depths comparable to Kirkwood. Similar to above
Mt. Rose, Nev. 8,600 7,900-9,700 340 Steep KT-type chutes opened in 2005. Most volatile snowfall in the Sierra, but high base elevation can escape rain vs. many Tahoe areas. February and March for maximum coverage
Heavenly Valley, Calif. 8,400 6,500-10,000 250 Fewer weather restrictions (and much less snow) than other major Tahoe areas.  For moguls, Gunbarrel is probably steepest run in the West with snowmaking. February and March for maximum coverage, but snowmaking runs are generally all skiable by January.
Heavenly Valley, Calif. 10,000 6,500-10,000 376 Excellent trees for storm skiing, particularly on Nevada side. Top of California has renowned Tahoe views. February and March for maximum coverage.  Expert Nevada Mott Canyon is often not open before then.
Sierra at Tahoe, Calif. 7,746 6,640-8,852 390 Most forested/protected of the high snowfall Sierra Crest areas, but top lifts can still close for wind. January for surface conditions, February/March for maximum coverage.
Kirkwood (Carson Pass), Calif. 8,526 7,800-9,800 459 Located on Carson Pass. Best in state for quantity and quality of snow. Many runs require traverses to reach. One of upper three lifts has enough trees to operate in bad weather. Most consistent Tahoe area anytime except extreme drought (minimal snowmaking).
Bear Valley, Calif. 7,750 6,600-8,495 352 Steepest runs low altitude below lodge. No road connection to Tahoe, so less competitive. January for surface conditions, February and March for maximum coverage.
June Mtn, Calif. 8,700 7,545-10,135 279 Well protected. Go here instead of Mammoth during storms. February and March for maximum coverage.
Mammoth Mtn, Calif. 9,600 or 8,900 7,953-11,053 351 Top closed 10-20% of the time for wind, visibility or avalanche. Upper bowls often wind-packed. Deeper snow off Chair 22 chutes and trees. Needs four-five foot base on advanced terrain. Quality late spring skiing in bowls, bumps and salted groomed runs. March and April.  Most of the advanced runs remain packed powder into April, and only Snowbird would likely offer as much terrain with winter conditions as far into the spring.
Southern California Composite 7,000 - 8,000 6,500-8,800 122 Swift transition to spring conditions on warm days, but most areas can make snow at night.  Only Mt. Baldy subject to wind and avalanche.  Baldy has best in-bounds terrain, but powder lasts longer on Mt. Waterman's backcountry runs to Angeles Crest Hwy. December and January on extensive snowmaking at Snow Summit and Bear Mt.(snow avg. 80-100 in.).  After new snow on steeper San Gabriel Mt. areas (Baldy, Waterman and Mt. High: snow avg. 160-180 in.).
Arizona Snowbowl 1, Ariz. 9,500 9,000-11,100 168 Arizona receives the same storms as Southern California, but more snow and less rain due to altitude. February and March for maximum coverage.
Arizona Snowbowl 2, Ariz. 10,800 9,000-11,100 238 Snowfall amount difference not significant, but quality is. As above.

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