Southern California Ski Area Analysis

As storms roll in from the Pacific, the first mountains they encounter will receive the most precipitation (Waterman and Baldy in the San Gabriels, Snow Valley in the San Bernardinos). Mountains behind those front ranges are considerably drier. Average snowfall is so low and volatility so high that snowmaking is the main factor in reliability and consistency. Snow Summit and Bear Mt. will nearly always make the most snow because they have Big Bear Lake as a water source. In high snow years (Mt. Baldy and Mt. Waterman received over 300 inches in 1979, 1983, 1992 and 1998), off trail and tree skiing can be quite good. Since all of the areas are fairly small by Sierra standards, skiers of different abilities will tend to prefer different areas.

Color-coded areas link to my detailed Resort Guide published in Inside Tracks.
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Ski Area and Season Snowmaking Other Considerations Who Should Ski Here and
Altitude Range Snowfall Affecting Snow Conditions Best Time to Ski
Snow Summit 7,000-8,200 60 100% coverage with Big Bear Lake as high capacity water source. Only heavy rain as in 96-97 can prevent majority operation by Christmas. Sometimes reaches full operation by January with no natural snow at all. Intense grooming and off season slope maintenance to optimize surface conditions and coverage. Snow conditions are the main reason why Snow Summit has historically led in So Cal ski area ticket sales. Summit's competitive advantage is largest in the early season and poor natural snow years. Terrain is 80% intermediate. Westridge terrain park is over 1,000 vertical.
Bear Mt. 7,100-8,800 80 100% coverage and Big Bear Lake water source, but some runs are more difficult to cover and maintain with snowmaking. Even in good years, Bear Peak opens a couple of weeks later than the rest of the area. Snowmaking quality improved after Summit takeover in 2002. More wind and sun exposure than Summit. Excellent off piste canyons on either side of Bear Peak during rare periods of high natural snow coverage. Terrain features on all blue runs after 2002 purchase by Snow Summit. Bear Mt. will have more appeal to advanced skiers if they can ever get lifts and snowmaking into the extensive area between Silver Mt. and Bear Peak.
Snow Valley 6,700-7,800 150 100% coverage and capacity upgraded in 1995 with pipeline to Running Springs. Still lags Big Bear areas in water source and higher temperatures. Much more natural snow than Big Bear areas which are in shadow of 11,500 ft. San Gorgonio. Snow Valley's open terrain very exposed to sun. Terrain is predominantly beginner and low intermediate, but Slide Peak offers short (400 vertical) and steep mogul runs.
Mountain High 6,600-8,200 120-150 100% coverage, but water for snowmaking comes from wells, very limited after drought years. Thus Mountain High East is rarely open during low snow years. West side has snowmaking priority, can be kept about half open with manmade snow. West well protected but East more exposed to sun and wind. Canyon between 2 areas has mostly E and W fall lines, rarely good snow, but ends in MH East parking lot. Long cruisers on East plus numerous mogul runs on West combine for better terrain quality and variety than Big Bear areas. Top of mountain beginner area on East. Mt. High is the #2 player to Big Bear in So Cal skiing with comparable popularity in big natural snow years.
Ski Sunrise 6,800-7,600 100 Beginner area coverage. Purchased by Mountain High in 2005 and expected to be developed as its learning area. Historically a quiet uncrowded family area. Rarely open except in big snow years.
Mt. Baldy 6,500-8,600 150-180 Beginner area plus a couple of groomed runs on Thunder Mt. Snowmaking is mainly useful in maintaining coverage in heavy traffic areas. Baldy is mainly natural snow dependent with high winds and fog during storms. Excellent tree skiing between cut runs. Upper chairs (el 7,600-8,600) can get more snow / less rain than other areas. Thunder Mt. is steep and N facing but chair 4 faces S and will deteriorate rapidly in sun. Chair 1 (el 6,500-7,800) was never open during the 1999, 2002, 2003 or 2007 seasons. More expert terrain than all other So Cal areas combined, especially when chair 1 is skiable (over 2 months in 1998, 2001 and 2005). Extensive off piste (not in storms: many avalanche deaths). Great views, unpredictable surface, usually bring rock skis.
Mt. Waterman 6,900-8,050 180 None. Closed to public 2002-2007 after founding Newcomb family sold the area. New management and limited opening 2008, open again with natural snow starting 2009. Modest sized lift serviced area is N facing and heavily forested. Numerous backcountry glades extend 1,400 vertical to Angeles Crest Hwy a mile down the road from the base. This can be So Cal's best bet for powder or corn snow. Open Friday-Sunday only. Nice beginner area on top. So Cal's most challenging moguls on face. Minimal intermediate terrain. Good for powder, but the road is often closed in big storms.
Kratka Ridge 6,800-7,500 190 None, and likely closed permanently since February 2001 avalanche and December 2001 fire. Small area 2 miles past Waterman, also N facing with good trees. Off piste much less extensive / accessible. Quiet family area. Good upper intermediate and advanced runs and trees off the West's last single chairlift, damaged in 2001 avalanche and not rebuilt.