When most folks think of skiing and snowboarding the big mountains of the West, their thoughts often drift to the Rocky Mountain highs of Colorado.
With legendary — and world-renowned — resorts hills like Aspen, Vail and Telluride, it isn’t hard to conjure up images of rugged Alpine peaks, super light and fluffy powder snow, long boulevards of delightful cruisers, rustic upscale lodges and ritzy hotels.
After all, the Centennial State hasn’t trademarked the slogan Ski Country USA for nothing.
However, there’s a state a bit to the west that I believe can give Colorado a run for its ski and snowboard money, and that’s California.
A Sierra State of Mind
The Golden State possesses one of the largest and most distinctive ranges in North America, the Sierra Nevada, and along with the transverse ranges of Southern California, has enough mountainous terrain to support a lively and diverse snow-sports industry.
This is the state, remember, that has produced such Olympic Winter Games gold medalists as Shawn White, Jonny Moseley, Chloe Kim and Eileen Gu and was the proving grounds for big mountain legends Scot Schmidt, Ingrid Backstrom, Shane McConkey and Jeremey Jones. They all honed their craft at places like Palisades Tahoe or Mammoth Mountain.
Bustin’ through all that Sierra Cement does have some benefits.
The Numbers Game
When it comes to statistics, Colorado has an edge in four of the most important ones: Number of resorts with lift-served terrain (27 to California’s 26), number of lifts (336 to 311), skiable terrain (43,547 acres to 33,758) and total vertical feet (64,290 to 44,093).
Colorado also has the resort with the most vertical, Telluride’s 4,425 feet compared to California’s Heavenly with 3,500 feet.
But Colorado doesn’t have Big Blue (a.k.a. Lake Tahoe), which provides a backdrop for half-dozen Sierra resorts, including Heavenly and Homewood. Nor does it have anything remotely compared to the KT22 quad chair, the legendary Katey, which provides access to nearly a thousand acres of double-diamond terrain at Palisades Tahoe.
And while California may not be able to supply heaping mounds of trademark Colorado Champagne powder, it does offer the occasional Prosecco dump.
A Personal Perspective
At this point, I suppose I should inform you that I am native son of California, born and bred in the City by the Bay, who first forged a snowplow turn in the mid-1960s at what was then known as Squaw Valley. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to ski (and on a few occasions snowboard) in both states, and I can tell you that each has its own merits and downers.
On the upside, Colorado has higher average base lodge elevations, which keeps rainfall and sloppy snow to a minimum, or even negligible (I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve sloshed through a Pineapple Express storm in the Sierra).
It also does a wonderful job of housing the many wintertime visitors to the resorts, which accounted for 14-plus million skier days last season (California resorts, which rely more on the day-skier market, saw 6-plus million visitors in 2021-22).
And Colorado does have that certain aspen-and-spruce-filled aura that’s lacking anywhere else.
As for California, it has more dependable snowfall and vaster quantities of it, as witnessed, for example, by the 16 feet of snow that fell in the Truckee area last December (I’ve often said they don’t call Colorado’s mountains the Rockies for nothing).
Steep and challenging terrain is generally more easily lift accessible in California (Silverton Mountain notwithstanding, most Colorado double-diamonds are a long, uphill slog away).
And where can you ski or snowboard in the morning and then catch a set of waves or play a round of golf in the afternoon in winter? Only in California.