You’d be forgiven for thinking of only palm trees, beaches, and fish tacos when you think of the Golden State. The wonderful thing about California, though, is that you can surf and sunbathe in the morning and ski and après in the afternoon. Spread out amongst the state’s several mountain ranges are a bevy of bohemian gold-rush towns, chic ski resorts, and enough stunning scenery for a lifetime of Instagram posts. In order to showcase Cali’s picturesque, high-elevation enclaves, we’ve curated a list of swoon-worthy mountain towns that will make you forget that California even has beaches.
South Lake Tahoe
We’ll start with the town that’s earned more name recognition than any other on this list. South Lake Tahoe’s backdrop is breathtaking, with clear teal water surrounded by snow-covered pines and oversized boulders, all nestled at the bottom of Heavenly Ski Resort’s 3,500 feet of vertical. It is also the most bustling town on this list, boasting casinos, a world-class restaurant scene, and vibrant nightlife. While the hotels and casinos in town are more fast-paced, there are plenty of home rentals available that provide a respite from the action. For even more seclusion, visit the Emerald Bay State Park — the ridiculously beautiful vistas (and shockingly cold water) will cure your hangover fast.
By far one of the most underrated towns in California, Sonora is a hidden gem at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, blending history, art, and the outdoors. Given that Yosemite is just over an hour away, it’s an excellent jumping off point for a variety of outdoor activities. When you’re not climbing El Capitan, get some exercise on the Dragoon Gulch trail or fly fish for rainbow trout at New Melones Lake. You’ll want to stay at the Sonora Inn downtown, with its mission revival architecture and rooftop pool that looks out over the mountains — and don’t forget to get a local brew at the Sonora Tap Room.
Tip: Come on the second Saturday of the month for the 2nd Saturday Art Night, where artisans and performers gather downtown — it’s a great way to take in local music, art, and food.
This is for when you want that bohemian mountain town feel: the anti-Tahoe, if you will. Recently, Truckee has been in the midst of a revival, with trendy new restaurants, shops, and hotels cropping up all over town. For skiers and boarders, Truckee’s easy access to several resorts in the Lake Tahoe area (you can get to Northstar, Squaw Valley, and Sugar Bowl within 20 minutes) is incredibly alluring. Après options are everywhere, with Instagrammable bars and restaurants dominating the downtown area, ranging from upscale Italian to trendy bistros to lobster joints. Stay at one of the beautiful home rentals just outside of town — or go really big and book a room at the Ritz-Carlton. You’ll want to get to Truckee quick, though, because the word is out.
Okay, you’re not going to do any skiing or riding in Ojai; but given its excellent dining, stylish shops, and under-the-radar status, we think it deserves a mention. The views of the Topatopa Mountains alone make it worth the trip, but you’ll also want to visit one of the wineries in and around town and possibly plan your trip around the Lavender Festival (the herb grows in Ojai thanks to the area’s Mediterranean climate). There are plenty of quaint inns and Airbnbs close to the downtown village. Outside of town, the Ojai Valley Inn — a beautiful hacienda-style retreat — is a splurge that’s well worth it for the design-minded traveler.
A NorCal classic located in the Cascades, Mount Shasta sits in the shadow of the active volcano that shares its name. Quiet and no-frills, the town is a great base camp for those who want to explore the mountain. When you’re not shredding the Ski Park, take in the views of Mount Shasta while skating on the Siskiyou Ice Rink or cross-country skiing the nearby trails. There are a few options for small hotels in town, or you can rent a room at Mount Shasta Ranch, a cozy bed and breakfast near Lake Siskiyou that is the perfect place to rest your legs after a day spent exploring the mountain.
Note: Don’t forget to check out the McCloud Falls just outside of town.
Oriented around a spectacular stretch of Lake Tahoe, and exuding a disproportionate amount of small-town charm, Tahoe City is a dream. During the summer, you’ll find any number of aquatic activities, including boating, jet skiing, paddle-boarding, and fishing — and, for the brave, swimming — near the town’s main beach. During the winter, Tahoe City has its own ski and sledding hill, Granlibakken, where you can get some practice turns in before heading to one of the bigger mountains in the area. Book a room at the Cottage Inn for a rustic-alpine-cabin vibe or the Granlibakken Tahoe for a more upscale, sophisticated stay.
Tip: For a unique perspective, head to the Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park, where you can navigate elevated ropes courses and zipline through the pines.
Big Bear Lake
You could do a lot worse than an easily accessible retreat (Los Angeles is only a couple hours away) where you can ski and ride in the winter, fish and mountain bike in the summer, and eat, drink, and shop in between — all while taking in epic views of Big Bear Lake and Sugarloaf Mountain. Big Bear is the perfect weekend getaway, offering great hiking on the Cougar Crest or Castle Rock trails, shopping at Pine Knot Village, and fishing in its eponymous lake. Then, of course, there’s the ski area, which combines the Bear Mountain and Snow Summit resorts. The runs are primarily beginner to intermediate, so it’s a great place for families. Don’t fret if you’re looking for heavier terrain, though, as there are several blacks (and double blacks) at the top of the 4 and 8 chairs.
Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows
Perched above Lake Tahoe and home to two mountains, with over 6,000 acres of terrain between them, Squaw Alpine is a skier’s idyll. Some of the most decorated and extreme athletes in the world call Squaw home, and for good reason: the resort gets, simultaneously, 450 inches of snow and 300 days of sunshine a year. For ski-in/ski-out access, the Resort at Squaw Creek is a chic hotel with its own lift. Or enjoy the full Swiss chalet experience at the Olympic Village Inn, located just steps from the Shirley Canyon and Squaw Creek trailheads.
Tucked away in the Inyo National Forest, with Yosemite just minutes away, Mammoth Lakes is the quintessential western mountain town. And it just so happens that its namesake resort, Mammoth Mountain, is the top-ranked ski resort in California. If you come for the 400 inches of snow in the winter, you’ll want to stay for the other outdoor activities (climbing, fishing, camping, snowmobiling, mountain biking, etc.) available throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Partaking in the fresh powder and gorgeous mountain vistas, you’ll forget you’re only 5 hours from LA.
Note: At just under 8,000 feet, the town boasts the highest elevation on this list, so be sure you acclimate before you try to drop into Cornice Bowl.