Now I understand why Southern California skiing is such a hard sell. It is not that the mountains are small. They are over 9,000 feet high with over 1,000 feet of drop. Nor the resorts subpar, they are updated with high speed quads and the like. It is that the weather is so nice on the coast that even to start thinking about skiing is hard. If it is hard for the local DC areas to draw folks up into the hills when there is no snow visible on the ground in DC, imagine how hard it is for resorts competing with the sun and the beach. Thus on a recent trip to the Southern California area, I found myself happily sitting on the beach reading a book as my ski days dwindled away. Finally I forced myself to get out of that beach chair and on to the highway and up into the mountains to get some turns in.
My destination was the Mountain High area located in Wrightwood, CA. The 2-hour drive from San Diego was painless even by West Cost standards. I was a bit worried however when I spotted the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance as I neared the area. They looked great however the valley between was covered in the marine layer (read: a really gross smog). It looked so gross I thought of turning around. But I didn’t and pressed on and in the end was glad I did.
Once across the “valley of smog,” I followed the I-15 up a pass and into the San Gabriel Mountains. At this point everything changes from a mega-urban metroplex that is the LA basin to a more desert-rural landscape. The smog was no more. Just one exit up I-15 beyond the pass is the village of Wrightwood, home of the Mountain High area. Wrightwood is a small alpine town made up of a few tourist shops and vacation homes. It is a peaceful setting which seems hundreds of miles away from the mega city below. However it is still within Los Angeles County.
On my visit to Mountain High, I spoke with John McColly the Marketing Director. He said the area is very youth focused. There are almost daily on-hill contests, and various product promotions and live performances aimed at this demographic. The resort overall has a very pro youth culture “snowboarder” feel. Skiers are in the minority here. This is hard core boarder country.
But don’t let the hoodies and headphones crowd fool you; this is still real snow country. Mountain High has a great North facing location thus it holds snow well and the season is long. Normally they are able to open in November and stay open deep into April. An almost 150-day long season! The area routinely gets hammered by the winter storms that roll in from the Pacific Ocean. Rain down in the valley is snow up here at 9,000 feet elevation. Even though the area is only 15 miles from Interstate 15, there are many days that the snow is so deep that chains are required to reach it.
Still, folks come in droves. They had 56,000 visits last year and have over 10,000 season pass holders on the books. I guess they have mastered drawing the folks in off the beach in numbers.
The Mountain High area has gone through several evolutions. Its present state is the conglomerate of what once were several small ski areas. What is called Mountain High West (interestingly for Mid-Atlantic types) open in 1937 as the Blue Ridge Ski area. It was a single rope affair back then. What is now Mountain High East opened as Holiday Hill in 1948. The nearby area called Ski Sunrise became Mountain High North in 2004. All the areas have interchangeable tickets and are linked by shuttle buses.
The economies of scale have been good for the areas as many improvements have been made over the years, however each area still has it own personality. The West resort is the “main” area. It is very youth focused. This is what you think So Cal skiing would be. The whole area is almost one big terrain park. There are hits and rails all over the place. There were so many different types of terrain features it was amazing. The area also has a large beginner area for instruction with of course its own beginner terrain park. Beyond the terrain features the trails themselves are steep and technical. The base area has a large patio deck with an outside BBQ and large outdoor bar complete with a DJ cranking out tunes. The whole scene is so very SoCal.
The East resort is the more alpine “traditional” area. It boasts the longest trails in the area. The trail map makes excellent use of the area’s 1,600 foot vertical drop. The runs are primarily long cruisers and more trail-like. The area is serviced by what has to be the steepest high speed quad I have seen. The lift line is dug out of the hill. It literally blasts up a trench almost straight up and out of the base area. The trail map does not do justice to how steep this chair lift is. East has a smaller base area and no pumping background music. I guess this is where the adults ski while the younger ones are down at the West resort.
The North resort is what used to be Ski Sunrise. It is the family area with snow tubing and a large ski school. This area is upside down, Mid-western style. It is serviced by a single quad. North is only open on the weekends.
Only the West Resort was open on the bright sunny afternoon I skied. In true SoCal fashion the temperature at the base lodge felt like 70 degrees. A lot of folks were gathered on the large outdoor deck in t-shirts. The patio deck was a true SoCal scene with an energy drink promotion happening, and a DJ blasting techno. I felt odd as one of the few folks over 25 and one of the few skiers.
However on the slopes it was a different story. The snow the conditions were excellent. The bright sun made for great spring conditions. “Hero” snow all around. The area boasts many steep black diamond trails which were in excellent shape that day. The “kids” mostly played on the terrain features, thus I largely had the real slopes to myself. Being in the minority on skis was kind of cool. The few skiers out there were drawn together and chatted on the lifts. It was like back when snowboarding was new and other riders sought one another out. I could easily slide up to any skier in the lift line and we would slide right up to the chair. No “cool” snowboarder wishing to ride with the old folks on skis. Thus I never waited more than a minute or two in line.
The recent time change had allowed for an extra hour of daylight with which to enjoy the spring-like skiing. However, as the sun dropped into the mountains, so did the quality of the snow. Thus after launching myself off a few too many jumps and some excellent high speed runs from the top I was done in.
However, the resort was not done as it is open until 10 p.m. nightly and draws a large nighttime crowd. Those folks probably had more of the energy drinks they were giving away on the slopes than I did or maybe I am just old!
So I climbed back into my rental car and drove the freeways back to San Diego. I stopped at In-N-Out Burger to eat and then crashed in my hotel room on the beach listening to the ocean. Over all a true SoCal Experience!
Robbie Allen is an avid small hill skier. He has written several articles on the many small hills he has sought out.