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These Towns in California’s Sierra Nevada Come Alive in Winter

by Staff

Although, on average, the snow only falls for 50 days in populated Sierra Nevada, there has been no better time in the last eight decades to visit June Lake and its surrounding towns, which now get more snow than ever. All that snow plus the clear blue skies with over 300 annual days of sunshine translate into enjoying fresh powder, or perhaps a sunny beach, and the best sightseeing in the sweeping Nevada range. Hit up Tahoe City for its Snowfest in March, try skiing, hiking, or a scenic drive in Arnold, or take the gondola in Mammoth Lakes; there are sublime, picturesque scenery for every traveler’s taste in these California towns that come alive in the winter!

Arnold

Cougar Rock on the Arnold Rim Trail in California.

Arnold, a favorite Sierra playground, is packed with family-friendly high-altitude action like White Pines Lake, a disc golf course, sandy beaches, and shoreside picnic tables. Living in resplendent beauty daily, the Arnold Rim Trail is a testament to local love for the outdoors. Winding up and down for 17 miles through old-growth forests, shady canyons, and rocky outcroppings, this dog-friendly trail for hikers and bikers, with vantage points onto the central valley, will be the highlight of your trip! Speaking of memorable adventures, Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway overlooks the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountain range, with each turn more beautiful than the last of the terrain that beckons the most avid hikers!

Back in town, Arnold promises fun evenings aplenty with fine dining, historic lodging, unique boutiques, a free live music concert series, and arts and crafts festivals. Its proximity to Bear Valley Mountain means snow can occur, in addition to featuring various local flora and fauna in the summer. Camping, lodging, and guided tours through Calaveras Big Trees State Park are offered. From basketball to a children’s playground, fishing, and hiking, don’t miss the fascinating Sierra Nevada Logging Museum, where tourists can hop on the trailhead right outside and be at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in five minutes! 

Bishop

Autumn landscape near Sabrina lake in Bishop, California. Image credit SNEHIT PHOTO via Shutterstock
Autumn landscape near Sabrina Lake in Bishop, California. Image credit SNEHIT PHOTO via Shutterstock

Poking its stardom-ridden face from the northern portion of Owens Valley, Bishop, one of the Sierra’s top towns to escape for the winter from the LA scene, popularly appears in Old West-styled films. In the mountainous atmosphere perfectly described by movie titles like True Grit and Ride the High Country, every shot is picture-worthy, with rustic downtown blending into the scenic nature. A place of natural beauty and power, with access to it all at your fingertips, you can start with indigenous history at Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center and enjoy Keough’s Hot Springs on a cold winter day.

Bishop boasts the highest density of tree-populated spaces compared to other California villages, while the barren tundra above the tree line is unlike anywhere else in the state. From the nearby Izaak Walton Park to Bishop City Park, there is also the Millpond Recreation Area, where its annual Millpond Music Festival unfolds in mid-September. California’s Sierra Nevada is at its finest right here, particularly in fall colors or elevation hikes for a bird’s-eye view of the sun-drenched valley in the summer of the verdantly rolling foothills!

June Lake

A partly frozen June Lake in the town of June Lake, California.
A partly frozen June Lake in the town of June Lake, California.

Just 20 minutes north of its larger sister resort, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, this town has received record snowfall this year with its own June Mountain ski resort. Established in 1961, June Mountain Ski Area, towering from above the horseshoe canyon, the June Lake Loop, promises a quieter, more relaxed ski retreat with 1,500 skiable acres and a maximum of 2,590 vertical feet. Enjoy world-class skiing right here in the local mountain atmosphere with a mix of all-level terrain—a run for everyone—and kids under 12 can ride for free! The friendly resort offers hot chocolate, rentals, lessons, and Bucky’s Bonfire on Saturdays to mingle around fire and treats with the beloved mascot and friends!

Within the Mammoth Lakes Basin, June Lake invites guests back for fall festivities like its Autumn Beer Festival, the June Lake Jam Fest, and the Leaves in the Loop festival at the town’s Gull Lake Park. With guided historic and photography hikes and a landscape painting collective, you can easily access more options for entertainment in the nearby town of Mammoth Lakes. Inyo National Forest is just 12 miles away for light summertime hikes like the Crystal Lake Trail, the Barney Lake Trail, or the arduous Reversed Peak Trail—majestic during the autumn foliage in the Mammoth Lakes Basin!

Mammoth Lakes

A pedestrain friendly shopping area with restaurants in Mammoth Lakes.
Shopping area in Mammoth Lakes. Image credit melissamn via Shutterstock.

A hop from the town above, the first thing visitors should do in Mammoth, regardless of the season, is take an aerial ride up Mammoth Mountain on the Panorama Gondola. Whether visitors are in for the skiing or sightseeing thrills from 11,053 feet, a selfie at the summit sign is a must. The Scenic Gondola Ride ticket includes access to the Eleven53 Café, where you can share your impressions with views for days, history, and changing exhibits of the wonder that the Sierra is at the interpretive center. Mammoth Lakes is a treasure trove for winter recreation and year-round events that attract scores of curious, like the Mammoth Yoga Festival, Mammoth Lakes Oktoberfest, and the Leaves in the Loop held in conjunction with June Lake.

As a bonafide hot spring hotspot, there are three natural and free springs off of Benton Crossing Road just south of town that travelers can access on a hike or snowshoe over about a mile of flat terrain during the winter. With the best times to visit early in the morning, Willy’s Hot Spring is famously heart-shaped, while Hilltop Hot Spring is closest to the road. Crab Cooker Hot Spring offers the best mountain views while soaking in pleasantly hot waters just a mile from the road in the opposite direction! Return for the fall colors during the most popular Mammoth Trail Fest, and do not miss next year’s annual holiday tree lighting ceremony on the day after Thanksgiving!

Oakhurst

Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Yosemite National Park in Oakhurst.
Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Yosemite National Park in Oakhurst.

Oakhurst, a charming corner in the green of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is a definitive must-linger on your passing through to reach Yosemite National Park, particularly in winter, to warm up against the unrivaled mountain views. Home to around 13,000 people at an elevation of 2,274 feet, Yosemite in its back pocket and the nearby casino are just some of the many hidden gems in this town, named after an indigenous tribe! Boasting the newly built Holiday Inn Express & Suites Oakhurst, the biggest town that borders Yosemite, Oakhurst is filled with many mom-and-pop eateries where hungry folks can indulge in tasty, local, and sustainable cuisine.

Only 6.7 miles away, Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park is a regional 400-acre park with free access and unique enclosed trails that are relatively easy and flat. Perfect for family hikes in wintertime, you can access different scenery for a photo shoot, like a lake, meadows, and mountain backdrop, or find the iconic restored red barn stark against the cerulean skies. Belly up to regional favorite South Gate Brewing Company for a glass of cold beer after a meal, with its American fare and vegan options like bratwurst and gluten-free burgers.

Tahoe City

Marina in Tahoe City, California, on a summer day.
Marina in Tahoe City, California, on a summer day. 

This small mountain town deserves its big name as the biggest resort on the north side of Lake Tahoe, just a short distance away from the famous Tahoe slopes and more serene skiing near Truckee along the Truckee River. You can rely on good weather and even catch a high-altitude burn with 300 days of annual sunshine. Tahoe City downtown is a resplendent après-ski scene, including drinks and galleries, or a shopping and dining destination in itself, with boutique hotels, campsites, and everything in between for rest. Visitors can enjoy the different architectural styles and the many local parks, like William B. Layton Park and Burton Creek State Park.

Don’t miss the Tahoe Maritime Museum for insights into the Sierra’s Gold Rush town of the 19th century, among other museums and historical landmarks with lakeside views through all your Lake Tahoe prowls! You still have plenty of time to plan for the annual Snowfest, a wild party celebrating the season with fun for everyone, into the first week of March! The Lakefront Beach is resplendent for wintertime strolls with frozen views in the crisp air under all the sun and traditional summertime water play, complete with jumping off a pier!

Truckee

Afternoon sun shines on the historic gold rush era architecture of downtown Truckee, California
Afternoon sun shines on the historic gold rush era architecture of downtown Truckee, California.

Truckee, a picturesque town 12 miles north of the stunning Lake Tahoe in the Sierra, greets with a beautiful gold-rush-era downtown where every adventure begins. Visitors can enjoy architectural strolls, easy access to surrounding forests, and, back to the cozy dining scene, the unmissable Trokay Restaurant under the helm of the ex-chef at the award-winning Daniel in New York City. The rustic Alibi Ale Works fits the sublime alpine atmosphere for home-brewed beers.

Cheering at 5,980 feet to a trek through the nearby Donner Memorial State Park or Tahoe National Forest while watching snowflakes pile up into a hefty blanket of snow outside is what keeps Truckee on the radar as a revered wintertime escape that comes alive in the winter! 15–45 minutes, and you are at one of seven world-renowned ski resorts, like the largest cross-country ski resort in North America, Royal Gorge, in Soda Springs, with a calmer apres ski scene here back on home soil.

Always a snowy town, Truckee, waking up especially in winter to welcome scores guarantees a white season to cheer to the outdoors at 5,980 feet! Visit the lakefront town of Tahoe City for the best powder shredding at Tahoe Ski Resort, with its 300 days of annual sunshine. Enjoy the stark scenery against the bluest skies you’ve ever seen, like the red barn near Oakhurst, and linger in this getaway town to Yosemite when you return to the Sierra because, guess what? After all the snow melts, a real super bloom takes over the Sierras!

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