Skiing and surfing in California: Can you hit both slopes and waves in the same weekend?

Dominic Bliss hit Huntington Beach and Mammoth Mountain within hours of each other  (Dominic Bliss/Visit California)
Dominic Bliss hit Huntington Beach and Mammoth Mountain within hours of each other (Dominic Bliss/Visit California)

It’s a shallow approach to Mammoth Mountain from Los Angeles. For five long hours, Highway 395 rises slowly across the Mojave Desert into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. And then, suddenly, like a blizzard, California’s biggest ski resort hits you full-on.

I arrived on an early evening in February – my mission to discover whether it’s possible to both ski and surf over a long winter weekend in California.

Mammoth Mountain, named after Mammoth Consolidated Mine, the company that unearthed gold here a century ago, isn’t the closest ski resort to Los Angeles – those are in the San Gabriel Mountains, 90 minutes away. But with 175 pistes and 25 lifts across 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, it’s one of the largest, keeping even the most ambitious and athletic skiers occupied. Most winters it lures in more than a million visitors.

The resort is often blessed with huge snowfalls, thanks to its high altitude and location at Mammoth Pass in the Sierra Nevada. Pacific storms regularly funnel up through the deep gorge of the San Joaquin River before dumping snow on the lava dome volcano of Mammoth Mountain, which rises to nearly 3,400m at its summit. It’s not unusual for the slopes to remain skiable all spring and for much of the summer. The 2022/2023 season was reported as the snowiest on record, with nearly 23 metres of snow measured on the highest slopes.

Mammoth Mountain is one of the largest ski areas close to Los Angeles (Peter Morning)
Mammoth Mountain is one of the largest ski areas close to Los Angeles (Peter Morning)

Locals told me proudly that, in the three days before I arrived, three metres had fallen. Rising early on my first morning, I carved out lines through this thick snow, down pristinely groomed pistes. And with so many to choose from, I had plenty of space to myself, swooping fast in between groves of tall fir trees, mountain hemlock and western juniper. The queues at the larger lifts were busy, but at the smaller ones I rarely waited for more than a few minutes. This being the United States, it was of course all very orderly.

Après-ski in Mammoth Lakes, the resort village, is fairly low-key. Beers are downed fast at Clocktower Cellar – what the Americans call a dive bar. There’s slightly more sophisticated entertainment at Lakanuki, a Hawaiian bar and restaurant, or at the Liberty Sports Bar & Grill, which stages live music. If you’re determined to warm your innards with alcohol, Gomez, a Mexican restaurant and tequileria – supposedly “the highest tequileria in the world” – offers around a thousand different bottles of distilled agave. I sipped from just one.

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On my second day of skiing, I was more adventurous, riding the gondola to the very summit of Mammoth Mountain. Here, at 3,368m up, there’s a tiny museum called the Eleven53 Interpretive Center, which explains the flora, fauna and geology of the region. There’s also a rather lacklustre café. The views across the impressive Sierra Nevada range more than compensate.

Come the afternoon, I was on my way back to the Pacific coast. The journey this time took under an hour, as I rode in a small Dornier 328 jet from Mammoth Yosemite Airport to Hawthorne Municipal Airport, one of Los Angeles’s tinier airports. Not long after sunset, I was at Huntington Beach, a seaside town just south of Los Angeles. Nicknamed “Surf City”, its 9.5-mile-long beach enjoys consistent waves all year round, aided further by the long pleasure pier that stretches out to sea. Banks of sand build up around the pier’s pilings, increasing the height and consistency of the waves that roll in, attracting surfers along both sides, especially in the mornings.

Mammoth Mountain’s altitude means it’s often blessed with huge snowfalls (Peter Morning)
Mammoth Mountain’s altitude means it’s often blessed with huge snowfalls (Peter Morning)

In the summer, Huntington Beach hosts multiple competitions, including the US Open of Surfing, which draws in hundreds of competitors and even more spectators. It claims to be the largest surfing event on the planet. Stores all over town trade on the thirst for surf clothing and memorabilia. There’s a surfing hall of fame, with the handprints and footprints of key names from surfing culture, and a walk of fame, with famous names immortalised in sidewalk plaques, just like in Hollywood. On Olive Avenue, there’s the International Surfing Museum, which was unfortunately closed for all of February.

The following morning I joined former pro surfer Rocky McKinnon, who offers beginners’ lessons. “The hardest part of surfing is getting into the wetsuit,” he said, before running through the basics on the sand.

Before long I was paddling out to sea over 4ft waves, the water temperature 14C. Beneath me was an enormous board – about 10ft long, far bigger than a regular surfboard – which McKinnon assured me would be easier to stand up on.

Warning me to avoid the pier pilings – “I’ve run into them, it’s not fun”, he said – McKinnon held the rear of my board and, as soon as a large enough wave approached, spun me round to face the shore. I paddled, he pushed, and within a few seconds I was up on my feet.

Huntington Beach pier is a popular surf spot (Visit California)
Huntington Beach pier is a popular surf spot (Visit California)

Within even fewer seconds I was unbalanced and falling headfirst into the water. It continued like this for a while. It was great fun and exhausting, but safe to say that I won’t be bothering the organisers of the US Open anytime soon.

Later I stood on the pier, the ideal vantage point from which to watch competent surfers. Up here, nine metres above the water, you see Huntington Beach life in all its multi-coloured glory. On the pier itself, joggers and walkers make their way past fishermen casting into the Pacific. I saw one man beaming as he reeled in a small ray. A pelican was perched on the railings, scanning the sea for his breakfast, oblivious to passers-by taking selfies. Photographers snapped photos of surfers. An elderly Asian gentleman was doing his callisthenics. Down on the sand, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was taking place, while gnarled old dudes pedalled past on cruiser bicycles.

Then, as the morning warmed around me, I turned away from the beach and looked back inland. On the horizon were the snow-capped peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains. If I’d hailed an Uber, I could have been there in an hour and a half – much closer than Mammoth Mountain. How lucky the Southern Californians are to have both waves and snow on their doorstep.

Travel essentials

How to get there

American Airlines, British Airways, United, Virgin Atlantic and Delta all fly direct to LAX. Flight times are around 11.5 hours.

Where to stay

The Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth: A heated outdoor pool and two hot tubs offer mountain views. A ski valet next to the gondola saves you from lugging your ski equipment out and back every day.

Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort: There’s a 24-hour gym, complete with climbing wall, plus free use of cruiser bicycles, and a firepit where you can roast s’mores. Each room has a record player, and there’s a vinyl library at reception.

Dominic Bliss was a guest of Visit California.