Holidays & Travel

Surf, ski or laze in the sun? Why California has all bases covered for an active adventure

From surfing in the west to skiing in the east, Patrick Daly discovers there’s something to do rain or shine in the laidback American state.

A surfer about to catch some waves at Huntington Beach, California
Surfer, Huntington Beach, California (Alamy/PA) A surfer about to catch some waves at Huntington Beach, California (Alamy Stock Photo)

Sun, sea, surf… and skiing.

Add to that discovering all about the stars of Hollywood, and you have in a nutshell the sibilance of adventures that California promises.

In fact, it can offer all of that in the same week – and potentially even in the same day for those with deep pockets.

Los Angeles, the Golden State’s largest city, isn’t all lights-camera-action. And nor is it sunshine-all-the-time.

After our 11-hour plus flight from London Heathrow to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) – a film-bingeing transatlantic flight if ever there was one – we are greeted with driving rain that proves that, even when it comes to the weather, the US revels in being OTT.

Universal Studios Globe, Los Angeles, California
Universal Studios Globe, Los Angeles, California (Alamy Stock Photo)

Taking the saying to heart that there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing, ponchos are adorned for an escapist day out at Universal Studios, home to a film-inspired theme park and the studios where many of the blockbusters are shot.

Universal makes for a fun way to escape the worst that mother nature has to throw at you, especially if travelling as a family. For those wanting more of an adult-style escape, there are a slew of cocktail bars waiting to be discovered among LA’s skyscrapers.

In better weather, the Walk of Fame pavement stars along Hollywood Boulevard offer a guide to the rich and famous who have graced the city on California’s southern coast. A quick car ride out to the hills provides opportunities for a few selfies with arguably LA’s biggest export – the Hollywood sign. It is doubtful that hike guides will ever bore of telling shocked tourists that it was Mr Playboy himself, Hugh Hefner, who helped restore the dilapidated lettering in the 1970s.

The famous Hollywood sign can be viewed on a helicopter ride
The famous Hollywood sign can be viewed on a helicopter ride

The City of Angels also has a plethora of beaches on its doorstep, but more about those later.

First, we are off for a very different style of escapade some 300 miles away. Cruising east and inland, as Beverly Hills disappears behind us, the minivan carrying our group goes through what can only best be described as John Wayne country as we head on a five-hour journey to Mammoth Lakes where the powdery slopes await.

It is certainly true that Mammoth is not the closest place to LA for skiing – the San Gabriel Mountains are about 90 minutes away and another half-an-hour on is Big Bear Lake – but it is quite possibly the finest.

The drive there alone is stunning. Highway 395 takes its paces across the Mojave Desert before steadily climbing into the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with the temperature dropping with each passing mile.

Driving along Highway 395
Driving along Highway 395 (Alamy Stock Photo)

For those with a penchant for road trips, there is the chance to break it up with a stop-off to learn about one of Hollywood’s favourite backdrops.

A little over three hours from LA is the small town of Lone Pine, home to the Museum of Western Film History, where you can find out about the shoot-outs Clint Eastwood and Humphrey Bogart were involved in along the region’s terrain.

Another two hours on, and the dry habitats of Inyo County give way to the snowy peaks of Mammoth Mountain.

Not only is it one of California’s largest ski resorts, boasting 175 pistes and 25 lifts across 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, its high altitude helps it to revel in regular snow dumps, making the slopes luscious and gleaming.

Mammoth Mountain
Mammoth Mountain

Our arrival had been preceded by about three metres of snow fall, creating perfect conditions. Locals and guides were still waxing lyrical about the 2022/23 season when the ski gods pumped out so much snow that patrons had to dig themselves out of homes and hotels each morning. The steady snowfall means ski seasons can often run into the summer, ensuring that skiing does not just have to be a winter pursuit.

There are hair-raising black diamond slopes by the plenty towards Mammoth’s peaks for the extreme thrill seekers but, for everyone else, there is an array of weaving green and blue runs that offer the prospect for speed along with serene moments to soak in the stunning view of the range.

“That was nice and cruisy,” our Aussie instructor Lockie enjoys announcing at the end of a particularly scenery-soaked run through the alpine trees.

Active pursuits in Mammoth Mountain
Active pursuits in Mammoth Mountain

The town itself leans more towards the “wellness” spectrum than the apres-ski heavy resorts found in Europe, with visitors able to relax in a thermal spring or make time for a massage.

That is not to say booze isn’t part of the equation. Clocktower Cellar, a dive bar with a long line of beer pumps, is there for the basic fix of a pint and a game of pool, while Mexican restaurant Gomez claims to have at least 1,000 bottles of tequila and mezcal behind its counter. Mammoth Brewing Company ensures a taste of something unique, with its seven-glass flights offering a snapshot of its regular beers.

This is where the trip gets fancy. As if by magic, we are back in LA, landing in the titchy airport of Hawthorne Municipal Airport thanks to a one-hour flight on a 30-passenger Dornier 328 jet via Advanced Airlines. It is the perfect short-cut for those with time pressures, with the added bonus of a free shuttle to LAX for those transferring to long-haul flights.

Sunrise colors over the Huntington Beach Pier in Huntington Beach
Sunrise colors over the Huntington Beach Pier in Huntington Beach (Alamy Stock Photo)

I mentioned those Pacific Coast beaches. Well now we are heading to one, this time swapping the snow for the watery surf at Huntington Beach, less than an hour from Hawthorne.

Huntington has far more to offer than just surfing. Its nine-mile sandy stretch of beach and jutting pier attracts yoga classes, sun-seekers out on rental bikes and hordes of tourists hungry for fish tacos and a mai tai at Duke’s restaurant.

But Huntington’s Surf City nickname — it is home to the US Open of Surfing — comes from it being one of the most reliable spots in southern California for waves, drawing surfers out early each morning to catch the choppy morning swash.

For total newbies, surfing tuition is available via a few spots on the beach. It is worth taking the time to research which classes maximise the time in the water before shelling out. Even for beginners who don’t manage to stand up on their surfboard, feeling the sheer power of the waves as you go through the motions will be enough to induce an adrenaline rush.

Surfboards lined up at Huntington Beach
Surfboards lined up at Huntington Beach (Alamy Stock Photo)

Not many destinations can brag about offering the chance to pack both a wetsuit and salopettes for a trip, but California ticks both boxes, with plenty of others in between.

And for those wanting the double whammy, locals swear an early morning surf, followed by a quick flight inland to Mammoth can result in the completion of a few afternoon slope runs all in a single day.

For adventure hunters, that is a challenge few will be able to turn down.

How to plan your trip

America As You Like It (; 020 8742 8299) has a nine-night California City, Ski and Surf holiday from £2,385 per person including return flights from Heathrow to Los Angeles on Virgin Atlantic, nine days fully inclusive car hire, three nights at the Palihouse West Hollywood, four nights at the Westin Monache Resort in Mammoth and two nights at the Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel in Huntington Beach.

For more information, contact Visit California at