We admire this sugared peak from our downtown L.A. offices on the clearest winter days, a 10,000-foot postcard of pleasures. Indeed, Mt. Baldy offers challenging (though limited) ski terrain. Serious hikers use it to train for Everest. In short, this SoCal playground offers something for almost everyone. And you don't have to be Marco Polo to get there: Baldy is only an hour's drive — one easy turn off the 210 Freeway.
The village's centerpiece is the popular Mt. Baldy Lodge ( 982-1115. Six cabins starting at $109 a night; $79 if you book four or more nights). Half are single-room cabins; the others offer one bedroom and a living room. All feature fireplaces, coffee makers and TVs. This little nest of cabins is the perfect launch point for exploring the area's challenging hiking trails and ski runs. If you're looking to completely unwind, bring a book and a bottle and kick back in this woodsy setting that might remind you of a modest Catskills retreat. Horseshoes year-round, and in summer the resort's pool becomes a gathering place for the tiny community. Reserve a few weeks ahead, particularly for holiday weekends, and be sure to bring your own firewood because it's unavailable on the hill.
The lodge at the top of the ski hill offers a complete menu of salads and pub grub — grab a table by the window and on clear days, you can see all the way to the ocean. A tamer experience, and perfect for a day trip, is the highly casual Mt. Baldy Lodge restaurant on the right as you enter town. There, a large dining room, bar and pool table draw visitors in the winter, and on warmer days, lure them out to the sprawling patio that overlooks the cabins. Best bet: the burgers and the chili, thick enough to eat with a fork. On Thursdays and Mondays, the restaurant offers Mexican-themed dinners. On weekends, even famously picky triathletes can't seem to resist the homemade cinnamon rolls. Meals about $10.
No snow? No problem. Tired of relying on spotty snow totals, Mt. Baldy is increasingly fashioning itself as a haven for hikers. From town, it's a muscle-crunching 6,000-foot vertical climb over six miles to the top. Hikers training for Mt. Whitney, and even Kilimanjaro and Everest, use it for test runs. Missy Ellingson, who runs the lodge and ski hill with her husband, Ron, recommends the Ice House Trail for beginning hikers (four miles up, four back). "It's green, and there's water the whole way up," she says. In summer, the ski hill's Moonlight Hikes feature music, bonfires and tri-tip dinners. But even on relatively dry winters like this one, snow-making equipment has allowed two of the lifts to run consistently and the snow play area to remain open ($15). "Believe it or not, we're keeping our head above water even though we've had two years of marginal snow," Ron Ellingson says. Wind is a constant issue at Mt. Baldy, so always call ahead. All-day lift tickets, $69. But for major discounts at Baldy, and mountains everywhere, check out Liftopia.
The lesson learned
Baldy's wedding-cake visage brands it as a ski area, yet as hiking grows in popularity, the summit is becoming more and more a year-round place. Serious runners should note its Labor Day Run to the Top. Serious lovers of mountain day trips should definitely keep Baldy on their list of low-cost, easy-access options.
A half-tank of gas to and from most places in the L.A. area. A day of skiing, including lunch, about $80-$100 a person. A day of hiking, with lunch or dinner, $25-$50. Two-day cabin stay, with meals, about $300.