Mt. Baldy is where clouds go to relax.
To reduce stress, you can do a lot of constructive things: drink to excess, canoodle, overeat. But none is as perfectly overindulgent as a day on this ski hill wedged between heaven and earth, 80 easy minutes from downtown Los Angeles.
Mt. Baldy is not just a ski hill; it’s an Austrian waltz. It’s all high-country hardscapes and concertos in the wind. It’s both alluring and harsh. The hiking is famously world-class, though this mountain will kill you if you’re not careful, and sometimes even when you are.
The skiing is less intense yet still intense. There were times when, had my ski caught an icy edge, I’d have launched all the way to the little college town of Claremont a dozen miles away. Probably would’ve landed in some lit class I never finished.
Such prospects will keep you on your toes, all right. You can’t fall in lust with the views up here. Oh, you probably will anyway. But best keep your wits about you — head on a swivel, knees loose, skis together, mind clear.
What you’ll notice about this little ski village is that there is nothing the least bit fussy about it. Honestly, I don’t think a can of paint has been spent on the whole operation, and that includes the 100-year-old lodge.
The magical Mt. Baldy Lodge, which greets you on arrival, seems cemented together with pine sap and cobwebs. Wear-and-tear seems to fit the place. For $125, you can rent a tidy cabin here and a trip back in time. Or just nurse a hot chocolate and a shot of Jameson by the fire. The onion rings are memorable too, at least as ski country grub goes.
So, naturally, the ski snobs sneer at Mt. Baldy, dinging it for its ma-and-pa amenities and modest number of runs, treating its easy access and affordability as some sort of character flaws.
Shame on the snobs. Because this year in particular, Baldy is the best ski deal in California. Which means you can get out of here without having to donate a kidney.
I’m not calling this the best ma-and-pa ski resort in America, because I still have a few more to try — a couple in Vermont, one in Alaska. But I’ll call it the best little resort a heartbeat away from Los Angeles. You can zoom here at dawn from Redondo Beach and be home in time for your kid’s soccer game.
Or you can leave work early on a Friday, be in your boots by noon, and get in a hearty four hours. If the lift lines are five deep, people look around in surprise, for usually you glide right on.
It’s so simple. Chair 1 whisks you from the parking lot to the main lodge, the apex of the operation. Chair 2 is your warmup run and takes you down to Chair 3, which is the heart of the hill, with dozens of trails from intermediate to tragic.
On many trails, you’ll be the only soul — watch those edges. You can dart through trees and chatter over the moguls, or take creamy heart-thumping black diamond runs. This time of year, the snow is bridal-gown gorgeous. Most trails are groomed.
Baldy is open seven days a week, and if you go on a Tuesday, you’ll pretty much have the place to yourself. The snow is good right now, still plentiful after an epic December, which is critical for a resort with limited snow-making ability. Because of the bottleneck Chair 1 can create at closing time, Baldy sells out at just 2,000 customers, which is about how many folks are in line for the loo on a typical day at Mammoth.
Thoreau had his ponds. Sinatra had Vegas. What’s left for chumps like you and me? Sweet Baldy, where you can snag a lift ticket for as little as 15 bucks online, a cold beer for $9. Mt. Baldy, as one friend put it, “is an accomplishment.”
An hour in, the muscles in my legs are roughly the same temperature at which bacon burns.
Indeed, God had a good day here. The lodge went up in 1914, and the ski hill opened in 1952. It fell on hard times in the late ’60s. In the ’70s, Ron Ellingson rescued the resort and the lodge and still owns them both. Some elbow grease here, some WD-40 there, didn’t ruin the place with overzealous ski town gentrification. No Starbucks in sight. Heck, there isn’t even a gas pump.
It’s kind of an elegant old piano, and you don’t hang hipster artwork and Edison lights all over something like that. Ellingson’s son, Robby, now runs the place and has grown the full-time staff from four to 30-plus in his 10-year reign.
In summer, the resort hosts concerts and moonlight hikes, to help keep the lights on.
But Baldy is at its most glorious now, a big bowl of frosted flakes. Bring tire chains, because conditions change quickly. A sunny morning can morph into a dark and icy afternoon. Though it requires little mountain driving, some of the S-turns would give a bobsledder the chills.
“When the mountains are white, people come up,” Robby Ellingson said. “This is the best start in my 10 years.”
Are there plans to expand it? Aren’t there always? A proposal to add two lifts dates to the early ’90s, so don’t hold your breath on that.
Instead, relish this modest ski hill for what it is — a snow-dusted curio in a world of mega-resorts that gobble each other up at every opportunity. Ski monoliths have become the corporate farms of the American West. That sounds so judgmental, but did a giant corporation ever make anything better?
Note that you don’t have to be a skier to have a good time here. Sightseers are welcome aboard the easy-to-use two-person chair — no ski skills required — from the parking lot to the Top of the Notch cafe.
Just climb on, ride up through the lodgepole pines past the biggest pine cones ever, to the top where a memorable chunk of backcountry wilderness awaits at 7,800 feet.
Yep, even the clouds come here to recuperate. Shouldn’t you?
Directions: Mt. Baldy is 20 minutes off the 210 Freeway near Claremont. From L.A., take the Baseline exit, then a left at the light to Padua Avenue. Take a right on Padua and go 1.5 miles to Mt. Baldy Road, then right again. The village is eight miles away; the resort is five miles further.
Prices: Lift tickets $79-$99 but can be found online for as little as $15. Ski/rental/lesson combo packages run $60. Sightseeing tickets cost $24.