Bear Valley Review

Bear Valley, California

Bear Valley is southwest of the Lake Tahoe basin in the central Sierra and caters to families and locals.

Koala chair terrain at Bear Valley, March 2021

Koala chair terrain at Bear Valley, March 2021

Stats and Rating

Vertical Drop 1900′
Size 1680 Acres
Annual Snowfall 359 Claimed / 359 Actual: Rank 26
Lifts 6
Trails 75
Review Date 1995-2002, 2021
Number of visits 4
Our Rating ★★★
Resort website https://www.bearvalley.com
Bear Valley Trail Map 17/18

Bear Valley Trail Map 17/18

Bear Valley Review

Before 2021, the last time we skied Bear Valley was in 2002 when our kids were young and still learning to ski. I also had a couple of visits in the mid-90’s. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures from any of those visits.  So in early March 2021 we decided to go back, get some pics, and give it another chance.

On paper Bear Valley looks pretty good with 1900 vertical, 9 lifts, and 1680 acres, but it skis much smaller than that much of the time. Prior to 2021, the problem was that we had never been there when the lower part of the mountain below 7,500 feet was open. This is quite common since the summit elevation is fairly low, topping out at less than 8,500′. That means that the effective vertical drop is commonly only 950 ft. The resort has only 100 acres of snowmaking and the main lodge could really use an upgrade. In our earlier visits before lift upgrades in 2006 and 2017, it would have been a fine family area, but back in 90’s many of the lifts were center-bar doubles, which we found to be very difficult to load kids on safely.  Since then, the resort has installed 2 new high speed lifts on the 2 major ski pods so this problem has been fixed and it is a much better situation for families now.

Light weekday crowd at Bear Valley, March 2021

Light weekday crowd at Bear Valley, March 2021

Front side

The Mokelumne Express 6-pack was newly installed in 2017 and has really solved any issues on the front side that used to exist.  This chair only has 730′ of vertical but it’s fun and has some steep sections.  The capacity of this lift will eat up any weekend or holiday lift lines quickly.  They groom most of the runs off this lift and the ancient Koala double chair.  Koala has some steep groomers but it’s very short at only 500′ vertical.  The bottom line is that the front side terrain kept us entertained for an hour or so.

Fronside groomer at Bear Valley, March 2021

Fronside groomer at Bear Valley, March 2021

Back side

The Polar Express pod is the main course for most people who will ski at Bear Valley.  This is a modest 950′ of vertical, but it’s really ideal intermediate terrain.  We had a blast doing laps on all the groomers until lunchtime.  All of the intermediate runs but 1 were groomed when we were there.  Corral Ridge looked interesting but the off-piste conditions were pretty icy/atrocious in the morning when we were there so we didn’t sample it.

Backside groomer at Bear Valley, March 2021

Backside groomer at Bear Valley, March 2021

Grizzly

When we went back in 2021 we made sure Grizzly was going to be open so we could experience the whole resort.  After lunch we concentrated on this lift pod which had started to soften in the warm March temps.  It’s pretty intimidating from the top.  You don’t really know what’s over the edge until get right up there and peek over.  This area is completely different from the other parts of the resort.  It’s a north-facing rocky bowl with few trees.  The view is spectacular, and the terrain is really steep in places, but manageable.  There is usually a less scary way to angle across the slope if you don’t want to go straight down a steep line.

Great views from Grizzly Bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

Great views from Grizzly Bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

Skier’s left is the more difficult side with some seriously steep pitches.  In the barely-softening icy conditions we took our time but enjoyed the runs.  Skier’s right is the easier side with a very approachable line that cuts the steepness considerably going down Upper Snow Valley.  This side faced the sun more so we had some nice soft turns.

Fun in the Snow Valley bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

Fun in the Snow Valley bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

I could see spending most of the day exploring this lift under better conditions.  There are so many interesting lines that will get your heart pumping and give you a real sense of accomplishment.

Looking over at Snow Valley from Grizzly Bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

Looking over at Snow Valley from Grizzly Bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

Down to town

Because of COVID, the shuttle bus from the town of Bear Valley was not running, but I’m told it’s a must-do to ski down Lunch Run or any of the numerous advanced runs on the village side when they are open.  These face mostly south so the snow has to be right. Maybe next time.

Wide-open terrain off the Polar Express at Bear Valley, March 2021

Wide-open terrain off the Polar Express at Bear Valley, March 2021

The good

  • Usually uncrowded, the resort is a good choice for central-sierra skiers looking to get away from the bustle and expense of Tahoe.
  • They do a good job with grooming and it’s a friendly atmosphere.
  • There are lots of shorter black runs available on the upper mountain and some really legit advanced/expert terrain on Grizzly when it’s open.
  • The “Polar Express” lift on the West Side area has some decent intermediate groomers.
  • The main frontside ski pod now has a high-speed 6-pack “Mokelumne Express” which has an enormous capacity and will be easy for families to load.
  • The Village side can provide an additional adventure that is quite unusual.
Firm conditions on Grizzly Bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

Firm conditions on Grizzly Bowl at Bear Valley, March 2021

The bad

  • The low elevation means the bottom of the resort does not get or hold snow very long.
  • The terrain is “upside-down”, with the most difficult terrain on the Grizzly chair at the bottom.  Obviously steep terrain at a low elevation is not a good combination.
  • Although it does have a high-speed quad on the West Side and a 6-pack on the front, these  serve less than 1,000 feet of vertical, so it’s a quick ride up and run down.
  • The lift upgrades were welcome, but they could really use a lodge upgrade and more snowmaking.
Steeper frontside groomer at Bear Valley, March 2021

Steeper frontside groomer at Bear Valley, March 2021

The bottom line

This is one of the closest areas to where we used to live in Fremont, but it took us 19 years to get back there while we waited for improvements to be implemented.  In 2014, the area was looking for an investor to finish the master plan they have approval to start, which will link the village with the resort for the first time, but that still hasn’t happened as of 2021. Still, it’s an interesting place and the 2021 visit showed us that this is a legit top 100 resort so we added another star to the rating.

Polar Express at Bear Valley, March 2021

Polar Express at Bear Valley, March 2021

4 thoughts on “Bear Valley Review

  1. Anonymous

    I used to think Bear Valley wasn’t too great like you until I experienced the lower mountain. The best part about bear valley is the lower mountain. It has a nice feeling of being “untouched” because there are no cut out trails or groomers. The terrain varies a lot, and is quite long. The main route down the lift line of the Grizzly chair is a leg burner, and Snow Valley is lots of not-too-steep fun. For steeps, go on West Ridge to Uptight, which is seriously steep. There is also a nice cliff band in the Grizzly Bowl called the “Bronco Cliffs” that are easy to avoid, but are fun for more daring skiers/boarders. The Grizz is massive with hundreds of possible lines, but is closed a lot like you mentioned. This season (2015-16) is especially nice because the Grizz is open most of the time thanks to El Nino. Hopefully if you ever return you get to experience the mighty Grizzly!

    Reply
    1. skyfree Post author

      Thanks for the comments. I know Bear deserves another ski some day. Like you said, we really should experience the lower mountain to give it a fair review. However, we have come to realize that this is a very ambitious project, so experiencing every resort on a perfect day is just not possible given how many we still need to ski. Hopefully we will get back there when there is a lot of snow.

      Reply
    2. tom tankersley

      The lower mountain is my favorite run/s ever but the conditions have to be right and they are usually WRONG. and if that is the case then you are stuck skiing the rest of the mountain and that gets old FAST. If you know the out of bounds rules and the lay of the mountain you can ski untracked powder all day. No joke! However the price of a ticket went up to $120 this year so I am done with skiing Bear Valley. So sad because the lower mountain is so good.

      Reply
      1. Ron Thompson Post author

        We just got back from a follow up visit to Bear and WOW, we loved it! Conditions were far from ideal, but based on how much fun we had we will update the review with a higher rating. Grizzly is an incredible chair — unique out of all of the 80+ resorts we have skied.

        Reply

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