DESPITE California's reputation as a sun-drenched playground, it's also becoming increasingly popular with winter ski vacationers. Opportunities stretch from the snowcapped peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe south past the scenic Yosemite area to Mammoth Mountain near Bishop. But you don't have to stop there. Just 90 minutes away from the swimming pools of Beverly Hills and Palm Springs are the ski slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains overlooking the Los Angeles Basin.
Traditionally, California ski resort operators feel they are off to the start of a good season if they can open their ski runs the weekend before Thanksgiving. Last year, early snows put skiers on the slopes in mid-November. And this year, with long-range weather forecasts again calling for an early winter, everyone from skiers to resort operators are filled with optimism.
You can tell by the business winter sports shops are getting these days from enthusiasts updating their equipment, so when they hear as much as a rumor of a snowflake falling they can load their gear and be off in a flash.
But resort owners are getting ready as well, rushing to put the final touches on summer-long improvement projects. And they say the 1985-86 season will be the best yet, with improved slopes and expanded facilities.
In the ski department, California already has a lot going for it. The state is endowed with some of the nation's highest slopes. It also offers the highest concentration of first-rate ski resorts in the Western Hemisphere. And, according to state figures, it has an annual snowfall that stands up well against rates in the Rockies and the Swiss Alps. But added to this, officials say, are comfortable daytime winter temperatures ranging from 25 to 45 degrees F., and sunshine on more than 75 percent of the d ays.
There are five major ski areas in the state, each offering its own particular qualities and challenge. Because of the state's diverse population, however, all remain fairly busy through the season.
In southern California, the focus is not so much on the amount of snow on the slopes as it is on its proximity to major population areas. Such resorts as Snow Valley, which has some 230 groomed acres, 35 runs, and 12 chairlifts, boasts that it has one of the largest and best beginner slopes in the West.
Goldmine's 2 1/2-mile run is the longest in the area. And Snow Forest, which caters to skiers of all abilities, is a favorite. All have one thing in common -- they have some of the steepest runs in California, a test for true skiing prowess.
Up in the central Sierra region, the scenic splendor of Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks is a draw to families from all parts of the state. Badger Pass, the oldest ski area in California, is well known as a beginner and intermediate ski center. Sequoia's Wolverton Ski Area has facilities for the beginner and intermediate skier. And several other resorts cater to cross-country ski buffs.
In the eastern Sierra region the big draw is Mammoth Mountain, the Pacific Coast's highest ski area. Its panoramic runs peak at an elevation of 11,053 feet and give its visitors a choice of 29 lifts, 150 trails, and 3,100 vertical feet of mountain, for some of the region's most challenging runs. And despite its distance from population centers, it tends to be very popular and often overcrowded. Those wishing a more relaxed atmosphere tend to migrate to June Mountain. Here on 72 acres are more than 30 ru ns and six lifts.
The Shasta-Cascade region, although offering excellent downhill or alpine skiing, concentrates more on cross-country adventures. And most popular in this genre is Castle Lake Nordic Center, nestled in a protected valley. Its cross-country ski trails wind through pine forests and along ridgetops that offer some of the best views anywhere of several Cascade peaks.
But Castle Lake is not alone in this venture. Cross- country skiing is also offered at such resorts as Fifth Season, Childs Meadows, and Lassen Ski Touring, all in the Mount Shasta City-Lassen National Forest area.
By far the largest, most scenic, and favored of all ski areas in California is the northern Sierra, home of Lake Tahoe. This area provides not only superb views of the lake from most ski slopes, but also a smorgasbord of ski facilities from which to choose.
These include Heavenly Valley, America's largest ski resort, and Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Alpine Meadows and Northstar-at-Tahoe offer opportunities for the whole family. And for those with a yen for cross-country trails there's Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort, where vacationers are whisked by sleigh to a resort that offers day and night cross-country adventures.
Kirkwood, which has undergone extensive expansion and improvements this summer, offers diversified terrain for all levels of skiing within 2,000 acres and 2,000 vertical feet of ski area.
In all, there are 19 resorts in the Tahoe region, offering a little of everything in one place.
No matter what region of the state a family might choose for a winter vacation, seasoned outdoorsmen stress that you don't have to be a skier to enjoy the fun. For in addition to the usually lavish hotel accommodations and indoor resort activities, there are snowmobiling, sledding, ice skating, snowshoe hikes, touring by snowcat along secluded trails, wind skiing, and snow camping underneath the giant redwoods. And for real spectator adventure, you can enjoy championship sled dog races held in the mount ains of southern California each January.
If you have a ski hound friend who's been looking a little weary of late, you now know why. It's because he's been up all night finding his mittens and placing his skis and poles where he can get at them in a hurry.
And don't worry if he is seen shoving his hands mysteriously out the back door, palms upward. It's just his way of anticipating that first flake of snow.