Check out the parking lot at Dodge Ridge on a sunny weekend afternoon, and you'll swear that it looks like a tailgate party at the start of football season. Tables, chairs and smoking barbecues litter the rows between SUVs, the aroma of sizzling burgers and franks wafts through the air, and skiers, boots unbuckled, gather in groups to eat quick lunches. At Lift 1, just beyond the parking lot, a dreadlocked lift attendant greets everyone with a smile and a blast of reggae from his boombox.
For skiers who pour out of San Jose and other cities in the congested southern parts of San Francisco Bay on a Friday, Dodge Ridge—the homespun, laid-back family ski area that bills itself "The Closest Snow to Home—is like an island of calm in a sea of stress. Turn the kids loose and let 'em romp. With soccer moms and softball dads, technology geeks and dairy farmers, Dodge is the social melting pot of the central Sierra.
It's also a true mom and pop ski area: Owners Frank and Sally Helm are on a first-name basis with the kids who show up for junior ski team events every weekend. Bay Area kids hang with buddies from the sleepy burgs of Manteca, Modesto and Merced, or the cow towns of Stockton and Lodi. Show up with manure on your boots and a Toby Keith album in your Chevy Blazer's CD player, and you'll be in good company.
The cozy daylodge is the epicenter of the resort, and its kitchen competes with the parking-lot chefs. Barbecues cook up tri-tip steaks, chicken and corn on the cob, all of which go nicely with a mug of pale ale from the local Snowshoe Brewery. In fact, Dodge Ridge has such a reputation for home-cooked meals that skiers beeline to the cafeteria in the morning for its famous breakfast burritos before tackling the hill.
The lift layout includes five vintage double chairs, two triples and a quad, and serves a spread of 815 acres. Cornice jumpers should look elsewhere, but most skiers find plenty of challenge in Boulder Creek Canyon on the resort's backside. This forested area of about a dozen steep fall-line runs opened in 1998, adding 265 acres with 1,155 feet of vertical. Dodge regulars churn up the powder on Skyline, zigzag through the trees and carve turns down Granite Bowl. For cruisers, take the interconnected groomers of Graceland and Amazing Grace to the bottom of the quad. Says Dale Munk, a Bay Area technology executive with three daughters in the race club, "After a big dump, you can get in snow up to your waist back there."[NEXT]The Town
Although Dodge Ridge is a day visit for most skiers, weekenders from the Bay Area can overnight in Sonora, 30 miles away. It's a historic mining town dating to 1851. Original brick buildings line the streets, and B&Bs, antique shops and cafes are scattered around town. Closer to the mountain, skiers can rent new condos in the tiny communities of Strawberry or Pinecrest. But apart from the bar at the Strawberry Inn, there isn't much of what passes for nightlife. "We're a traditional place. We're all about family, says ski area CEO Sally Helm. And that's just fine with the regulars, who would rather escape from the city than get out of Dodge.
Where to Stay
>Best Western Sonora Oaks In Sonora, the hotel has 101 remodeled rooms, complimentary breakfast and a hot tub. $99—$110; 800-532-1944; bwsonoraoaks.com
>Pinecrest Chalet This family-owned property—the closest lodging to the mountain—offers townhouses, cabins and cottages for groups of two to 14. $65—$315; 209-965-3276; pinecrestchalet.com
>Cabins at Strawberry These new three-bedroom cabins have fireplaces, TVs, and river or forest views. $149—$189; 209-965-3276; cabinsatstrawberry.com
Where to Eat
>The Steam Donkey The longtime Pinecrest favorite is known for its generous portions of barbecued steak and chicken. 209-965-3117
>El JardinStop by this Sonora cafe for creative Mexican and margs. 209-588-0770
>Michelanngelo Located in Jamestown, a half-hour from the slopes, the restaurant does upscale Italian with big bowls of pasta and fresh-baked desserts. 209-984-4830
Where to Play
>The Strawberry Inn Drop into the sports bar for a game of pool. 209-965-3662
>Columbia State Historic Park Three miles north of Sonora, the park features a preserved 1860s town with restaurants, shops and hotels. 209-532-0150