Located at the northern extent of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Lake Tahoe is one of the country’s most stunning and popular winter destinations. With mountains rising from every side of Tahoe’s cobalt waters, and an annual snowfall average of 400-500”, it is no wonder that winter enthusiasts have been playing here since the 1920’s. From the backcountry standpoint, there are few places that can match Tahoe in ease of access, terrain variety, snow quality and quantity, and favorable weather. With Reno 45 minutes away, Sacramento 2 hours away, and a highway surrounding the lake, Tahoe is also highly accessible. And although this allows easy access for hoards of winter tourists, 99% of these visitors stay within the confines of the resorts.
This guidebook is designed as an introduction to the near endless potential for human powered ski travel in Tahoe. When I first moved here, I was frustrated by the limited and scattered information on skiing in the area. Of course you can always look at a map and find out for yourself, but I yearned for a comprehensive resource that offered more than topo lines. In this guide, I aim to provide information about each location in the hopes of facilitating an amazing day in the backcountry. This information includes the aspects, elevations, terrain descriptions, maps, basic navigation, parking options and driving directions. What I am trying to avoid is ruining the adventure of learning the terrain on your own by systematically revealing all of Tahoe’s nooks and crannies. That style of guidebook leaves little adventure left to the reader, and might anger locals who have spent years learning the area. There are many stashes that you will be rewarded with finding on your own. It is for this reason that I do not provide highly specific directions on how to access every single line for a given area. This guide is meant to be a comprehensive introduction to each location, providing you enough information to plan your adventure, but not so much as to ruin the fun of discovering it yourself.
This guidebook is organized geographically, grouping the destinations into seven main regions: North Tahoe, Mount Rose Area, West Shore, South Tahoe, Desolation, Carson Pass and East Shore. Each of these regions have their own page, with a description of the terrain and locations within each zone, as well as a map showing the boundaries I have assigned for the zone. Each of the destination pages will have a stats chart, an overview map of the destination within the greater Tahoe area, a write-up of the area, a detailed map, and driving and parking information. By clicking on the overview map, a detailed interactive map will pop up. The stats chart gives the reader a quick idea of what to expect from the area, and the points are defined as follows:
- Skiable Vert: This is defined as the elevation loss, in feet, of a continuous descent on a peak. For the locations in this guide, Skiable Vert is presented as a range of the shortest to the longest runs at a location. Skiable Vert is different than total elevation change (from trailhead to summit) because some areas require elevation gain to get to the slope you want to ski. This elevation gain is not counted in “Skiable Vert” because it is elevation that is not worth skiing, or not part of a continuous line. Think of Skiable Vert as the amount of elevation loss that you are likely to ski before stopping to put skins on for another lap. Elevations are rounded to the nearest 100 feet.
- Aspect: Of course every mountain has every aspect (N, S, E, W), but listed are the aspects that house the best terrain for a given location. Use this to help choose a location based on what type of snow you’re trying to find.
- Elevation: This is listed as the trailhead elevation, the summit elevation, and the total elevation gain. Elevations rounded to the nearest 100’. This will be written as: 8,000’ – 10,000’ (2,000’).
- Approach Distance: This is the approximate hiking/skinning mileage before reaching the base of the described ski destination. This number does not include distance traveled once the base of the destination has been reached. Think of this as energy you will have to expend before starting your ascent. If the number listed is 0, this means that it is easy to ski the described descent directly back to the car.
- Terrain: Tahoe has almost every type of terrain imaginable, but this guide groups the terrain into 6 general categories: Bowls, Chutes, Extreme Descents, Face, Glades, and Gullies.
Throughout this guidebook, Google Maps is exclusively used for both the overview and interactive maps on each page. With the interactive maps, red lines are used to delineate the most common ascent routes, blue lines for descent options, a “P” to indicate where to park, a yellow pin to indicate a unique hazard or label a map feature, a green house to mark huts, and a snowflake to label peaks not named by Google. Most major descents in an area are marked, but many are not to avoid cluttering the maps. On the interactive maps, clicking on a line or icon brings up a pop-up bubble. This bubble has the route’s name and sometimes brief information associated with that line. In the lower part of this bubble, Google provides the distance of these lines as drawn on the map. But it is important to understand that these distances are unreliable, and in many instances incorrect, so disregard Google’s distance value and refer to the distances in my text. This inaccuracy is especially true in areas with multiple ascent routes, where intersecting routes will show the mileage only up to the intersection with another route, not the total distance (example: Castle Peak).
Lake Tahoe sits in a unique position to provide one of the best skiing climates in North America. Our lower latitude, mid-level elevations, and proximity to the Pacific Ocean moderate our temperatures and provide copious moisture. And, with 300 days of sun and 400-500” of snowfall annually, there’s huge opportunity for scoring sunny powder days.
The season usually starts off in November or December, when colder temperatures arrive and sporadic storms blanket the region. During this time, the high elevation zones, such as the Mt. Rose Area and Carson Pass, will have the best coverage until strong winter storms drop enough snow to bring skiable coverage down to Lake Level (6,225’). Meteorologists in the area often use the term “Lake Level” when referring to snow levels. If the forecasted storm has a snow level below Lake Level, most all locations in this guide will receive snow (versus rain). Another term meteorologists like to use is the “Sierra Crest.” This refers to the chain of mountains along the western side of Lake Tahoe that divides the American and Truckee River watersheds. Pacific storms on their way to Tahoe encounter the Sierra Crest, and undergo orographic lifting. This forces storms to squeeze out most of their moisture on or near the Sierra Crest. This is why resorts like Sugar Bowl and Kirkwood average over 500”, and Mount Rose averages 400”. During lighter snowfall events, head to locations along the Crest to find the deepest snow.
January is historically the driest winter month, and has earned the nickname “June-uary.” If enough early season storms have hit the area, this can be an amazing period of mild weather and fantastic corn skiing to get in shape before the spring. February, March and April have proven to produce some of our biggest dumps. Cold temperatures, longer days, and more abundant snowfall make this Tahoe’s backcountry skiing primetime. In the famously huge winter of 2010-2011, snowfall at Squaw Valley measured 240” for the month of March alone, with a season total of 800”. However, the next year (2011-2012) had the second lowest snow year on record (350”), and half the year’s snow came in March. In an average winter, this is the time when a lot of the lines requiring a deep snowpack come into play.
Depending on the snowpack, May and June can also provide good skiing, and often Tahoe has one of the longest ski seasons in North America. In 2010-2011, I skied powder at least one day every month from October to June, a 9 month powder skiing season! May and June is also a great time to explore backcountry destinations outside of Tahoe. This is the magic time when highway passes along the Eastern Sierra open, and 7,000’ corn descents can be found on Mount Shasta. We are truly blessed in California!
SNOW & AVALANCHES
Tahoe is home to “Sierra Cement.” This is referring to the higher density (higher water content) snow we generally receive as a result of our low-ish elevation and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Although some Rocky Mountain skiers may scoff at the idea of high density snow, we Sierra skiers revel in skiing stable snow on steeper terrain, a maritime snowpack that provides relatively safe and more predictable avalanche stability, where early season dumps provide a solid base, and where as little as 6” can buff out an entire slope and ski bottomless. But this is just one of the many types of snow we can get in Tahoe. Everything from rain to cold smoke can be found at any point in the season, sometimes all within a short period of time. Usually storms will come in warm, and become colder as the storm progresses. This creates a “regular snowpack” situation, where warmer, denser snow is on the bottom, followed by colder, lighter snow. Sometimes, however, the reverse can occur. This is called an “upside down snowpack,” and the snow will be light on the bottom and dense on top. This situation makes for extremely dangerous avalanche conditions. This, combined with other common factors such as wind loading, persistent weak layers, rapid warming, storm slabs, etc. all contribute to potentially dangerous avalanche conditions. In recent years, numerous avalanche fatalities have been a harsh reminder that nowhere is devoid of avalanche danger and to never let your guard down. Take an avalanche course and stay informed with the snowpack by following the professionals at the Sierra Avalanche Center. Also, get in the habit of following snow conditions and avalanche reports throughout the season, as to make a “mental snowpit profile.” Stay safe, stay informed, beware of unsafe group mentalities, and live to ski another day.
SUN & ASPECT
Referred to as “The Range of Light,” the Sierra is known for having long sunny periods in between strong storm cycles. And although this makes for gorgeous weather, the sun is also the number one factor affecting snow quality. This is why aspect is so important. Northern aspects shade the snow from the scorching Sierra sun, and can often hold powder long after the snow has been melted off the trees and crust has formed everywhere else. From my experience, full sun can affect snow quality, even with air temperatures in the low 20s. This is why it is important to get an early start to sunny powder days, and ski the sunny aspects first before they turn to mashed potatoes.
Conversely, on warm, sunny days one can find beautiful corn snow on south, east and west aspects. Corn forms in light wind, on sunlit slopes when daytime high temperatures break into the 40s, and overnight lows drop below the freezing mark. With this sort of weather pattern, new snow can transform into silky corn in as little as 3 days. This freeze-thaw pattern is necessary in the formation of corn snow. We are lucky to get corn here in Tahoe, whereas other locations across the West often don’t see the temperature combinations necessary to produce it. In some locations, winters are too cold to thaw the snow during the day, and spring is too warm to refreeze the snow at night. In Tahoe, glorious corn conditions in pleasant, spring-like weather can occur during any month of the ski season, giving snow sliders a fun, warm weather alternative to powder skiing.
East aspects can hold both powder and corn. Given cold temperatures, forest shade, or cloud cover, eastern aspects can keep powder well. Also, given full morning sun exposure, eastern aspects can grow corn before the sun moves westward across the sky.
Skiing west aspects can be a bit tricky. Often west-facing slopes see the brunt of wind scouring from prevailing winds, as well as receiving abundant afternoon sunshine. Generally, skiing on western aspects will have less predictable coverage and snow conditions, but there are exceptions to every rule. In the longer days of spring, corn can grow nicely on western aspects, and without too much wind, powder can be found as well.
In the last ten years, the popularity of backcountry skiing and the advancements in its gear have grown exponentially. It is interesting to think about whether better gear has increased backcountry use, or increased popularity has driven innovation. Regardless, the gear that is available to us today makes getting to the untracked snow even easier. However, dropping thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest equipment will not get you in better shape, or make you more experienced in the backcountry. The truth is that the best gear is the gear you are most familiar and comfortable with. That said, there is equipment that has become standard in the backcountry, and I’ll provide a little rundown on the most efficient choices.
In general, snowshoes are a poor choice for day to day backcountry use. They are difficult to side-hill (traverse) with, they take up a ton of room in your pack for the descent, and lack the efficient kick and glide motion of skinning, not to mention they are downright slow. Modern Alpine Touring, Telemark, and Split-Board gear are by far the best choices for backcountry travel. I won’t go into specifics on what brands you should buy, but keep in mind that 90% of your time touring is spent going uphill. Therefore, try to keep weight in mind when choosing gear, as with every step you will be picking up your boots, bindings, skis and skins, and the weight of any moisture this gear has soaked up.
As with any day in the woods, there is a checklist of things that you will want to have to facilitate the best possible experience, and stay prepared for any situation. Here is a list of what I keep in my pack. Of course many of these items are personal preference, but this is what I have found to work.
- A backpack with at least 35 liters of space. This will provide you with enough room for cold winter tours when you’ll bring more food and layers. Of course you can get by with a smaller pack, but cramming your gear into a pack that barely fits everything can be frustrating.
- Beacon, Shovel, Probe. Treat this as one unit. If you’re missing one, you don’t go out, no matter what.
- Skins. I have found that nylon works best, mohair is lighter but doesn’t grip as well.
- Waterproof / Windproof shell jacket and pants, sun hat and warm hat.
- Cotton Kills. DO NOT wearing anything cotton on a tour. It will hold moisture and feel incredibly cold once you sweat. Wool or synthetic poly-pro is the best option for base layers and socks.
- 2 pairs of gloves. A lightweight pair you can sweat in on the uphill, and a warm pair to wear on the downhill and when resting.
- Helmet and goggles.
- Sunglasses; if the sun breaks even for half an hour on a storm day, you’ll wish you had them. Sunscreen; at elevation, the sun has less atmosphere to filter out its harmful rays, and the snow reflects the sun very effectively. I wear sunscreen on every tour.
- A foam butt pad. A great way to sit down and relax on a warm, dry seat. Also doubles as an emergency sleeping pad should you need to stay out a night.
- A warm “puffy” insulating layer. I bring one even on the warmest days. Again, in case you need to spend the night.
- An emergency space blanket, first aid kit, headlamp and lighter.
- Skin wax. You won’t need it most of the time, but cold snow can stick to wet skins and make gliding incredibly slow and frustrating. Applying skin wax alleviates this issue.
- Cell phone, or better yet, Personal Locator Beacon. Even if you’re the “low-tech” type, this will make a rescue scenario 100 times easier. And if you don’t think you’ll ever need to make that call… I had to in 2012 for a friend’s ski accident, so stay prepared.
- Lots of food and water. My estimate for my personal calorie and water requirements are 1000 calories and 3/4 liter water for every 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
The focus of this book is on human powered travel, and there will be little mention of snowmobile assisted tours. That said, there are many opportunities to use them in Tahoe. They can be great for shaving hours off of flat approaches on snow-covered summer roads, and in some places, can even be used to shuttle skiers to the top of the run. In my opinion, the pitfalls of using and owning one outweigh the benefits. Spend a powder day digging out your machine multiple times, and you’ll see why I prefer to break trail. They are expensive to buy, maintain and operate, often get stuck in deep snow, and limit where you can go in the Tahoe basin. Also, they can break down deep in the backcountry, leaving you miles away from help.
SNO-PARK PERMITS, PARKING and DRIVING DIRECTIONS
Most of Tahoe’s backcountry trailheads do not require a Sno-Park permit. However, Castle Peak, Carson Pass, Blackwood Canyon, and Echo Lakes all require a permit. They can be purchased for $5 daily, or $25 for the season at many retailers around Tahoe. Even if you don’t plan on skiing any of these locations, it is nice to have just in case you do.
In general, parking for backcountry skiing in Tahoe is a bit of a contentious issue. Very few legitimate Sno-Parks are available for backcountry skiers, and those that do exist are located in areas more suited to snow play than convenient places to ski back to your car. Therefore, most of the parking in this guide takes place on roadside pullouts or neighborhood streets. Although many of these locations are technically illegitimate, skiers are seldom hassled when parking with common sense. That said, you may receive a parking ticket, or worse, be towed if parking in the wrong area, especially during times of snow removal. Always look for “No Parking from November 1 to April 31” signs. Most of Tahoe’s backcountry parking is stress free, however I will always mention real parking concerns where they exist.
Also, a large chunk of the terrain in this guide is accessed from either Tahoe City or South Lake Tahoe. Both of these towns have nicknamed their largest highway junctions “The Y,” and I continue to use this nickname throughout the guide. In Tahoe City, this refers to the junction of Highways 89 and 28. In South Lake, this refers to the junction of Highways 89 and 50. This nickname is especially confusing in South Lake because Lake Tahoe Blvd comes into the “Y” and creates more of an “X.”
Here is where I get to endorse local businesses! For each of Tahoe’s four major towns (Truckee, Tahoe City, Incline Village, South Lake Tahoe), I’ll list my favorite gear shops, restaurants and establishments.
The Sports Exchange – friendly and knowledgeable staff, a wide selection of new and pre-owned winter gear, and a climbing gym in the back makes this my shop of choice in Truckee.
Full Belly Deli – Tucked away in Truckee’s Pioneer Center industrial park, these guys make a killer sandwich that won’t let you down. A little pricey, but I can usually get 2 meals out of their sandwiches!
Mellow Fellow – An awesome new bar with a casual atmosphere and over 40 microbrews on tap!
Alpine Skills International – For 30 years, ASI has been offering a full range of backcountry skiing, avalanche, rock climbing, and mountaineering courses to get you off the ground and headed out into the backcountry with confidence. Aside from courses, they also offer guiding services. Located in the Sugar Bowl base area.
Tahoe Forest Hospital – just in case you need them. (530) 587-6011
Alpenglow Sports – Arguably Tahoe’s finest backcountry shop, Alpenglow also hosts a ton of great community events like a winter film series, avalanche workshops and a season-long backcountry log called Tahoe Vertical.
Tahoe House – A great little bakery and coffee shop with a cozy, euro feel. Their pastries and breakfast food far exceed their lunch food though. Open at 6am.
Village Ski Loft – Incline’s best ski shop, stocking a full line of backcountry gear.
High Altitude Fitness – a high end gym that also boasts Tahoe’s only roped climbing wall. Get your pump on in the climbing gym, take a sauna, and then relax with a beer at their bar. Student discounts.
Bowl Incline – North Lake’s only bowling alley has an awesome Monday special. $2.50 games, shoes and beers.
T’s Rotisserie – Mexican-Rotisserie food with wood-fired, slow roasted meats and 3 beers on tap. Cash only.
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE
Tahoe Sports LTD – Although catering more to Heavenly groomer aficionados, this shop does stock a good selection of backcountry gear. Not my favorite shop, but it’s the best in South Lake.
Orchid Thai – Amazing, authentic Thai food at a reasonable price. Super affordable lunch deals.
Taqueria Jalisco – Tucked away in an alley off the main strip, this place makes great burritos and tacos… with a pepper bar! Cash only.
Divided Sky – A great little bar in Meyers serving tasty microbrews in 20oz pints.
Barton Memorial Hospital – just in case you need them. (530) 541-3420