People have been cross-country skiing at Lake Tahoe since the mid-1850s. The incredible Snowshoe Thompson is one of the most notable people to ever ski in the Lake Tahoe region. For 20 years Snowshoe Thompson transported mail across the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 180-mile, 5-day roundtrip journeys to and from Genoa, NV to Placerville, CA. Over 160 years later, cross-country skiing is still thriving at Lake Tahoe where you can find numerous groomed cross-country ski areas on the north shore and a whole host of off-track and backcountry areas on the south shore. The cross-country ski terrain on the south shore of Lake Tahoe ranges from flat and easy to steep and strenuous. The following are some general areas in which to cross-country ski, and there is a map illustrating their locations at the end of the article.
Considerations for Your Backcountry Experience in the Lake Tahoe Region:
- Assess the risks, weigh their consequences, know your limits, and be conscious of your decisions before taking action.
- Leave your itinerary with a responsible person who’ll take appropriate action if you don’t return at your prescribed time.
- When in doubt, turn back.
- Dress in layers in order to shed or add on articles of clothing.
- Wear appropriate footwear for the winter conditions.
- Carry the necessary safety gear for your specific adventure and know how to use it.
- Stay adequately fueled and hydrated.
- Public lands are for everyone.
- When parking, don’t block traffic or Forest Service gates or impede snow removal vehicles while they’re operating.
- Keep your dogs on a leash and pick up after them.
Fallen Leaf Lake area and Highway 89 north of South Lake Tahoe’s “Y” intersection (Highway 50 / State Route 89)
On the lake side of State Route 89 you will find terrain that is mostly flat and consists of shorter trails. These areas include Baldwin, Kiva, and Pope Beaches. Also, the Taylor Creek Visitor Area and the Tallac Historic Site offer beginner cross-country skiing terrain. Camp Richardson (no pets, trail pass required) has groomed trails once the snowpack reaches two feet. On the mountain side of State Route 89, you will find Mount Tallac Road (which leads to Floating Island and Cathedral Lakes), the Taylor Creek Snow Play Area (Sno-Park permit required) providing access to Cathedral Meadow and Fallen Leaf Campground.
Keep in mind that all of the places along State Route 89 north of the “Y” are basically at lake level. This means that they usually do not feature enough snow early or late in the winter in which to cross-country ski. However, they are very accessible directly from the highway, so you can assess them quickly.
West of the Highway 50/State Route 89 intersection and along Lake Tahoe Boulevard, Tahoe Mountain Road, and North Upper Truckee Road you’ll find many easy to moderate trails on which to cross-country ski. Find one of the many Forest Service gates along these roads and park at one (but don’t block it or road traffic) in order to ski around Washoe Meadows State Park, Tahoe Mountain, and to the Angora Ridge, Angora Lakes, and Angora burn area.
On Highway 50, drive west of Echo Summit (as if you were going to Placerville) and turn right onto Johnson Pass Road to park at the Echo Lakes Pass Sno-Park (Sno-Park permit required). Then, you can ski to Desolation Wilderness, which includes Echo Lakes and Lake Aloha. There are two ways in which to access Desolation Wilderness from the Sno-Park. The first and most obvious route is to simply take the road to Echo Lakes (right past Berkeley Camp). The second option is to travel about a quarter of a mile west along Johnson Pass Road and then head north on the Pacific Crest Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail. Either way, it’s just over a mile to Lower Echo Lake.
South Lake Tahoe (city of)
Lake Tahoe Community College, where they groom about 5km of trails when snow permits, and Bijou Park and are located centrally in South Lake Tahoe, but they are both nearly at lake level so it usually takes a while for either areas to accumulate enough snowpack for cross-country skiing. You will probably benefit more from starting at one of the Forest Service gates (don’t block the gates) along Pioneer Trail or at the end of Oneidas Street and then cross-country skiing toward the mountains.
Luther Pass (Grass Lake) is very popular for skiing in early and late winter (and throughout all of winter) because it’s located at a higher elevation. Grass Lake is flat and suitable for beginners. Big Meadow, which is on the very north side of Luther Pass (and downhill from Grass Lake), has some moderate climbs until you reach the meadow. Parking and access can be problematic at the Big Meadow Trailhead due to high snowbanks and there being only a handful of pullouts at which to park. Occasionally someone will take it upon themselves to carve out snow steps when the banks are high. Mostly I would just recommend heading to Grass Lake.
Hope Valley is mostly flat and is perfect for beginners, but takes some time to accumulate enough snow for cross-country skiing. There are a couple different locations in which to cross-country ski in Hope Valley, so be sure you know where you’re going. At the Sno-Park on Blue Lakes Road you’ll need a Sno-Park permit, which needs to be purchased in town. For parking near Pickett’s Junction (State Routes 88/89) you’ll need to have a parking permit (aka Lands Pass) only available for purchase online from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. Valid CA hunting and/or fishing licenses also are acceptable. The Lands Pass needs to be carried on your person, while the Sno-Park permit needs to be displayed in your vehicle.
Carson Pass features some challenging uphill climbs. If you’re sticking to the standard hiking trails, Carson Pass doesn’t offer anything too technical, but if you’re not savvy traveling in diverse terrain with cross-country skis, you may want to save this area for when you gain more experience.
Kirkwood Ski Resort, further west on State Route 88, has a cross-country ski area (trail pass required, dogs only on designated trails) and rental/retail shop. The cross-country ski area boasts 80km of groomed trails (in optimal winter conditions) and features easy to advanced routes along their trail system.
Rabe Meadow, which is located at Kahle Drive, is convenient because of its proximity to town. However, the meadow is so close to the lake and located on the east side of the Tahoe basin that it is usually only good for cross-country skiing when winter is in full swing. A note about snow in the Tahoe Basin … snow travels across the Tahoe Region from the west and tends to dissipate quickly once it passes Echo Summit and its accompanying ridge. This generally leaves the eastern side of the Tahoe Basin with far less snow than the western side.