5 Reasons to Love Spring Cross-Country Skiing

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen

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When springtime rolls around and normal people are tending gardens, cleaning garages, and planning summer hikes, we mountain folk are still out cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. “How can that be?” you ask. “Aren’t all the Lake Tahoe ski resorts closed by March or April?”

Many groomed ski areas at Lake Tahoe do, in fact, close in April. If the winter had been a dry one, they’ll close even earlier than that and, even if it had been a big snow winter, most ski resorts close regardless of conditions by the third week of April.

There are some holdouts, however. Squaw Valley has been making a habit for the past couple of years of staying open at least until July 4th (!). But when I talk about spring cross-country skiing, I’m most mostly referring to venturing off-trail and in Lake Tahoe’s backcountry.

This is where the real magic of spring skiing takes place.

Believe it or not, even in the driest of Lake Tahoe winters, you’ll still often find snow the following September and October lingering around the upper elevations on north facing aspects of mountains.

Although I won’t necessarily go out seeking snow at that time of the year to ski, my point is that it’s guaranteed that there’ll be more than enough snow in the backcountry in March, April, and May for some incredible “post-season” cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

With that said, all of the reasons listed below for my love of spring skiing do apply to cross-country skiing at actual groomed ski areas. The problem is that those resorts close well before the snow completely melts.

So, just because those resorts close doesn’t mean the ski season is over!

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
My final cross-country ski session around the Euer Valley at Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area on April 20, 2019. TDXC officially closed on April 21st of that season, which was a week later than their planned closing. As you can tell from this photo, the snow begins to get dirty in the spring because there isn’t much fresh snow to cover all the “debris” on the trails. Therefore, brushing and waxing your skis regularly makes for much more enjoyable spring skiing. © Jared Manninen

1) Stable Snowpack:

By the time March and April rolls around, the snowpack at Lake Tahoe and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains will have stabilized significantly. Basically, all of the snow that fell in December, January, and February has had enough time to compress and “set,” so that it’s consistently firm.

Where once you might have had to wade through multiple feet of fresh snow, by spring you’ll be able to kick and glide easily across the top of the snowpack to just about anywhere you’d like venture.

That is, so long as you time it right and ski during either the first few hours of the day or in the evening.

There are no hard and fast rules about what’s the best time to ski during the spring, but generally you’ll find the most favorable snow conditions between the hours of 9:30-11:30 am and 4:30-6:30 pm. Prior to 9:00 am, you’ll find the snow to be hard and icy, and from about 12-4 pm you’ll find the snow slushy and sticky. Once the sun begins to move past the mountains and the temperatures drop, the snow will begin to refreeze, making travel more favorable again.

However, the snow will be trending toward an icy state (and in some cases it’ll firm up unexpectedly fast) so don’t plan on skiing for too long into the evening.

Not surprisingly, the block of time between 12-4 pm is also where you’ll be at the greatest risk to see or experience a snow-related event such as a “loose wet” avalanche or smaller snow slide.

If you’re out cross-country skiing in the middle of the day during the spring, avoid steep terrain. Also be careful when traveling during or after a significant spring rain shower because, this too, can destabilize the snowpack on steep terrain and trigger a loose wet avalanche.  

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
View of the rocks overlooking Round Lake. I never ski directly across lakes in the winter unless it’s absolutely necessary. Instead I prefer to log more miles (and stay safe) by circling the perimeter of the lakes. That was the case when I cross-country skied to (and around) Round Lake on April 17, 2019. © Jared Manninen

2) Parking and Access:

If you’ve ever visited Lake Tahoe during a snowstorm, you know how impossible it can be to find a safe and legal place to park your vehicle.

For the most part, on-street parking during the winter is prohibited because it interferes with snow removal operations. I completely understand that the roads need to be plowed and accessible. However, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating not being able to simply pull over to the side of the road in order to do some off-trail cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or snowplay.

But once warmer spring weather hits Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the snowbanks along the roads begin to melt and recede.

Then, as the bare roads are warmed up by the sun each day, that stored heat radiates out and further erodes the adjacent snowbanks. The shoulder of the roads become exposed and, voila, more parking!

And since the chances of major snowstorms occurring decrease in the spring, you don’t have to worry nearly as much about interfering with snow removal operations even if you are pulled off to the side of the road.

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
Cross-country skiing through the aspen forest on the way back from Scott’s Lake on April 10, 2019. Because the snow was consistently firm (but not too icy) on this day due to the overcast sky (i.e. the sun didn’t bake the snow), I was able to zip in and out of the trees with reckless abandon. © Jared Manninen

3) Warmer Weather:

Who doesn’t love to wear less clothing and carry less gear when they’re outside exercising and adventuring?

Although I don’t go into full summer mode by wearing shorts and a t-shirt when I’m cross-country skiing during the spring, I do usually only wear light hiking pants and a thin long-sleeve shirt. I also wear a brimmed hat, thin gloves, dark sunglasses, and sunscreen, of course. The reason I don’t strip down to shorts and short-sleeved shirts is because I don’t want to get sunburnt, as well as the fact that exposed skin skidding across firm snow = road rash (or, at least a form of road rash).

Keep in mind that the risk of sunburn (and snow blindness) during spring skiing is very high.

Not only will the sun be bearing down on you from above, it’ll also be radiating from the snow beneath you. It’s not a guaranteed safety measure, but cross-country skiing during the late morning or early evening (as recommended) will decrease your risk of getting sunburned since the sun at those times will not be at its highest intensity compared to the middle of the day.

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
This day had been so warm that I completely forgot to bring a pair of gloves. Fortunately, I was cross-country skiing well after 4 pm and only out for an hour and a half on April 16, 2019, so I wasn’t overly concerned about getting sunburned . And as long as I kept moving (which was the point of this evening cross-country ski session), my hands never got cold. © Jared Manninen

4) Short Window of Time for Favorable Snow:

Two relatively short windows of time (9:30-11:30am and 4:30-6:30pm) in which to get in a cross-country skiing session doesn’t sound like much. So, why would this be a reason to love cross-county skiing during the spring?

For me, it means that I can go out and have a brief but fun adventure during the morning and then have the rest of the day to get shit done. Or, I can spend all day getting shit done and then go out and have a short but rewarding evening workout.

If you’re anything like me, then you know that there’s nothing worse than having to cut short a stellar day of cross-country skiing in primo conditions because you have other commitments to keep.

Well, during the spring it’s guaranteed that, no matter what, around noon the snow will turn to crud. And if you’re still out in it at that time, you’ll be slogging your way back to the car.

I’m not a fair weather skier (I love skiing in blizzards), but believe me when I say that it only takes once to learn the signs of when the snow is transforming from “corn” to “sticky mashed potatoes” or it’s beginning to refreeze. See below for an explanation of those states of snow.

Besides, at this point in the season you should’ve already logged plenty of all-day ski sessions. The spring, or “post-season” as I like to call it, should be a time of rejoicing and celebrating the great season you just experienced.

Kind of like taking a victory lap because, after all, days on skis during late March and into April and May (if not longer) are bonus days in my book.

I totally understand that March and April has traditionally been ideal for long, overnight cross-country ski tours.

However, with the extreme shifts in winter weather that Lake Tahoe has experienced in recent years (2011-2015 drought years, 2015/16 “normal” winter, 2016/17 Snowpocalypse: Part 1, 2017/18 drought, and 2018/19 Snowpocalypse: Part 2) and the generally rising temperatures, snow enough to ski on that lasts beyond March has become a blessing.

Copyright © 2018 Jared Manninen
View of Round Top on April 27, 2018. This was the last day of my cross-country ski season for the winter of the 2017/18.. Even though that was a drought winter (most of our snow came during 2-3 weeks in March 2018), there was still a lot of snow in the high country. This location is just south of Carson Pass, which is well over 8,000 feet. © Jared Manninen

5) Ego Snow:

When you time your spring cross-country skiing session right, you’ll experience extraordinary skiing conditions.

Set out too early, however, and you’ll be scraping your way across boiler plate ice.

Show up too late and you’ll become mired in snow that’s been baked by the sun and relentlessly clings to your skis like sticky mashed potatoes.

In between those two extremes, though, you’ll find about two hours’ worth of the best skiing conditions imaginable. As the top layers of frozen snow begins to thaw for the day, it softens to the consistency of “corn.” Personally, I think it resembles more closely creamed corn, but that’s just me.

Regardless of what you call it, the point is that spring corn snow enables you to turn and glide like you were moving through room temperature butter. You know … the kind of butter that’s creamy and smears uniformly across a piece of toast.

Not only is that little bit of softness in the snow forgiving to the point that you’ll look as if you were making downhill turns on alpine skis, but it also helps to keep your skis tracking straight when diagonal striding.

I would argue that the latter benefit (of helping you track straight) makes spring skiing even more enjoyable than downhill turning. The reason I say this is because, coupled with the firm and stable snowpack, you can log long miles through uncharted territory due to the efficiency of movement achieved from that top layer of snow being soft.

If this is sounds like a foreign concept to you, visualize the two extremes of snow while trying to diagonal striding … a sheet of ice versus two feet of fresh powder. With the ice, you’ll have a firm platform from which to push off of but you’ll spend all of your energy trying to keep your skis from slipping and skittering across the ice (i.e. it’ll be challenging to move forward).

On the other hand, in deep snow you can maintain forward progress but it’ll look a lot more like snowshoeing with cross-country skis than diagonal striding. You’ll experience a ton of resistance by trying to push through too much snow while, at the same time, not find a firm base from which to push off from.

Copyright © 2019 Jared Manninen
Clearly, the coverage across Hope Valley has started to thin. However, this was on April 23, 2019, and a totally unexpected surprise. I couldn’t believe there was still so much snow on which to ski at this point in the season. © Jared Manninen

Feel free to share what it is that you love so much about spring skiing in the comment section below.

Now that I’ve reminded myself how much I enjoy cross-country skiing during the spring at Lake Tahoe, I better practice what I preach and go find some snow!