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People would have you believe that Tahoe in the spring is paradise. The days are becoming longer and the sun is seems to be a little warmer. For months you’ve weathered fierce winter storms and now you’re ready to hit those famed Tahoe hiking trails to visit your favorite peaks, find unique and vibrant wildflowers, and maybe even start off the backpacking season with a quick overnight trip. That all sounds glorious, but let’s hold that thought for a moment and gain some perspective.
Yes. Tahoe in the spring is paradise. Tahoe in the summer is paradise. Tahoe in the fall is paradise. Tahoe in the winter is paradise. Tahoe on a sunny day, in a snowstorm, in the rain, in the dark, on a train… You see where I’m going with this? There’s no question that Tahoe is paradise. But the thing about paradise is that it doesn’t give a rip about what clothes and gear you have packed, how long your commute to paradise took, what you had planned to do when you arrived, or how much money, time, and resources you invested into your trip to paradise.
It’s not my intention to sound cynical or to discourage you from coming to Lake Tahoe for adventure in the spring. However, you need to be prepared, physically and mentally, for the inclement weather that typically hits Lake Tahoe during the spring.
The volatile nature of spring weather at Lake Tahoe and the trail conditions in the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains can be frustrating at best and life-threatening at worst. So, in spite of the fact that the spring equinox lands on or about March 20th each year and, in warmer climates, spring flowers are already beginning to bloom, many of us Tahoe locals often carry on as if we were still operating in winter conditions. If the previous winter resembled anything close to a normal snow year, we’ll remain vigilant through the end of May.
Fact: The first stage of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California was scheduled to begin in South Lake Tahoe on May 15, but due to a significant snowstorm the stage was cancelled. Then the following day, the second stage was shortened and re-routed so that instead of beginning at Squaw Valley, it started further west “off the hill” in Nevada City. Commentators called it a “freak” storm, but there wasn’t anything freakish about it.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe may not be the highest mountains on the map, but Lake Tahoe still sits over a mile above sea level and can receive snow as late as June (and as early as September). For reference, all but three of the photos posted with this article were taken during the spring of 2016 (March 22 – June 15), with the others being from May of different years.
Normal to Above Normal Snowpack Levels Makes for Long-Lasting Snow:
Lake Tahoe experienced four consecutive drought winters between 2011 and 2015. Then, the 2015/16 winter season brought relatively normal amounts of snow to the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. By March 30, 2016, the snowpack was recorded at 97% of its average. Although it was only deemed a “normal” winter, in comparison to the previous four years it was fantastic.
Snow patches and fields remained in the higher elevations well into June. The winter’s snowfall threw for a loop many new travelers to the region and recent Tahoe transplants because they weren’t accustomed to dealing with so much snow so deep into spring.
Some of the higher profile travelers who were caught off guard by the increased snowpack levels were Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers. For three years during the drought I worked at the (now closed) South Lake Tahoe backpacking store called Lake of the Sky Outfitters. We provided support services for Pacific Crest Trail hikers and, during those years, PCT hikers began arriving in South Lake Tahoe progressively earlier each season.
We did a good job of tracking PCTers as they came through the store, but in 2016 it became nearly unmanageable because there were so many of them. The following list is when the first PCT hikers arrived at Lake of the Sky Outfitters through 2013 and 2016. Keep in mind that an average PCT hiker beginning in mid to late April and hiking straight through will arrive at Echo Summit (roughly the 1,100 mile marker) by mid-June.
- June 5, 2013
- May 31, 2014
- May 21, 2015
- May 18, 2016 (some PCT hikers arrived earlier than May 18, but I don’t have a record of those dates and I don’t believe these first hikers actually walked the entire distance – rather they skipped large sections to avoid the snow)
The reason for the earlier start dates is a combined result of the drought years and the widespread availability of information via social media, blogs, and trail apps. Basically, hikers over the drought years began to broadcast trail conditions, weather reports, and snowpack levels along the Pacific Crest Trail. Exposed to this wealth of trail data, many Pacific Crest Trail hikers from the 2015 and 2016 classes began to alter their approach to hiking.
In 2015, they reasoned that with lower snowpack levels they could begin their thru-hike earlier in the spring and minimize heat exposure during the southern portion of the PCT, as well as to allow themselves more time to reach the Canadian border before early fall snowstorms.
This seems like a reasonable theory. However, it doesn’t take into account the volatility of spring weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, particularly in the southern half of the “range of light.”
You see, the traditional date(s) for most northbound Pacific Crest Trail hikers to begin their thru-hike is mid to late April. This enables a PCT hiker to travel through the desert sections in relatively cooler temperatures and then arrive at the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains after most of the late season snowstorms have passed. The latter reason being the more critical of the two.
You wouldn’t think a couple of weeks would make a huge difference. However, an interesting thing occurred during the 2015 Pacific Crest Trail season. Many PCTers began their hike much earlier and made it through the desert quickly, but then were caught in punishing (and dangerous!) late spring snowstorms throughout the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. This caused many of them to begin the process of skipping around and flip-flopping in order to avoid snow in the higher elevations.
In 2016, the process of picking and choosing and searching for sections of the Pacific Crest Trail that were free of snow seemed to have become the norm for many of the frontrunners. Interestingly, however, once this wave of fair-weather hikers passed through there was a lull in the action. And the next group of PCTers began to arrive later than a typical season because they were making slower progress due to actually taking the time to safely negotiate the snow and swollen water crossings.
How does all of this translate to a weekend hiker coming up from the Bay area looking for a short, early season backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness?
Basically, if you’re planning to hike or backpack during the spring at Lake Tahoe, do your research on snowpack levels prior to your visit and then come prepared with contingency plans (such as cross-country skiing or snowshoeing) lest your originals fall through.
On the evening of April 29, 2016, I was hiking with a friend up to South Maggie’s Peak via the Bayview Trailhead just south of Emerald Bay. Less than 500 feet up the trail we were confronted with deep snow. We postponed strapping on the snowshoes because plenty of people had gone before us and had kicked steps into the snow.
As we progressed up the mountain, we met a number of college students on their way back to the trailhead. We were impressed by these backpackers because we were wearing boots and gaiters and carried snowshoes and crampons while they wore t-shirts, shorts, running shoes, and fully loaded backpacks.
“Wow. You guys actually stayed up there last night?” I asked.
“No, we just hiked up a couple hours ago and are on our way back to the car,” the lead person said.
“What do you mean? Are you guys in training something, carrying those big backpacks?”
“Nope. We finished with classes for the weekend and, on a whim, we drove up from the coast hoping to have a relaxing time in Desolation Wilderness. But we didn’t realize there was still so much snow up here.”
The bottom line is that if Lake Tahoe has a normal or above average winter, the following spring is going to be snowy, wet, and muddy through April and probably well into May. Even at lower elevations and on south facing aspects, where many of the trails will be bare, most likely you’ll still be dealing with a lot of snow and moisture. For example, large portions of trails leading through Washoe Meadows State Park and Cathedral Meadow (both on the south shore) will be submerged by a foot of water in April.
Trailheads that start low but quickly climb high, such as the Bayview trailhead, can expose you to deep snow within a few hundred feet of elevation gain. Also, north facing aspects of the mountains will typically feature icy areas throughout the day. And just because the trail may only be covered for a few feet with snow or ice, know that it only takes the surface area of your shoe to slip on the ice and ruin your day, potentially turning a leisurely walk into a fight for survival.
Transformational Snow Makes for Challenging Trails and Routes:
During each day of spring, snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains goes through a freeze-melt cycle resulting in multiple textures of snow. Overnight, the snow freezes and by early morning it becomes boiler plate ice. As the snow warms up due to rising temperatures, it transforms into the famed spring “corn” in which so many backcountry skiers long for. But by midday, that wonderful corn converts to the dreaded sticky mashed potatoes.
What was easily passable earlier in the day while the snow was firm may actually be impossible to cross by late afternoon. Snow bridges can collapse or may no longer be stable enough to cross. Rapid snowmelt can result in treacherous water features. And, traveling through mashed potatoes can be downright exhausting. Whether you’re backcountry skiing on alpine skis, cross-country skis, or snowshoeing, the snow will cling to your gear every step of the way.
If you’re simply out hiking, then you’re going to be constantly postholing and/or wading through (potentially deep) mush. Pushing big miles through this type of snow will take forever, leaving you exposed to the baking sun as well as costing you tons of calories. No matter your mode of travel, try to avoid covering significant distances during the warmest hours of the day.
On the other hand, traveling too early in the morning (or late at night) and facing ultra-slick surfaces can be even more dangerous. Snow features that looked simple to negotiate from afar become more concerning when viewed up close. For example, it’s not so easy to simply slide down that 10-foot north facing snow slope when, at the bottom, there’s a pile of jagged rocks or trees featuring multiple branches with which to impale yourself. And when you do safely negotiate that obstacle, there’s probably another waiting just around the corner to slow you down. Choose your routes wisely, lower your expectations for mileage, and be conscious each and every step you take.
Lastly, study your maps and make notes of the relevant terrain features for your planned route. Although you may have hiked that trail dozens of times in the summer, once it’s covered in snow or you have to circumnavigate dangerous terrain features, it’s easy to get disoriented.
Unpredictable Weather Patterns Make for Difficult Gear Choices:
Spring was the most difficult season to plan for at Lake of the Sky Outfitters. What happens in Tahoe by the time April and May roll around is that retailers have already begun to pull cold weather gear from the shelves and replace it with summer stuff. It’s challenging to find winter-related technical clothing such as base layers, beanies, and gloves, particularly affordable items you wouldn’t mind owning even if you didn’t absolutely need to buy it today.
At the end of spring, retailers typically have a bunch of oddball sizes and selections of gear ranging from cheap and unreliable to expensive and probably in need of more research before buying. The showroom at Lake of the Sky Outfitters was limited in size and our storage area was even smaller. We would try to sell off as much winter inventory as possible in order to avoid storing it over the summer. However, if we didn’t have enough winter gear to cover at least the first half of spring, we wouldn’t be able to serve our customers when a random cold front or snowstorm swept through Lake Tahoe.
During March, April, and May it’s safe to expect cold nighttime temperatures (high 20s to low 30s), moderate daytime temperatures (mid 40s to low 70s), and some precipitation (whether it be rain, sleet, or snow) mixed in for good measure. Monitor the forecast, but realize that a general warming trend will do you little good if the temperatures at night on the specific day in which you are camping are far lower than expected.
I’ve met many customers who were backpacking through Desolation Wilderness in the spring and underestimated the nighttime temperatures. So, after their first night they would come down from the mountain to buy thicker base layers, a sleeping bag liner, or even a new colder rated sleeping bag. Or, they would just abandon their plans altogether. A general rule of thumb when determining temperatures at higher elevations is to decrease the temperature (most likely determined at a lower elevation) by 3-5 degrees for each 1,000 feet of elevation gain. So, if the Lake Tahoe (roughly 6,300 feet) level forecast calls for a 32 degree overnight temperature, and you’re going to be camping at Lake Aloha (roughly 8,200 feet) in Desolation Wilderness, you could plan for an overnight temperature of 22-28 degrees (6-10 degrees colder due to the 1,900 feet of elevation difference).
You would think that winter would be more challenging to deal with as far as your gear goes. However, when it is officially winter, you probably have a general idea as to what you’re getting yourself into and what you need to pack. With spring, on the other hand, it’s usually frigid in the morning and hot in the afternoon. And, you’re probably suffering from a little wishful thinking by desperately wanting summer to finally arrive. That, in turn, can cause even the best of us to pack too light. Bring with you extra base layers, a beanie and a set of gloves, and wear or carry some type of weather proof shell. Honestly, I pack all of these items no matter what the season is in Tahoe because you never know when a cold, wet storm is going to hit.
On June 15, 2016, a friend and I hiked from the Big Meadows campground near Luther Pass to Scott’s Lake in Meiss Country. It was an overcast day and it seemed cool outside, but we were one week away from the first day of summer. So it was shocking when we stepped out of the car and began to put on the extra base layer we both brought (just in case!). Even more surprising was the fact that an hour later we were being pummeled with snow flurries.
If you are planning to travel deeper into the Tahoe backcountry, be prepared for the transformational snow I previously mentioned. For the early morning ice and hard-packed snow carry with you a set of micro-spikes, crampons, or snowshoes.
Final Thoughts about Spring Travel at Lake Tahoe:
Everyone has a story to tell about shivering through the night during a miserable camping or backpacking trip. In most instances, those cold nights usually just make for character building experiences. But push those circumstances further into the backcountry, lower the temperature a few degrees, and then throw some ice and snow into your path and you have the potential for catastrophic results.
People occasionally scoff at my advice or roll their eyes at my philosophies. And I do often wonder if I haven’t just become another paranoid. However, I often travel alone and you need to be mindful of your surroundings and vigilant about your safety when you choose that path. Even in a group, though, this is the preferred mindset to backcountry travel.
So, when asked by a customer last week about the type of bindings he should replace on his snowshoes (which broke and were under warranty), I instantly told him to select the set that would be the easiest to operate in the case of being stuck upside down in a tree well during a blizzard. He raised his eyebrows at my recommendation.
I then relayed to him the story I was told the previous weekend while on a moonlight snowshoe hike organized through work. That customer told me of his harrowing experience being trapped upside down in a tree well while riding his snowboard at a downhill resort. The man described the panic he felt for many minutes as he unsuccessfully attempted to release himself from his snowboard bindings. Fortunately, after taking a moment to compose himself, he managed to free his feet. But he said it took him close to 20 minutes to finally get upright, climb out of the well, and return to the groomers. He was lucky, whereas this guy was not.
Suffocation can happen in a fraction of that time. So, it’s hard to dismiss the old Scout motto “always prepared.” Ultimately it’s best if you have the resources and skills to save yourself. And this means that you need to be mentally and physically prepared for whatever adventure you’re about to embark on.
The day on which this article was originally written was March 22, 2017, and the spring equinox was only two days prior. There was four foot tall snowbanks surrounding my house and it had been raining and snowing for the past two days. Tahoe in the spring is paradise. But the thing about paradise is that it doesn’t give a rip about how long it took you to get there or what you planned to do when you arrived.