Considerations for Spring Hiking and Backpacking at Lake Tahoe

Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen

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. You’ve weathered fierce winter storms and now you’re ready to hit those famed Tahoe hiking trails. You’re looking forward 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. In the summer it’s paradise. Tahoe in the fall is paradise. It’s also a paradise in the winter. 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?

Another Day in Paradise

There’s no question that Tahoe is paradise. But the thing about paradise is that it doesn’t care about what clothes and gear you packed. Nor does it care about how long your commute 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 a spring adventure.

However, the weather at Lake Tahoe during the spring is volatile. Therefore, you need to be prepared both physically and mentally for inclement weather that typically hits during the spring.

Spring weather at Tahoe can be frustrating at best and life-threatening at worst depending on your backcountry location. So, in spite the spring equinox landing on or about March 20th each year, 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.

Snowfall Three Days After Spring Equinox on March 22, 2016. © Jared ManninenCross-country skiing near Armstrong Pass on March 30, 2016. © Jared ManninenLower Angora Lake Covered with Snow on April 16, 2016. © Jared Manninen

The Sierra Nevada Mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe may not be the highest mountains on the map. However, Lake Tahoe still sits over a mile above sea level. It can receive snow as late as June and as early as September.

For example, the first stage of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California was scheduled to begin in South Tahoe on May 15th. However, the stage was cancelled due to a significant snowstorm.

The organizers then shortened and re-routed the second stage. So instead of it 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.


For reference, I took most of the photos for this article between March 22 – June 15, 2016. Lake Tahoe’s 2015/16 winter was considered “normal.”

Also note that all of the information in this article about spring hiking at Lake Tahoe is applicable to drought winters where there’s little snow.

For a list of shorter hiking trails (many of which are at lower elevations) in South Lake Tahoe, read Short and Easy Hikes in South Lake Tahoe.


Normal to an Above Normal Snowpack 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.

The snowpack was at 97% of its average on March 30, 2016. Although that winter was “normal,” I considered it fantastic compared to the previous four years.

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. Even recent transplants to Tahoe were caught off-guard. They simply weren’t accustomed to dealing with so much snow so deep into spring.

Tips for hiking in snowy conditions during the spring at Lake Tahoe:

  • Choose your routes wisely
  • Lower your expectations for mileage
  • Be conscious each and every step you take
  • Study your maps and make notes of the relevant terrain features for your planned route
Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen
Snowstorm on April 22, 2016 (aka Earth Day). © Jared Manninen

Hiking and Backpacking in the Spring at Lake Tahoe is Challenging

If you’re planning to hike or backpack during the spring at Lake Tahoe, do your research on snowpack levels. Then, come prepared with contingency plans such as cross-country skiing or snowshoeing lest your originals fall through.

On April 29, 2016, I snowshoed up to South Maggie’s Peak via the Bayview Trailhead. This hike is located just south of Emerald Bay. My friend and I were confronted with deep snow less than 500 feet up the trail. We were able to hike without snowshoes for a short while thanks to previous hikers having 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. We were wearing winter boots and gaiters and carried snowshoes and crampons. They, on the other hand, 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. We’re on our way back to the car now,” the lead person said.

“What do you mean? Are you guys in training something, carrying those big backpacks?”

“Nope. We finished our college 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.”

Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen
Mathew negotiating the trail to South Maggie’s Peak on April 29, 2016. As we were hiking and snowshoeing up the mountain, multiple groups of backpackers from the Bay area were hiking down wearing shorts, tank tops and t-shirts, and running shoes. © Jared Manninen

After a normal or above average winter, Lake Tahoe is snowy, wet, and muddy through April. And May will probably relatively wet and sloppy, too.

Even at lower elevations and on south facing aspects, you’ll most likely still encounter snow and moisture. For example, large sections of trails at Washoe Meadows State Park and Cathedral Meadow will be submerged in water in April.

Trails that start low but quickly climb expose you to deep snow within hundreds feet of elevation gain. The Bayview trailhead, leading up to Maggie’s Peaks, is an example of this situation.

Also note that north facing aspects of the mountains will often feature icy areas throughout the day. So, don’t let that brief section of trail covered with snow or ice fool you. It only takes the surface area of your shoe to slip on the ice to ruin your day. And, your leisurely walk could turn into a fight for survival depending on your location and the time of day.

Transformational Snow Makes for Challenging Trails and Routes

Everyday during the spring in the Sierra Nevada, the snow goes through a freeze-melt cycle. So on any given day you, could be dealing with multiple qualities of snow.

Overnight, the snow freezes. Then, by early morning, it’s as hard as cement.

As the snow begins to warm up, it transforms into spring “corn.” This is the sweet spot for backcountry skiing. And, it usually lasts from 9:30-11:30 AM.

But by midday, that wonderful corn converts to the dreaded sticky mashed potatoes. And what was easily passable earlier in the day under firm conditions, may 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 on alpine touring skis, cross-country skis, or snowshoes, the snow can cling to your gear every step of the way.

If you’re out hiking, then you’re going to be postholing and/or wading through slush. Pushing big miles through this type of snow will take forever. And it’ll leave you exposed to the baking sun and cost you tons of calories.

No matter your mode of travel, try to avoid covering significant distances during the warmest hours of the spring day.

Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen
It may not be obvious from this photo, but the trail through Cathedral Meadow, pictured here on May 16, 2016, is submerged under at least eight inches of water. © Jared Manninen

On the other hand, traveling too early or late in the day can be even more dangerous. Because, you may find yourself facing ultra-slick surfaces.

Snow features that looked simple to negotiate from afar often are more concerning when viewed up close. Even if the ground beneath looks safe, sliding down a 10-foot icy slope is dangerous. But then add a pile of rocks or trees with protruding branches to your landing zone and you’re looking at potential trauma.

Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen
A nasty slide on the northern aspect of a massive snow pile as seen on June 2, 2016, while I hiked up to Jobs Peak. © Jared Manninen

When you do safely negotiate that obstacle, there’s probably another one waiting around the corner to slow you down.

Although you may have hiked that trail dozens of times during the summer, things look different covered in snow. There’s also the chance that you’ll become disoriented by circumnavigating dangerous terrain features.

Unpredictable Weather Patterns Make for Difficult Gear Choices

For many outdoor recreation retailers, spring is the most difficult season for which to plan.

By April and May, most retailers have pulled their cold weather gear and replaced it with summer stuff. So it’s challenging to find winter-related technical clothing in the spring.

No matter the season, I always recommend packing base layers, beanies, and gloves. These are all relatively affordable items that you should own even if you didn’t absolutely need it today.

At the end of spring, retailers typically have a bunch of oddball sizes and selections of gear remaining. This gear often ranges from cheap and unreliable to something expensive and in need of more research.

Outdoor retailers try to sell their gear as quickly as possible in the season. And they seldom plan to re-order much, if anything. This is because they don’t want to have to store winter gear over the summer. And they know that nobody wants to see last season’s selection on the shelves the following year.

It can even be difficult to find winter gear by January or February for this same reason. Those retailers push their products hard during November and December.

The obvious problem with this scenario is that cold fronts can arrive anytime at Lake Tahoe. So, if you don’t come prepared, you may find yourself freezing at night on that weekend backpacking trip to Desolation Wilderness.

During March, April, and May, it’s safe to expect cold nighttime temperatures (high 20s to low 30s). We often have moderate daytime temperatures (mid 40s to low 70s). Then, there can always be some precipitation, whether it be rain, sleet, or snow, mixed in for good measure.

Monitor the forecast. But know that general warming trends are useless to you if the temperatures on the specific night in which you’ll be camping are lower than expected.

Copyright © 2016 Jared Manninen
I thought it was going to be an easy traverse from Jobs Sister over to Freel Peak on June 3, 2016, but I started early and was faced with a slick snow field that featured a relatively steep angle. © Jared Manninen

From 2014-2017, I worked at a backpacking store in South Lake Tahoe. During that time, I met many backpackers who underestimated the spring nighttime temperatures in Desolation Wilderness.

After their first night, they’d come down from the mountain to buy a thicker base layer or sleeping bag liner. Sometimes they’d even by a new, colder-rated sleeping bag. Which, as you probably know, is no small purchase.

Occasionally, those backpackers would scrap their plans completely. Much like the college students I mentioned previously.

A general rule of thumb when determining temperatures at higher elevations is:

  • Decrease the forecasted temperature by 3-5 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain
  • Published Tahoe forecasts are often determined at a lower elevation, such as at lake level

For example …

If the Lake Tahoe (roughly 6,300 feet) forecast calls for a 32 degree overnight temperature, and you’re going to be camping at Lake Aloha (roughly 8,200 feet), plan for an overnight temperature of about 22-28 degrees.

The 6-10 degree variation would be due to the 1,900 feet of elevation difference of locations.

You’d think that winter would be more challenging to deal with as far as your gear goes. However, you’re nearly guaranteed it’s going to be cold and snowy during the heart of winter. As a result, you’ll probably have a good idea as to 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 at Tahoe. You just 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 to Scott’s Lake. The day was overcast and cool. But we were only a week away from the first day of summer. So, we were both a bit surprised that immediately we felt compelled wear the extra base layer we both brought. Just in case happened as soon as we stepped out of the car. Even more surprising was being pummeled with snow flurries an hour later!

Be prepared to deal with transformational snow when planning to travel deeper into the Tahoe backcountry.

For the early morning ice and hard-packed snow carry with you a set of micro-spikes, crampons, or snowshoes.

Lake, docks, and mountains
View of Lower Echo Lake on May 17, 2017. This image was taken at the tail end of Lake Tahoe’s 2016/17 winter Snowpocalypse. Spring hiking in Desolation Wilderness that year? Nope. But plenty of spring skiing! © Jared Manninen

Final Thoughts about Spring Hiking and Backpacking 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 paranoid.

But, I often travel alone. And when doing so, it’s critical to be mindful of your surroundings and vigilant about your safety. Even in a group setting, though, this is the preferred mindset to backcountry travel.

Ultimately it’s best if you have the resources and skills to save yourself. So, do your homework and be mentally and physically prepared for your spring Tahoe adventure.

The original publish date of this article was March 22, 2017, which was a couple of days after the spring equinox. On that day, there were four foot tall snowbanks surrounding my house. And, it had been raining and snowing for the previous two days.

Tahoe in the spring is paradise.

The thing about paradise, however, is that doesn’t care about how long it took you to get there or what you planned to do when you arrived.

Backcountry skiing up a steeper aspect of Waterhouse Peak on May 5, 2007. © Jared ManninenBear Tracks in Snow on my Front Porch on May 7, 2016. © Jared ManninenRunning through snow and spring grass near the meadow by Lake Tahoe Community College on May 27, 2010. © Jared Manninen

As if I hadn’t already written enough about spring hiking and backpacking at Lake Tahoe, here are some additional thoughts about the matter…

Pacific Crest Trail Hikers as the Canaries in the Coalmine

One group of higher profile travelers surprised by the increased snowpack of the 2015/16 winter at Lake Tahoe were Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.

For three years during the drought, I worked at a backpacking store called Lake of the Sky Outfitters. It’s since closed permanently. At the time, though, it was an invaluable resource in South Tahoe for PCT hikers.

During the years it was open, we noticed that PCTers began arriving in South Lake Tahoe progressively earlier each season. We knew this because we loosely kept track of them as they came through the store. At first, it was a relatively easy task to handle. But by 2016, it was nearly unmanageable due to the sheer volume of hikers passing through on a daily basis all summer long.

Any ideas as to why that was?

I’ll give you a hint … snowpack and social media.

A PCT hiker typically arrives at Echo Summit in South Lake Tahoe, by mid-June. This is based on a PCT thru-hike start date of mid to late April. Echo Summit is roughly the 1,100 mile marker of the PCT as you travel north.

The traditional date(s) for most northbound PCT hikers to begin their thru-hike is mid to late April.

The following list shows the date of the first PCT thru-hikers to arrive at the store between the years 2013 and 2016.

  • June 5, 2013 (following a drought winter)
  • May 31, 2014 (following a drought winter)
  • May 21, 2015 (following a drought winter)
  • *May 18, 2016 (following a normal winter)

*Some PCT hikers arrived earlier than May 18. However, we didn’t record those dates. At that point, we didn’t consider those ultra-early hikers as the “first” PCTers of the season. Those who arrived prior to May 18 that season had skipped large sections of the Southern Sierra to avoid the snow.

The main reason for the earlier start dates is due to those California drought years.

During the 2011-2015 drought years, PCTers began broadcasting their progress, trail conditions, weather reports, and snowpack levels via social media, blogs, and trail apps. Exposed to this wealth of trail data, subsequent PCT hikers (2015-2016) began to alter their approach to hiking.

In 2015, PCTers reasoned that with lower snowpack levels they could begin their thru-hike earlier in the spring. This would help to minimize heat exposure during the southern portion of the PCT. It would also allow them more time to reach the Canadian border before early fall snowstorms.

This is a great theory. However, it doesn’t take into account the volatility of spring weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And much of this is evident in the southern half of the “range of light.”

This enables a PCTer to travel through the desert sections in relatively cooler temperatures. Then, they will arrive in the Southern Sierra Nevada after most of the late season snowstorms have passed. The latter reason, in my opinion, being the more critical of the two.

Copyright © 2006 Jared Manninen
This stitched panoramic view of Desolation Wilderness was taken from Mount Tallac on May 14, 2006. In center of the frame is the Crystal Range, with Pyramid Peak being the most prominent peak located at the left third of the picture. A glimpse of Lake Tahoe can be seen on the far right. And if you look real close, you’ll see a backcountry snowboarder right of center walking toward the camera. © Jared Manninen

You wouldn’t think a couple of weeks would make a huge difference. But many PCTers were caught in punishing (and dangerous!) spring snowstorms in the Southern Sierra during the 2015 Pacific Crest Trail season.

Why?

Because they began their thru-hikes much earlier than usual. Many hikers actually started in the middle of March. That’s nearly a month earlier than the traditional start date!

Sure, those PCT hikers made it through the desert quickly and under cooler circumstances. But then they had to deal with all of those (typical) late spring snowstorms. As a result, many of their “thru-hikes” became flip-flops and patchwork hikes.

In order to avoid snow in the higher elevations a lot of the hikers spent a lot of effort in skipping around.

In 2016, the process of searching for snow-free sections of the PCT became the norm for many of the front-runners. Once this wave of fair-weather hikers passed through, though, there was a lull in the action.

The next group of PCTers to arrive in South Tahoe did so later than a typical season. Their slower progress was due to them taking the time to safely negotiate the snow and swollen water crossings.

I can’t blame people for wanting to be safe in the backcountry by avoiding treacherous sections. However, there’s a reason the start date for a traditional thru-hike of the PCT is in mid-April. Regardless of the previous winter’s snowpack, storms always hit the Sierra Nevada Mountains in late spring.

And always keep in mind that usually the shortest way home is the longest way around.

Mountains and snow with trees in the foreground
View of Round Top from the trail to Winnemucca Lake on June 13, 2019. Hiking to Winnemucca Lake to look for wildflowers in the spring after Lake Tahoe’s 2018/19 winter Snowpocalypse? Nah. It was still time for skiing in the backcountry! © Jared Manninen