Cross-Country Skiing on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe

Snow-flocked trees in a snowstorm on a mountainside

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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. His 180-mile, 5-day round trip journeys extended from Genoa, NV, to Placerville, CA. Over 160 years later, cross-country skiing is still thriving at Lake Tahoe.

The cross-country ski terrain on the south shore of Lake Tahoe ranges from flat and easy to steep and strenuous. Please note, though, that you’ll mostly find off-track and backcountry cross-country skiing areas around South Tahoe.

So, be prepared to embrace your inner Snowshoe Thompson when cross-country skiing in South Tahoe!

What I’m really trying to say is that you’ll find plenty of winter adventure while cross-country skiing in South Tahoe, but you’ll need to be aware of your surroundings and limitations.

Snow travel can be strenuous and dangerous no matter how “easy” it looks.

Just an FYI … the only groomed areas in South Tahoe are Kirkwood XC, Camp Richardson, Lake Tahoe Community College (LTCC), and the Spooner Lake Area. Before rushing out to cross-country ski at any of these locations, however, read their descriptions below.

Considerations for Your Cross-Country Skiing Adventure in South Lake Tahoe :

  • Always be avalanche aware when traveling through mountainous snow country as is found at Lake Tahoe.
  • Assess the risks, weigh their consequences, know your limits, and be conscious of your decisions before taking action.
  • Leave your winter adventure 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 and gloves for the winter conditions.
  • Carry the necessary safety gear for your specific adventure and know how to use it.
  • Stay adequately fueled and hydrated.
  • When parking, don’t block traffic or Forest Service gates, and don’t impede snow removal vehicles while they’re operating.
  • Keep your dogs on a leash and pick up after them.
  • Public lands are for everyone.

Click for a more comprehensive look at considerations when traveling in the backcountry during the winter at Lake Tahoe.

Map of general cross-country skiing areas in South Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Areas Map created by Jared Manninen in 2015. This map is only for reference and shows general cross-country skiing areas on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. Always carry a traditional topographic map and compass when traveling in the backcountry. © Jared Manninen

The rating system I’ve used on the map above is dynamic. Depending on snowpack, weather conditions, and your skill level, an easier location (i.e. green dot) may actually be quite challenging. Also, the map is of my own creation and not necessarily to scale

  • Green Dots = Easier terrain
  • Blue Squares = Moderately strenuous terrain
  • Black Diamonds = Steep and dangerous terrain

South Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Areas

Listed below are general areas in which to cross-country ski in and around South Lake Tahoe.

Again, there are very few locations that actually featured groomed terrain. Be prepared for off-trail adventures when cross-country skiing in South Tahoe.

Cross-country ski tracks in the snow with snow-covered mountains in the background
Cross-country skiing at Baldwin Beach on November 30, 2015. Freel Peak and Jobs Sister are in the background. © Jared Manninen

Fallen Leaf Lake Area

There are many locations to cross-country ski near Fallen Leaf Lake and along State Route 89 north of the “Y” (intersection of HWY 50/SR 89).

On the lake side of SR 89 you’ll find terrain that’s 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 SR 89, you’ll find Mount Tallac Road, leading to Floating Island and Cathedral Lakes. And, the Taylor Creek Snow Play Area (Sno-Park permit required) provides access to Cathedral Meadow and Fallen Leaf Campground.

Keep in mind that all of the places along SR 89 north of the “Y” are at lake level. This means that they usually don’t feature enough snow early or late in the winter in which to cross-country ski.

Fortunately, all of the above mentioned areas are easily accessible from SR 89 so you can assess them quickly for snow levels.

Pine trees covered with snow on a sunny day
A regular winter wonderland at Washoe Meadows State Park on February 22, 2017. © Jared Manninen

Meyers

West of the HWY 50/SR 89 intersection (the “Y”), you’ll find many easy to moderate areas in which to cross-country ski. Locations to cross-country ski in this area include Washoe Meadows State Park, Tahoe Mountain, and the Angora burn area.

Drive along Lake Tahoe Boulevard west of the “Y.” Then scout around Tahoe Mountain Road and North Upper Truckee Road (and adjacent streets) to find a Forest Service gate at which to park. Don’t block the gates, and avoid parking in a manner in which you’ll block traffic or impede snow removal operations

Please note that the above mentioned areas in Meyers are close to being at lake level. Again, these locations may not have enough snow to cross-country ski on until later in the winter.

Cross-country skiing through snow-flocked forest
Cross-country skiing in the late afternoon on Echo Summit on December 5, 2018. The trees were still snow-flocked after a recent snowstorm. © Jared Manninen

Echo Summit

On Highway 50, drive through Meyers and head just west of Echo Summit (as if you were going to Placerville). Then, turn right onto Johnson Pass Road. Drive up this road and park at the Echo Lakes Pass Sno-Park (Sno-Park permit required).

From the Echo Lakes Sno-Park, you can cross-country ski to Echo Lakes and further into Desolation Wilderness (i.e. Lake Aloha and beyond).

For travel from the Sno-Park to Desolation Wilderness, I recommend simply sticking to the main road that leads to Echo Lakes. Trying to actually follow the PCT/TRT, for example, may be more hassle than it’s worth.

The road to Echo Lakes isn’t plowed in the winter, so be sure to factor the extra time and distance into your plans.

Another option for cross-country skiing out of the Echo Lakes Sno-Park is to travel south along the Forest Service Road that bisects Echo Summit. The route I’ve outlined is relatively short, but it’s satisfying when you don’t have much time or a storm is quickly approaching.

A snowy meadow with trees and overcast skies
Cross-country skiing at Bijou Community Park on November 27, 2010, during a snowstorm. © Jared Manninen

South Lake Tahoe (City)

Lake Tahoe Community College (LTCC) grooms about 5km of trails when snow permits.

Neighboring Bijou Community Park is ungroomed, but the park’s terrain is flat.

Both locations are located centrally in South Lake Tahoe, which means they’re also at lake level. So, the main challenge for cross-country skiing at either of these locations is whether or not enough snow has accumulated to warrant the use of skis. You may need to wait until winter is well underway to cross-country ski at either of these locations.

You may find more cross-country skiing options nearby along Pioneer Trail or at the end of Oneidas Street. Park at one of the Forest Service gates on either road and cross-country ski off-trail and toward the mountains.

Copyright © 2015 Jared Manninen
A snow-flocked branch of a Jeffrey Pine Tree on December 11, 2015. © Jared Manninen

Stateline

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.

Usually Rabe Meadow is 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.

A winter wonderland with a purple hue at dusk
Cross-country skiing at Grass Lake at last light on January 22, 2019. © Jared Manninen

Luther Pass

Luther Pass (Grass Lake) is one of the most popular locations for cross-country skiing in South Lake Tahoe.

Parking is free and abundant along State Route 89 on Luther Pass. Grass Lake (on Luther Pass) is flat, making it a perfect location for beginner cross-country skiers. And, Luther Pass is located at a higher elevation than other places around South Lake Tahoe so it accumulates snow earlier and holds it longer during the winter.

The times I find Grass Lake to be most beneficial for cross-country skiing is at the beginning and ending of the winter, as well as during storms. Or, if I just want to hammer out a quick evening workout (two miles from end-to-end), I’ll head up to Luther Pass.

Due to its close proximity to SR 89, you can get in and out of the “backcountry” at Luther Pass easily. This is why I like cross-country skiing here during storms and in the evening.

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.

I prefer to cross-country ski at Big Meadow closer to spring, when the snow has receded back from the roads and parking/access to the trailhead is more dependable.

In the meantime, I’d recommend heading to Grass Lake.

Snowy and overcast day with rolling hills covered in snow
Cross-country skiing out of the Hope Valley Sno-Park on Blue Lakes Road on December 4, 2018. © Jared Manninen

Hope Valley

Hope Valley is arguably the most popular locations at which to cross-country ski in South Lake Tahoe. The terrain is primarily flat, there’s plenty of places to explore, and it’s an ideal location for beginner and recreational cross-country skiers.

However, Hope Valley sits at a lower in elevation than nearby Luther Pass and Carson Pass. So, it can take some time for enough snow to accumulate for cross-country skiing in Hope Valley.

There are multiple locations at which to park in order to cross-country ski in Hope Valley. This is great for the sake of being able to find a spot at which to park. However, you need to know where you’re planning to park beforehand.

There are two different and distinct paying options for parking in Hope Valley during the winter. And, they both require you to pay in advance. To reiterate … there are no options for paying for parking anywhere in Hope Valley. Come prepare with either (or both) a Sno-Park permit or a Lands Pass.

For parking and cross-country skiing out of the Hope Valley Sno-Park on Blue Lakes Road, you’ll need a Sno-Park permit. You need to purchase it in town or online.

For parking near Pickett’s Junction (intersection of State Routes 88/89), you’ll need to have a Lands Pass only available for purchase online from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. Valid CA hunting and/or fishing licenses also are acceptable.

Please note that the Lands Pass needs to be carried on your person, while the Sno-Park permit needs to be displayed in your vehicle.

Cross-country skiing on tracks that lead to a snowy mountain with dramatic clouds overhead
Cross-country skiing to Winnemucca Lake, out of Carson Pass, on May 20, 2019. Round Top is bathed in clouds off to the right. © Jared Manninen

Carson Pass

Carson Pass is a very popular location for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and alpine touring. Whether you adventure on the north or south side of SR 88, Carson Pass features challenging uphill climbs and diverse terrain.

Although it’s an extremely popular location at which to have a winter adventure, if you’re not savvy cross-country skiing in diverse terrain or relatively physically fit save this area for when you gain more experience.

That said, once you negotiate the first mile or so (traveling either south or north of the Carson Pass parking area), the trails will only be as technical as you want them to be. After those initial climbs, the terrain opens up and you can pick whatever line you want to cross-country ski.

Puffy clouds in the sky and a snowy mountain
View of Kirkwood Ski Resort while cross-country skiing on the Meadow Trail on January 30, 2019. © Jared Manninen

Kirkwood Ski Resort

Kirkwood Ski Resort, further west on SR 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.

My recommendation is to call ahead for grooming and accessibility. Kirkwood has a tendency to receive a lot more snow that other areas around South Tahoe. So, the roads may temporarily be closed or the xc area may not have been recently groomed.

Ski tracks on a snowy mountain
Even though most people associate cross-country skiing with flat terrain, on the south shore of Lake Tahoe many of the areas available to xc ski are ungroomed and in the mountains. So even on “flat” terrain you’re still going to have to negotiate hills. Before venturing into an area that might be beyond your experience level, be sure you know how to check your speed going downhill. Here, I’m practicing linking some parallel turns on cross-country skis near Read Lake Peak on April 17, 2018. © Jared Manninen