Glitz and glamour. That’s pretty much Lake Tahoe in a nutshell.
Throw in some snow and there is perhaps no more famous snow zone in the United States than Lake Tahoe (sorry Utah). That snow zone—where up to 200-300 inches of snow falls each winter—is the playground for millions of Californians, most of whom go there to ski on one of several downhill ski resorts that dot the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
With all those people and ski resorts and casinos and, well, tree huggers, sledders might ask, “Is there room for snowmobiling?”
In fact, would you believe there are a half dozen riding areas surrounding the Lake Tahoe area—an area which surrounds the crystal blue lake and straddles the Nevada/California border?
There’s even an active local snowmobile contingent which refuses to take a back seat to the area’s No. 1 industry—skiing. They live by the motto that snow belongs to everyone.
The snow around Lake Tahoe gets just about as many weather headlines as Nor’easters (the more common one we all hear is that “Donner Pass has been closed due to heavy snow…”). It’s usually deep (remember the 200-300 inches we told you about) and it comes in big dumps—feet at a time, not inches at a time. It’s not uncommon for this part of the Sierra Nevadas to get four feet of snow from one storm. This year, by Oct. 21 there was 20-40 inches in the Lake Tahoe area. Here’s the clincher. Tamarack, in the Sierra Nevada, had a record 76 feet of snow fall in one season. The same area had 32 feet fall in one month. At one time, the area had 37 feet on the ground.
Lots of snow usually means a long riding season. In the Lake Tahoe area that season can stretch from December to May.
Okay, so Lake Tahoe has snow.
For years, in the pages of SnoWest Magazine we’ve referred to this snow as Sierra Cement. Storms that rake across the Lake Tahoe basin come from the Pacific and are usually full of moisture, so much so, that in just two or three days after the storm drops its bounty, the snow is set up. The snow isn’t rock hard, but more what you’d find farther inland (like Utah or Idaho) in March or April. So if you’re looking for a deep powder experience, try to hit the area soon after a storm, but not so soon that you put yourself in avalanche danger.
So what about those riding areas? On the Nevada side there is Spooner Summit and Tahoe Meadows. In California the riding areas include Blackwood Canyon, Brockway and Fallen Leak Lake. Go a little farther away from the Lake Tahoe, the second deepest lake in the United States, and you’ll find the popular riding areas of Little Truckee Summit (north and west of the lake) and Hope Valley (south of Lake Tahoe). Both these areas are in California. During our trip to the Lake Tahoe area, we rode Little Truckee Summit and Brockway.
When you drive from Reno to Lake Tahoe via Nevada Highway 431 you pass Tahoe Meadows, which is about five miles from Incline Village. This isn’t a large area, only about four square miles, but there is some hillclimbing and bowls here for climbing and playing in. This place is ideal for locals (or anyone else) who have a couple of hours to ride and want something close. Snowmobilers share this area with cross country skiers and families who want to go tubing and the like. Where snowmobiles are allowed is clearly marked.
Spooner Summit is 11 miles from the Highway 395/50 intersection, which is just south of Carson City. A local snowmobile rental company, Zephyr Cove Snowmobiles, grooms about 30 miles of trails on Spooner Summit (elevation 7,146 feet), which takes snowmobilers to some areas providing awesome views of Lake Tahoe on one side and the Carson Valley on the other.
The Blackwood Canyon riding area is about three miles south of Tahoe City on Hwy. 89. There is a small sno park there and there are no groomed trails in the area but there are lots of old logging roads and several open bowls for climbing. Farther south is Fallen Leak Lake, which is on the south shore of Lake Tahoe.
Not far off the northern shore of Lake Tahoe is Brockway Summit (7,199 feet). You can park near the summit and access a groomed trail that leads to Tahoe City. This parking area is 3-4 miles up Highway 267 from Kings Beach, CA. Or you can start in Tahoe City—the trailhead is at the local golf course—and head to Brockway. There is also a connector that leads north to Truckee. In all, there’s about 90,000 acres of riding in the Brockway area and lots of logging roads that aren’t groomed but lead to some spectacular views of Lake Tahoe. There’s not a huge elevation change in this area—maybe 2,000 feet.
You can ride to the backside of the runs at Northstar-at-Tahoe, where, perched at 8,610 feet, you can see pretty much all of the surrounding area from the lake to the mountains. Locals tell us some groups ride up to this part of Northstar-at-Tahoe, which sits on Mt. Pluto, and eat lunch at the Summit Deck and Grille. The restaurant is located where the Comstock and Backside lifts meet.
Through The Trees
Aside from the already-mentioned views this riding area offers, another one of its attractions is the great boondocking through the not-too-close trees. Because of the snow conditions you can ride just about anywhere—and we mean anywhere—high or low. One of the groomed trails leads to a perfect perch (Mt. Watson—elevation, 8,424 feet) that overlooks Lake Tahoe, several hundred feet below. Just another opportunity to be amazed that such a gem still exists.
One of the most popular riding areas near Lake Tahoe is Little Truckee Summit, which is off Highway 89 about 15 miles north of Intestate 80. There is a groomed trail system here and about 1,000 square miles of riding. Criss crossing those 1,000 square miles are about 300 miles of ungroomed roads. And dotting the area are plenty of bowls, ridges and meadows that give sledders of all skill levels plenty to do for several days. Diving in and out of the trees then pounding on a hill, heading back to the trees through a drainage or two and then climbing to the top of a ridge to see the surrounding area (including several lakes, rivers and streams) and then dropping off the mountain…that’s all part of the appeal here and why it attracts so many riders. It’s the diversity.
We rode the southern part of the riding area, passing Webber Lake, playing in Cold Creek Canyon and sledding on Mt. Lola. While we covered a lot of territory, we barely scratched the surface of what’s available here. When you’re riding the ridges or find your way to the top of the mountains, the views are often unobstructed because you’re near where the mountains top out and that means you can see for miles.
Stick to the trails (or go cross country) and you can ride from Little Truckee Summit to Yuba Pass, which gives you more of the same as what’s on the southern portion of the system. There are about 150 miles of groomed trails in the Little Truckee Summit/Yuba Pass area and the Pacific Crest Trail passes through this riding area.
There are a fair amount of sledders who like to ride the Lake Tahoe area so if you want to avoid the crowds, go midweek.
A great source of information is www.tahoesnowmobiling.orgwhere local clubs post information about the area. There are several snowmobile rental and guide outfits in the Lake Tahoe area. Contact the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, (800) For-Reno, for information on sled rentals and guide service. You do have to pay to play in California so inquire locally as to the fees and know also that a volunteer trail pass is now in effect, put there to help supplement grooming funds. All the monies are dedicated solely to grooming.
Most snowmobilers prefer to get away from the big city lights and ride the backcountry to see all that nature has to offer but we say don’t let the glitz and glamour of Lake Tahoe scare you off. Instead let the crystal blue persuasion of Lake Tahoe help you enjoy all the snow and backcountry the area has to offer.