Tahoe National Forest Overview
Whether you're baking in the dry heat of a Sacramento Valley summer or languishing amid the rain showers of a San Francisco winter, the heights of the Sierra Nevada, straight to the east within Tahoe National Forest, can seem like Shangri-La. In summer, Tahoe's deep river canyons and high peaks beckon adventurers in search of cool air and waters, panoramic views, meadows of wildflowers, and forest of firs, hemlocks and hardwoods. And in winter, when the conifers groan under the weight of hundreds of inches of "Sierra cement"—the moisture-laden snow the California mountains rob from Pacific storm systems—the greatest concentration of ski lifts in the country is just a straight shot on I-80 away from the Bay Area.
The sapphire shimmer of Lake Tahoe—the nation's largest and deepest alpine lake—is the hub of this part of the Sierra Nevada, and the Tahoe National Forest extends deep into the mountains north and west of the lake. While the Tahoe doesn't include any Lake Tahoe frontage, the blue-within-blue lake is certainly part of the allure of the forest's high-country views. Elevations climb from about 1,500 feet in the forest's western foothills to more than 9,000 feet at the Sierra Crest. Landscapes in the Tahoe run the gamut. In the western foothills, dry woodlands dominate, with patches of chaparral brush here and there; from about 3,500 and 8,200 feet you'll find montane forests of ponderosa pines and red and white firs. Heading higher toward the Sierra Crest is subalpine country with stands of lodgepole and whitebark pines, low shrubs such as greenleaf manzanita, and primrose-dotted meadows. And in the rarified air above timberline, you'll find windblown grasses and sedges, monkey-flowers, dwarf huckleberry, and mountain sorrel amid the stark rock of exposed volcanic plugs. The forest supports wildlife including mule deer, black bear, bighorn sheep, badgers, and gray fox.
Tahoe is one of the most historically significant of our national forests, having hosted the Gold Rush of 1849 and served as the gateway through which most emigrants entered California. Native Americans have used Donner Pass for thousands of years, and from wagon trains to the first transcontinental railway and highway, this break in the wall of the Sierra has served as a natural turnpike. (And yes, it was the scene of the grisly demise of the Donner Party in 1846-47.)
Given its scenic glories and proximity to large population centers, it's not surprising that Tahoe is one of the most heavily visited of all national forests. More than 5 million people a year come here to hike, mountain-bike, pitch a tent, play in whitewater, cross-country ski, and launch off cliffs on snowboards or alpine skis. Chances are good that you'll find a lifetime's worth of the big outside within these borders.
Get Big Air
Since the heyday of Scot Schmidt in the 1980s, Squaw Valley—one of half a dozen alpine resorts on Tahoe National Forest land—has been the epicenter of "extreme" skiing. These days, the art of piloting your plank(s) off of cliffs, down near-vertical slopes, into narrow couloirs, or into other out-of-bounds terrain is called "free riding"; Squaw is still very much a showcase for exhibitionists, but nearby areas Sugar Bowl and Alpine Meadows have a heaping helping of extreme terrain as well. If you aspire to stardom in future Warren Miller ski movies, this is where you need to audition.
Do the Downieville Downhill
Here's an incredible fat-tire biking opportunity—begin at 7,150 feet, amidst Tahoe National Forest's firs, and ride down to town on beautiful forested singletrack, following sparkling streams along the way. The area's most popular option is taking a shuttle from Downieville to Packer Saddle, then riding back along this spectacular route. Riders can, however, make this a loop ride if they're not afraid of climbing. Although the trail has some very technical sections, competent intermediate riders should be able to handle it, if they don't mind walking their bike occasionally. There are several variations to this trail, all of which run parallel to one another. You may begin with either Butcher Ranch Trail, Pauley Creek Trail, or Big Boulder Trail. When you've reached the end of your selected route, you will then take the Second Divide or the Third Divide Trails to the dirt Lavezzola Road. You'll take that road to First Divide Trail, which takes you back to Downieville. And there are many other trails around Downieville on which to further whet your singletrack appetite—try the Chimney Rock/Empire Creek Trails.
Skinny-Ski the Backcountry
Tahoe National Forest's alpine resorts are justly famous, but it may well be an even better spot to cross-country ski. For one thing, it's home to Royal Gorge, the largest Nordic resort on the continent. Perched on snowy Donner Summit, Royal Gorge has just about everything you could want: an immaculate trail system that is revitalized daily with a fleet of snow-grooming machines; an extensive network of warming huts; a backcountry overnight wilderness lodge, unique among U.S. Nordic ski areas, that serves gourmet meals; four surface lifts that form something of a miniature downhill ski area served by a large day lodge with a restaurant and sundeck; and rental equipment that is always on the cutting edge of technology. It's one of the great winter resorts of the world. There are several other Nordic areas near Tahoe City and along the Donner Pass corridor, along with an extensive and fairly heavily used system of free trails on Tahoe National Forest land. All of which adds up to make one of the nation's true cross-country hot spots.
Backpack a Chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail
Not many of us find time to thru-hike the length of the great long-distance trails. Fortunately, there's always section-hiking, and for all those who tackle the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail in bits and pieces, there are 97 miles and a few sublime sections within the Tahoe National Forest. One favorite is the trip from the I-80 trailhead at Boreal Ski Area down to Squaw Valley; it's a 15-mile hike along knife-edge ridges. Another traverses for 21 miles along the eastern border of the Granite Chief Wilderness, a jaw-droppingly scenic area of exposed rock formations, granite cliffs and glacially-carved valleys, forests, and meadows.
Paddle the American River
The American River is truly an American favorite: more than 100,000 people float just the South Fork of the river every year, making it the most popular stretch of whitewater in the state of California. The river offers great scenic beauty, thrilling whitewater excitement and a motherlode of mining and American history. The North Fork, which gathers steam in Tahoe National Forest, present greater challenges to the rafter; the run from Iowa Hill Bridge to Ponderosa Way is a technical, fast, and furious trip with five miles of virtually continuous Class IV rapids. Standouts among the sharp drops and rocky chutes are Zig-Zag, Achilles Heel and Bogus Thunder. On the slower lower stretch, savor the spectacular scenery of this truly wild river. The diversity of the unique river canyon can be seen in its deep, vertical walled gorges and high bluffs; in its placid pools and cascading rapids; and through its mixture of conifer and hardwood forests. The river has it all—good fishing in uncrowded conditions, backpacking, swimming, photography, gold panning, and more.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication