Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Areas

A Skinny-Skier's Mecca
Page 1 of 6   |  

The Lake Tahoe area serves up more ski lifts to downhill skiers than any other spot in North America, but it arguably deals free-heelers an even better hand. The region is justly famous as the home of Royal Gorge, the largest Nordic resort on the continent. A dozen other privately operated cross-country areas, combined with numerous routes on public lands, create an unparalleled opportunity for skinny skiers to find their favorite vistas of the Sierra.

Around the perimeter of Tahoe itself are no fewer than five organized cross-country areas, all of them with spectacular panoramas of the lake from varying elevations. It isn't necessary to be a strong skier or to negotiate arduous trails, either, to be rewarded with such vistas. Beginners can get lofty views from an easy trail at the Diamond Peak Cross-Country and Snowshoe Center on the North Shore, or ski right on the beach itself at Camp Richardson on the South Shore.

Cheap skiing (free or for minimal charges) is almost everywhere you turn — at a number of trails operated by public agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the California and Nevada state parks systems. One compromise in using these trails, however, is to forego the comforts of grooming and machine-set track (with a few notable exceptions). Most of the public trails are on the west shore of the lake, extending from Tahoe City in the north to South Lake Tahoe, and are easy to reach from Highway 89. But don't overlook the locally operated community trail systems, especially ones maintained by the North Tahoe Public Utility District and the city of South Lake Tahoe.

There's plenty of excellent skiing outside of the basin as well. Notable venues include Kirkwood to the south, Crystal Basin and Donner Summit to the west, and the Plumas and Lakes Basin areas to the north.

Also, between Truckee and the North Shore of the lake are several"hidden" trail systems, less well-known routes to destinations such as Martis Peak or along the backbone of mountains framing the North Shore.

Tahoe's real draw lies in the way it encompasses an amazing diversity of skiing experiences within a manageable area. You can stride or skate in open meadows, explore secluded valleys that seem miles from nowhere but are quite close to civilization, climb to scenic overlooks of frosted peaks and plunging canyons, or follow meandering mountain streams through aspen and pine forest to frozen alpine lakes. Enjoying an outdoor picnic lunch on a huge granite outcropping, with a million-dollar view before you and a warm midday sun above, is one of the great pleasures of backcountry skiing. The more adventurous can even sign up for full-moon tours or overnight snow-camping.Considering the prodigious amounts of snow that can blanket the Sierra, there are several caveats to be aware of. One is that after a storm the usually high moisture content of the snow — so consistently soggy it's widely known as"Sierra cement" — can create avalanche hazards on many steep slopes. If you're venturing into the high country on trails that are not patrolled, or are cutting your own tracks, contact the local ranger district of Tahoe, Eldorado, or Toiyabe National Forests for the latest information on avalanche conditions. Outside of the developed areas, it's not wise to travel alone. Even when skiing with a friend, tell someone where you're going and when you expect to return. More than one skier has been caught in a sudden change of weather and become lost or disoriented. Carry a fanny pack or knapsack with extra food and liquids, and have sufficient layers of clothing to survive lower temperatures.Another consideration when taking Forest Service trails is that they are minimally signed, and sometimes lack signs altogether. If you are not familiar with orienteering — using a compass and USGS topo maps — don't venture out on unmarked routes. Wherever you go, be especially careful in crossing streams or skiing on ice-covered lakes; if you are uncertain about your footing, use an alternate route. Remember that snow conditions are constantly changing. Consider also your altitude, your physical conditioning, and the dangers of hypothermia.

Many cross-country areas recently have begun offering snowshoe rentals, so even nonskiers now have a chance to explore the backcountry. Snowshoes are noted in the following listings when they are available.

Read on and you'll find out about four of Tahoe's cross-country ski areas, each one of them offering very different experiences. And remember that these trails are just a beginning — Tahoe's expanses of skiable terrain will never cease to offer up to you brand-new challenges, big views, and perfect, frozen moments. It is the sure knowledge of these rewards that makes Tahoe a world-class nordic destination.

View: Tahoe Area Map

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »