My First Snowshoeing Adventure
This is both a text and visual content heavy post, but I promise its worth it. I understand if you want to just look at the pretty pictures, they are very pretty, but the text is cool too.
Snow. For some of my friends in the Bay Area, it is an exotic wonder that have only seen a handful of times when they traveled to Tahoe or New York or Colorado. For my friends and family back in New England, it is the wrecker of days. Making commutes painful, breaking backs and closing business (not necessarily a bad thing if its class). For me as a transplant though, it is one of those nostalgic touch points of my childhood. Unfortunately, though as a Bay Area resident, the nearest snow is at least 4 hours away by car. In addition, the last three times I visited CT for the winter holidays, there was virtually no snow. All this led me to crave a trip to Tahoe. So, when my friend suggested a ski trip I jumped on it.
The most popular winter activity in Tahoe without a doubt is skiing and snowboarding. I had tried skiing in college. It was a fun time especially with student lift ticket prices. But, I personally can’t justify the enormous cost of a lift ticket + rental for a single day experience. So, when I looked into snowshoeing I knew that is what I wanted to try instead. It’s essentially winter hiking! The perfect way to experience the snow at my own pace as well as escape the crowded slopes of Heavenly and other resorts. All this for as little as the just the cost of renting shoes ($10-$30/day).
Equipment and Apparel
Snowshoes don’t stop you from sinking into the snow, they only make it less likely and easier to get out. Also, there is a good chance you will fall if you are hiking on ungroomed trails.
On that note, you want everything to be waterproof. Summer (waterproof high-top!) hiking boots with thick socks can work in a pinch but I acquired winter hiking boots after the fact. Just like hiking, I recommend synthetic or wool layers. Your body will warm up throughout the day as well as the conditions will change including sharp winds at higher elevations. As with any winter conditions, don’t forget hat and gloves. Finally sunglasses and sun block are recommended the sun’s reflections off the snow gets very strong. I actually got sunburn on the last day of snowshoeing
Finally, the snowshoes themselves, I rented, so I don’t have much advice about them but I recommend renting from a sporting goods store like REI. They can also be rented at a cross country center at a slight premium. The biggest advantage of renting ahead of time though is the ability to take advantage of less developed trails such as those over existing hiking trails or buried fire roads.
Lastly a small day pack for snacks and water just like with any hike is nice to have. It is also a good place to store anything you want to keep dry. Because of condensation and sweating any pockets on your body will naturally get very humid.
Day 1 Rained out of Camp Richardson
Friday was a yucky day. There is no way to sugar coat that fact. It was hovering between rain and snow all day with more rain than snow coming down. The conditions were bad enough that Heavenly fully closed the mountain. Unfortunately, Camp Richardson, a lakeside resort on CA-89 where I planned to do my first day of snowshoeing. Also, closed its snowshoe/cross country trails.
Fortunately, though the beach as well as the estates behind the beach are open to the public and the kind staff at the cross-country center recommended I try that. I snowshoed along the beach from the marina out to Pope estate and then returned through the estates. These estates seem to be a small glimpse into the history of the region that many people seem to be happy to forget.
The snow conditions were bad with wet snow and even standing water in places. Nonetheless it was a good way to get a hang of walking in the shoes as well as for better or worse getting up/unstuck when things go wrong. Had a great time and prepared me for the rest of the weekend.
Day 2 Losing myself in Camp Richardson
Saturday conditions vastly improved! With the sun shining, and a cold night before freezing the slush mixture from the previous day, I returned to Camp Richardson. This time around they were happy to let me know that their backcountry was fully open. Looking at the map I decided to embark into the true adventure, along the ungroomed powerline trail out to Fallen Leaf Lake.
The cold night had created a wonderful firmness to the snow that made the hike up hill to the top of powerline trail a great time. Not only were trail conditions great, but there wasn’t a soul in site for most of my hike. It truly felt like I was walking through the frozen wilderness.
Sadly, while enjoying the serene quiet, I forgot to keep an eye out for my way point to leave the powerline trail, which was really just following the powerlines until you reach a water tower and then cutting over on a groomed trail into Fallen Leaf Campground over the seasonal Fallen Leaf Road. I overshot by quite a bit. Realizing this I tried to correct by just hiking in the general direction I needed to go to reach my destination, Fallen Leaf Lake. This cut across though lead me through a meadow filled with creeks. After a few successful creek crossings, I got a little too sure of myself and attempted to cross a buried creek. It did not hold and I feel through the ice into a ~8 in deep creek. This was not a great moment…
Thankfully that was the low point of the story. I managed to get out with some difficulty and returned the way I came until I was almost back to Fallen Leaf road. I then continued north until hitting Fallen Leaf campground avoiding crossing creeks. After a short walk through the campground, the gem that was hidden away was revealed. Fallen Leaf Lake. Here I patched myself up, enjoyed my lunch and tea and even got to watch a few dogs brought by owners who snowshoed in without getting lost…
The hike back to CA-89 was mostly uneventful. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where the trail back started since I never took it in. I ended up following the internal, albeit buried campground roads almost back to CA-89. At some point, I saw a couple sledding along an open passage in the hill. I thought this may be the trail back. I went this way for a while until I realized that this was not a trail. Thankfully I knew if I continued east, I will eventually run into the trail and worst case scenario I can go north and just walk along CA-89 to the cross-country center. Of course, I was not willing to admit defeat and push forward into the unknown. Although to be fair, I did check my phone multiple times as I continued along through the serene untouched snow. I eventually did rejoin the trail only a few minutes away from the origin. I had overshot most of the trail! Overall the day was wonderful, I had truly taken a harrowing adventure in the snow. It was also oddly satisfying to know that the first-aid kit, hiking towel, extra socks, and other precautions had all paid off. The moment of falling into the creek and immediately after was scary, but I was able to take stock of the situation and realize it wasn’t actually bad. I had taken a few calculated risks that cost me minimally. The thrill of knowing I was prepared to take on the elements and the (barely) wilderness stayed though.
Another small benefit both days was the ability to enjoy the bar and grill on the resort property to warm up after the hikes and stretch my legs before the drive back to the lodging.
Day 3: Bonus day at Kirkwood
The original plan for the trip was to leave Tahoe Sunday morning. But an opportunity presented itself. Saturday night we were brainstorming the best route back to the South Bay. The usual route using US-50 had been blocked the entire weekend due to 2 separate mudslides. The alternate route takes CA-88 through Carson Pass and more interestingly right past Kirkwood Ski Resort. My friends realized if we left early, we could squeeze in a half day of winter activities and still get back to the South Bay at a late, but reasonable time. Kirkwood was alluring for me because it was one of the few ski resorts in the Tahoe area with a backcountry area. Kirkwood has a few dozen kilometers (their words not mine) of groomed trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. So, we jumped on the opportunity.
Snowshoeing in Kirkwood was tame compared to journey I had taken the day before. The trails were defined and wide. The snow itself was packed and firm underfoot. To be honest except for the few times I went off trail, I am not sure if even needed the snowshoes. Despite this the higher elevation of Kirkwood as well as the trail sitting on a point of prominence, gave spectacular vistas. After acquiring a trail pass from the cross-country center (at $29!), I took the high trail. The trail was about 4 miles round trip with moderate elevation gain to a breathtaking vista point. The entire trail felt more like a stroll through a winter wonderland than a hike. A beautiful winter wonderland though, with the massive snow-covered firs framing the trail, beaming sun making the snow sparkle and even start to melt on the branches. The excitement of the snowy wilderness from the day before was gone, but it was replaced with the awe that I hope is visible in the pictures.
Before this weekend. Snowshoeing was an activity I wanted to do for quite a while, but the reality of needing to drive 4 hours, in harsh conditions, and stay the night caused it to be pushed out for quite a while. It is odd to need to plan a trip to see snow. I had grown up with snow all around me from as early as October to as late as April. I was happy to finally see snow again. Snowshoeing itself is a fun activity with many of the same positives as with hiking (reconnect with nature, solitude, beautiful views, Instagram likes). The biggest difference is the need for more precautions. The cold can be dangerous if you are not prepared for it. I was scared going into the first time unsure of how much more strenuous the combination of the shoes and the snow have on the body. For this reason, I picked shorter, rather flat trails the first time around. I now realize the impact isn’t that bad and am excited to attempt harder trails including a wonderful trail I had done in the summer, Mt. Judah. The other realization I made is that the rush of being on ungroomed trail closer to the wilderness is what I want. Hiking on groomed trails is worry free but it just feels a bit too manufactured. In addition, I almost feel silly with snowshoes on a groomed trail. Next time you have the opportunity whether it be right in your backyard or on a trip to alpine territory, give snowshoeing a shot!