7 Reasons Why Backcountry Skiing is Better in Lake Tahoe
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In Tahoe, Backcountry Skiing is Older Than the ResortThe history of skiing in Lake Tahoe goes back to the 1930s, when Wayne Poulsen, an accomplished young athlete from Reno, envisioned this place as a mountain community dedicated to skiing—as a way of life. After completing a scientific survey, he found the snow conditions in the Sierra were suitable for the development of winter sports, and started buying land in the Olympic Valley. Those efforts brought about a wave of interest in skiing, at a time when there was no avalanche control or lifts. Investors soon saw the potential too, and in 1949, what we know today as Palisades Tahoe—the largest skiing complex in the region—was established. For his contributions, Poulsen was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame and the 7,742-foot Poulsen Peak in the Sierra Nevada was named in his honor.
An area renowned for bluebird days and easy access to skiable terrainThe mountains around North America’s largest alpine lake offer some of the best backcountry skiing in California, but what surprises visitors—in addition to the quality snow–-is how easy the terrain is to access. You can thank roads that are plowed all winter long for that. For example, Donner Summit and Donner Pass virtually never close in the winter (except during storm cycles, for avalanche mitigation). Although you might not find much alpine skiing, the sheer quality of the tree skiing more than makes up for it. And thanks to the expansiveness of the area, it would take an outsized crowd on the scale of the record-setting December 2021 snowfall for you to have to share the slope with someone.
Skiing conditions in the Tahoe backcountryNow, on to the most compelling reason to head to Tahoe for backcountry skiing: the snow. When other places in California—or the West in general—are not yet suitable for skiers, Tahoe is your best bet to find powder. That’s because the Sierra Crest is the first big landmass snowstorms run into. Thanks to this maritime snowpack (meaning the ocean is the predominant force delivering precipitation to the area), if the seas are cooking up any snow it’s heading here before anywhere else. As you can guess, the ski season is long, running from late November to mid-April. It’s historically full up too—a usual year brings well over 500 inches of snow. In fact, the area recently had a winter for the record books: in December 2021 it received 193.7 inches of snow in a single day! If you’re lucky, you can ski the Tahoe backcountry all the way through June. For safety guidance, be sure to check with the Sierra Avalanche Center, which reports everything an hour north and south, covering a sizable chunk of the Sierra Nevada.
Don’t be put off by the myth of Sierra cementSome people like to call the snow around the lake “Sierra cement”, considering it overly wet and heavy. Sure, compared to skiing around the Tetons or the backcountry of Colorado—where the cold polar air mass from the north is the main supplier of dry flakes—the Sierras tend to get warmer snow… but more of it. Another benefit of the wet heft is that it is less prone to avalanches. However, the snowpack can sometimes behave quite differently depending on the conditions. Most notably, early spring brings a higher avy risk, with multiple persistent weak layers present, including a surface hoar. That’s something you’d expect to see in a continental snowpack, say when backcountry skiing in a place like Utah, for example.
The 7 Best Places in Tahoe for Backcountry SkiingNow that you know why Lake Tahoe is a true West Coast gem, here are some of our favorite places to explore in the area:
- Silver Peak, best for beginners
- Castle Peak, best for a high-elevation start
- Andesite Peak, best for a quick and easy run
- Alpine Meadows, best for lift access
- Mount Rose, best for a full day of skiing
- Jake’s Peak, best for gorgeous scenery
- Mount Tallac, best for terrain diversity
1. Silver Peak
Perfect for beginners or newcomers looking for something classicSilver Peak is considered Tahoe’s hidden gem because of its proximity to Alpine Meadows in the Olympic Valley but with just a fraction of its crowds. Locals have been enjoying the peace and quiet on this long, mellow run for decades. A great intro for beginner backcountry skiers, it starts with a low-angle one-hour ascent along a snowy road, then becomes a moderate climb to an east-facing bowl. From there, the terrain varies, from shorter bowl runs to long romps among the trees. With so many options, it’s the perfect place for someone dipping their toes into skiing or splitboarding. The highlight, for sure, is the small summit waiting at the end—the sweeping view from up there will make you feel like you’re on top of the world.
When it comes to classic Lake Tahoe skiing, Silver Peak’s backcountry is right up there with the best of them.
1. Silver Peak - Good to Know
Easy to moderate
2,328 feet (709 m)
Take US 89 along the Truckee River, then turn up Squaw Valley Road and park at the end. Alternatively, you can access Silver Peak from the Pole Creek drainage.
Skinning up to the peak from Squaw Valley Road requires a bit of route finding. You’ll hardly see the peak until you get near and you might bump into some rocks and steep spots along the way.
Spend the night in Sierra Club’s Bradley Hut north of Silver Peak for a good intro to ski touring.
2. Castle Peak
Best place for avalanche rescue practice or ski mountaineeringCastle Peak sits at a little over 9,000 feet and offers plenty of terrain options for both spring and storm skiing. It’s no wonder all the parking lots are jam-packed from the early hours—which means dawn patrol is absolutely necessary. Don’t think you’ll be elbowing your way through the backcountry, though, most people are actually here for sledding, not skiing. When you start your hike, you’ll pass by the beautiful Castle Meadow, a perfect place for a day of avalanche rescue practice. Even if you already took an avalanche course in Lake Tahoe, a prerequisite for venturing out into the backcountry on your own, it’s recommended that you periodically refresh your knowledge and keep abreast of new rescue techniques. Castle Peak is a great place for leveling up your skiing abilities and learning about managing backcountry risk. For one, the peak has a craggy summit especially suited for ski mountaineering training. From there, you can drop onto a popular 2,000-foot south face for exquisite corn skiing. The runs below the buttress are great for doing shorter laps, while the other option is heading to an expansive north bowl with drops into some exciting chutes.
If you’re a backcountry neophyte or a skier looking to hone your avy knowledge, you can’t go wrong with Castle Peak.
2. Castle Peak - Good to Know
Easy to moderate
1,921 feet (585 m)
You can leave your car in the parking area next to the Boreal Ski Area Parking Lot, south of Highway 80. It’s best to get there early on weekends.
The climb up to Castle Peak is not difficult, but it can take a while. There’s around 2 miles of gradual uphill before the more strenuous final stretch.
Extend your stay in the Tahoe backcountry by staying at Peter Grubb Hut below Castle Peak’s western flank.
Backcountry Skiing in Lake Tahoe, AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course in Lake Tahoe
3. Andesite Peak
Beginners will enjoy the saddle despite the verticalFor a quick and easy run, head over to Andesite Peak, which is the main drop off point for skiing in the Castle Peak area. Because of its access to different types of terrain, the saddle is a good option when avalanche danger is highly aspect dependent, as you can choose from a variety of different lines. The approach is mellow. The lower trail of Castle Valley North Road is popular for snowshoers and winter hikers because the snow is nicely packed in without much sink. Note that because the lower portion is often shared don’t expect a well-maintained skin track. On the last stretch, the vertical grade increases a bit, but it’s still perfectly suitable for beginners.
The saddle of Andesite Peak is the perfect place to go for a quick and easy Lake Tahoe run.
3. Andesite Peak - Good to Know
Easy to moderate
897 feet (273 m)
Same as Castle Peak. If the road to the trailhead is too icy, go under the freeway and park at the Donner Summit Sno-Park.
The climb starts from the same trailhead as Castle Peak. Follow the snowmobile road until you reach a fork. Turn left and continue your ascent through lodgepole and fir trees, wrapping around Andesite Ridge and up to the peak.
In order to park your car in a Sno-Park area, you’ll need a daily or seasonal permit.
4. Palisades Tahoe
For powder hounds seeking a premier backcountry experienceBackcountry access through the resort is only available at Palisades Tahoe. Located on private land, Palisades has closed borders (which means you can’t just duck under a rope to find untracked snow). The mostly private designation for skiing is a shame because the resort is surrounded by some epic backcountry terrain. Some guiding companies do have an agreement with the resort to use their lift system to access more remote backcountry areas. That way, reaching Granite Chief Peak, which sits at 9,000 feet, becomes a cakewalk instead of a full day’s walk. There are three main areas to explore in Alpine Meadows: Tram Ridge, Munchkins, and the famed National Geographic Bowl. Our favorite of the three, the advanced and remote Nat Geo, has everything from wide open bowl runs to tight chute squeezes to rocky, steep descents which offers plenty of opportunities to explore along the bowl ridgeline. We usually drop down, then hike back up a few times before skiing all the way back to the resort. While the lift does do part of the heavy lifting, every turn still has to be properly earned.
Palisades Tahoe and the surrounding terrain are steeped in legend—and feature legendary steeps.
4. Palisades Tahoe - Good to Know
Moderate to advanced
Leave your car at the Village at Palisades Tahoe, which has over 4,200 free parking spaces.
You can easily travel between Palisades Tahoe’s two valleys with the Base-to-Base Gondola.
5. Mount Rose Wilderness
A high-elevation powder keg that will blow you awayThe extinct volcano of Mount Rose and the surrounding wilderness—not to be confused with Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe—holds some of the finest high-elevation powder and corn skiing in the entire Tahoe area. Located at the northern end of the Carson Range, just east of the Sierra Crest, these runs are just as good as the ones on the more renowned neighboring peaks. You can access the area from the top of highway 431, a parking area at an elevation of around 8,000’. The peak of Mount Rose, the third highest in Tahoe, tops out close to 11,000’, which means you can often be above snowline here, should it be raining closer to the lake.This is a great spot for those looking for a longer, crowd-free day out on skis. One recommended tour is to skin up the right side and climb the south saddle between East and West Galena Peaks (where the famous Fireplug zone is located) then heading up the mountain’s southwest flank. Note that the peak is often windswept, doesn’t hold snow well, and is typically not the destination in and of itself. From there, you can head to the saddle between Mount Rose and Mount Houghton and switchback the west side. If you time your trip right, you could catch a 2,000-foot descent down the south gullies all the way to Galena Creek. The chutes spreading down the south flank of the mountain hold plenty of snow, making them the most reliable lines on the mountain. After heavy snowfall, you can follow the long northeast drainage towards Whites Creek, where a shuttle can take you to your car.
Mount Rose is one of the more prominent peaks in the Tahoe area. It requires a good deal of skill, but its rewards are plentiful.
5. Mount Rose Wilderness - Good to Know
Moderate to advanced
2,176 feet (663 m)
Leave your car at a high-elevation parking area at the top of Highway 431, above Lake Tahoe’s northeast shore.
There are multiple options. I prefer skinning up the right side and climbing the south saddle between East and West Galena Peaks, then going up the southwest flank.
If you go on the high east slopes, don’t drop too deep into the Galena Creek Drainage because you’ll have to go back around the mountain while staying high enough to reach your car.
6. Jake’s Peak
When in doubt, go where the locals skiLocated on Lake Tahoe’s western shore, Jake’s Peak is a staple of the local backcountry scene. With easy access to the skiable vert, a wealth of terrain options that includes steep glades, chutes, and 2,000-foot descents over the lake’s crystal waters, a day spent here will stay with you for a lifetime. Slaloming among these old-growth red firs and lodgepole pines is one of the most thrilling experiences you can have backcountry skiing in California. The most inviting parts of Jake’s Peak are the steep descents found in the insulated glades above the midway bench at 7,600 feet. The slopes there keep skiers safe from harsh winds, while the forest is wide enough for carving wide turns. The gladed terrain is generally safer than the chutes to the east and south, but you can still get the odd snowslide on storm and powder days. Although brimming with brilliant runs, the terrain facing east and south doesn’t get that much traffic because skiing there heavily depends on a stable snowpack. The chutes facing south also require heavy snowfall. That’s why, when conditions aren’t that favorable, you’ll most likely find yourself in the northeast-facing glades.
The spectacular setting and dazzling terrain at Jake’s Peak will make you forget about the crowds.
6. Jake’s Peak - Good to Know
Moderate to advanced
2,357 feet (718 m)
The easiest way is to leave your car at a parking pullout on the east side of Highway 89, south of the entrance to D. L. Bliss State Park. Walk across the road and you’ll see the wide starting skin track next to some large rocks.
You’ll never be the first skier at Jake’s. Simply follow the skin track through the trees until you reach the top.
The east and south slopes are the most lauded, but they require a very good snowpack.
7. Mount Tallac
Welcome to the crown jewel of the Tahoe BasinRising above the southwest corner of the lake, with a distinctive snowy cross etched into its side, Mount Tallac is the most recognizable of the Tahoe Area peaks and a rite of passage for any local backcountry skier. No peak in the area can hold a candle to this lakeside giant when it comes to terrain variety and views. Then add reasonable access and relatively long runs, and you’ve got yourself a must-ski destination. The most direct route to the summit is from the end of Spring Creek Road. A short walk through densely packed trees will take you to the bottom of the Northeast Bowl at around 7,400 feet. Head north onto the treed ridgeline and follow it until you reach the spine of the mountain. From there, go left to wrap around the south side and shoot straight towards the summit. Tallac is not too hard to summit, so you’ll have plenty of energy left to explore the wealth of terrain opening up below you, all the way to the enchanting waters of Lake Tahoe.
If you’re only going to ski one mountain in the Tahoe Basin, make it Mount Tallac.
7. Mount Tallac - Good to Know
3,200 feet (975 m)
Park at a pullout near the junction of Spring Creek Road and Highway 89, then walk down the plowed road for about a mile until you reach the starting point. Alternatively, leave your car at the Taylor Creek Sno-Park.
The Cross Couloir just south of the summit.
You can find some low-angle runs in the high bowl. If you’re looking for the best corn skiing, go to the south-facing Cathedral Bowl.
Good-to-Know Info For Backcountry Skiing at Lake Tahoe
Before you take your first step in the vast Lake Tahoe backcountry, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible. Here is a list of the most common questions from first-time visitors to the area.