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Jill Sanford | 11.08.2018

Lake Tahoe comes alive in the winter, and as a blanket of snow settles over the lake’s edge, on the tall peaks that rim the water, and in towns like Truckee, Tahoe City, and South Lake Tahoe, the atmosphere almost crackles with fun.

There’s so much to Lake Tahoe outside of the world-class downhill ski areas. Winter backcountry enthusiasts come from far and wide to hike and explore the trails, mountains, and meadows, leaving the in-bounds crowds of the resorts far behind. Whether you're into backcountry skiing through pristine snowy forests or snowshoeing up to summits for views of the lake, Lake Tahoe is the perfect spot to catch your winter wave.

Truckee and North Lake Tahoe

Donner Ridge Area: One of the best places in the greater Lake Tahoe area to go for your first backcountry ski tour, the Donner Ridge Area above the Tahoe-Donner neighborhood offers myriad options for skiers and snowshoers alike. From the Glacier Way Trailhead it’s a quick ascent to the top of Sunrise Bowl. This mellow, low-angle terrain is a safe place to test your skills in the backcountry. Skiing down into the bowl will take you toward the Tahoe Donner Ski Resort. Snowshoers will enjoy exploring the ridge and connecting with the Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area.

Castle Peak: Castle Peak is a prominent rock formation just north of Highway 80 and very clearly visible from the road. The trail to Castle follows along the PCT for the first part of the trek before ascending the ridge and increasing in elevation toward the summit. 

Peter Grubb Hut: The Grubb Hut, which is owned and operated by the Sierra Club, is a popular destination in the winter and a good place for all adventurers in the Castle Peak area to have on their radar for safety reasons. It is located in the valley below Castle and is used by snowshoers and backcountry skiers alike. Reservations and inquiries can be made at the Clair Tappaan Lodge.

Donner Peak and Mount Judah: Also located in the Donner Summit area and along the Pacific Crest Trail, these two prominent peaks look out over Donner Lake from the south side of Highway 80. It’s a relatively mellow snowshoe, but it does feature some elevation gain from the trail to the ascent of the two peaks. After recent snowfall, the trail can become tricky to find farther in, but it’s easy to orient yourself with views of Sugar Bowl Ski Area to the west and the ridge of Mount Judah and Donner Peak to the east.

Donner Memorial State Park Snowshoe and Cross Country Ski: Even though Donner doesn’t groom cross-country ski trails, the popularity of what in the summer is a 1.5-mile interpretive trail (3 miles round trip) packs down much of the route. It’s also a great route on snowshoes and, depending on the snowfall, can sometimes be accomplished with sturdy winter boots as your only gear. The trail brings you to the water’s edge, where you can take in the stunning vistas of Donner Summit.

Martis Fire Lookout: If views of Lake Tahoe are what you crave, continue past the Donner Summit/Truckee area toward Kings Beach via Highway 267 to reach the Martis Fire Lookout Trailhead. This steady climb features steeper sections and rolling hills over the 7.6-mile trek, making for a longer day on snowshoes. Warming up in the Martis Fire Lookout and taking in the surrounding views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada are well worth the effort, however.

Aprés in Truckee/North Lake Tahoe: If warming up with a craft beer, unique cocktail, or fine wine sounds like the right way to end a day spent exploring snowy trails, you're in luck. Truckee is home to four breweries: Alibi Ale Works, Tahoe Mountain Brewing, FiftyFifty Brewing Company, and Truckee Brewing Company. The Pour House and Uncorked are the local wine bars, and Old Town Tap is a great establishment for craft cocktails and happy hour snacks. And the Art Haus in Tahoe City is a one-of-a-kind, single-screen movie theater where you can relax after the sun goes down. 

West Shore and South Lake Tahoe

Sugar Pine Point State Park: This state park is located on the west shore of Lake Tahoe and features several well-marked trails to explore in the winter. They take you right to the water’s edge where you can see the icicles forming on large boulders. The Orange Trail is a popular 1.2-mile route that takes you close the historic Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, and the 2-mile Yellow Trail leads you on another route through the legendary Sugar Pines for which the park is named.

Waterhouse Peak: Located off Highway 89 toward the south end of the lake, Waterhouse Peak is another great beginner backcountry touring zone to get out and test your mettle after taking a backcountry safety course. It’s also a popular route for snowshoers looking for a place to explore in South Lake Tahoe.

Echo Lakes Trail: This 3-mile route is located above the south end of Lake Tahoe along Highway 50. The road into Echo Lakes is not plowed in the winter, making the 3-mile round trip route to the water's edge a popular snowshoeing and cross-country skiing route. Winter visitors park at the sno-park and follow signs and tracks to the first Echo Lake, taking in views of Tahoe to the east as they slowly ascend. When you reach the parking area above the Chalet, you will descend to the water's edge, where you can enjoy the views of the lake from a dock as you look out over the frozen lake. 

Aprés in South Lake: South Lake Tahoe also has its own fair share of breweries. Sidellis Lake Tahoe is a favorite among locals and tourists alike, while the Brewery Lake Tahoe, Stateline Brewery, Lake Tahoe AleWorX, and South Lake Tahoe Brewing Co. also draw large crowds. Vinos should make a point to visit Cork and More and the Tahoe Pourhouse, as well. For great food and a fun atmosphere, another brewery, the Cold Water Brewery and Grill, will leave everyone satisfied. 


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