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Snow Play

Kristofer B. WakefieldSkiiers trek through snow-laden trees.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

A layer of fluffy, white snow blanketing the ground

might look like a winter wonderland to skiers, but non-skiers don’t need to lock themselves in the house until the spring thaw.

The northern Sierra isn’t known as a winter playground without reason. The vast area, which includes over 1 million acres in the Tahoe National Forest, offers a wealth of recreational treasures for anyone willing to bundle up and enjoy. The straight path of all-season Interstate-80 cuts into the thick of snowtime fun and State Highway 49 connects to plenty of backcountry, making access easy for everyone.



“The Tahoe National Forest has almost as much winter-recreation use as summer recreation,” says Tahoe National Forest spokesman Ann Westling.

Skiers have known about the opportunities of the northern Sierra for years, flocking to resorts near Lake Tahoe and along I-80, even before the 1960 Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley put the area on the world stage. There are five alpine ski areas on the Tahoe National Forest and several others nearby. Groomed trails and high-speed lifts draw crowds all winter long.




But it’s not all about skiing in the northern Sierra. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, inner tubing, snowmobiling and even skating are all options.

“Oh yeah, there’s a lot to do up here in the mountains,” says Squaw Valley USA’s Katja Dahl. “Winter can be a lot of fun.”

Snowshoeing, once a brutal necessity for pioneering settlers, is now a fast-growing recreation activity for outdoors enthusiasts. A large part of the attraction is the ease with which even a non-athlete can learn to snowshoe.

It’s so easy to learn that the saying, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” has become a mantra for snowshoe advocates.

Modern snowshoes are lightweight and come in a wide range of designs, ranging from backcountry shoes to ultra-light racing shoes.

Gone are the days of steam-bent hardwood with gut webbing. Shoes today generally have aluminum frames and specially-created rubber webbing. Many also have metal teeth to bite into icy surfaces.

Most ski shops are now carrying a selection of snowshoes for sale or rental. Poles – a highly recommended addition – are also widely available.

With equipment acquired, it’s only a matter of strapping on the snowshoes and going. In fact, the strapping on may be the hardest thing about the sport. It’s a good idea to practice putting the shoes on several times before heading to the snow.

Don’t forget that, although the techniques are easy, snowshoeing is an aerobic sport. Make sure you are in reasonably good shape before doing it. Also, remember to layer your clothing. It often comes as a surprise to beginners how quickly they overheat even though surrounded by snow.

“The most important thing – and this is true of all winter recreation – is that people be prepared,” says Westling. “Conditions can be very changeable.”

There are several trails that offer quiet trekking, away from bustling crowds.

For a mild introduction to the sport, try the Yuba Pass Vista. This is an easy walk of a little over three miles. It is well-marked and not too far off the beaten path and should take about three hours round trip.

This is a multiple use area and the beginning of the trail is shared

with snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, so keep your eyes and ears open. To get there take State Highway 49 to the Sno-Park at Yuba Pass, 11 miles east of Sierra City.

For a more difficult hike, or to avoid snowmobile traffic which can be heavy on weekends, follow the signs away at the bend in the road you would have found on the previous walk. Head north on the road, following the Nordic ski trail marked by blue diamonds. This will take you on a 6.5-mile loop that is moderately difficult and should take about four to five hours.

Another easy hike with a big payoff is the Yuba Gap Vista. It is a 2.5-mile walk with little elevation gain. It follows the course of a road, making it easy to follow. To get there, take I-80 east about 42 miles past Auburn and turn off at the Yuba Gap exit. Follow the signs to the Sno-Park. The trail heads out from the upper parking lot.

Or you can snowshoe at the Big Bend Visitor Center. Heading west on I-80, take the Big Bend exit, follow the signs along U.S. Highway 40 to the Ranger Station. Trails are well marked.

Snow fun doesn’t need to be high-tech to be fun. Just remember your own childhood if you were lucky enough to go sledding. Most people will quickly conjure an image of a wood platform on two metal runners, but today’s sledders have more options than that. While the traditional sled of “Citizen Kane” fame is great for hard packed or icy slopes, plastic saucers are a more versatile way to go in the northern Sierra.

“We don’t have many established snow play areas on the forest,” says Westling. “But people who like sledding have found places up here. Everyone has their own favorite spots. It’s important to be all the way off the road with your vehicle though.”

Ranging from very inexpensive to bells-and-whistles fancy, saucers are good for a wide variety of snow conditions and can fit into the trunk of most cars. Also popular are modern tubes – a new twist on the old inner tube – which usually come with handle grips.

Tubing or saucering don’t require much, just a safe place to park, a little snow and a childlike joy in riding down a hill. Almost anywhere will do, but if you want your day in the snow a little more structured, and perhaps just a bit more comfortable, try Boreal ski area just off I-80. They offer sledding areas and the lodge is always close by. The sledding area is at the end of the parking lot and offers groomed runs and rental sleds. You have to use one of their sleds though, as they don’t allow personal sleds.

If doing it yourself isn’t your bag of roasted chestnuts, maybe snowmobiling is the way to go. These machines will allow you to cover larger areas and see more in a limited time.

“We have miles and miles of trails for snowmobiling,” says Westling. “It’s one of the bigger attractions of the forest.”

Area snowmobilers have known for years they can rely on Tom’s Snowmobile and Service in Sierra City for all their snowmobiling needs. They’re known for exceptional service and high-altitude riding. Their personal, small town service will accommodate the novice or the experienced snowmobiler. Tom’s also carries all accessories and snowmobiling equipment.

When snowmobiling, remember you’re on a fairly loud machine, so don’t expect to sneak up on any winter wildlife. Most areas of the forest have snowmobile access, but it is usually in multiple use areas. Keep this in mind if you choose this form of winter fun and keep an eye out for snowshoers and cross-country skiers on the trails. There are also special regulations for snowmobiles, so it’s a good idea to call the Tahoe National Forest or log on to their Web site for more information. If you want to introduce children to snowmobiling, a safe way to do it is offered at Boreal. They have mini snowmobiles and a track to ride them on.

If none of these snow adventures strike your fancy, there’s still ice skating. Yeah, ice skating.

Squaw Valley, USA, home of the 1960 Olympics has a skating rink where you can “skate on top of the world.” The Olympic Ice Pavillion offers a rink 100 feet wide and 200 feet long at an elevation of 8,200 feet above sea level. It’s open daily in the winter (subject to weather conditions) and is relatively inexpensive. Rentals are available and a couple of hours on the ice can run as little as $7 for adults or $6 for children. Lessons are also available by appointment.

This is a great alternative to snowboarding and skiing, while still enjoying the outdoors. And, best of all, the lodge is nearby for everything from hot chocolate to warm food.

“Quite a few people go skating,” says Dahl. “Some people that aren’t excited about skiing, really have fun at the skating rink.”

So, ski if you want to – but if you don’t want to, don’t let that keep you inside. The gold may be gone from them thar hills, but a treasure of winter activities remain. You just need to go out and find them.


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