Snowy splendor in the backcountry |

Snowy splendor in the backcountry

Sun News Service photo/Dan ThriftView from the driver's seat of a snowmobile heading out from Spooner Summit for a day of winter fun at Lake Tahoe.
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For those who seek the thrill of blasting through powder at high speeds, downhill and cross country skiing in Lake Tahoe are not your only options to outdoor fun.

Snowmobiling has had a long tradition on the South Shore among locals and visitors, with machines now safer, cleaner and faster than ever. Before people begin buying snowmobiles, they often get their first taste by taking guided tours.

Two Tahoe outfitters – Lake Tahoe Adventures and Zephyr Cove Snowmobile Center – offer regular two-hour guided tours seven days a week to some of the most pristine areas in the basin and Sierra Nevada.

After a few go-rounds through the hills and valleys, most people who try snowmobiling become hooked, said Ari Makinen, owner of Lake Tahoe Adventures.

“Snowmobiling is a sport that anyone can enjoy, particularly if you’re older and can’t get around on skis as much, or if you’re handicapped,” Makinen said. It’s also one of the safest and easiest ways to go about seeing the backcountry, added Chris Burke, outdoor supervisor for Zephyr Cove Snowmobile Center.

For people who are privileged to live in Tahoe, even the locals have a hard time seeing the backcountry in the middle of winter, Burke said. Snowmobiling offers a great way to get back into the areas where people go in the summer.

“The backcountry here is a completely different experience in winter once you get back in the hills,” Burke said. “The snowmobile allows you to do it in a safe environment.”

Both companies offer unique trips through the basin and guides who are knowledgeable about the geography and history of the area.

It’s been nearly 32 years since Makinen started up Lake Tahoe Adventures, with only a couple of snowmobiles that would run up and down Sunset Ranch, near Lake Tahoe Airport in South Lake Tahoe.

“We had law enforcement classes where we used snowmobiles, then we moved on to the search and rescue, and we even got some movie work,” Makinen said. “We had to expand in all different directions.”

Once secure, the outfit expanded into Hope Valley, where the family lives. It is there where the majority of the tours are. Makinen has a fleet of 90 snowmobiles, all with 4-stroke engines, a new technology among the machines that has eased concern among environmentalists.

The 4-stroke engine has been engineered so it is quieter and pollutes the air less than the 2-stroke engine.

“We were the first major company to go 4-stroke and we don’t regret it at all,” Makinen said. “They are fuel injected, making them fuel efficient and it has cut down on the noise. You can’t even hear them run.”

With any new investment, the 4-stroke was “a little risky” in the beginning because Makinen wasn’t sure how they would operate.

The decision to convert his fleet to 4-stroke was good because it has cut down on fuel costs.

“And the ride is still the same,” he said.

Lake Tahoe adventures offers two-hour tours through the high alpine of Hope Valley, with 2,000 feet in elevation gain, from 7,500 feet to 9,500 feet. Guides will stop at key vistas so riders can capture the essence of the Tahoe basin and the Sierra Nevada.

Special guided tours are offered, including moonlight tours for those looking to go farther back into the deep snow or families looking to gather around a bonfire.

“We do bonfires, lunches and dinners. Whatever a customer wants, we can pretty much take care of,” Makinen said.

Even if it means riders exchanging wedding vows.

On a couple of occasions, Lake Tahoe Adventures guided friends and relatives into the backcountry for weddings.

“All you need to do is come up with the minister and we’ll take care of the rest,” he said.

Two-hour tours cost $95 for singles and $135 for doubles on a snowmobile. Free shuttles are provided and clothing rentals available for those not quite dressed for the brisk winter powder rides.

For more information, call (530) 577-2940 or log onto their Web site at or Lake Tahoe Adventures is located in South Lake Tahoe at 3071 Highway 50 across from the agriculture inspection station.

Zephyr Cove Snowmobile Center offers unique two-hour tours through the Sierra, from Spooner Summit along miles of Forest Service roads from Genoa Peak to Kingsbury, with breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe and the Carson Valley. Elevation climbs of 2,000 feet are a part of the tour, peaking at about 9,000 feet.

Trips take place seven days a week, at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

For those more trained and adventurous, a special Peak Performance Tour is offered at 9 a.m. for intermediate snowmobilers.

“You are given your own set of guides, your own group and you will go into places according to your own abilities,” said Mike Kacirek, who works for the center, owned by Aramark Corp., which owns the Tahoe Dixie and Tahoe Queen.

The snow from last week’s storms was a welcome relief to Burke, who has been the supervisor for Zephyr Cove Snowmobile Center since 1987.

The center is also converting its snowmobiles from 2-stroke to 4-stroke engines. So far, it has 90 permitted snowmobiles allowed to go in the backcountry, with three varieties of snowmobiles to choose from.

The cost is $89 for a single rider and $134 for two people on a snowmobile. Hot chocolate is served along the trails and clothing is available for rent.

For information and reservations, call (775) 589-4908 or log onto the center’s Web site at www. The center is located four miles north of Stateline on Highway 50.

Jeff Munson can be reached at

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