Every winter, I pack up my gear, load up my friends, and pile into a truck for the seven-hour drive to the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Sometimes we rally up Highway 5, the quickest route alongside semi-trucks, cow pastures, and a whole lot of nothing. Sometimes we meander our way up Highway 395, adding an hour or two to the drive, but a drive well worth it — 395 has got to be one of the most scenic road trips in all of California. On this adventure, we did both.
It all began with dawn patrol on a midweek morning, winding through traffic on the Grapevine on an eerily cloudy day. It looked like someone had taken a watercolor brush to the entire sky.
The 5 is an endless stretch of power lines, flat open space, and lots and lots of cows. You want to zone out, but you have to be on it. One minute you’re gazing out the window, pleasantly lost in thought — and the next minute, all that farm-fresh funk is permeating your car before you lunge for the recycled air button. And it lingers for many, many miles.
As the hours rolled by, the temp gauge in the car dropped lower and lower… from 65°F in Lancaster to 50°F in Kettleman City to 40°F in Auburn to finally 20°F at the top of Donner Pass. Brrrr. I found myself adding more and more layers with every 1,000 feet of elevation gained. By the time we turned in for the night in Truckee, the air was a balmy 12°F and I’d run out of clothes.
But ohhh… that view in the morning! Nothing like waking up to the song of the cheeseburger bird and the gleam of icicles dangling outside your window.
We started our first official day in Tahoe with a cross-country ski outing in Prosser Meadows… a little warm-up for us “sea level dwellers,” as our Tahoe friends like to say.
It was a chilly but sunny day with fast, firm snow that crunched beneath our skis. We ice skated We tracked through the backcountry with Mount Rose looming in the distance. Out in the open meadows, with not another group in sight and away from any artificial noises… you really feel like you’re in another land.
Behind me, our friends — all of them first-timers but fearlessly charging it — slipped and slid all over the snow, planting their poles so hard in the ice I thought one would snap before the end of the day. It was good comedy. We tracked up a hill with the intention of bombing down on our skis toward the frozen lake below (ideally stopping before we landed in the lake).
If you’ve never cross-country skied before, it’s about as far removed from downhill skiing as you can get. Imagine two skinny toothpicks strapped to your toes as you try not to yard sale while standing still in one spot. Now imagine gliding (as if it could ever be so graceful to be called a glide) down a hill with your heels quivering and your upper body threatening to eject you. It’s awesome fun.
One by one we took our turn at the top of the hill, while another friend recorded our triumph (or our demise). The trick to surviving a speedy descent is to stay low and aim straight toward a flat that will eventually slow you down. Any attempts to brake or make turns (unless you’re a telemarker) equal disaster. You really are at the mercy of your skis!
We looped around Prosser Lake and skied along the creek, which trickled and shimmered under thin sheets of ice. I found wild sage growing under a blanket of snow and foraged a few sprigs for dinner that night.
When we finally made it back to the cars, we had a hiccup. As is tradition by now (you might remember the first incident in Baja), our friend’s truck mysteriously wouldn’t start. Was it the battery? The electric whatchacall? Is the Denali simply cursed on road trips? We got it up and running again — but if we’d been stranded in Tahoe, we would’ve been okay with that.
Long before our trip, we had obsessively checked the weather reports for any signs of a storm. It had been dry in SoCal since Christmas, and we were hungry for powder. But we arrived at a time when Tahoe hadn’t had new snowfall for weeks. The slopes were visibly melting. The road berms were only a foot high.
The groomers at Squaw Valley were hard packed, icy, and slick, and the tree runs… well, they were out of the question. But we were at Squaw. And it was clear as can be. You can’t go wrong with a beautiful day spent snowboarding with friends on a world-class mountain.
When day turned into night, we refueled at Le Chamois before heading back out for some night riding. I suited up ninja-style. It’s all about stealth.
The grooming crew had just laid down fresh corduroy. The few runs were illuminated with dim orange lights. In some sections, there was no light at all. You had to snowboard purely by sense. I felt myself gliding across the snow like I was floating above it, weightless, with no visual indication of speed or place. It was the most freeing sensation ever. I was lost in the moment of surfing the snow.
The next day we drove around Lake Tahoe for an afternoon at Diamond Peak, a small resort on the northeast shore. This was my reunion tour.
Four years ago, on New Year’s Day 2007, I woke up with a hangover and with friends dragging me out to the mountain. I learned to snowboard on the bunny hill at Diamond Peak, and it took me two hours to travel the few hundred feet down the slope. (In hindsight, knowing what I know now, the bunny hill is the worst place to learn how to snowboard. Speed is your friend. And alcohol doesn’t help.)
I hadn’t been back since, so I was beyond excited to confront the mountain, now that I actually knew how to snowboard. Coming back to Diamond Peak was like seeing the mountain for the first time again. All of the terrain was now open to me. I finally saw the view that I missed the first time. Kick. Ass. View. It was worth the wait and then some!
The view was almost too much. I’m surprised I didn’t ride right off a cliff.
With the sun beginning to sink, we drove around the east shore of the lake and pulled off to a viewpoint. A quick scramble down a few boulders brought us lakeside as the sky was starting to do its dance. It was one of the most spectacular sunsets I’d ever seen, where every element was in its perfect place — from the clouds to the reflections to the colors.
Our final day of the trip, we were on a mission. We didn’t want to waste the morning sleeping in and tooling around the cabin.
Up at five o’clock in the morning, we set out for sunrise at Emerald Bay. It was a quiet drive along the lake, taking in the muted colors at dawn and hoping we’d beat the sun. A single contrail cast a single reflection in the glassy bay.
We waited for the first rays of light to peek out over the peaks. Fannette, the only island in Lake Tahoe, sat in the shadows of glacier-carved granite walls.
At half past seven, the sun finally rose above the mountains, taking with it the vivid details of the early morning landscape. Everything was bright and shiny and frosty.
We continued our drive south, hugging the Eastern Sierras on the isolated 395. Just us and the mountains. No matter how many times I’ve done the drive, the snow-capped Sierras always blow me away. All those untouched culoirs, just calling our names.
We drove through Bridgeport… down into Mono Lake… past the little green church in Mammoth… before turning off onto Rock Creek Road. Winding our way up the mountains to the end of the road, we parked at the trailhead for Rock Creek Canyon’s cross-country ski trail system.
It was an especially warm day — 50°F — wooo! We geared up and set out on one of the groomed trails that ambled along the creek and through the forest to the edge of the John Muir Wilderness. Thick stands of pine trees flanked the trail on either side and it was so still and remote, all we could hear was our breath as we gradually worked our way uphill.
The trail opened up to a wide, beautiful meadow surrounded by granite cliffs. It was one of those places where you could whoop a battle cry and hear your echo reverberate inside the canyon.
Of course, what goes up… must come down. The grooming machine had just laid down fresh tracks for our skis. With the continuous downhill track and deep, slick grooves that hadn’t been softened by the sun, locking your skis in the tracks for the ride down is like being on a rollercoaster — a very wild, out-of-control rollercoaster where even the slightest turns will send you flailing and flying off trail. Little twigs and stray pinecones in the tracks equaled death. This was the fun part — why we had climbed all this way.
I stepped inside the tracks, pushed off with my poles, and tucked low… very low. I screamed the whole way down and crashed at the sharp turn a couple hundred feet down, splayed on my back with my skis in opposite directions. My stomach hurt from laughing so much. A five-man pile-up ensued. There we were, chewed up and spit out across the snow with body parts everywhere. On the now-icy trail, it only took us a quarter of the time to ski/stumble back down.
We made it back to our cars in one piece. Sort of. I think I worked myself more in our extreme cross-country downhill than I did in two days of snowboarding! Luckily, but sadly, it was our last day.
We were achy, hungry, and happy. Another adventure ended too soon.