Tahoe beyond the slopes: 10 activities to try right now

March 02, 2015                 4m read time
Mary Catherine O'Connor

Powder days may be scarce in drought-stricken Lake Tahoe (and all of the Sierras for that matter), but the thin snowpack is no reason to skip your lodge rental. annotation The sweet smell of Jeffrey pine and incense cedar still beckons as does lake fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and more. Herewith, 10 activities to try this winter that don’t involve a chairlift.

Rock on

While many hiking trails at higher elevations are inaccessible, those close to lake level are generally clear of snow and ice. Stretch your legs on a brief, steep trek up Eagle Rock. The trailhead is a 10-minute drive south from Tahoe City on Highway 89 along Lake Tahoe’s west shore. In another 10 minutes, if you walk swiftly, you'll be atop Eagle Rock and enjoying views of the lake and surrounding peaks.

Boat on the lake at sunset or sunrise. ZOZI

Boat on the lake at sunset or sunrise.


Lake Tahoe

Go fish

Tahoe Sports Fishing runs two excursions per day (8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.), which includes all the gear you’ll need. Bonus: They’ll clean your catch, which is likely to be Mackinaw (lake trout) this time of year.

Get schooled

Got an itch for the backcountry? A low-snow year is a perfect opportunity to either learn the basics of backcountry travel and gear—carrying an avalanche beacon is useless unless you know how to use it—or taking a refresher course. Ski resorts and ski clubs all around the lake provide avalanche education and workshops throughout the season. Kirkwood Resort offers certification courses that follow the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) curriculum, as well as AIARE refresher classes. Or check with the Sierra Avalanche Center to learn about other options.

Rocky lake shore on a grey day. Steven Harris

Rocky lake shore on a grey day.

Steven Harris

Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park

Rough it

Want to try winter camping but fear you're too wussy? Try it out during this not-so-frigid winter at Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. The campground offers toilets, showers, and running water all year, so it's on the easy side of roughing it. Regardless of the thin snowpack, be aware that these are the mountains and temperatures can plummet. Best bet is to be over-prepared and bring warm layers for sub-zero temps overnight.

Shred like a Nord

We can thank the Scandinavians for bringing us the snow-sliding arts, but there’s excitement beyond the fall line. Cross-country skiing requires snow, obviously, but not copious amounts. Plus, it’s a great workout that masquerades itself as recreation. In North Lake Tahoe, Royal Gorge is the XC resort of record but the weather has been playing havoc on its trails. You'll probably score the best snow at the highest resorts, so check out Kirkwood's XC trails (where your dog can join you on select trails) first. Kirkwood is a bit of a haul from Tahoe proper. If you're coming from the Bay Area, find your way to Highway 88 through Gold Country, and prepare for a gorgeous drive through the alpine splendor.

Snow-covered A-frame hut and people outside with skis. Sierra Club/Clair Tappaan Lodge

Snow-covered A-frame hut and people outside with skis.

Sierra Club/Clair Tappaan Lodge

The Sierra Club's Peter Grubb Hut at Donner Summit

Go deeper and higher

If you know your way around the backcountry (aka you're avalanche-educated), head west of Donner Lake and trek along a series of huts operated by the Sierra Club. Each hut is roughly one day's ski apart, and currently most routes are snow-filled and perfect for skinning up and schussing down. Reservations are required. Contact the Clair Tappaan Lodge, 530-426-3632, for more info.

Meander under the moon

When storms are few and far between, one upside is a cloudless night sky. annotation Tahoe Adventure Company leads guided full moon tours via snowshoe at Castle Peak. The next two outings take place on Thursday, March 5th, under the worm moon and Saturday, April 4th, under the pink moon.

Girl on mountain bike with gondola in the background. Ben Fish/tamba.org

Girl on mountain bike with gondola in the background.

Ben Fish/tamba.org

Mountain biking under the Heavenly gondola in December 2014


The ski and snowboard season is a bit of a bust so far, but mountain biking options in greater Tahoe have remained plentiful, with pleasant riding temps and low dust. For guidance on the best riding options, check with the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association. Since mid-summer temps in the Carson Valley area (on the lake’s east shore) can exceed 90 degrees, consider taking advantage of the dry winter weather on the bike-friendly, 16-mile Genoa Trail System, part of the Carson Valley trail network.

Be a fat biker

These mountain bikes on steroids grew up in Alaska, where they transport hardy riders in the Iditasport Adventure Race, but there's no reason you can't channel your inner arctic adventurer with a fat bike ride at Royal Gorge's Van Norden location. You'll want to ride during the early morning, before the sun turns trails to mush.


Don't get us wrong. The drought is an extremely serious matter with implications that extend far beyond missing out on a few ski runs. A recent study of blue oak tree ring samples indicated that this is the worst dry spell in 1,200 years. To get a visual overview of the current situation, visit the U.S. Drought Monitor online.

Away from all the big city lights, Tahoe’s night sky is cluttered with planets and stars. Keep an eye out for Jupiter this year. The planet was in opposition to the sun (and brighter than any star) in early February and it will continue to sparkle in the months ahead.

Mary Catherine O'Connor

Mary Catherine O’Connor is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco. She writes about the outdoors and environmental issues and technology. When she's not writing you might find her treasure hunting with her metal detector. Don’t judge.

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