Taking many paths in the high Sierra this week has led to one truth.
Across the high country, a crystalline sparkle has touched anybody who has made the trip. The air tastes crisp and clean. A deep breath feels like it opens every pore in your body.
The easiest, fastest and cheapest way to take in the full sensory experience is to strap on a pair of snowshoes and head off to a payoff view. No experience, lessons or great cost are required.
No matter where you might venture in California’s high country this week, the New Year has brought stunning blue skies and miles of pristine snowfields in the high country as far as you can see.
With the big snowpack settling and skies clear, a snowshoe trek can provide a way to get the best of all worlds – the passion of the mountain, the big views, the physical sensations of a day where you ask the best of your body and get it … and a portal amid the crowds to find a place all your own.
Here are my picks for the 10 best snowshoe treks:
1. Badger Pass to Dewey Point: From the Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite, you trek up Glacier Point Road (stay out of the cross-country ski tracks, got it?), then break off to the left and hike through a valley and down to 7,200 feet at Dewey Point on the rim overlooking El Capitan and Yosemite Valley. You get a panorama of Half Dome, Tenaya Canyon and beyond across the Clark Range on a 7-mile round trip. Snowshoe rentals available. Info: Yosemite National Park, 209-372-0200, nps.gov/yose; Yosemite Mountaineering, 209-372-8444, www.yosemitemountaineering.com; lodging, 801-559-5000, yosemitepark.com.
2. Highway 89 to Tahoe overlook: As crowded as Tahoe can get, you can still make it feel like you have the place all to yourself. At D.L. Bliss State Park near Emerald Bay, climb over the gate and snowshoe on the access road two miles one-way to the bluff overlook of Lake Tahoe. Though there were a few whitecaps on the lake Tuesday, the experience was surreal, with cobalt-blue water contrasted against a pristine white backdrop for miles. Info: D.L. Bliss, 530-525-3345, parks.ca.gov; lodging, visitinglaketahoe.com.
3. Castle Pass: The Castle Peak Trailhead is just off I-80 at 7,195 feet (across from Boreal, same exit). The route follows a snow-buried Forest Service road and climbs 685 feet in about two miles to Castle Pass (7,880 feet), a saddle on a sub-ridge. Round Valley plunges below. Beyond is the Peter Grubb Hut, a cross-country ski destination. Above is 9,103-foot Castle Peak, which looks like a fortress with three giant turrets. To the south are miles of snow-covered ridges, valleys and glimpses of ski areas. Trailhead parking is often crowded on weekends and holidays, so you can end up parking at nearby Boreal on the south side of I-80. Info: Tahoe National Forest, 530-587-3558, fs.usda.gov/tahoe.
4. Echo Lakes: Park near a designated Sno-Park, then snowshoe down the road to the foot of Lower Echo Lake, a 4-mile round trip. You can venture further on the snow-buried Pacific Crest Trail, with a pretty view across to 9,235-foot Ralston Peak. When the lake is rock-solid, some will cross-country ski across the center of it. Euphoric. Info: Eldorado National Forest, 530-644-2349, fs.usda.gov/eldorado.
5. Mirror Lake, Yosemite: Deep in Yosemite Valley, the route is on a snow/ice-covered road and leads past the foot of Half Dome as it rises in a wall. The trip continues along frozen-over Tenaya Creek. Near flat, easy; wear YaxTrax on ice, snowshoes on powder. When the light is right, you can get a chance at Ansel Adams-type settings for photographs. Snowshoe rentals available at Curry Village. Info: Yosemite National Park, 209-372-0200, nps.gov/yose.
6. Castle Lake, Shasta-Trinity: The road is plowed to Vista Point for the beautiful lookout of Mount Shasta. From there, you snowshoe-trek up the road less than a mile to iced-over Castle Lake at 5,450-foot elevation. Info: Fifth Season Mountain Report, 530-926-5555; lodging at 800-926-4865, mtshastachamber.com.
7. Manzanita Lake, Lassen: The traipse to Manzanita Lake is easy and beautiful, and you can often have it all to yourself. After all, Lassen is off the radar. Enter at the Highway 44/89 entrance station near Old Station, park where the road is closed and head in from there. Info: Lassen Volcanic National Park, 530-595-4480, nps.gov/lavo.
8. Green Butte Ridge, Mount Shasta: The Everitt Memorial Highway is now plowed to 6,900-foot Bunny Flat. From there it’s an ambitious climb of about 2,200 feet to 9,193-foot Green Butte for panoramic views of Mount Eddy to the west, Lassen Peak across to the southeast. Then reward yourself, ski or snowboard back down, freelance style. Info: Fifth Season Mountain Report, 530-926-5555; lodging at 800-926-4865, mtshastachamber.com.
9. Lake Alpine, central Sierra: Highway 4 is plowed to the turnoff for Bear Valley, and from there it’s a pretty trek to iced-over Lake Alpine and Osborne Hill. Info: Stanislaus National Forest 209-795-1381, fs.usda.gov/stanislaus.
10. Tahoe Meadows, East Tahoe: Tahoe Meadows is a cool snow play area for trekkers, located on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. Mount Rose looms to the south. If you’re staying in Reno, this is the best nearby spot. Info: Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, 775-331-6444, fs.usda.gov/htnf.
Powder snow: Select size of snowshoe according to snow conditions: the softer the snow, the larger the snowshoe, in order to keep from post-holing.
Hard ice: On ice, wear YaxTrax. On iced-over steep slopes, wear crampons.
Road conditions: 800-427-7623, dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi.
Weather: Prior to heading out, get a detailed weather briefing.
Never, ever: Never walk in a trail for cross-country skiing.
Stay warm, dry: Wear synthetics, a fleece layer and a Gore-Tex shell.
Protect yourself: Apply sunscreen, wear polarized sunglasses, high-quality snow gloves, skull cap.
Hydrate: Drink a lot of water.
4-wheel drives: When CHP posts chain controls for two-wheel-drives, even owners of 4-wheel drives with M&S tires are required to carry chains, even if you never are required to put them on.