The Royal Gorge is one of the Sierra’s natural wonders – a 4,417-foot deep gorge that is the namesake for Royal Gorge, one of the largest cross-country ski areas in North America.
Royal Gorge’s deep, but narrow, canyon walls emerge from the mountain peaks of Donner Summit beyond Palisade and Devil’s Peaks. A winter trek to Point Mariah, overlooking the precipitous gorge, takes cross-country skiers and snowshoers to the wondrous views of deep mountains gorged by the snow-fed waters of the North Fork of the American River.
“A winter trek to Point Mariah, overlooking the precipitous gorge, takes cross-country skiers and snowshoers to the wondrous views of deep mountains gorged by the snow-fed waters of the North Fork of the American River.”
It was this spectacular site that was my goal on an overcast, spring day with my sister, Michelle Allen, and friends Sara Carbonari and Alanna Misico. My sister and I were high-beginner cross-country skiers at the time of the trip, while Alanna and Sara, both skate skiers, are more advanced.
The tour to Point Mariah is for intermediate to advanced skiers, but we were confident that we were ready to tackle the challenging terrain.
Sara and Alanna were quickly off in their graceful, skate-skiing style. Michelle and I followed on our classic skis, gliding into the groomed tracks on Reindeer. We crossed over a creek and headed uphill. Around a few turns uphill, we reached the junction for Sterling’s Canyon, but passed it by. This advanced route is a vertical, downhill drop truly for the more experienced skier.
We continue to follow Reindeer down a few downhill descents to the junction for Halfhitch. This was, of course, after I made a few falls. It seems to be my pattern – I make a couple of falls, sometimes just standing still on flat terrain, before I get my groove, find my balance, adjust my position and remember I’m on skis.
There isn’t a bad section on any part of this trip as the trails move through dense forests to small meadows with glimpses of the high mountain peaks in the distance along the Castle Pass trail.
Hellman Way is the next segment with a series of up and down hills that never seem to end. Just as I reach the top of one hill, it’s time to go down. I do well through most of them, except one hill where a sharp, right corner emerges out of nowhere. I’m going too fast and my snowplow is failing me. I have a choice – hit the tree I can’t miss in the turn or take a nose dive. I chose the latter and take a fall on my side, slide around the corner on my butt and wind up on the edge of the trail with my skis in the air. I start laughing thinking of the spectacle I just made of myself. I look around and there was no one to witness it. They all made it around the corner smoothly. I’m bummed no one caught it; it was a great crash.
The clouds have set in thick above us and the sky has turned gray. The snow is coming, but we’ve made great time and are anxious for the last leg of the tour.
Glimpses of Devil’s Peak and Snow Mountain can be seen in the distance and the forest thins as we climb to the plateau of Point Mariah. We emerge into the open expanse of the point for an amazing view of The Royal Gorge. And, it is amazing. The wind whips around us from every direction as we gingerly make our way to the edge of the gorge. The North Fork of the American River meanders through the canyon 4,417 feet below us, barely noticeable from our vantage point. It’s started to snow.
We perch out on the jagged rocks as the frigid winds blow through us. We stay as long as we can until the cold air forces us back from the edge. The gnarly rock face of Devil’s Peak is just to the north, while Snow Mountain towers above the canyon to the west of the point. It is awe inspiring, spectacular, beautiful.
We decide to take a different route back on an intermediate trail so we can enjoy more of the terrain. We foolishly didn’t consult the current map before heading out or we would have known that the intermediate trail was closed.
Back in our skis, we head down Whitney’s Bowl for a nice descent to Sterling’s Canyon.
We start the haul up for Sterling’s Canyon. The segment has lots of open terrain looking out across the mountains, but it’s blurred during our trip from the overcast skies and snow that’s now light but steady.
It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know in advance that we were going to have to make an ascent up a short, .5-km segment that seems nearly vertical from the bottom. If I had known, I might have thought twice about backtracking. But, instead we reach the junction for the now-closed trail and I’m stunned by the vertical hill that is our only option. My legs are shaky and sore, but I’m ready to get up the hill even if I have to crawl.
I am elated when seconds later my sister, having also had the same reaction to our situation, throws down her poles in disgust and starts cussing. “My damn legs are killing me. I’m walking up.” She steps out of her skis, grabs her gear and starts trekking up the steep hill.
Whoopee, I don’t feel bad now. I take off my skis and start climbing. This segment is so steep, I can barely climb it. I finally make it up the steepest part of the hill so I can click back into my skis. I meet the rest of the girls at the top and proclaim, “Son of a bitch.” I take a few sips of water. “Let’s go,” I mutter.
I’m tired, beat, sweaty and hungry. I’m over it. What a fantastic day. I enjoyed every last moment.
Visit royalgorge.com and plan your own trip to Point Mariah or explore the more than 200km of trails for all levels of skiers.