Winter wonderland on Carson Pass

Carson Pass stands on the crest of the Sierra Nevada south of the Tahoe Basin and tops out at 8,574 feet. During storms, the rugged pass can be a constant source of frustration for travelers on State Route 88. Skiers and snowboarders looking to obtain their share of powder turns at Kirkwood Mountain Resort are often disappointed when the road closes due to whiteout conditions and avalanche danger. But, once the storms have settled, Carson Pass is a winter wonderland, abundant with opportunity.

Round Top Peak  | Lisa Michelle

Back-country skiers and riders will find numerous peaks to conquer in the Carson Pass area: Round Top, Stevens Peak, Red Lake Peak, The Sisters and Elephants Back. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers will not be disappointed with miles of pristine alpine wilderness. Views from atop Carson Pass offer a panoramic summary of the mighty Sierra Nevada.

I set out solo — between storms — to scout Elephants Back for a future snowboarding trip. In order to park at the Carson Pass Sno-Park, I need a permit, pre-purchased for $5 a day available at U.S. Forest Service stations (Carson Pass Station is closed in the winter) or online for $6.95.

Carson Pass is a winter wonderland, abundant with opportunity.

Supplied with borrowed snowshoes and a new map of the Mokelumne Wilderness, I climbed the 15-foot wall of snow out of the parking lot and onto the trail. Immediately, the trail split. The higher route had been cut by cross-country skiers and was undamaged by snowshoes. In order to preserve the trail for future skiers, I chose the lower, hoping the two would eventually merge. They didn’t.

A snow sculpture on Carson Pass. | Lisa Michelle

After about 30 minutes of following blue diamond markers, nailed high on junipers and pines, the flattened trail ended abruptly on a powdery knoll. I searched in every direction for tracks. There were none. But, the blue diamond markers beckoned me into a forest of immature trees bent and sculpted with snow. Like watching clouds illustrate the sky, I spotted a giant horse head, then a troop of sad snow monsters and, finally, an angel in repose — poetic and mysterious.

There is something special about leaving fresh tracks. I questioned my location, but never felt lost. I had blue markers to the lead me out. The silence and solitude allowed my mind to drift. I thought of the expedition Kit Carson led through this area in 1844 — without blue diamonds to lead the way, no search and rescue to save the day.

Carson, a guide for the John C. Frémont Expedition, suggested that they go west from Carson Valley to travel to Sutter’s Fort in California for supplies. Local Washoe Indians warned the group not to attempt the long trek in winter. They ignored the warning. Heavy snow made hunting impossible and the men were forced to eat their dogs, horses and mules in order to survive. Still, with Carson leading the way, the entire party arrived in Sacramento in about a month with no (human) fatalities.

Eventually, Carson Pass became one of the most popular ways to get to the goldfields. It is estimated that more than 40,000 gold seekers and settlers crossed in one year. I hadn’t seen anyone. I had been hiking through deep snow for more than two hours and was considering turning around when I heard water gurgling: a creek, then a bridge, then tracks. There was a well-worn trail; my pioneering spirit renewed.

I followed the trail toward the craggy granite of Elephants Back. After another hour, I was still quite a distance from bagging my peak. While referring to my map for the sixth time, I looked up and spotted two skiers picnicking. I asked if they knew how much farther to Elephants Back. “Oh, that’s a way,” the man says, pointing in the opposite direction.

I doubt he knows where he is.

“Isn’t that Elephants Back, right there?” I pointed to the massive peak before us.

“That’s Round Top,” the girl says, smothering my pioneering spirit.

The journey back was along the beaten path and required half the effort in half the time. Following in the footsteps of early pioneers brought California’s history to life for me. However, wandering off course turned a simple hike into an experience and my quest for Elephants Back into a quest to ride Red Lake Peak when I return.

The Carson Pass Sno-Park is located about 28 miles south of South Lake Tahoe in Alpine County. Winter camping is allowed with a permit when there is at least 12 inches of snow. Camp stove permits are also required. Bathrooms are available in the parking lot.

For outstanding food and home-baked goodies, Hope Valley Café on SR 88, a 10-minute drive east, is open seven days a week at 8 a.m. for breakfast and lunch. Sorenson’s, a bed and breakfast resort, is across the highway.

For more information on the Carson Pass Sno-Park and how to get a pass, visit