This banner year for snowfall aside, usually by mid-March the quality of the white stuff around Lake Tahoe transitions to spring-like conditions. With warming temperatures, the snow line begins the inevitable creep up the hillsides, forcing winter enthusiasts to seek the higher elevations for their pursuits.
At 8,652 feet, Carson Pass south of the Tahoe Basin is high enough to generally provide deep and high-quality snow well into the spring. About a quarter-mile apart, two California Sno-Parks offer jumping off points for a variety of trips into the highly scenic terrain on both sides of State Highway 88.
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The most popular routes depart the Carson Pass Sno-Park to head south to destinations in the Mokelumne Wilderness. The Meiss Meadows Sno-Park accesses the less visited terrain on the opposite side of the highway, with journeys to a number of worthy goals, such as Red Lake Peak and Little Round Top, a pair of view-packed summits; and the picturesque landscape in the Upper Truckee River basin, which includes Meiss Meadows, and Meiss and Showers Lakes.
Initially, the route to peaks, lakes and meadows north of the Meiss Meadows Sno-Park share the same route, heading west and traversing a lightly forested slope above the highway. Eventually the route curves northwest into the drainage of a Woods Creek tributary, where more open slopes reveal an obvious saddle at the head of the canyon — your immediate goal. Reach the saddle in a little over a mile and enjoy the superlative view of the surrounding terrain. The trip to the saddle and back is a good option for beginning snowshoers, or for those pressed for time.
Red Lake Peak
Advanced parties headed to Red Lake Peak should veer northeast from the saddle to follow an angling ascent across moderately steep, open slopes (expect wind-packed conditions) toward the upper part of the mountain. Curve below the first rock outcrop on the ridge and continue across increasingly steep slopes, aiming for the high point of the rounded ridge above, immediately south of a cluster of rocks making up the true summit.
The wide-ranging view from the 10,063-foot peak is quite remarkable, including the Crystal Range in Desolation Wilderness to the northwest, as well as myriad summits in the Carson Pass region and Tahoe Basin. From this vantage, John C. Fremont and his chief cartographer, Charles Preuss, became the first Europeans to see Lake Tahoe on Valentine’s Day in 1844.
Little Round Top
The more intermediate, 10½-mile trip to Little Round Top travels northwest from the saddle on a moderately steep but short climb to gain the long, undulating ridge eventually leading to the 9,590-foot summit. The open terrain along the crest provides exceptional views along the entire route. Groups that don’t wish to go the entire way to the top can turn around at any point, more than satisfied with the stunning vistas.
Meiss & Showers Lakes
The 7-mile round trip to Meiss Meadows and Lake is another excellent intermediate adventure, while the 10-mile journey to Showers Lake and back will require more stamina and a bit of route-finding skill. Drop down from the saddle and descend into the scenic splendor in the upper reaches of the Upper Truckee River basin. Through mostly open terrain, continue downstream staying well to the east of the cornices on the ridge leading to Little Round Top above. The gentle terrain offers easy travel to Meiss Lake, although missing its location is entirely possible, as in the winter the frozen lake blends somewhat inconspicuously into the meadows. Those who wish to continue to Showers Lake should head generally northwest along the river into more moderate forest cover. Where the river bends north, continue northwest, making a stiff climb away from the river up the hillside to the top of a ridge above the south shore of Showers Lake.
Eastbound travelers can stop at Sorensen’s just west of Hope Meadows for a post-trip meal or a warm drink in their cozy restaurant. Those headed in the opposite direction on 88 can dine at the historic Kirkwood Inn and Saloon generally open Friday through Tuesday.
To get there, take Highway 88 about three-tenths of a mile west of Carson Pass to the Meiss Meadows Sno-Park on the north side of the highway.
- Sno-Park permits are available online and at local locations. | ohv.parks.ca.gov, (916) 324-4442
- Avalanche danger is usually minimal in this mostly treed area, but some areas may have moderate risk. Recreationists can consult daily reports. | sierraavalanchecenter.org
- Be forewarned, nasty cornices on the leeward side of the ridge leading to Little Round Top demand you stay well west of the edge while on the ridge, and well east when traveling below through the Upper Truckee River basin.