Alliance pilots back-country microtransit on West Shore

The beauty of Tahoe’s West Shore. | Sean McAlindin

As anyone’s whose ever been to the West Shore of Lake Tahoe on a weekend knows, parking and traffic can be tough. This winter a local nonprofit is offering an alternative.

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On Feb. 15 and March 14, Tahoe Backcountry Alliance will be providing a free shuttle from the Tahoe City Transit Center to back-country destinations along Highway 89. Departure times are 7:30, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. with return times from the north gate of Emerald Bay at 10:15 a.m. and 12:15, 2:15 and 3:30 p.m.

West Shore Shuttle
Feb. 15 & March 14 | Free
Departs | Tahoe City Transit Center at 7:30, 9:30 & 11:30 a.m.
Returns | Highway 89 Emerald Bay north gate at 10:15 a.m. and 12:15, 2:15 & 3:30 p.m.
Reservations available, but not required.

“We’re working with public agencies to increase our parking capability,” says Alliance president Greg Garrison. “But realizing that it is a limited public resource, we’ve also decided to implement a microtransit pilot study this winter to understand how viable it would be to have back-country skiers use a shuttle service to access some of these locations. It reduces cars off the road. It reduces pressure at the trailhead parking areas. And it also instills a sense of community in the back-country skiing community.”

Exploring the Microtransit Solution

I arrive at the Tahoe City transit center on a cold, clear winter morning in January to try out the first pilot shuttle. I am the guinea pig so to speak, if guinea pigs like to telemark ski. I look at the various glamping vans, Volkswagen buses and converted pickup trucks around the parking lot and spot four dudes in trucker hats milling about in the dawn’s early light.

“Traffic’s not going to lessen as time moves forward. There is no forecast for increased access on the West Shore here, so we feel like [microtransit] is a pretty positive move for making it possible for people to access winter back-country spots.”

— Geoff Quine

On the welcome table is a signup sheet for the shuttle and the day’s safety report from Sierra Avalanche Center. After receiving 15 to 25 inches of snow in the first significant storm of 2020, the avalanche danger scale is considerable. This is Level 3 on a five-part scale that goes from low (Level 1) to extreme (Level 5). It’s certainly enough to make most seasoned back-country travelers pay attention.

Since I am the only rider who showed for the shuttle, I take some time to speak with members of the Alliance amid the cool morning air.

Saturday summit party atop Rubicon. | Sean McAlindin

“We recognize locals are going to be accessing these trailheads super early,” says Garrison. “If you live on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe, you are changing your schedule to get to the trailhead. If you don’t live on the West Shore and you still want to ski Rubicon or Jake’s or Tallac, you’re most likely out of luck unless you are leaving your house at 5:30 [a.m.].”

We receive word from Alliance board member and local photographer Ming Poon that Jake’s Peak parking lot between D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay State Park on Highway 89 is already full. It’s now 7:30 a.m.

“Traffic’s not going to lessen as time moves forward,” says board member and local educator Geoff Quine. “There is no forecast for increased access on the West Shore here, so we feel like [microtransit] is a pretty positive move for making it possible for people to access winter back-country spots.”

Public transit also isn’t currently an option. TART, the free public transit system serving North Lake Tahoe and Truckee, only offers service as far as Sugar Pine Point State Park on the West Shore, about 8 miles from Emerald Bay. On the South Shore, Tahoe Transportation transit service stops at the Y on Highway 50, about 9 miles from Emerald Bay.

Skin tracks weaves below the summit of Rubicon. | Sean McAlindin

As we converse, two cars of two skiers each park at the transit center and jump into one vehicle. There are still no takers for the shuttle, but it’s a positive sign. At least folks are making an effort to reduce their impact in this increasingly popular recreation corridor.

As the morning light begins to spill into the parking lot, I load my skis in the Suburban and head for the trailhead with shuttle driver and owner of Tahoe Sierra Transportation, Michael Keating. His company has been compensated $1,000 by the Alliance to run the service for the day.

We follow the winding curves of Highway 89 along Lake Tahoe. By 8:30 a.m. each of the paved pullouts we pass has maybe a spot or two available if you’re a creative parker. On reaching the gate where the road closes north of Emerald Bay during snowstorms, there happens to be a couple of spots available at 9 a.m., a true rarity.

We chat with a friendly Caltrans employee who is preparing to open the gate following the recent snow. Although Caltrans does its best to clear paved pullouts along the West Shore, when cars are in the roadway or in the way of heavy equipment they will be towed.

“If they’re blocking our ability to maintain the highway and the opportunity for our plows and blowers to operate, or if there is a ‘No Parking’ sign and one of our workers sees that, we would report it,” says Caltrans spokesperson Steve Nelson. “If they are completely off the highway and it’s not signed as ‘No Parking,’ that’s fine.”

Without consulting the local recreation community, Caltrans eliminated numerous traditional back-country parking spots during a water mitigation project completed in 2015. Ever since, the Alliance and other groups have been advocating for long-term solutions to this glaring problem. They’ve been working with Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to bring these concerns to the upcoming Highway 89 Corridor Project, but so far nothing concrete has been proposed by the agency.

“The plan revolves around transit trail technology, optimizing our transit system and using those new technologies with real-time information to enhance community and quality of life,” says TRPA spokesperson Devin Middlebrook. “Once the plan is implemented there will be improved transit access, more emphasis on parking management strategies, park and ride and transit-only lanes. We are looking at the dynamic suite of things.”

Public meetings on the project will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. on both March 10 at Camp Richardson in the Historic Motel in South Lake Tahoe and on March 11 in Homewood or Tahoe City; location TBD. There will also be a Webinar on April 2 from noon to 1:30 p.m.

From left, Tahoe Sierra Transportation owner Michael Keating and Tahoe Backcountry Alliance members Geoff Quine, Glen Poulson and Greg Garrison. | Sean McAlindin

To Park or Not to Park?

If the West Shore pilot study is successful, the Alliance will consider adding shuttle programs to South Lake Tahoe and Truckee. A South Lake shuttle could provide access to Mount Tallac and locations south of Meyers.

A Truckee shuttle could drop skiers at Donner Lake where homeowner complaints led the Alliance to establish a recent agreement between Donner Lake Woods Homeowners Association and Truckee Donner Land Trust to lease a vacant lot on Washoe Road at the base of the popular back-country Lake Run down Mount Judah for $1 a year. Plowing expenses provided by Snow Patrol Snow Removal for $700 for the rest of the 2020 winter season will be covered by funds raised by the Alliance.

According to a joint press release by the Alliance and the Land Trust, the agreement follows in the footsteps of past deals to protect strategic recreational amenities such as Castle Valley trailhead, Donner Lake Rim Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Black Wall climbing area.

“We are really happy to be able to facilitate public-land access while mitigating any negative impacts to the homeowners,” says Garrison. “This will keep homeowners happy and keep skiers from getting ticketed or towed.”

From the Donner Lake lot, a Truckee shuttle could continue on Old Route 40 to Donner Summit and up to the I-80 westbound rest area where the legality of parking for the back country is hazy at best. The maximum parking time allowed for passenger vehicles at California highway rest areas is seven hours for passenger vehicles. While that is technically enough time to skin to Castle Peak’s north bowls, take a couple of laps and turn back, whether recreational access is actually allowed to and from this area is another matter. There are visible signs prohibiting snow recreation and visiting snow enthusiasts are routinely asked to leave by the California Highway Patrol.

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According to CHP public information officer Pete Mann, it’s a matter of public safety: “The main reason is the rest area is for tired motorists to use the facilities. We don’t want to it to be parking for back-country access.”

The snowy forest behind the summit rest stop beckons curious travelers, yet hides a variable topography of hidden crevasses, snow-covered frozen ponds and unmarked avalanche terrain. Last year, the CHP called in search and rescue to extract someone who fell through the ice, says Mann.

“It’s about twice a winter we end up doing a rescue out there,” he says. “It’s Tahoe, not Minnesota.”

According to Mann, while CHP officers will ticket cars parked at the rest area for longer than seven hours (especially those left overnight to access Peter Grubb Hut), casual winter recreationalists will be asked to relocate to the Sno-Park across the highway at the Castle Peak/Boreal exit. Back-country skiers, however, are generally tolerated, but there is a catch: weekends.

“We try and bring shades of gray into everything,” says Mann, who is a back-country splitboarder. “We want to keep that access open in a way that’s mutually beneficial for everybody. But there is the public good and access good. If you want our fair and honest opinion, park at the eastbound [Sno-Park]. If you are at the rest area for four or five hours on a Wednesday, it’s not going to be a big deal. But if it’s a busy day with a lot of travelers, it could be an issue.”

While this willingness to bend the rules to the situation may be done in good faith, it is also exactly what can make back-country parking in the Tahoe Sierra so unpredictably frustrating.

“It’s that gray area and that ambiguity,” says Garrison. “We appreciate [the CHP] having an interest in access issues. The hard part is when you put skins on your skis; the last thing you want to think about while traveling through avalanche terrain and handling group dynamics is, ‘Is my car still there?’ There shouldn’t be so much guess work and that’s what we are trying to achieve. You can see how a microtransit system like this really opens the door to access spots that in the past have been difficult to impossible to access.”

The skin track traverses amongst towering old-growth forests where glowing wolf lichen abounds. | Sean McAlindin

Party on the Mountain

After surveying the parking situation at Jake’s Peak and Emerald Bay’s north gate, I ask Keating to drop me 3 miles back up the road at the southern skin track for Rubicon Peak. Considering the avalanche danger today this moderately angled slope of old-growth glades seems like a safe bet.

As I hike up the mountain, the late morning light streams through the snow-covered trees creating a luminescent world all my own. I soundlessly skin beneath fluorescent green wolf lichen glowing on towering red firs. On reaching the ridge, the vast expanse of the Tahoe Basin appears before on this windless, tranquil powder day.

Two silent hours after my drop off, I round the corner of the massive granite block that crowns Rubicon’s summit. To my surprise, I come on a crowd of 20 people at the top. There is music playing and a few folks are sipping on beers and passing around a whisky flask. It looks like the considerable avalanche danger drew a lot of folks to Rubicon today.

I climb less than confidently in my telemark boots over ice and rock to the true summit where I take in views of Peak 9269 (named for its elevation) and the lofty summit of Mount Freel beyond the placid, cold, blue-green lake. On my way back down through untouched powder on Rubicon’s southeast face, I bob and weave around giant boulders and ponderous pines as the water stares back at me mirroring an empty reflection.

When I arrive back at my pickup location it turns out there was one more skier who took the shuttle today, Alliance board member Steve Byrne. He’s on his way back from Jake’s where he spread the word about the shuttle program while passing out Clif Bars.

“It was pretty luxurious,” he says. “I just got dropped at the trailhead and my boots are already on. All I had to do was put my skins on and start going up. It was pretty cool.”

According to Byrne, feedback on the shuttle from other back-country travelers that day was mixed. While some thought it was an excellent idea, others worried it might simply bring more recreationalists to these popular locations.

“These are already pretty busy places,” he says. “A lot of people want to enjoy and use our public lands. Sometimes people want to be alone and that gets tougher and tougher.”

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