Explore Heavenly with a Ranger

Tom Schaefer at the vista lookout alcove. | Kayla Anderson

On a bluebird day in South Lake Tahoe, skiers and snowboarders are sliding down the nicely groomed slopes at Heavenly Mountain Resort. With a high of 50 degrees, a 40-inch snow base and advanced terrain like Mott Canyon open, there is plenty to explore.

What makes a Heavenly skiing or riding experience even better is participating in its Ski with a Ranger program, which is offered on Fridays at 1 p.m. until March 27. The event is hosted by U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit rangers and is free for Heavenly ticketholders who can ski at an intermediate ability level or higher. During the one-hour tour, participants get a snapshot of Tahoe’s geology, history and wildlife.

With a high of 50 degrees, a 40-inch snow base and advanced terrain like Mott Canyon open, there is plenty to explore.

Our volunteer ranger guides include Tom Schaefer, Diku Sherpa, Melissa Wong and Bob Sweatt. Before we head out, Schaefer tells me that Heavenly opened as a ski resort in 1954 and is one of the only resorts in the U.S. operated entirely on Forest Service land. The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit was formed in 1973 and serves as a central entity to help protect and manage Tahoe’s environment. The Forest Service works closely with Heavenly’s environmental engineer and team to help maintain Tahoe’s natural assets and create programs like this to educate guests on what keeps Tahoe blue and beautiful.

Ski with a Ranger
Fridays | 1 p.m. | Until March 27
First-come, first-served

First stop | The group heads up Tamarack Express and meets at the top, which is also a gateway into the California Trail. Here, Sherpa gives us a brief overview of the tour and describes a little bit of the intense and unorganized logging that happened in the late 1800s that led to the Forest Service’s focus on conservation today.

Diku Sherpa on the first stop of the tour. | Kayla Anderson

Second stop | We head over to the vista lookout alcove on the California Trail where Schaefer talks about how the lake was formed by a downward movement into the earth’s crust forming a graben or ditch. At the speed of fingernails growing, that graben plate created the lake’s base and then surrounding glaciers carved it out to what it is today.

Third stop | Near the bottom of California Trail above where it intersects with the Pinnacles run, Wong is holding a small, stuffed animal of an American marten, one of Tahoe’s native weasels. She then describes the three ways that wildlife survives in this climate through hibernation, adaptation and migration.

Fourth stop | In a cluster of trees above where the California Trail intersects with Ellie’s, tree and flower expert Sweatt points out white firs, red firs, lodgepole pines, western white pines and ways in which to identify them. The Sierra Nevada also has aspens, junipers, mountain hemlocks and Jeffrey pines that smell like butterscotch when you sniff them.

Fifth stop | At the bottom of Canyon Express, Sweatt finishes up his talk on trees. When we ride the chairlift together, he helps another guest and I identify how mountain hemlocks are different from white bark and lodgepole pines.

On the California Trail above Tamarack Lodge. | Kayla Anderson

Sixth stop | At the top of Canyon Express, Wong tells us the sweet love story between the Clark’s Nutcracker and white bark pines. The bird cracks open pinecones and stores seeds under its tongue, then buries up to 100,000 seeds in the ground during the summer months. The following season, the seeds that aren’t dug up grow into white bark pines.

Seventh stop | Standing on sunbaked snow overlooking Lake Tahoe, Schaefer discusses the Forest Service’s efforts toward conservation and improving the lake’s clarity. Nowadays, a big part of the Forest Service’s role includes forest thinning and prescribed burns to help protect against quickly spreading natural wildfires and helping local trees fight against diseases such as the white pine blister rust and pests such as sugar pine beetles.

Eighth stop | At our last stop next to Re-Mix Terrain Park, Sweatt concludes the tour by describing the health of the lake and what affects its clarity. Along with continued development and vehicle output contaminating the lake, the Truckee River, meadows and marshes also usher impurities into Big Blue. Right now, one can see 79 feet down into the lake and the goal is to at least get it down to 100 feet.

At the end of the tour, people skied off with their newfound knowledge of the Tahoe Sierra. Whether you’re a local or just visiting, I guarantee that you’ll learn something about Tahoe that you never knew before by participating in the Ski with a Ranger program. | skiheavenly.com