When it comes to the Sierra Nevada snowpack, why does it always feel like feast or famine?
After receiving more than 700 inches of snow last season, the 2023-24 winter has been largely defined by low snowpack until recently (especially under 7,000 feet) combined with a persistent weak layer that (at least until February) has presented a consistent danger to backcountry travelers.
Because the snowpack has been thin to non-existent at lower elevations for most of the season, backcountry travelers have looked for trailheads that start at high elevations such as Mount Rose, Castle Peak or Carson Pass. But locations like these can often be steep and avalanche prone.
As a result, more people than usual have sought out unicorn spots like Rubicon Peak that starts at 7,100 feet, yet offers lower-angle, more moderate slopes. An influx of skiers and splitboarders to Rubicon Peak may have led to a rash of $250 tickets for cars parked on nearby residential streets in mid-January, says Tahoe Backcountry Alliance executive director Anthony Cupaiuolo.
“People were still trying to get out there with not as many places to go,” he says.
Periodic ticketing has been a theme at trailheads that emerge from neighborhoods like the ones that access Rubicon, Trimmer, Echo, Angora and Flagpole peaks. Parking is prohibited on all public streets from Nov. 1 to May 1 each year for snow removal and few designated winter parking areas exist for public trail access.
“We understand that you don’t want people blocking your driveway, but at the same time you shouldn’t be the only person to have access to public lands because you are fortunate enough to live there,” says Cupaiuolo. “We need to have public access to these lands, but we need to move parking from the street.”
The Alliance is always on the lookout for opportunities to create sustainable alternatives and reduce conflicts with adjacent landowners. In partnership with Eldorado County and Tahoe City Public Utility District (TCPUD), it’s gaining momentum for a new year-round parking lot at Rubicon Peak.
The Alliance and TCPUD are in talks to allow parking near the district’s water tank on Highland Drive in the Rubicon neighborhood.
“We have no issue with a parking lot there as long as it doesn’t impede access to our tank,” said TCPUD director of special affairs Kim Boyd.
Parking at that location is still prohibited, however, as of press time and could result in a ticket.
New parking for Tallac
In winter, iconic Mount Tallac is accessed from State Route 89 by the gate to Spring Creek Road. The Alliance has entered into an agreement with the USDA Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit to manage a new parking lot there. As part of a forest thinning project, trees have already been cleared and the area is now graded. Construction and paving of the parking lot is scheduled for later this year. The Alliance plans to pay for plowing and install a beacon checker at the trailhead.
Success with Donner Lake parking
The parking lot on the west shore of Donner Lake continues to be plowed through a partnership between the Alliance and Visit Truckee-Tahoe. The paved lot has space for 60 cars and offers access to the bottom of the popular Donner Lake backcountry run. As an unanticipated bonus, the parking has proved to be popular with snow play, too.
“Regardless of whether it’s a down snow year, a lot of families use it to access snow play on the beach,” says Cupaiuolo. “There aren’t a lot of places to pull over safely that are free, so this is something we’re stoked on.”
Backcountry shuttle offered
The Alliance continues to organize and fund a micro-transit pilot program for a fifth year. The free backcountry shuttle service is offered on the North and Shore shores on Saturdays through March 23. Each week, the Alliance chooses a pick-up spot and destination zone based on snow conditions and current parking issues.
“It’s been good to get the word and get people talking about different ways to get to trailheads, but we don’t want to keep running the same program on our own,” says Cupaiuolo. “We need other user groups to partner with us. It’s not realistic, if it’s just us.”
Estimates are it would cost approximately $120,000 annually for a local transit agency such as TART or Lake Link to run a similar year-round, weekend shuttle dedicated to recreational access to and from trailheads, says Cupaiuolo.
“I think other areas are doing a better job than our region with public transportation. But I think there are folks at different agencies with a real appetite for playing catch up. They get it and they don’t want to be behind anymore.”
Data collection, youth programs continue
The Alliance continues to partner with the Washoe Youth Cultural and Outdoor Expedition Program to get young people into the backcountry on cross-country skis and snowshoes.
“We’re excited to get involved in programs like this,” says Cupaiuolo. “There’s lots of hurry up and wait on other projects and with this we can kind of just run with it. The kids are getting some cool opportunities to get up here and get on what is essentially their land.”
In collaboration with Tahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol, the Alliance will also continue to track user numbers at popular trailheads. Tahoe Guide usually reports the data each season, but the tremendous snowfall of the 2022-23 winter made it difficult to keep the trackers consistently above snowpack. Due to this challenge, last season’s data set is incomplete and inconclusive. This year, the Alliance plans to track user entries at Luther Pass, Tamarack Peak and Deep Creek. | tahoebackcountryalliance.org
- Backcountry shuttle | Saturdays until March 23
- North Shore | High Sierra Taxi, (530) 550-5300
- South Shore | Crown Taxi, (530) 314-3209