Along the border of California and Nevada, the mountains around Lake Tahoe beg to be explored during any season, but especially in winter. Each year, the area receives 400 to 500 inches of snowfall and gets about 300 days of sunshine. Plus, it seems like everywhere you look there are picture-perfect slopes. It’s no wonder the Lake Tahoe Basin offers up some of the best backcountry skiing in North America.
Combine the favorable weather and pristine mountains with easy access and a wide variety of terrain ranging from beginner to expert level, and the opportunities for backcountry bliss can’t really get much better. We’ve rounded up some of the Tahoe region’s best places to earn your turns, along with a few insider tips for planning an epic ski season in this beautiful slice of the Sierra Nevada.
When to Go
The snowy season kicks off around mid-November or December in the Lake Tahoe Basin, though you have to head to the tallest mountains to find enough snowpack this early. January produces surprisingly sparse snowfall so it can be a hit-or-miss month for finding stashes in the backcountry.
February, March, and April mark the sweet spot for slaying powder in the Tahoe backcountry. These months come with the biggest potential for epic storms (especially during “Miracle March”) and ample sunshine, plus there are more hours of daylight that you’ll see in the dead of winter, so there’s more time to play outside. During a big snow year, pockets of skiable terrain can persist well into June.
Tahoe’s Best Backcountry Ski Routes by Region
By most measures, the South Lake region offers up the biggest variety of backcountry ski experiences. From one-hour jaunts (did someone say dawn patrol?) close to the highway on Waterhouse Peak to nearly 4,000-foot climbs up behemoth summits like Freel Peak and Job’s Peak, there’s something in the South Shore vicinity for ski tourers of all interests and abilities.
Oh, and then there’s Mount Tallac, arguably the best mountain for backcountry skiing in all of Lake Tahoe due to its impressive size, beauty, accessibility, and variety of descent routes.
Here are several places to put on your South Lake bucket list:
- Mount Tallac
- Freel Peak
- Waterhouse Peak
- Echo Peak
- Angora Peak
- Job’s Peak
West Shore Lake Tahoe Tours
The continuous string of mountains along the west shore of Lake Tahoe holds some of the region’s classic powder day destinations. Skiing down the perfect glades of Rubicon and Bliss Peaks through old-growth forest only gets better thanks to the picturesque views of Lake Tahoe. Meanwhile, Jake’s Peak makes for one of the toughest climbs in the region, with several options for descent routes depending on the season.
The best tours of the West Shore ridgeline include:
- Jake’s Peak
- Twin Peaks
- Rubicon Peak
- Bliss Peak (AKA Hidden Peak)
Truckee Area and North Lake Tours
The I-80 corridor through Truckee hosts many of the local favorite backcountry ski spots, like the deservedly popular Castle Peak. Near Alpine Meadows ski resort you’ll find another classic, Silver Peak, which is known for its long descent on relatively moderate terrain. Then, on the stunningly beautiful northeastern shore of Lake Tahoe, skiers will find a veritable paradise of backcountry terrain in Mount Rose Wilderness, namely on Relay and Tamarack Peaks. Here’s your bucket list for the North Shore and Truckee area.
- Castle Peak
- Silver Peak
- Mount Rose – Relay Peak
- Mount Rose – Tamarack Peak
- Donner Peak
Trip Planning and Logistics
Before you go backcountry skiing, it’s crucial to learn proper avalanche safety and emergency response procedures. The best way to gain this essential knowledge is to take an avalanche education course from a certified mountain skills instructor. Local Tahoe providers like Alpine Skills International based at Sugar Bowl and Alpenglow Expeditions in Olympic Valley offer avalanche safety courses throughout the ski season.
Once you’re armed with mountain know-how and the proper equipment (like avalanche probes, beacons, and probes for everyone in your group), the next step is to stay up-to-date on current snowpack conditions, weather forecasts, and potential avalanche dangers. The ultimate source for this information in the Tahoe region is the Sierra Avalanche Center.
Renting backcountry skiing or snowboarding equipment in the Tahoe area can be a bit tougher than borrowing a regular downhill set-up. Fewer locations offer backcountry gear rentals (such as skins, boots, and avalanche beacons), though you can still find what you need at outfitters like Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City or The Back Country and Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee.
Several local outfitters offer guided backcountry tours, which can be essential for someone unfamiliar with the area looking to explore some quality powder stashes. Alpine Skills International and Alpenglow Expeditions are two of the big names for guided backcountry experiences in the Tahoe Basin.
Parking access for backcountry skiing around Tahoe is largely unofficial, and many trailheads are located in neighborhoods or along the main roads. Four backcountry destinations in the region—Castle Peak, Echo Lakes, Carson Pass, and Blackwood Canyon—require that you purchase a SNO-PARK Permit, which is available at most outdoor stores in the area.