When the snow begins to fall, the promise of downhill skiing and snowboarding draws us into the mountains. But winter sporting doesn’t end on the slopes.
Why not experience winter a little differently with a snowshoeing or cross country skiing adventure. At these Northern California destinations, you’ll find all the snow-capped beauty and heart-pumping activity of the sports’ sexier cousins, without the hefty price tag and obnoxious crowds. All you have to do is rent the gear; the Sierras will do the rest.
Royal Gorge: The Largest XC Ski + Snowshoe Area in the U.S.
(Courtesy of Royal Gorge)
At the country’s largest cross country ski and snowshoeing area, 92 trails are spread out over 6,000 acres of northern Sierra wilderness. Just over half of them, almost 60 miles worth, are groomed and tracked for easy gliding, while another 22 miles of trail is dedicated specifically to snowshoers of all abilities. There are even dog-friendly options for both snow sport varieties. Epic views are a given here, and there are eight warming huts placed strategically on the terrain for when you want a minute to rest and take it all in. Lessons and rentals are available on site.// Trail passes range from $15 to $50, open 8:30am to 4pm daily; 9411 Pahatsi Rd (Soda Springs), royalgorge.com
Yosemite National Park: Badger Pass Ski Area Nordic Center
(Courtesy of Yosemite National Park)
If you’ve never ventured to Yosemite in the winter months, you’re in for a treat. Not only are the crowds a fraction of their summer size but, quieted by snow, the valley takes on a breathtaking, magical quality that sunny summer skies just can’t awaken. There are a few different trail options open for snowshoers and XC skiers. Tramp through ancient trees in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias near the park’s south entrance, ogle granite peaks from Yosemite Valley or Dewey Point, or peek into the Merced River Canyon from the Clark Range View Trail near the Big Oak Flat entrance. If your snowshoeing confidence needs a little work, 1.5-mile guided trips gear up at Tenaya Lodge, where snowshoes are also available for rent. The Badger Pass Ski Area Nordic Center has snowshoes and cross-country ski rentals and lessons, too.
// 9035 Village Dr, (Yosemite Valley); find more info at travelyosemite.com/winter.
Mount Shasta Nordic Center
(Courtesy of Harold Litwiler/Flckr/CC)
There are more than 14 miles of groomed XC skiing trails, plus an almost endless supply of (un-groomed) backcountry terrain waiting on the slopes of Mount Shasta. The former is cared for by the Mount Shasta Nordic Center, which offers rentals, lessons, and a detailed trail map with options for beginner, intermediate, and expert skiers (for a real challenge, give the 2.3 mile Ernie’s Stairway to Heaven loop a try). Among the latter, Sand Flat, Bunny Flat, and Castle Lake are ideal for both snowshoeing and skiing.
// Day passes range from $15 to $35 for adults,; 765 Mt Shasta Blvd (Mt. Shasta), mtshastanordic.org
Northstar California Cross Country, Telemark + Snowshoe Center
Northstar Resort, Truckee.
(Courtesy of Leijurv/CC)
Northstar is among the priciest options for a day of snowshoeing and XC skiing (it's $60 for adults and $46 for kids 12 and under, not including rentals), but its extensive network of mid-mountain trails are well worth the extra dough. The resort boasts more than 21 miles of them, many with exceptional views, along with a clutch of trailside wilderness warming huts where hot chocolate and tea are always brewing. The well-appointed Cross Country, Telemark and Snowshoe Center offers lessons and equipment rentals in both sports, as well as fat tire bikes and pedal-assist e-bikes, telemark workshops, and guided stargazing snowshoe tours after dark.// 5001 Northstar Dr (Truckee), northstarcalifornia.com
XC Skiing + Snowshoeing Around Tahoe
(Courtesy of Mitch Barrie/Flckr/CC)
There are multiple ways to XC and snowshoe in Tahoe. For world-class groomed trails, hit the Tahoe XC, a resort with options for skiers and snowshoers of all abilities, plus lessons, clinics and gear rental ($39/adults, free for under 19 and 70+). // For something a little more wild and free (literally), head to the sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail between Tahoe Meadows and Chickadee Ridge, from Kingsbury North to Castle Rock or from Brockway Summit to Picnic Rock. // Another affordable option ($10-$15/vehicle) awaits in the Spooner Backcountry in Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, where scenic groomed trails lead from the south side of Spooner Lake to Spooner Meadow and from North Canyon to Marlette Lake.// Tahoe XC, 925 Country Club Dr (Tahoe City), tahoexc.org; various access points for Tahoe Rim Trail, tahoerimtrail.org; Spooner Lake, access from Hwys 50 and 28, parks.nv.gov
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park: Snowshoe to Pear Lake
Pear Lake winter hut.
(Courtesy of Sequoia Parks Conservancy)
At Sequoia Kings Canyon, the air is crisp, the powder is fresh, and the views are superlative. There are tons of trails meandering through the park’s woodlands, including at the foot of its most famous residents in Grant Grove and Giant Forest. Trail maps are available at any visitor center and snowshoes are available to rent at the Lodgepole Market or Grant Grove Gift Shop. If you’ve got the skills, Sequoia Kings Canyon is also open for overnight ski and snowshoe trips with a wilderness permit. Ski or waffle-stomp the steep six-mile trail to Pear Lake to spend the night in the park’s adorable Winter Hut, a rustic cabin with a pellet stove that sleeps up to 10 people (advanced reservations required, but the hut is temporarily closed for the 2022-23 ski season).// 47050 Generals Highway (Three Rivers), nps.gov/seki
Mammoth Lakes: Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center
XC skiing in Mammoth Lakes.
(Courtesy of Mitch Barrie/Flckr/CC)
At Mammoth Lakes on the eastern slopes of the Sierra, the snow is just as deep and powdery as it is in Tahoe with a fraction of the crowds. On its best snowshoeing and cross country skiing trails, you’ll find stunning vistas, frozen lakes, and quiet forest kingdoms of pine, fir, and juniper. Explore Mammoth’s iconic skyline featuring the Minarets on the gently sloping, beginner-friendly Minaret Vista route, which starts at the main lodge and climbs from 8,909 feet to 9,265 feet in around 2.5 miles. Down in the Mammoth Lakes Basin, a variety of trails accessible via the 2.5-mile Lake Mary Winter Public Access Corridor crisscross the landscape. Although skiers need a pass, snowshoers can access the groomed main trail, the Panorama Dome Loop, and other routes for free. Rental gear and trail maps are available at the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center and shops in town.
// 163 Twin Lakes Rd (Mammoth Lakes), mammothmountain.com