When winter storms frost the mountains to the west of Las Vegas, hordes of visitors head for the high country in search of snowy adventures. Following Christmas, visitors don bright new mufflers and gloves, load sleds or toboggans in the car and eagerly aim for the alpine wonderland. The only place in Southern Nevada with enough snow, the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, offers a variety of winter activities.
Accessed by a network of scenic highways off U.S. 95 north, the mountains lie within an hour's drive of most of the Las Vegas Valley. Drive up Highway 157 to reach Kyle Canyon or Highway 156 to Lee Canyon. Highway 158, the Deer Creek Highway, links the two canyon roads.
The picturesque Mount Charleston Hotel stands near Highway 157 where it reaches the forest. It commands magnificent views up Kyle Canyon from windows in its restaurant, lounge and hotel rooms. Call 872-5400 for information and reservations. In Kyle Canyon, a couple of forest service campgrounds remain open for winter campers and picnickers. Higher up the canyon, the rustic Mount Charleston Ledge welcomes overnight guests in cozy cabins. The lodge boasts beautiful views of the cliffs and forest from its restaurant, bar or outside porch. Reach the lodge at 872-5408.
Lee Canyon's developed recreation sites make it the hub of winter sports in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area. On the way to the popular Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Area at the head of the canyon, the highway passes a snow play area in Lee Meadows, the turnoff to the only cleared sledding runs at Foxtail Picnic Area, a horse-drawn sleigh ride route near the Old Mill Picnic Area and a campground open for winter visitors.
Skiers and snowboarders can leave the driving to somebody else by taking the ski shuttle from valley locations to the ski area's facilities and lifts. For information on the bus schedule and skiing details, visit skilasvegas.com.
Lee Meadows, a grassy, flower-strewn open area in summer, is a great place to make snow angels, have a snowball fight or build a snowman. For sledding or tobogganing, turn off the highway to reach the Foxtail Snow Plan Area, where sled runs are cleared of stumps, rocks and debris for safer sledding. Visitors pay $10 per car for use of the area with its picnic tables, pedestal barbecue grills and heated restrooms.
Snowy forest roads near the Old Mill provide pathways for horse-drawn sleighs scheduled by Mount Charleston Sleigh Rides, operating for the first time this year in Lee Canyon under a special use permit from the forest service. The sleighs will run as long as there is sufficient snow. The half-hour rides through snow-glittered woods cost $25 for adults and $20 for children. Schedule your sleigh ride by calling 596-6715 for reservations.
Following winter storms, chains or snow tires might be required. Slick or icy conditions create problems for desert drivers not used to driving in snow. Check on road conditions and closures at safetravelusa.com/nv or call for statewide conditions at 511 if you are in Nevada or from out-of-state at (877) 687-6287.
A little planning helps make a trip to the snowy mountains safer and more memorable. As weekends and holidays draw the biggest crowds, choose a weekday for your trip, if possible. Travel in a reliable vehicle with a full tank of gasoline, as there are no services on the mountain. Car pool to a location below the snow level, then use the best-equipped vehicles to ferry your party to the snow. Wherever you park, make sure your vehicle is well off the travel lane, with its wheels to the right of the white line or edge marking. Hefty fines accompany tickets written for mountain visitors found parking improperly, trespassing or littering.
Stock the picnic boxes with containers of hot beverages and hearty hot fare such as soup or chili.
Pack enough extra clothing and blankets that everyone goes home dry and warm. Bring plastic bags for tailgate picnic debris and extra garbage bags for wet clothing.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's column appears on Sundays.