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On the trail of winter magic in Lake Tahoe’s snowy wonderland

This winter has been a remarkable one for snow fun in Southern Nevada. For those braving the crowds, Mount Charleston has offered plenty of opportunity for skiing, snowshoeing and sledding.

For those entertaining extra wintry indulgences and traveling 450 miles, Northern Nevada and its mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe promise pristine and playful times in a snowy wonderland.

With snowpack levels about 200 percent above average for the Lake Tahoe Basin, the snow should have February staying power at Nevada’s two big ski resorts, Mount Rose on state Route 431 above Reno and Diamond Peak in Incline Village. Skiing and snowboarding are popular and pricey ways to enjoy the white stuff ($165 for full-price adult tickets at Mount Rose and $145 for the same at Diamond Peak).

Lake Tahoe winters aren’t exclusively for thrill-seekers at ski resorts. While my sons snowboarded in the fresh powder at Diamond Peak in mid-January, my husband and I strapped on snowshoes and followed paths winding through Incline Village’s public golf course. We missed Diamond Peak’s unparalleled views of Lake Tahoe from Crystal Ridge, but beauty found us as we trekked under evergreens draped in overnight snow. Clark’s nutcrackers flew overhead, and mountain chickadees called to one another. A gentle silence filled the fairy-tale space, and an occasional stripe or spot of light blue appeared in a mostly gray sky. Few other hikers or snowshoers were out getting their exercise in the early morning, but the frequently used paths were clearly marked and easy to follow, even when covered with a couple of extra inches of recent snow.

No sun but still fun

At least a foot of snow fell in Incline Village during our mid-January visit, and that translated into snowmageddon at higher elevations, including Tahoe Meadows along state Route 431, also known as Mount Rose Highway. We had planned to snowshoe 2.4 miles out to Chickadee Ridge and back for a spectacular Lake Tahoe vista, but high walls of snow on either side of the highway blocked access. Stormy weather during the extended Martin Luther King Jr. weekend also foiled the possibility of looping Spooner Lake (an excellent place to cross-country ski). Settling instead on snowshoeing in Incline Village and hiking along a section of Tahoe East Shore Trail was hardly a sacrifice. A short trek through the Village Green on the morning after our arrival was extended when we crossed Lakeshore Drive to take a quick, cold, windy and low-visibility peek at choppy Lake Tahoe from Ski Beach. We remained committed to outdoor adventuring. My mantra: No sun but still fun.

Our experience with winter in Tahoe was not the stuff bluebird-day postcards are made of. It was a real one that heavily contributed snow to the overall winter scene. Pictures on my phone of gray skies and falling snowflakes proved it. Days were filled with snow. Hour after hour, flakes fluttered, floated and settled. Darkened evergreens contrasted with blue-hued snow an hour after everyone had morning coffee. At lunchtime, snowflakes delicately but determinedly accumulated everywhere. Occasionally the snow would brighten, probably when clouds blanketing the Lake Tahoe Basin thinned temporarily. Around supper time, snowflakes became fatter. There we were on a behind-the-scenes tour of how a winter wonderland is created.

Instead of getting discouraged and hiding indoors near a fireplace, we made friends with the snow. Our time in the snowscape was limited, so we weren’t going to skip out on lake views from Tahoe East Shore Trail or the scenic overlook along state Route 431 just before the highway descends to Incline Village. Every visitor should stop to take a Lake Tahoe photo from that vantage point any time of year, when weather permits. Not every visitor should necessarily insist on hiking along the Tahoe East Shore Trail during a snowstorm, like we did.

Snow-covered winter magic

Tahoe East Shore Trail runs parallel to state Route 28 and begins near the lake on Tunnel Creek Road in Incline Village. The trail stretches about 3 miles to Sand Harbor State Park, and it’s all about safe lakeshore access and magnificent views of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding mountains. That Saturday, we saw few cars on normally busy state Route 28 and ran into no one else on the snow-covered trail during our 1½-hour outing.

Wind was at our backs as we started out, and the hoods on our ski jackets were never lowered as we watched snow fall heavily onto Lake Tahoe and its shores. In our boots, we crunched along on the snow and tried to avoid sketchy spots where earlier visitors had created deep holes with their boots. Ski or trekking poles were a must on the trail. While the lake and its snow-draped granite boulders and beaches were in view, mountains across the way on the California shore were obscured by the storm. In its indigo robe and stylish black mohawk, a Steller’s jay braved the breezes and appeared to cheer us on from its lakeside perch. The winter scenes were stunning, but we were wet, cold and ready for spots near the fireplace with mugs of hot cocoa warming our hands.

Throughout the weekend, on our drives to drop off skiers and during walks, we continued to marvel at the snow’s transformation of a favorite place we mostly know in summer. The white stuff blanketed cars and rooftops. It threatened to cover some Incline Village street signs. Pillows of snow rested on the branches of Jeffrey pines and Douglas firs. At higher elevations, snow and frost turned trees completely white. Snow fell softly on our faces except when stormier weather made it sting. Whether enjoying easy-access winter sporting adventures on snowshoes or ducking into the town’s Happy Tiers Bakery for scrumptious treats and lattes, our snowy Lake Tahoe weekend was filled with exhilarating times that made visiting adults feel like kids.

While filled with potential for good times, winter visits to Lake Tahoe carry the risk of challenging driving conditions en route to and at the destination. Snow was falling the Friday night we drove up Mount Rose Highway to Incline Village from the Reno-Tahoe Airport in a rented small all-wheel-drive SUV. Luckily, as we reached the road’s summit, we ended up right behind the friendly blue lights of a snowplow. Another winter problem is the possibility for weather-related flight delays, and we encountered one of those for the return flight to Las Vegas. Our behind-the-scenes winter magic tour came with a few costs, but what snow fun we had in a state with a Spanish name meaning snow-covered.

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