First Snowshoe of the Season

We first got our snowshoes in early December of 2011, hoping to diversify our wintertime activities. The snow never came, so we put them under the Christmas tree. The snow still refused to fall, and so the snowshoes sat by the front door for yet another month. A few pathetic winter storms finally blew through the Sierras by the end of January. We were finally able to get out on the snowshoes, but with only a couple inches of snow at some of the places we went, we probably could have gotten away with snow boots. Still, it was enough experience to figure out that we liked it.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Meiss Trailhead at Carson Pass

I had never really considered snowshoes until recently, always hanging on to the idea of being able to coast down the hill. I grew up cross country skiing, and have always liked the go-anywhere style of touring skis. Although there are nice groomed Nordic skiing resorts, there are still plenty of places to ski in the mountains that don’t require an expensive trail pass. What I don’t like about my touring skis, though, is that they’re clumsy…or, rather, that they make me clumsy. Turning around or navigating tight terrain takes a lot of balance and finesse. And descending on touring skis pretty much guarantees a face-plant or some other kind of wipe-out. I’ve found that the older I get, the less I enjoy hitting the ground. During one of last year’s trips to Mount Rose Meadows, I was surprised to see that most of the people were now on snowshoes. Perhaps others share my feelings.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
MSR Evo Ascent Snowshoes

Although not really significant yet, we’ve started out the 2012-13 snow season a little better than last year. The Carson Pass area seemed to be heavier hit in the last series of storms, so this is where I decided to explore last weekend. I grabbed my California SNO-PARK permit, and drove up Highway 88 to see what I could find. Hope Valley was pretty much all melted, and it wasn’t until a couple miles later I started to see any snow accumulations worthy of strapping on snowshoes. There were a few trucks unloading snowmobiles at Red Lake, and then by the time I reached the top of Carson Pass, there was plenty of snow. The Carson Pass SNO-PARK was open, but I drove just a little further to the Meiss Trailhead SNO-PARK on the north side of the highway.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Getting Started

I’ve explored plenty on the south side of the highway, but never anything from the Meiss trailhead. I knew that the Pacific Crest Trail heads north here and the general direction it went, but I didn’t see obvious signs of a trail with all the snow. I saw plenty of tracks in all directions, and figured I’d just explore and possibly pick up the trail later.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Climbing to the top of this ridge next

I followed another set of fresh snowshoe tracks up the mountain. The snow wasn’t real deep, but it was hard and crusty. The steel crampons and traction rails on my snowshoes bit into the snow perfectly, and I went right up the slippery mountain with ease. It made me smile, because my XC touring skis would have made this route no fun at all.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Ridgeline to Red Lake Peak

I eventually found the owner of the tracks I was following. She was perched on a high outcropping of rocks with a great view of the valley below. I waved as I went around her, and set my sights on the ridgline above. I knew I was pretty far off the official trail, so I wanted to see the other side of the ridge to get my bearings. I thought the saddle above Meiss Meadow would be a good destination for the day, and wanted to make sure I was headed in that general direction.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Looking down on Red Lake and HWY 88 east of the pass

I made my way up the steep side to the ridge, again smiling as the snowshoes gave me unbelievable traction in the icy snow. Once at the top of the ridge, I was above the treeline and had great views in all directions. Red Lake to the east, Caples Lake to the West, Elephant’s Back and Round Top Peak to the south, and Red Lake Peak to the north in the direction I was headed.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Elephant’s Back

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Round Top Peak and The Sisters

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Caples Lake

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Mountains of the Mokelumne Wilderness

The windswept west side of the ridge was rocky and almost blown free of all snow. I could see the saddle above Meiss Meadow far down below to the northwest. I continued following the ridge to the north, then made my way up along the southwest face of Red Lake Peak. I found a nice little wind break beneath a big rock where the snow had receded down the slope a bit. It made the perfect spot for a lunch break.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
A nice windbreak for lunch

After leaving the windbreak, I continued north to reach a point overlooking Meiss Meadow. I also had a good view of Lake Tahoe further off to the north. According to Wikipedia, this area “is believed to be the vantage point from which John C. Fremont and Charles Preuss made the first recorded sighting of Lake Tahoe in February 1844 as Fremont’s exploratory expedition made a desperate crossing of the Sierra Nevada through what is now Carson Pass”.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
High above Caples Lake

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Views of Meiss Meadow and Lake Tahoe to the North

After enjoying the views, I made my way down a big open bowl to the saddle above Meiss Meadow. Had the snow not been so icy, it probably would’ve been a blast to ski down. I was still content to walk down though, taking it slow and enjoying the scenery.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
An impressive snow bank

Once down at the saddle, I had expected to see more activity. The Pacific Crest Trail goes through here, and I saw very little indication of traffic. I still hadn’t seen another person since near the beginning of the hike. What a great feeling of solitude, being high in the snowy mountains with only the wind and the stillness of the snow to listen to.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Tracks from various species

There were quite a few animal tracks traversing this high meadow. Rodents of various sizes had come through here. There were also some larger tracks, though, which I could’t quite figure out. Medium sized round footprints with a long stride. Others looked to have too small of a stride to be coyote. Bobcat? Fox? Someone’s Cocker Spaniel? The only animal I actually saw all day was a crow, which tends to be the bird I always see no matter where I go around the western U.S. I guess they can live just about anywhere.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Where is everyone?

About a mile away from the trailhead, I found an old windsurf board partially buried in the snow. It was probably a pain to get it up this far, and I can’t imagine it being very easy to use it as a controllable sled. I’m presuming this is why it was abandoned…

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Windsurf Board

I decided to start making my way back to the trailhead. I knew the general direction I had to go, but having crossed over the ridge, I wasn’t sure what elevation I should be heading to. My GPS came in handy for picking the best route by staying at an elevation similar to the trailhead without too much wasted ascending or descending. After I returned home and uploaded my GPS data, I discovered that I had fairly closely followed the official trail, even crossing it at times. I never noticed it at the time though. It wasn’t until I was nearly back to the car when I started seeing signs of a trail and even a couple backcountry skiers headed out.

Snowshoeing at Carson Pass
Not far from the trailhead now

By the time I got back to the trailhead, I was feeling pretty tired and was thinking about dinner. I had covered just under 5 miles, but felt like I had put in a full day of hiking. I’m sure the crusty snow made it easier than normal too. My tiredness was due partly to this being my first big effort since shoulder surgery a month ago, but also, walking in the snow with big shoes is just physically demanding. But to put it into perspective, I thought of the terrain I covered this day, and what it would’ve been like doing the same loop in the summer. With all the bushes, logs, loose sand, rocks, and sticks, the route would have been much more difficult. The trip over the snow offered good traction on smooth terrain, not unlike hiking big sand dunes. I really fell in love with the snowshoeing experience on this outing, and am looking forward to the next outing. We even have some new snow headed to the mountains this week!


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