Location: South Shore – Lake Tahoe, CA
Duration: 2-3 hours
Elevation Change: 3,200′ – from 6,535′ to 9,735′
Recommended Map: Emerald Bay, California
Map of General Route:
I re-write my ski tour posts every time I look at them. Sorry, I’m torn between saying everything, and saying nothing but photos. now that I have looked at all this again for our 1/8/2023 email newsletter, I realize I want to dump tons of pictures of all you guys on this post. It’s 5am as I sit here, and I’m going through tons of amazing shots I have going back to 1993. I need to learn how to embed text below each photo so I can say who we are looking at.
Mt. Tallac is the best thing Tahoe has to offer. I say this because of the combined bonuses like size, accessibility, safety, danger, terrain variety, beauty, views, comfy summit, etc… Mt. Tallac is the first peak I skied when I moved here. We used alpine trekkers with heavy, straight, narrow alpine skis. I probably couldn’t make a good turn in the late afternoon slop. but this day sold me on converting to ski touring. Before this I had just walked up slopes with my alpine gear on my back for the end-of-season novelty. Expect about 3 hours to climb the 3200′ your first time. and bring ski crampons for the middle if you are new to skinning. My wife did it with Laura DeLauries a fee days before my life changing experience, borrowing some Karhu XCD skis and lace-only tele boots. She didn’t know what telemark or backcountry skiing was. She came home and said “Mike, let’s tele…all the cool people tele”. She was right. And the next year I started selling ski touring gear in my tiny start-up bike shop in Tahoe City. It was 600 sq ft and behind the Naughty Dog Bar. We had the first Dynafit bindings and Voile Splitboard in the shop that same year, but Telemark was the big thing that year when the plastic boots came out.
Mt. Tallac is the big, handsome peak behind Emerald Bay that is often photographed for Tahoe Ski Industry ads. Ski areas wish they had this terrain and setting. Look towards the summit of Mt. Tallac with binoculars on most any clear powder snow morning, and you will likely get to watch a Tahoe Local making perfect turns down the north bowl. There are great ski routes all over the mountain and it is easy to find no tracks skiing if you head down the north or south ridges. Even going out the west ridge leads to steep north facing shots behind the mountain, and you can ride it out to another car at the Bayview Trailhead.
The standard Mt. Tallac ascent route is usually well beaten into the prominent East Ridge, just above “sweat hill”. Oh, and you’ll have to walk a 2-mile asphalt gated neighborhood street first from hwy 89, called Spring Creek Road. Take the right fork at the end. The summer USFS lease cabins back here are mostly abandoned during winter, and we are no longer allowed to park back there. This is a bummer as you can’t often skin the road due to cross streets and dry asphalt. You can usually ski back down Spring Creek Road by hugging the right side. Call USFS and ask them to build a parking lot for the world class and decades old traditional start to Mt. Tallac. Today you park anywhere you can near the intersection of Spring Creek Rd and hwy 89. There is plenty of parking in this area luckily thanks to Cal Trans plowed pull outs. As always, CARPOOL Please and sign hello and thank you to Cal Trans and CHP.
Expect to burn up at least 20 minutes walking from your car to the skin track start. You usually need to peel all your layers off and get the sunscreen and baseball hat out in the first 10 minutes, as this low elevation east facing slope starts to cook. Take a 5-minute break in the shade at the notch above the first hill before traversing right and up onto the east ridge. This next middle section of the mountain is a bit steep and can require ski crampons. Stay on the true ridge for best views or drop into the forest a little for better skin grip on softer snow. At the start of this middle zone, beginners might be better off to just grab skis over the shoulder and walk straight up for a few hundred feet. Skinning gets easier soon, and eventually flat when you reach the ridge. Finally, skin into the bowl and follow the track to the obvious notch on the right side. Don’t ski from there, you are not done yet. Walk around to the summit on the west slope in the rocks. Bring your skis, dropping into the bowl is usually wind scoured, but there is an easy enough entrance on the right side.
Views of Desolation Wilderness are perfectly spread out for you to start dreaming of deeper missions. Pyramid Peak stands out as an impossible yet luring ski descent. Yes, the north face gets skied, and no it isn’t as steep as it looks. Yes, it’s all peppered with rocks and not great. The Crystal range above Lake Aloha is a bit tricky to get to without overnight packs, but it can be done. Of course, you can ski a lot more if you go camp out there. Check out the Kalmia Ridge and Dick’s Peak. If Tallac is easy for you, head that way next time from the Bayview Trailhead. The view of Lake Tahoe is unreal from the summit. You get to see Fallen Leaf Lake, Cascade Lake, and Emerald Bay in almost their entirety.
Your first 3,200′ descent will have you trading in your ski pass for new AT, Telemark, or Split-Snowboard gear. That’s what happened to me in 1992. Mt. Tallac can get tracked out fast. The scenery is so overpowering however, you’ll forget to even look for first tracks. Ski it a few more times and learn the mountain, show up early, and you’ll never cross a track again.
The high bowl offers both moderate and low angle slopes. Be very sure to steer clear of the cliffs below the bowl, easily spotted from your climb. A few skiers have died climbing and descending through this zone. Once you’ve wrapped around the cliffs, head skiers right below the cliffs to ski more north-facing aspect on a powder day. In the springtime the descent down the sun filled east gully might have the best corn snow. If you know you’re looking for spring-like corn snow, have a local show you Cathedral Bowl. This is the wide, south-facing chute you drool over from South Shore. You’ll have to circumnavigate the mountain to get back to your car, which could get you lost if you weren’t careful. On just the right course, you can traverse back around to Spring Creek Road and make more fun turns along the way. Or go up and down the south slopes from the summer Tallac Trailhead parking area or the snow park on hwy 89.
During a cycle of good corn snow and deep snowpack, take some extra water and eat snow to hydrate, and ski the south ridge all the way down to Fallen Leaf Lake. Yes, you will have to hike back up 3,200′. You can use Cathedral Bowl for the start of this descent, or head down the south ridge of Tallac looking for less tracked-up options. There are a few of them. You would want to make sure the snow is still there by viewing from another peak like Angora to the south. I remember a funny day when we were pretty young, and we skied the whole south face all the way to Fallen Leaf Lake. We couldn’t stop because the snow was perfect. We died coming back up, being out of water on a hot afternoon. I can’t believe we didn’t just start eating snow. I do that all the time now and barely carry any water on huge spring ski days.
For the ultimate challenge, pick your way down the Cross Couloir, which is just south of the summit. You can’t see very far into it, and there is sometimes ice in the middle. The True drop in is near vertical near the tree. I remember sliding in a few times in my younger days with my skinny tele skis, failing to notice the easier entrance just to my left with softer snow and south aspect. We felt like dropping in from the tree was the whole point of the line. I think our snowpack was a lot deeper in those years. The Cross Couloir looks like it would be too steep to ski when viewed from the East Shore. It gets skied regularly and can be quite hacked up and hard to ski at times. There are a few other extreme descent options from near the summit of Tallac in a big snow year as well like Hanging Snowfield, Cham Chute, and Big Bird. These all drop from the summit on the East Side. These are mountaineering tick list type descents….I don’t ski any of those now that I’ve been down them one or two times. Why slide down narrow sketchy terrain and get scared? Go for the good snow and fun turns.
There is also some excellent skiing on the north treed slope of Mt. Tallac. You won’t like skinning back up. The trees are just all in the wrong places and it’s damn steep. For this area you will park at the Bayview Trailhead and pop over a little ridge just south of the concrete bathroom building in the campground. It’s on the map as a summer trail. You can see the north trees area across the Cascade Drainage. Don’t bother going to the summit, that’s pretty far. Ski a few laps or explore up the valley and ski a north facing line above Snow Lake, dropping from the ridge between Tallac and Kalmia. Or you can shuttle car left at the Bayview Trailhead and summit Tallac from the normal route. This car shuttle isn’t really worth the effort, as you only get about 1500′ of good turns for your 3200′ hike, and you’ll be confused about direction and unknown snow conditions. It is a nice tour however and offers a view of the rarely skied South side of Maggie’s south peak and its Dogleg couloir aka Treth’s Chute.
If you are coming from Tahoe City, make sure hwy 89 is open around emerald bay. It is closed sometimes when we get a huge storm cycle. Spring Creek Road is just south of Emerald Bay, and 4 miles north of the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe. Look online for CA hwy 89 road conditions or call 800-427-7623. CARPOOL.using the Tahoe City Transit Center parking lot. Finally, make sure you hike Mt. Tallac in the summer. You use an official Tallac Trailhead which is one mile further south of Spring creek Road. Go every year. Take someone who has a mind you want to blow. You might just move to Tahoe if you don’t already live here when you get back from Mt. Tallac.
On 3/1/17 I went up Mt. Tallac with my wife Steph and Colin, Paul, and Caleb from The BackCountry crew. What a day, bluebird and dry shin deep powder on N and NE aspects. We just skied the standard route, but all the tick list lines are well covered right now. Big Bird, Hanging Snowfield, Cham Chute, The Cross, Cathedral Bowl, etc.. Unfortunately as usual, the gate is closed and we had to schlep from hwy 89 through the Spring Creek rd Neighborhood. This time of year you can’t skin easily because the roads have dried to Ice and asphalt.… Read more »
I skied the cross in 1981 (after red hut breakfast) climbed straight up the cross pretty sketchy…but great snow on the way down fantastic memories ..home made back pack. Also skied south ridge down to the lake …if you want a great Memory go do it
skied Mt. Tallac on 3-27-18 with some nice winter snow on N to NE and found good coverage at the highway where you pirate park somewhere along 89. Don’t park near the Spring Creek Road gate closure, people got tickets. Call USFS and tell them we want access to our public lands and Desolation Wilderness with parking opportunities in logical places; mostly which exist right where the summer parking exists. They do NOT care, I’ve been beating this drum for years in their ear and they totally ignore me. Same for TRPA, Cal Trans, CA State Parks, El Dorado County,… Read more »
On 4/1 we went up Tallac and skied the north bowl (video). Climb up (7am start) was quite icy and difficult without crampons but well worth it to get up there before the snow was too soft.
1/4/2020: North Bowl was icy but did not require ski crampons on ascent.
old beta pics from 2021. playing with our new REPLY with IMAGE feature! My son and I skied The Cross Couloir feb 21, 2021 with pretty thin and crusty coverage. I slid down to the Tree a few hundred feet down using the south facing – skiers left entrance to see if it was even possible before calling him down. We had to carefully glide sideways from there into the chute, on old re-frozen ski steps. He of course had no problem with this growing up on the big mountain team at squaw. I was pretty nervous with my wider… Read more »