Winter daytrip adventures
Words and photos by Matt Johanson
Most people avoid Sierra Nevada travel in winter, with the exception of visiting crowded downhill ski resorts. But the first snows turn the mountains into a winter wonderland, and a wide variety of day trips offer adventure to outdoor enthusiasts of all abilities.
Here are some favorite day trips on the west side of the range that will reward cross country skiers and snowshoers. Our magnificent seven are arranged from least to most challenging.
1 In Calaveras, Big Trees State Park on Hwy 4, North Grove Trail leads visitors through a magnificent cluster of giant sequoias in just 1.4 miles. The mostly flat loop does not necessarily require skis or snowshoes; with light or compacted snow, hiking boots will do. Giant sequoias are among the largest and oldest living things on earth. Come meet your elders.
2 On Highway 4 near Bear Valley, take Spicer Reservoir Road into the beautiful and scenic Stanislaus National Forest. This is one of few mountain roads that’s usually snowcat-groomed for skiers and snowshoers at no charge, except for the Sno-Park pass required to use the parking lot ($5/day or $25/season, available at ohv.parks.ca.gov/snoparks). Choose your own turnaround point to make a trip as long or short as you like.
3 In Yosemite National Park, explore Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. A gentle path leads to dozens of the beautiful redwoods in a two-mile loop. From the parking area near Crane Flat, go north past a gate and down a forest road. The first sequoias come into view after a sharp turn. Be prepared to hike uphill on the way back.
4 In Kings Canyon National Park, trek to grand Panoramic Point. Park in Grant Grove Village and walk to John Muir Lodge. A snowcat-groomed path leads from a gate beside the lodge toward Park Ridge Lookout. Be careful because the groomed path might turn sharply right before reaching Panoramic Point. If so, leave the groomed path and continue on ungroomed (but probably well-traveled) snow north and east to the vista. A round-trip to Panoramic Point is five miles long. The ambitious can extend the outing to Park Ridge Lookout and back for a ten-mile adventure.
5 Near Dodge Ridge Ski Area off Hwy 108, discover the 4.2 mile Crabtree Loop. From Dodge Ridge Road, take the last right before the resort towards Crabtree Road. Park and find the trail leading from the south end of the lot. The loop leads through lush pine trees and meadows, with a few rolling ups and downs but no big hills. There’s also an option to extend the loop to about six miles.
6 Near Truckee, Andesite Peak delivers a sweeping view of the Northern Sierra. From I-80, take the Castle Peak/Boreal Ridge Road exit and park south of the freeway. You will need a Sno-Park pass. Hike under the overpass to Castle Peak Road north of the freeway. Find a well-traveled winter trail leading through Castle Valley with Castle Peak looming above. After climbing to Castle Pass (which may be difficult), turn left toward Andesite Peak, where you’ll see snow-capped peaks in all directions. This makes for a round trip of about five miles and may entice you to return for the more challenging Castle Peak.
7 Back in Yosemite, Dewey Point rounds out our magnificent seven. A marked, well-traveled trail from Badger Pass Ski Area leads to a spectacular viewpoint. Start east on the often-groomed Glacier Point Road. About a mile from the parking lot, look for Dewey Point Meadow Trail on your left, breaking from the road and heading north. The next mile is easy going through the flat meadow along a creek and framed by lodgepole pines. Then trail drops, curves and becomes more difficult, joining with the Dewey Point Ridge Trail as it passes through denser trees before emerging for a final climb to the rim. You’ll feel like you’re looking off the edge of the world. This seven-mile round trip takes between four and six hours.
Of course, snow conditions vary and a recent storm can make any of these pleasant journeys into an epic ordeal. But those who time their winter adventures well will enjoy a California that few ever see.
Matt Johanson’s books include Yosemite Epics and Yosemite Adventures. His writing can be found at mattjohanson.com.