Lake Tahoe’s Powder Playland
Photos and Story By Doug Nurock
Standing on the ridge, the Tahoe Basin is framed between the tips of my skis. Rolling for 1,500 vertical feet down into the trees below me is a glistening expanse of untracked fresh powder. The horizon is a merge of azure lake and cobalt sky. Rugged Mt. Tallac, to my left, and the gentle dome of Freel Peak, on my right, compose the classic Lake Tahoe portrait. It’s two in the afternoon on a brilliant, clear, 20-degree Saturday in December. A few miles away, the holiday masses swarm the resorts of Heavenly Valley, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood. Here, except for the distant bark of a local dog, the crisp pine-scented air around me is silent, the crowds non-existent, and the terrain and conditions ski-brochure perfect.
Welcome to Waterhouse, South Lake Tahoe’s powder playland.
For years the hidden playground of a determined group of South Shore locals, Waterhouse Peak has rested quietly right under the noses of many locals and visitors alike. Lying within seconds of a major thoroughfare, most people
speed by Waterhouse never realizing that one of Tahoe’s most perfect winter powder pockets lies just outside their vehicle’s door.
With a direct north facing slope to shield the snow from the damage of the California sun, Waterhouse’s aspect could not have been planned better by a team of ski area designers. The pitch of the mountain, with an angle just shy of 40 degrees at its steepest, is an excellent mix of intermediate grade to advanced — but not life-threatening — steeps. The density of the trees serve both to catch and hold the snow and to break the winds that can often pulverize choice Tahoe “feathers” into un-skiable wind packed crud. Secret stashes of powder may be found here weeks after a storm. But the trees here are larger and more widely spaced than other areas, which keeps the bark-dodging intimidation factor well within reasonable limits for most skiers and boarders.
Modern equipment and a bit of sweat equity provides complimentary season passes to this backcountry paradise to all manner of snow enthusiasts. The price of admission to this powdered Eden is simply desire and a willingness to earn your turns. Whether you’re on randonee or telemark skis, snowshoes or snowboards, splitboards or skinny 20-year-old backcountry sticks, the mountain is open and available to all.
Powder mornings at ski area parking lots can be chaotic. Despite its lack of any facilities, Waterhouse is no different. Cars disgorge gear and occupants, packs are stuffed, car stereos crank and dogs frolic in the snow ecstatic to be out. But at Waterhouse, once you step off the road and up onto the snow the chaos condenses to calm. Head for the trees and in less than a minute, traffic and road noise are left behind. From the roadside parking lot, the single, usually well-packed track up the mountain heads south. The route changes slightly after every storm, a gift to those that follow from those that lead.
After an hour or so, you’ve climbed 1,500 vertical feet to the ridge. If the day is clear and calm, you may choose to stay and soak in your well-earned view. From your ridge-top perch at almost 9,500 feet, you have a panorama of the Tahoe Basin and beyond: Slightly below and to the west is Echo Summit; to the east is another great backcountry ski mountain, Freel Peak; to the south, spread the meadows of Hope Valley, hemmed in by Stevens Peak, Elephants Back, Round Top and Kirkwood; and to the north, sparkling blue Lake Tahoe never fails to impress.
If the snow is flying or the wind is up, you may be on top just long enough to switch your mind and gear into descent mode: Clothing is quickly layered back on, climbing skins peeled off, split-boards locked together, snowshoes stowed and randonee heels locked into place. On a cold, windy day, nimble fingers can be transformed to frozen sausages in a matter of minutes, and the sweat from the climb can chill you to your core, so time is of the essence.
The reward for being out on those frostbite days is that the snow crystals lay together in gentle downy interlace. As you push off the top, a weightless sea foam of powder crystals billow over your ski tips. With no predetermined trails cut through the forest, every run down Waterhouse is a new and unique experiencea personal game to find the best line, shoot through tighter trees or drop off of bigger boulders. Savoring the uncut fluff and every sweet turn, the goal becomes to squeeze as many drops possible out of each and every Waterhouse run.
But the run down rarely quenches one’s thirst for Waterhouse’s nectar, for it’s always over much too quickly. Work or home responsibilities pull you back toward the parking lot. But if the snow is good and the sun is high, it’s easy to ignore the world beyond as you skin back up for just one more run.
The yearly increase in Waterhouse’s skier/boarder traffic is testimonial to what a unique and accessible area this is. But although the number of users has grown, the experience has not yet begun to degrade, perhaps because there are so many other great backcountry places nearby to explore as well.
Waterhouse is still a quiet and friendly playground where anyone willing to earn their own turns and be respectful of other users is welcome. Just as a playground should be.
Waterhouse Peak is at the top of Luther Pass on Highway 89 south of Lake Tahoe.
From Sacramento, take Highway 50 east to Meyers and turn south on Highway 89 toward Hope Valley. It’s seven miles from here to the parking area.
Coming up Highway 88 from Jackson, turn north onto Highway 89 at Pickett’s Junction in Hope Valley and go 4.3 miles to the turn-out on the left.
Currently, there is no requirement for a SnoPark permit on this section of Highway 89. However, when snow removal conditions exist, be sure to park as far to the side of the road as possible so as not to block traffic and snow
The nearest services for Waterhouse are in Meyers at the junction of Highways 50 and 89.
Waterhouse is a backcountry area and is not patrolled by any professional ski rescue service. The nearest medical facility is Barton Hospital in South Lake Tahoe.