Snowy Sierra summits summon skiers and snowshoers

This season’s snowfall ties the record set in 1952. Here’s how to see it.
An image taken from Buena Vista peak, showing a vast snowy mountainside
Buena Vista Peak allows visitors a fine High Sierra view. Credit Matt Johanson

Though snow blankets the Sierra Nevada, and does it ever, mountain adventures need not wait. Many modest yet rewarding summits stand within reach during winter and early spring to those properly prepared and equipped. If this season’s stormy weather has given you cabin fever, here are three outings to consider as roads clear and blue skies return.

Making a snowy ascent of these Sierra summits will require cross country skis or snowshoes. Snow will conceal trails deep into spring, so those who go must be comfortable navigating without them. For best conditions, wait a week or more after heavy snowfall to let powder settle. This may also allow others to break a trail ahead of you, easing your progress and route finding.

6,645 feet, Yosemite National Park, three-mile trip, 395-foot elevation gain 

A view of the distant snowy mountains, taken from Crane Flat
Crane Flat Lookout looks across Yosemite National Park to the Clark Range. Credit Matt Johanson

Park on Big Oak Flat Road at the Crane Flat Lookout turnoff, just west of Crane Flat Campground. From the turnoff, pass the gate and follow the forest road to the northwest. An enjoyable trek leads to the most scenic winter vista that’s easily accessible in the park. Crane Flat delivers a breathtaking panoramic view, as well as a good look at the Clark Range.

National Park Service workers completed Yosemite’s first fire lookout tower here in 1932. Crane Flat still serves as a search and rescue base, as the buildings, climbing wall and helicopter pad attest.

7,587 feet, Kings Canyon National Park, two-mile trip, 411-foot elevation gain

Buena Vista Peak in Kings Canyon National Park. Credit Matt Johanson

Park at the signed Buena Vista Peak trailhead lot on Generals Highway, about 500 feet south of the Kings Canyon Overlook. Our route (and snow-covered trail) proceeds west and then south past jeffery pines, incense cedars and large granite boulders. Soon the trail climbs above most trees and into better visibility. Aim for the southeast slope, which provides the gentlest line to the summit.

Ranger Sam Ellis named this peak in 1895 in honor of its broad and majestic view. When you reach the summit, you’ll see why. Buck Rock Fire Lookout and many grand Sierra summits may be visible to the northeast. This spot has particularly good views of Redwood Canyon and Redwood Mountain, home of the large sequoia groves.

10,063 feet, Eldorado National Forest, three-mile trip, 1,489-foot elevation gain 

Red Lake Peak in Eldorado National Forest. Credit Matt Johanson

This is the most challenging of our winter summits trilogy, and probably not a good choice for kids, although it allows dogs. Park beside Highway 88 at Meiss trailhead or in the nearby Carson Pass lot. Both lots require a Sno-Park pass (not available on site) from Nov. 1-May 30, and charge a $5 parking fee in the summer and fall months.

Red Lake Peak stands north of the highway. Climb north through the junipers and above the tree line. Continue steadily to a saddle where the incline briefly eases. Then the ascent resumes as a secondary summit fills our view; don’t be discouraged to see the true summit beyond! The remaining climb is only about 400 feet. Most people are content to stand beside the summit’s uppermost volcanic rock; to ascend that also requires scrambling and rock climbing technique (class 3).

Our summit view includes Red Lake, Elephants Back and Round Top to the south, Meiss Meadow and Meiss Lake to the northwest, and distant peaks of Desolation Wilderness to the north.

This mountain has a unique and little-known historical distinction. When John Fremont’s expedition made a bold winter crossing in 1844, two members ascended the peak. This became the first documented mountain climb in the Sierra Nevada range. Fremont’s expedition struggled to reach Sutter’s Fort, resorting to eating mules and dogs. But all the men survived, and Fremont named the pass in honor of Kit Carson who led them to safety.

The advice from above warrants repeating: wait until after heavy weather to attempt such outings. But on the right day and with the right footwear, these suggestions should provide beginner-friendly snow experiences which might impart an ambition for more challenging winter and spring adventures.

Editor’s Note: Always be aware of your surroundings, and use caution outdoors. These trips are designed to help you experience nature, but make sure you’re prepared with the right gear, equipment, supplies and communication ability.


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