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:
Let’s start with the best thing Tahoe has to offer. I say this because of the combined bonuses like size, accessability, safety, danger, terrain variety, popularity, beauty, etc… Mt. Tallac is the first peak I skied when I moved here, and that alpine trekker half day climb instantly turned me into a 95% ski touring skier. Expect about the same 3 hours to climb the 3200′ now that you have modern bindings. My wife did it with a friend before me actually, borrowing some Karhu XCD skis and lace-only tele boots. She didn’t know what telemark or backcountry was. She came home and said “Mike, let’s tele…all the cool people tele”. Now we have a store and have lived here for 25 years. She was right. All the cool people ski tour. Tele, AT, Splitboard, Snowshoe, whatever…
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. 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.
The ascent route is usually well beaten in to the prominent East Ridge, just above “sweat hill” and your car. At the summit, Desolation Wilderness is perfectly spread out for you to examine. Pyramid Peak stands out as an impossible yet luring ski descent. Yes, it gets skied, and no it isn’t as steep as it looks. Turn around and an unreal and unique Lake Tahoe View hits you like a ton of bricks. 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. One of the more popular ski tours in the Tahoe Basin, 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, 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 back over to the more north-facing slope for winter snow. On other days the descent down the sun filled gully is nice corn, rather than crust. 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.
During a cycle of good corn snow and deep snow pack, take some extra water or a filter, 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. There are beautiful 35 degree, wide-open slopes above Fallen Leaf Lake that are rarely skied.
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. Plus, you have to steer through some small cliff bands after you exit the couloir. This run looks mighty impressive when viewed from the East Shore. It gets skied regularly nonetheless. The crux is getting into it. The north facing side of the entrance is really steep, and the slightly easier south facing entrance hangs over a cliff. Don’t fall basically. There are a few other incredible extreme descent options from near the summit of Tallac in a big snow year as well. There are at least 10 worthy, independent mini couloirs spread around Mt. Tallac.
There is also some excellent skiing on the steep north treed slope of Mt. Tallac. Skinning back up requires some skill, or you can just head out to a shuttle car left at the Bayview Trailhead. This car shuttle isn’t really worth the effort, as you only get about 1500′ of good turns for your 3200′ hike. It is a nice tour however, and offers a view of the rarely skied South side of Maggie’s south peaklet and its Dogleg Couloir. The best way to ski the north trees of Tallac is to park at Bayview Trailhead, and go up the drainage that fills Cascade Lake. This route follows a summer trail on the map, and passes some potential avalanche slopes on the south side of Maggie’s.
USFS took away the traditional trailhead parking area that was used probably forever, since the first ski descent over 50 years ago. As of 2008, they recommend that you park at the sno-park, a mile or so south of Spring Creek Road. We sell sno-park permits for $5/day and $25/season. Hardware stores and some other merchants sell them also. This sno-park is right off of hwy 89, about 4 miles north of the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe. Or about 22 miles south of the “Y” in Tahoe City. You can no longer park ON Spring Creek Road. I haven’t heard of anyone accepting this new parking area, it seems everyone parks on hwy 89 a few hundred yards south of Spring Creek Road, on the lake side of the street. Then they skin 30 minutes through the woods parallel to Spring Creek Road. There is usually snow on the road for most of winter, so you can skate back without skins in 10 minutes.
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.