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:
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, 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 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 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. 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 in to 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 near the end. The summer USFS lease cabins back here are mostly abandoned all 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. Call USFS and ask them to build a parking lot for the world class and decades old traditional start to Mt. Tallac. When they closed the road in the early 2000’s, Mt. Tallac lost over half of the skier traffic. Today you park anywhere you can near the intersection of Spring Creek Rd and hwy 89. There is plenty of parking in this area luckly thanks to Cal Trans plowed pull outs.
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. Yes it’s all peppered with rocks and not great. Check out the Janine Ridge and Dick’s Peak behind that, looking west. That’s your next homework asignment. 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 skiers right 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 or the snow park on hwy 89.
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. The True drop in is steep and scary. I like to start higher on the softer south facing slope that leads into the Cross. This run looks mighty impressive when viewed from the East Shore. It gets skied regularly nonetheless. There are a few other incredible 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.
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. I like going from the Bayview Trailhead into Cascade Lake Drainage, and just skiing the tree run. I skip going all the way to the summit and you’ll see why if you go. 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. 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.
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