This guest post about realistic and affordable snow play adventures for young Bay Area families was originally produced by Victoria from Bay Area Families Outside.
Many of you are looking for the closest snow to the Bay Area. You might want to let it accumulate a little more before you head up to the mountains for some adventures (and please do wait until the Stay At Home order has passed), but we can help you start to plan where to play in the snow this winter!
While you can certainly hit up any of the ski resorts for some downhill fun, we offer you here five of the closest options for adventuring in the snow that do not involve paying for lift tickets or sledding areas. (Bring your sleds, snowshoes or cross-country skis!)
Another COVID note: Be prepared to spend all your time outside. Capacity in retail stores, cafes, and bathrooms are restricted, if open at all. Remember your sunscreen, sunglasses, snacks/lunch & chains for the car, if needed.
Matrimony Ridge/Loch Leven Lakes
Take Highway 80 less than three hours from the Bay Area, exit Kingvale Rd, go left under the overpass, left at the first intersection and park at the first plowed pullout that leads under the freeway to an unplowed road (start of the trail). You can head out on the unplowed road as far as little legs will go (after the train tracks, there is a trail that leads to the right up to Loch Leven Lakes, if you feel really ambitious). Or just hang out and sled near the trailhead. (No parking permit needed.)
Take Highway 88 (between Highway 89 & Carson Pass) to the Pacific Crest Trail. This area is ripe for snow adventures! You can head all the way up to Carson Pass, then strike out on the Pacific Crest Trail in either direction (if you and your crew are looking for some REAL adventure). The stretch between Highway 89 and Carson Pass is filled with meadows and hills that are crying out for snow play and exploration. Look for cars parked on the Tahoe side about 3-4 miles after the interchange. Play in the snow or follow the tracks up to Crater Lake. (No parking permit needed.)
Echo Lake Sno-Park
Off Highway 50, at the top of Echo Summit, on the NORTH side of the highway, Echo Lake Sno-Park is a great place to snowshoe and play in the snow. From the Sno-Park, take the Echo Lakes unplowed road to Echo Lakes (about a mile) and then either play around Echo Lake or head out on the Tahoe Rim Trail for more exciting times. (Parking permit needed, must be purchased BEFORE getting to Echo Lake. $5 to park for the day. For a list of vendors, see here. Note that the list is from a few years back and has not been updated. Please call the vendor. You can also purchase a parking permit online.)
Other snowy places:
Spicer Reservoir, Bear Valley
Head out on Highway 4 to Bear Valley! This is a good Sunday option because the traffic is much lighter than the Tahoe return traffic. Try Spicer Reservoir for your snow adventures here. Again, you need a Sno-Park Permit for your car. Spicer Reservoir has plenty of areas for general snow play, as well as a long unplowed Forest Service Road that you can take for some snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. (Parking permit needed.) Want groomed sledding hills? You can do tubing or sledding at Bear Valley Cross Country for about $15 per person, but note that their indoor spaces will not be welcoming you, so you’ll need to tough it out with outhouses and outdoor hot chocolates.
For people living in Oakland or the Fremont/Dublin/Livermore area, Highway 108 is the quickest route to the snow. One of the closest snow-play areas is Lyons Reservoir, but we encourage you to venture further, past Strawberry (note: this is a different Strawberry than the one on Highway 50). Almost exactly two miles past Strawberry, Herring Creek Road branches off to the right. (You have to look carefully—there is no sign warning that it’s coming—just look for the pull off. When you pull in, you can see that it says “Herring Creek,” but it’s easy to miss. Google map link here. It’s possible to snowshoe and/or cross-country ski at least seven miles on the unplowed road to Herring Creek Campground, but there are also ample sledding and snow play opportunities right near the trailhead. (No parking permit.)
To plan an overnight trip to this area, book a house in Strawberry or Pinecrest.
Guide to Sno-Parks in California
This is an insanely useful document put out by California State Parks: Download a PDF showing all the Sno-Park locations with a map >>
For more snowshoeing or other outdoor adventures, find Victoria on Facebook as Bay Area Families Outside.
[All photos provided by Bay Area Families Outside and used with permission]