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A Winter Adventure in Carson Pass & Carson Valley

February 19, 2018


I blame it on the Winter Olympics.  It is a three-day weekend and I was craving for nothing more than a solid winter mountain adventure.  You probably have heard me lament about this lackluster "winter" we are having so far and although a weekend on the Coast or the City temporarily offered some tempting propositions, a weekend of outdoor adventures in our own backyard ultimately won.


Some 85 miles southwest of Reno are the areas of Carson Valley and Carson Pass.  Because it's tough to compete with other stellar adventure mecca such as Lake Tahoe (for obvious reasons), this area often gets passed over by adventure seekers.  (On the upside, it is such a privilege to have so many excellent outdoor options right in our backyard!).  It is rare, even for us, to make the 1.5 hour long trip to hike the area because there are so many other options nearby.  But every summer, we go to the Carson Pass area at least once, to witness the stunning alpine meadows lush with wildflowers.  This is one of those magical and whimsical hikes there are in the area, hands-down.  



There are multitudes of lakes in the area and the mountain ranges here are just massive and endless.  The roads coming from the north, often quiet and empty, are dotted with charming small towns (the type that you miss if you blink) such as Genoa, Gardnerville, and Markleeville.  Once you get on 88 West, the Carson River follows you, and I am making a mental note now to return in the autumn because I suspect that the alpine foliage scenery must be astounding for photography.


Parts of the drive, especially once you get to Hope Valley, is very reminiscent of Yosemite Valley.  It is no coincidence because this area is part of the Toiyabe National Forest and parts of which link to Yosemite via the Mokelumne Wilderness and Stanislaus National Forest.  The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail, as well as the Pacific Crest Trail, also passes through this area.


While I have explored the area a few times, it was always the same hiking trail in the summer.  With a clean slate this long-weekend, I decided I would get a day Sno-Park Pass and dom something different and new.  The mild winter in the Sierras didn't guarantee any trails you would need snowshoes for, and figured that we should just go and prepare ourselves for anything.


Just in a span of five hours in the afternoon, we were able to check out two frozen lakes, hike in the snow in Carson Pass, stop at Hope Valley, grab coffee in Carson City, and watch the sun set at Washoe Lake.  Along the way, we were able to spot many birds of prey such as hawks, and even spotted a bald eagle! (They are active in the area right now as they prey on newborn calves that don't make it).



Elevation: 7,861 feet



 This is the first lake we would come across and it's amazing because the whole thing is frozen!  "I should have brought my ice skates!" was the first thing The Dutch said.  This would be the theme of the afternoon is running into frozen lakes that we didn't know existed.  There would be a handful of people ice fishing and picnicking on the ice.  It's pretty fascinating that we didn't travel very far from home, and yet it felt like we did.




Elevation: 7,802 feet




Further west is a bigger lake, called Caples Lake.  It's so amazing to find these beautiful spots practically to ourselves spare for a handful of folks ice fishing and picnicking on the ice.  After walking around the lake, this is the point we turned around.  If one kept going, there would be Kit Carson past the Kirkwood Ski Resort.  The mountain scenery here is even more astounding than from Red Lake.  Caples Lake sits on a higher elevation so the mountain ranges in the background are completely covered in snow.





Elevation: 7,300 feet



Hope Valley is at a low enough elevation that on a mild winter, the ground is not covered in snow that one could hike around sans snowshoes.  Hope Valley is at the junction of highway 88 and 89 and the West Fork of the Carson River passes through here.  It's very scenic and I've seen photographs taken in the autumn and it's absolutely gorgeous.




Elevation: 5,029 feet



After a short hike in Carson Pass and a coffee stop at The Hub/The Union in Carson City, our last stop was at Washoe Lake at sunset.  We saw a lot of birds of prey during the day, including a bald eagle, and we were hoping we'd see more.  We didn't see any, but we did see fresh tracks from an awfully large cat (YIKES) and some wild horses, but no large birds of prey.  The blue and lavender hues of the skies was the perfect ending to this adventure.  The air was getting really cold and yet the alpenglow got more intense by the minute.  It was so hard to believe that we were only gone for a few hours, but we felt like we've gone hundreds of miles away.  I guess that's the magic of Nevada.  


Tomorrow, we brace for a snowstorm.





If you go in the winter, remember that you need a SNO-PARK permit to park in designated areas of Meiss Meadows and Carson Pass; otherwise, you risk getting fined of up to $90+.  Day permits only cost $5, or you can get a season pass good through May at $25.  You have to buy these passes in person at the sites listed here, or you can pre-order them online if you're not due to the area for a week.  We bought our permit at Mad Dog Cafe in Markleeville, and had lunch while we're at it.  It's nothing fancy, but they do bake their pastries in house and serve soups and sandwiches for lunch.  Get the cinnamon buns - they're yummy!





The Pink House, 193 Genoa Lane



Overland Restaurant & Pub, 1451 US Highway 395

JT Basque Dining Room, 1426 US Highway 395


Hope Valley

Sorensen's Resort, 14255 Highway 88, Hope Valley


Carson City

The Union - if coffee is all you need, specialty coffees at The Hub (behind The Union) is superb, 302 N. Carson St.

Cafe at Adele's, 1112 N. Carson St.

L.A. Bakery, 1280 N. Curry St.





There are many options in Reno, but if you want a laid back, rural and country setting, check out David Wally's Resort in Genoa.  A dip in the natural hot spring pools is a welcome treat after a day of exploration.


Sorensen's Resort in Hope Valley is charming, if a bit rustic.  


If you're coming from the Bay Area, there's an array of options in Kirkwood where there's a ski resort, but I can't guarantee that the rates will be cheap.

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