Treasure in the Sierras
Searching for fresh tracks east of Yosemite
February 22, 2005
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The Sierra Nevada Mountains of California is the best place to be in the world in the springtime. Sure, midseason snowfalls are measured in feet, not inches. In spring, though, the solid Sierra snowpack makes a wonderful transformation into corn snow. We are talking about the perfect, velvety smooth stuff that gives a few inches when you set your edges. Yea, forget the crowds and cold temperatures of winter. Come to the East Side after your home mountain closes, come to live, or just come for the weekend.
From Lone Pine to Lake Tahoe lies some of the best mountain peaks for skiing and snowboarding in the world. Short hikes from one of the many roads leading into the mountains from the east side gives anyone easy access to world-class terrain. On top of the great sliding, spring brings an infinite number of other activities in the Sierras. Bring your skis/snowboard but also be ready to hike, mountain bike, climb, fish, raft, camp near a mountain stream, eat, explore ghost towns, ride dirt bikes, or just relax after a beautiful descent drinking a well deserved cold one with your friends. Variety is the spice of life.
Seeking excitement and an escape from Memorial Day crowds Gwen and I are crossing The Bay Bridge, making a rapid escape from the city. We are after more than just turns in the snow, we want to experience everything we can. After rolling across the fertile San Joaquin Valley (listening to the mandatory country music) the pace slows as we head into the western foothills on two lane roads. Modern California got its start in these here hills when people came looking for gold in the mid 19th century. Many of those old gold rush towns remain and look much the same today. Sonora, a larger historic town is where we find food in an old hotel dating back to the 1870’s. We stay at the Fallon Hotel in Columbia State Park. This thing has been operating on and off since 1854 and looks straight out of a western movie. Walking around the ghost town at night looking for ghosts is a unique way to cap off the day.
An early alpine start of 9 am is in order. Relax, it’s spring and it’s not supposed to get too hot today, no reason to hurry. Heading east into the mountains we travel through small towns and near the Stanislaus River before approaching the base of one of our goals, 9624’ Sonora Pass. Camping is abundant and fairly easy to find along this beautiful stretch of road as we are well away from the National Parks. Usually the pass holds good snow on places like 11,570’ Leavitt peak, this year however, a warm spring means we have arrived too late. There was still snow but we knew it would be better elsewhere. Dropping down the east side of the pass the very steep road had expansive views.
A short drive south on highway 395 brings us to Conway Summit, where we head west to Virginia Lakes, a virtual candy store of spring skiing. At the end of the road, right out of the parking lot lays Black mountain. At 11,760’ and with a very straightforward northeast facing bowl the decision is easy, let’s hit it! The snow is easy to bootpack on and we rapidly make the top. Views are outstanding, from Mount Conness in Yosemite to the high peaks of Nevada. All too soon we are at the bottom after riding the fine afternoon corn snow.
Virginia Lakes is at 9700’ and the area is practically surrounded by peaks so it is easy to rack up as many runs as your legs and snow allow. South peak (11,400’) lies just east of Black mountain and still further east is Mt Olsen. Dundeberg peak (12,375’) is just across the canyon from the other peaks. All these peaks have really nice descents. Days could be spent exploring this relatively uncrowded canyon. The pay-to-campground at the end of the road was closed this early in the season but we found a great streamside spot to camp.
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