Backcountry ski and snowboard gear, camping

Mt. Tallac Ski & Snowboard Descent

What:  A challenging ascent to the summit of Tahoe's most famous backcountry peak.  Incredible views from the summit and the entire way up the hill.

When:  Almost anytime.  In powder or corn conditions, Tallac serves up some of the best skiing in California.  And even if the skiing isn't prime, the hike is worth the effort.


Mt. Tallac is the quintessential Lake Tahoe backcountry ski descent -- a rite of passage for any local skier.  This peak has it all -- a beautiful hike up, challenging steeps and chutes, mellow treed powder runs, luscious spring corn -- and served up with the finest views in the entire Tahoe area.  Although Tallac sees far fewer visitors in the winter than it does during the busy summer months, don't expect to be on this mountain alone.  That said, the mountain is big enough, with enough interesting lines, that you will not be disappointed. 

Just as there are many ways to skin a cat, there are many ways to skin up Tallac.  You can ascend via the summer trail near Fallen Leaf Lake, but this is not the most popular route in winter.  If you are coming from the Desolation Wilderness interior (unlikely unless you are on a multi-day tour), you can come up the gentle west side of the peak from Gilmore Lake.  However, the quickest access in winter begins at Spring Creek. 


One Way Mileage:

Around 2.2 miles to the summit (via Spring Creek)

Around 4.1 miles to the summit (via summer trail, not recommended in winter)



Spring Creek Trailhead:  6,520'

Mt. Tallac Summit:  9,735'

Total Gain:  3,215'


Map:  USGS Emerald Bay 7.5 minute map.  (Click here for an on-line topo map)


Getting to the Trailhead:

To get to the Spring Creek trailhead, follow Highway 89 towards Emerald Bay and turn west on Spring Creek Road.  Coming from the north, the right-hand turnoff is just past the long Emerald Bay switchback.  Coming from the south, it is the first left turn after the "Baldwin Beach/Tallac City Camps" turnoff.  Follow the road up into the neighborhood, always bearing left, until the last intersection.  Bear right here and the road promptly dead ends.  Park here. UPDATE: the Spring Creek Road is now gated in winter. Park on the main highway a bit south and hump a long way to the trailhead. Bummer.

Climbing up:

The climb up can be very steep in places, so bring big skins and stiletto heel lifts.  There likely will be a skin track or boot pack trail right from your car.  If not, head in a southwesterly direction through the trees and (hopefully) snow-covered shrubs.  Very quickly you will emerge from the trees and begin to ascend a sparsely treed slope ("Sweat Hill").  Ascend up and angle gradually to your left, aiming for the obvious gap where Tallac Creek flows out of the NE bowl (see photo).  Climb into this gap to a small flat area at the bottom of the NE Bowl.  Enjoy the flats while you can, because you won't see anymore until the summit.  Hang a hard right from the flat area and ascend the ridge on the north side of the bowl for about 1,700 painful vertical feet (see photo).  You will have incredible views of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake behind you as you climb up the ridgeline (see photo).  Depending on conditions and the quality of the bootpack, you may find it easier to put your skis on your pack rather than struggling uphill with skins on.

Follow the ridgeline above the bowl until you are almost at the top of the bowl.  Angle left here (at around 9,100') and aim for the obvious saddle between the summit and point +9,240.  Beware of serious avalanche danger here.  In poor avy conditions, avoid the temptation to take the low angle across to the saddle, as this cuts across several steep and potentially hazardous slopes.  Rather, take the high route following the actual ridgeline (see photo).  From here, climb easily around the west side of the summit (there will likely be wind exposed rocks here) and on up to the top.

On the Summit:

Once on the summit, the views open up in every direction.  Particularly striking are the views westward to Pyramid Peak and the Crystal Range (photo).  To the northwest lie the snowcovered and rugged Dicks and Jacks Peaks (photo).  And to the Northeast lies beautiful Emerald Bay and its sentinel -- Jakes Peak (photo).  If the weather permits, take some time to relax, catch your breath and enjoy the views before heading back down.

Click here to see a 270 degree panorama from the summit (note:  this is a 1 MB file)

Descending the Peak:

From the summit, there are a number of possible ski descents.  The most obvious is to ski back down the NE bowl, just below the ridgeline you climbed up.  Windblown conditions at the top usually give way further down to some fine powder snow or, depending on the season, springtime corn.  The NE bowl is nice in that it allows you to ski right back towards your car.  It also has one of the nicest entrances to a ski run that I've ever seen (photo).  Alternatively, you can continue down the summit ridge past the NE bowl, and ski the trees to the east of Point 9,110'. 

A great alternative to the north side of the peak is to traverse over the summit and ski the more gentle bowls of the south side.  You have to time this run properly, because of its south/southeast facing aspect, the snow can turn to glop or melt quickly.  Go too late in the season and you may be battling the dreaded willows and alder at the bottom of the SE chutes.  Also, note that skiing the south side will take you down the drainage towards Fallen Leaf Lake.  Unless you have arranged for a car shuttle, make sure that you traverse hard to skier's left before you get back into the trees, and then head back towards Spring Creek (see map).  If you cross the creek that drains Floating Island Lake, you've gone too far and are going to be doing some hiking back to the car.

East Face Routes:

Unless you are a very accomplished skier/boarder or have a death wish, don't ski due east off the peak.  There are a number of cliffs and rock bands here, as well as the famous but deadly "cross" that is easily seen from the South Lake Tahoe area.  These shots are described briefly here:

1. The Cross Couloir. This is the most prominent feature on the mountain, and can be seen from most anywhere in South Lake Tahoe. Looking at the east face of the peak, one can distinguish an obvious cross formed by one steep central couloir leading down from the SE Ramp. Its "arms" are formed by a broad ledge system that begins high on the left side of the peak and leads to the right at a downward angle across the central couloir. Above the terminus of the right hand arm of the Cross, a moderately steep angling couloir rises up to a gap through the righthand ridge of the east face. This "right arm" couloir leads up to the NE Bowl and can also be skied. It is described below.

To access the Cross couloir, ski down the SE ramp from the summit for about 100-200 feet until you see
an obvious notch in the ridge on your left side. The initial drop into the chute is extremely narrow and steep. This is the crux of the descent, as the angle relents further down, and the rock walls open up considerably. If you don't trust your skills, an easier entrance into the Cross couloir can be had by picking your way down the face above the couloir (this face is on the left side as you are looking down the Cross).  The first view down the Cross can be intimidating. If you don't feel right about it, the SE ramp affords an awesome, and easier, descent back to the car.

2.  East Face Chutes. There are two heinously steep and narrow elevator shafts that drop right off the east face of the mountain for about 500' vertical each. The easier of the two starts off a little bit to the southeast of the actual summit. You kind of have to inch your way out over the edge and look for it. This righthand chute looks to be about 45 degrees, but narrows and steepens at the end. The harder of the two chutes branches off the NE Bowl near the very top. Rarely if ever skied, this chute appears to have a mandatory air or downclimb about 1/3 of the way down the chute. This 50-ish narrow couloir is a mandatory no-fall zone.

3. Cross Couloir "Right Arm". A fun little variation on the NE Bowl route allows you to ski the fun steep upper section of the NE bowl, then cut over to the central bowl below the main cross couloir, dropping into the "right arm" of the cross (when seen from below). This involves a very steep entry (see photo), but then quickly mellows out into a fun chute with dead on views of Fallen Leaf Lake. To access the "right arm", ski the first steep pitch of the NE Bowl and stay to the right hand side. Just as the angle eases up, you will see a narrow gap leading down to the right. Drop into this gap and ski down into the right arm of the cross. While skiing down this chute, you can look up and see the gnarly east face chutes right above you. Also, don't forget to wrap around back to the NE Bowl side at the bottom, else you'll have to hike back to the car and/or get lost.

4. Front Chutes
. The so-called "front chutes" are misnamed. They aren't really on the front of the mountain (they drop off the NE Buttress of the peak -- see photo), nor are they really chutes. But the name persists. The "front chutes" consist of a steep snowslope that ends in cliffs (the "hanging face"), and two serpentine slots that provide a means of escape when skiing down the hanging face. The two slots are known as the "Central" and the "S-chute" and are intimidating in their own right. Hanging face should only be skied in good snow conditions, where sufficient snow will allow you to drop into either the Central or S-Chute and thereby avoid hurtling off the macking cliff at the end of the hanging face. By the way, that cliff is hard to see when you are ripping down hanging face and having the run of your life. Make sure you scope the route out extremely well before committing to this line.

Trip Reports

There are a number of trip reports in our "features" section that give more photos and detailed information on Mount Tallac.


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