Many people come up to the summit to cross country ski at the Royal Gorge resort which occupies large areas of the summit and has miles of groomed trails in the scenic back country. It is a skaters paradise and the skiing is well worth the cost of a trail pass. What many people may not realize, however, is that there are miles of ungroomed trails that are freely available for classic striding and back country skiing. These trails vary in difficulty especially depending on the weather and time of the year. Described here are three “free skis” you might want to try.
1/27/16 Update – You might want to also check out the back country ski up to Forest Service Ridge near Serene Lakes.
The area on the summit north of Hwy 80 is dominated by Castle peak and valley. It is a relatively pristine area especially during the winter when the area is blanketed with 5-10 feet of snow. You might want to refer to the Peter Grubb trail guide for a detailed description of access to the area from the Boreal Ridge/Castle Peak Rd off ramp on Hwy 80. Briefly, the area is accessed from the north side of the offramp and parking is at the SnoPark at the end of Bunny Hill Rd on the south side of Hwy80. SnoPark passes are required from November to May and can be obtained at many locations.
Skiing to Peter Grubb hut is very popular but it does require some significant climbing. A more leisurely ski is in the Castle Valley bowl. Both skis start from the north end of Boreal Ridge/CastlePeak Rd up the unpaved road that is part of the Pacific Crest Trail. About a half mile up the trail there is a fork off to the right that leads into Castle Valley. Proceeding straight will climb up to the top of the ridge that is the west approach to Castle Peak and goes on to Peter Grubb hut.
Warning: The Castle Peak area is subject to very heavy snowfalls and severe winter weather. Heavy snow can make it all but impossible to ski in the area. Because of the topography, the area is also prone to extreme avalanche danger that has led to fatal consequences in the past. Check weather and snowfall conditions before doing this ski (avalanche information is available at the Sierra Avalanche Center). When the weather is good and the snow is firm, this is a great ski area to explore.
SnoPark/Azalea Lake area
The area south of the SnoPark accessible from Boreal Ridge/Castle Peak Rd is also very popular with xc skiers and snowshoers (see above about SnoPark access) . The area is relatively flat and there are several trails leading south from the parking area at the end Bunny Hill Dr. The trail to Azalea lake is a great ski with sweeping views of the mid Donner Pass area. The trail undulates over the rocky outcroppings in the area and there is some moderate climbing and descending. In good snow conditions this is not a problem, but it can be a little tricky for skiers in icy conditions especially if the trails have been rutted by snowshoers. The trail winds through a meadow and then climbs up over a ridge to Azalea Lake. For skiers looking for more, the trail continues to Flora Lake and even to Angela Lake for the really ambitious.
Serene Lakes/Soda Springs Road
If you’re looking for a nice flat easy ski there is no beating a lap around Serene Lakes.There are many entry points around the lake, although later in the season when the snow walls build up it can be difficult to get access. Usually there is anaccessible trail at the pump house at the north end of Lake Serena on Bales Dr and also at the west end of Sierra Rd on Lake Dulzura.
I have been asked many times by new visitors to the area about the safety of the ice on the lake. Usually the lake is completely frozen by December although it may still be thin in some spots. However after the first of the year the lakes are usually frozen solid with the ice being anywhere from 2-6 ft thick. During a winter warm spell the snow layer on top of the lake may get slushy and there may even be water present on the surface. However, there is still a thick layer of ice below the surface and there is no need to worry. After the thaw starts in April the ice can go pretty fast and I don’t go out on it.
Many people may not know that Soda Springs road continues at the south end of the lake down along Serena gorge and is a public access road. That means that in winter it is freely accessible to skiers, snowshoers and snow mobilers.The Reindeer ski trail from Royal Gorge crosses the road and it looks like the area is part of the Royal Gorge resort and subject to a pass. The trick is to proceed straight down the road (not to the right on the groomed Royal Gorge trail) and access is free.
This is a very nice ski with very gentle ups and downs for about a mile to the first overlook. From this overlook there is a great view of Serena gorge and Royal Gorge. Beyond the first overlook the trail heads down into the Soda Springs basin. At this point keep in mind the maxim that ‘what goes down must come up’. It is about a half mile down to the second overlook which means a half mile climb back up. If the first overlook is enough then retrace your ski trail back to the trailhead. The second overlook gives great views of the Soda Springs basin and the backside of the mountain ridge from Mt Lincoln to Granite Chief. Combining the ski on Serene Lakes and down Soda Springs road is also an option to consider if you want a longer trip. On a nice clear sunny winter day this can be an exhilarating and scenic excursion. So if you haven’t done it yet, give it a go.
A word about skiing with your dog(s)
We ski just about everywhere with our dogs. All of the trails mentioned above are dog friendly. There are a couple of things to consider when taking your dogs along. Most dogs are not bred for handling deep snow. The muscles they must use to bound through deep snow are not often worked in everyday activities. It is very easy for your pooch to pull a muscle and/or exacerbate hip irritation if your dog is so inclined. If the snow is deep, it might be kinder to leave your dog back in the cabin.
Snow and ice can also be quite abrasive to a dog’s footpads. Many dogs visiting the summit may not have built up the tougher footpads and may experience abrasions that could even become bloody. So be careful and keep an eye on your dog’s pads. Musher booties are available and may be a good idea for your dog. Colder snow can also build up in the footpad spaces and the resulting ice balls can become uncomfortable for your pooch. Many people rub vaseline into the paws to prevent ice build up. This can be very messy and we would recommend using Musher’s Wax which does and excellent job in preventing ice buildup.
On another more aesthetic note, consider trail etiquette. No one likes to ski or snowshoe over a mound of poop in the trail. The best solution is to carry a poopbag(s) and clean up as you go. If you haven’t thought ahead and brought a bag, at least try to do a cover up. With regard to this article, Lake Serena is the water supply for the Serene Lakes community. Using a bag is really the right thing to do when on that lake.
And a word about Royal Gorge trails
The Royal Gorge ski resort offers excellent groomed trails for classic and skate skiing. The trails are maintained by the resort at no small expense to them and their use has been leased from the land owners. These trails are for the use of skiers that have obtained a trail pass for the resort and are for the express use of those skiers. We highly recommend visiting the resort and obtaining a pass if you would like to enjoy some excellent skiing on groomed trails. They are not free to ski on. These trails can be crossed when skiing on the trails discussed in this article, but should not be skied on for any distance.