Yosemite Sam the Samurai Dog accompanied the author on a winter ascent of Elephants Back near Carson Pass on Highway 88. (Matt Johanson/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Winter hikes in Northern California’s snowy mountains

Here are some favorite day trips in our area, arranged from easiest to more challenging.

When the first snows turn the mountains into a winter wonderland, most outdoor adventurers flock to commercial ski resorts. But parks and forests offer millions of acres of pristine cross country skiing and snowshoeing almost entirely for free. Here are some favorite day trips in our area, arranged from easiest to more challenging.

In Calaveras Big Trees State Park on Highway 4, the ever-popular North Grove Trail leads visitors through a magnificent cluster of giant sequoias in just 1.4 miles. Packed in summer, the trail and the park see just a fraction of peak visitation in winter, making it a perfect time for locals to visit. The mostly flat loop does not necessarily require skis or snowshoes; with light or compacted snow, hiking boots will do. Giant sequoias are among the largest and oldest living things on earth. Come meet your elders. The park’s entrance fee is $10 per vehicle.

Hikers on the popular North Grove Trail often get to enjoy snowy giant sequoias all to themselves. (Matt Johanson/Special to S.F. Examiner)

At Silver Lake on Highway 88, take a tour under the picturesque Thunder Mountain. One lap around the frozen lake is about six miles, but it’s as flat and easy as you could want and you can also make an out-and-back journey of any distance. There are also enough gentle hills on the north side of the lake to allow sledding for the kids.

Silver Lake beneath Thunder Mountain provides a pleasant outing for beginning cross country skiers and snowshoers. (Matt Johanson/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Beyond Bear Valley on Highway 4, tour Lake Alpine and climb atop scenic Inspiration Point. The well-named vista provides an inspiring view of the surrounding Carson-Iceberg and Mokelumne wilderness areas. Starting from the road closure, a trek to and around the lake is about four miles long. Adding a detour atop Inspiration Point, which involves a short but steep climb, adds another half mile or so. You will share the scenery with snowmobiles although they tend to stay on the highway. To park at the road closure, you will need a Sno Park pass in advance as they are not sold on site. They cost $5/day or $25/season and are available at www.ohv.parks.ca.gov/snoparks.

Near Dodge Ridge Ski Area off Highway 108, discover the 4.2 mile Crabtree Loop. From Dodge Ridge Road, take the last right before the resort towards Crabtree Road. Park and find the trail leading from the south end of the lot. The loop leads through lush pine trees and meadows, with a few rolling ups and downs but no big hills. There’s also an option to extend the loop to about six miles.

Near Bear Valley on Highway 4, take Spicer Reservoir Road into the beautiful and scenic Stanislaus National Forest. This is one of few mountain roads that’s usually snowcat-groomed for skiers and snowshoers at no charge, except for the Sno Park pass required to use the parking lot. Your outbound trip is mostly downhill, making the return mostly uphill. Choose your own turnaround point to make a trip as long or short as you like.

The Dardanelles summits in Stanislaus National Forest beckon winter wanderers. (Matt Johanson/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In Yosemite National Park, explore Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, which stands just inside the border of Tuolumne County. A gentle path leads to dozens of the beautiful redwoods in a two-mile loop. From the parking area near Crane Flat, go north past a gate and down a forest road. The first sequoias come into view after a sharp turn. Be prepared to hike uphill on the way back. The park’s entrance fee is $30 per vehicle.

Rounding out our magnificent seven at Carson Pass on Highway 88 is the gently-sloped mountain called Elephants Back. This peak is visible south of the parking area (where a Sno Park pass is required). Make your own route to and then up the mountain’s southwest-facing flank, its easiest slope to ascend. Rewarding your effort is a sweeping view of Round Top, The Sisters, Red Lake Peak, Carson Pass and a vast portion of Mokelumne Wilderness (which straddles the Stanislaus, Eldorado and Toiyabe national forests). This outing is about five miles round trip with around 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

Of course, snow conditions vary and a recent storm can make any of these pleasant journeys into an epic ordeal. Ideal conditions are often found a week after heavy snowfall, when powder has settled and other trekkers have often broken trail ahead of you. Those who time their winter adventures well will enjoy a California that few ever see.

Matt Johanson authored the new guidebook, “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”

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