We’ve all been there. You packed everything you need to safely enjoy a snowy day in the Tahoe Sierra. You’re out of the house and on your way. Everything is going great. Until you arrive at your destination.
The parking lot is packed and there’s nowhere to go. You sit in a traffic jam or drive around aimlessly hoping for something to open up. We used to think this was only a problem in a city, but not anymore. These days, it’s more than likely the crux of your Tahoe adventure will be finding a place to park.
Many have experienced this phenomenon on a powder day at local ski resorts. However, in recent years the parking dilemma has become even more acute at the trailheads accessing local public lands. With the pandemic limiting ski resort capacity, more people are seeking off-the-grid recreation opportunities as land managers struggle to keep up.
“This summer we had an incredible onslaught of visitors, more than we usually have,” says Eldorado National Forest spokesperson Kristi Schroeder. “That wasn’t expected because it was a closure order and you were supposed to stay home. Ironically, many of them were people who had never been hiking or camping before, so they didn’t know what they were doing.”
“I think access is a big question for Tahoe all year-round. With winter, there is less pavement to put cars on. That exacerbates the situation … We don’t have enough parking for everyone who wants to access the public lands.” –Amy Berry
The U.S. Forest Service oversees land use and public access in the Tahoe Sierra through its six districts – Eldorado, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Humboldt-Toiyabe, Plumas, Stanislaus and Tahoe. In addition, there are also five wilderness areas in the region – Carson-Iceberg, Desolation, Granite Chief, Mt. Rose and Mokelumne – that are popular areas for back-country skiers and snowmobilers, all looking for parking. Read our story on “Back-country Access in 2021”.
While the tidal wave of tourists used to be more of a summer occurrence, winter travel is steadily on the rise. When the parking areas close for the season and snow plowing operations limit roadside parking, the conundrum of where to put all the cars only grows worse.
Why is parking closed?
Once folks get into the woods, there is plenty of space to spread out, physically distance and enjoy a bit of solitude. The biggest challenges often occur at the last stop before the adventure: the parking lot.
Or, in this case, a lack thereof. There are only a handful of official parking lots open for the winter.
“The problem with [Forest Service] winter parking areas is they are only open if they are sponsored by the state Sno-Park program,” says Schroeder. “We can’t open any of our other facilities because we don’t have a budget for it. And the areas are not engineered with the use of snow in mind. It could be a perfectly safe parking lot in the summer, but with a ton a snow on it, it may not be. It’s not as simple as running a plow through it and we’re good to go.”
Opening existing summer parking areas to winter use would be a sizable project for the Forest Service and the costs associated with designing, approving and operating the lots year-round are not currently budgeted. While Sierra Nevada snow falls from the sky by the foot, money unfortunately doesn’t.
“In the winter, you can’t see the parking stalls,” says Schroeder. “The signage is not designed for winter; it’s all under snow. Can we get to the bathroom? Does it have to be dug out? … When you have snow berms out there do you still have that parking? Generally, you’d design winter ones to be larger.”
The heart of the issue dates back to 1972 when President Richard Nixon issued an executive order requiring federal land-management agencies to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts on public lands. While the Forest Service invested millions of dollars to create sustainable public access for the summer months, it by and large neglected to consider winter travelers.
“Most National Forest facilities were designed for summer use that doesn’t require the type of road grades that are safe to plow,” says Joseph Flannery, Tahoe National Forest public affairs officer. “We’re talking 1-inch overlay over dirt.”
As a result, National Forests in the Sierra Nevada enter a seasonal road closure period each year from Dec. 31 through March 31, at a minimum, in order to protect the dirt roads from damage. A full list of road closures is available on the Motor Vehicle Use Map for each district at fs.usda.gov.
“It goes back to these factors,” says Flannery. “Were they analyzed for winter use? And were they designed for winter use? Once those two questions are answered, we have a short list of places that are available for plowed parking. The next challenge is then finding a cooperator or partner to provide that access, to do the actual plowing. You can see we’re starting to go down a narrow path here.”
In response, California State Parks built 18 Sno-Parks throughout the Sierra Nevada to accommodate back-country access and snow play. The maintenance costs are paid for by winter and summer use permits with Caltrans providing snow plowing. But even with seven Sno-Parks in the greater Tahoe area, it’s simply not enough to accommodate the ever-increasing demand. As well, users must purchase a permit online or at a local retailer before they arrive. There are no kiosks to pay for parking onsite and a permit doesn’t guarantee that visitors will have a parking space.
“I think access is a big question for Tahoe all year-round,” says Amy Berry, CEO of Tahoe Fund. “With winter, there is less pavement to put cars on. That exacerbates the situation … We don’t have enough parking for everyone who wants to access the public lands. We appreciate that Tahoe is finite space and the number of people who want to enjoy it continues to grow and grow.”
Limited parking in Tahoe Basin
These issues are especially prevalent within the Lake Tahoe Basin itself, where the majority of public lands are supervised by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU).
In order to host more than 8 million visitors per year, most of whom arrive in personal vehicles, the LTBMU manages more than 50 parking areas with more than 2,800 spaces. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these parking areas are closed for the winter.
“I think this year we reached a tipping point in the perception of the issue,” says Forest Service landscape architect Ashley Sibr. “People are really starting to feel the actual impacts.”
Considering its environmentally sensitive mountain environment and the plethora of land management agencies involved, the process to increase winter parking in the Tahoe Basin is especially complicated.
“In the Emerald Bay area, for example, we’d have to work with rock fall issues to allow Caltrans to do avalanche blasting, so someone could actually get to the parking lot in question,” says Sibr. “Then you have to find someone to get there to plow. You have the maintain the trash clean up, etcetera. For one [agency], it doesn’t make a lot sense … It’s hard. It takes money.”
“Once people leave the house, they are determined to do what they are going to do. They don’t have a back-up plan. When they get there, it’s ‘I will stuff myself in.’ You need to have a plan B and C if your first spot is full of people, so you don’t put yourself at risk.” –Kristi Schroeder
For years, LTBMU has been collaborating with numerous organizations including Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to develop long-term plans for development in the Basin. While some of these proposals will be coming to fruition in 2021-22, there is nothing concrete on the table for this season.
“As of right now, we don’t have any plans to do anything mainly because we don’t have the resources to plow those areas and we haven’t had anyone come to us to offer to plow those areas,” says Sibr. “It’s a basin-wide effort and it does take a lot of resources to spool together these projects … I really do think it’s taken a long road to get to where we have some of the planning in place to make some of these specific steps going forward.”
California State Parks takes a slightly more progressive view toward keeping its parking lots open through the winter, albeit with varying success. Rather than having a hard closing date, decisions are based on weather and safety.
All of the parks are currently open from sunrise to sunset with about half providing winter parking including Sugar Pine Point, Donner Memorial, Grover Hot Springs, D.L. Bliss visitor center lot and Kings Beach State Recreation Area. Parking at Emerald Bay including Vikingsholm and Tahoe State Recreation Area are all closed for the winter. In Nevada, Spooner Lake, Sand Harbor and Cave Rock parks are all open with parking.
“We keep open as long as we can depending on ice and snow conditions,” says Dan Canfield, acting deputy director for the Sierra District of California State Parks. “[In December] the snow and ice got the point where we couldn’t get to it safely. The first 20 or 30 yards of the trail [at Vikingsholm] was a like a steep skating rink. It took great care not to crack my head open … It becomes a liability issue at some point.”
State parks on the West Shore conduct winter maintenance with one front loader and a pickup truck with a plow blade. According to Canfield, the paved areas at Vikingsholm and D.L. Bliss are simply too steep and icy to safely clear for public access with this limited equipment.
“It’s not perfect,” he says. “A big thing on the horizon is what equipment or improvements we need to make it all seasons. It’s my commitment as a manager to keep looking at those things.”
With state budget cuts looming on the horizon, however, improvement projects like these have been left to the wayside, at least for now.
“The state is sending the message that it’s going to be tough economic times,” says Canfield. “Eventually, things are going to turn around. At some point, the pandemic will be gone and we’ll be back to normal. Right now, we’re just trying to nibble away at it with the resources we have at hand to provide as many recreation opportunities as we can.”
While Martis Creek Lake in Truckee is open to public access, the federally-run Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t provide winter parking for similar reasons. Meanwhile, many local towns and cities along with recreation districts in unincorporated areas do cover the costs of parking access to most of its beaches and parks year-round.
Like other land management agencies, the California Tahoe Conservancy relies on town, county and state services to take care of snow removal. While all of its 4,700 parcels and 6,500 acres are open to public use year-round, there are no specific parking lots providing access at most of these locations.
“It’s mostly street parking that the city and county are keeping clear,” says Shawn Butler, program director for California Tahoe Conservancy. “General parking impact is becoming more and more prevalent. Especially in the last year or two we’ve seen tremendous roadside parking issues. It leads to the need for better transit options to get people to their sites. The parking has simply exceeded the capacity to be sustainable.”
The one Conservancy area that does have its own parking, Van Sickle Bi-State Park in South Lake Tahoe, closes its lot in the winter.
“The access road is a little bit steep in spots,” says Butler. “Van Sickle was designed as a walk-in park to accommodate the tourist core. It’s a beautiful place to hike and snowshoe.”
On the North Shore, the Conservancy’s lakeside lands in Carnelian Bay and King’s Beach do have parking areas that are plowed by California State Parks or adjacent businesses such as Gar Woods Grill & Pier.
Eagle Rock, south of Tahoe City, is a popular destination owned by the Conservancy. Although it doesn’t have its own parking lot, Caltrans typically carves a few spaces alongside Highway 89 where people can park.
“If they’re blocking our ability to maintain the highway and the opportunity for our plows and blowers to operate, or if there is a ‘No Parking’ sign and one of our workers sees that, we would report it,” said Caltrans spokesperson Steve Nelson in an interview with Tahoe Weekly last year. “If they are completely off the highway and it’s not signed as ‘No Parking,’ that’s fine.”
Nevertheless, on busy days, popular places like Eagle Rock or the turnouts nearby D.L. Bliss can quickly overflow with folks pulling up outside the white lines while cars and trucks zip past.
A dangerous situation
On the weekend after Christmas, there were reports of “No Parking” signs being stolen from Crystal Bay Road at Emigrant Gap. According to Nevada County Public Works, an officer arrived at the scene to find more than 20 cars parked illegally while families sledded into the road. The officer declined to ticket anyone because he couldn’t give a citation without a sign.
“In general, even on the state highways there have been issues with parking, mostly by people not familiar with snow removal,” says Nevada County public works director Trisha Tillotson. “Nowhere on county-maintained roads do we have a specific location for people to pull over and do that type of activity and, in fact, it’s not legal to park on county roads where snow removal activity is occurring.”
This incident is just one example of how a scarcity of parking access amid soaring demand can quickly lead to hazardous circumstances.
“Once people leave the house, they are determined to do what they are going to do,” says Schroeder of Eldorado National Forest. “They don’t have a back-up plan. When they get there, it’s ‘I will stuff myself in.’ You need to have a plan B and C if your first spot is full of people, so you don’t put yourself at risk.”
The secret to safe winter travel through the Sierra Nevada is preparation, planning and flexibility. The Forest Service recommends being prepared with tire chains, water, blankets, warm clothes, flashlights, food and other items to survive a winter emergency.
“A key thing for us is know before you go,” says Schroeder. “Do your research. Our rangers spend a lot of time teaching people how to do things. We try to get people to know what they need to do. We give citations when we need to give citations, but we spend a ton of time doing education so people know how to use the forest. They need to be prepared if they want to do it safely.”
No sled left behind
The harsh reality is once people make the snowy trek up to the Tahoe Sierra, they are going to find a place to recreate one way or another. Many end up at unsupervised locations where evidence of their winter merriment lives on long after they’ve gone.
Exhibit A: The sledding at hill at Spooner Summit at the intersections of Highways 50 and 28.
“Last year, the litter on the sled hill got out of control,” says Berry of the Tahoe Fund. “It’s so hard in the winter because there is no official manager. If you leave a Dumpster unattended, random people will fill it with their garage. So that doesn’t work. We thought maybe if we had someone go out once a week and clean it up, we’d have better success.”
This year, the Fund has organized a pilot program to alleviate litter by allocating $3,900 to Clean Up Tahoe to gather trash once a week for pickup by Nevada Department of Transportation. Citing the broken window theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, Berry hopes that by limiting the amount of visible trash each week, visitors will be deterred from leaving their own.
For the past five years, the Fund and its Take Care Tahoe partners have also installed sled corrals for people to leave broken sleds, rather than discarding bits of plastic all across the frozen landscape.
“We want them to take their sleds, but they won’t do it,” says Berry. “We have an internal struggle with this. We are not encouraging them to do it, but we have compassion for it. You have this great vision of getting you kids out there, but then their hands get cold and their piece of junk sleds breaks into a million pieces. At that point you have to get in the car and get out of there.”
This season, Tahoe Fund invested more than $30,000 in sledding clean-up projects, including $23,000 for billboards signs along Highway 50 and I-80, which provide humorous public messaging around Leave No Trace sledding etiquette.
Berry sees the environmental impacts as one aspect of the larger questions about long-term sustainability in the region.
“We’ve got to look at it holistically,” she says. “If one entity closes something, it doesn’t mean the people who went there disappear. They just go somewhere else. When Sand Harbor went to half capacity last summer we had more people leaving cars on the side of the road.”
In reaction to environmental damage and parking issues, the Town of Truckee relocated the popular sledding hill at McIver Dairy meadow in 2019 but doesn’t provide any parking in that area. While there are still a number of free and paid sledding areas available within town limits, it’s one more example of how a lack of planning and oversight can lead to the destruction of public access for all.
This winter, Truckee-Donner Recreation and Parks District attempted to leave West End Beach open for outdoor recreation, but within the first couple weeks of it not being staffed, large graffiti showed up. So, the gate is now closed for the winter.
“What we are trying to do is find ways to support people still being able to access these areas without the negative impacts on our community and environment,” says Truckee mayor Anna Klovstad. “Particularly since fewer people are going to actual resorts, it means more people are going to areas not specifically built to accommodate public access. That is a problem for us. We need to look at the big picture as how we function as a community with the ski resorts and without the ski resorts. We want to create access, but it needs to be responsible to the community and the environment.”
Any new ideas out there?
While there has been a lot of talk about how to solve the ongoing parking issues in the Tahoe Sierra, solutions have not materialized.
When the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit released its initial proposal of Over-the-Snow Vehicle (OSV) management in late 2019, it proposed expanding West Shore parking at Spring Creek Tract from eight to 20 spaces and Fountain Place Road from 30 to 40 spaces. It designated new sites suitable for snow play on the west side of Spooner Junction and nearby Sawmill Pond in South Lake Tahoe. (OSV management refers to winter use of Forest Service lands by motorized vehicles including snowmobiles.)
In an idea welcomed by both motorized and human-powered users, the proposal also called for additional areas allowed for groomed trails at Blackwood Canyon, Watson Creek, Granlibakken, Taylor Creek, Rabe Meadow, Echo Lake Road and Meeks Meadow.
However, like other Forest Service proposals, this one remains in hiatus as the coronavirus pandemic slows down projects at most government agencies.
That being said, there are a few bright spots where creative thinkers are working to collaborate on solutions for this winter. In efforts to increase public access, the Town of Truckee is working with the Tahoe National Forest to analyze the potential for three new plowed lots at Cabin Creek, Penny Pines and Castle Valley.
“We have initiated resource surveys in support of a potential proposed action to improve these access points,” said Jonathan Cook-Fisher, district ranger at Tahoe National Forest, in a Dec. 31 email. “From an environmental analysis perspective, all three sites are fairly straightforward as there are not unique resources that might otherwise limit activities. However, we have not yet found the right partnerships to make it a reality.”
While recent Forest Service documents clearly identify the need to address trailhead access parking for a variety of recreational uses, so far, the solutions have yet to be realized.
“Across the entire Truckee Ranger District, I believe that the record level of visitation that we experienced last spring and summer is likely to continue,” says Cook-Fisher. “As such, we are at a crossroads and the challenge before us is to either proactivity address our antiquated facilities as a community, or remain reactionary and unsatisfied with how we access our cherished National Forest.”