I love carving big, swooping turns down steep runs at the alpine resorts that dot the Sierra.
But for a change of pace, nothing's more sublime than kicking and gliding through a backcountry meadow on a crisp winter night, especially with a full moon reflecting off the snow and illuminating the surrounding trees and mountains.
A few years back, I skied with friends along a trail at the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort on Donner Summit under a bright, nearly full moon. When we finished our tour, we jumped in the resort's hot tub for a soak. Then we hopped out, made snow angels and -- thoroughly chilled -- jumped back in the hot tub again. (After all, we were in California.)
If you can't do a moonlight tour, a sunset jaunt on cross-country skis or snowshoes can produce memorable moments with the sky ablaze in red, orange and golden hues. Either way, hitting the trails later in the evening or night casts a different light on the Sierra and snow experience in general.
Mark Lorenzen, a San Francisco-based adventurer, has skied around the globe. But he said some of his favorite winter experiences include gliding over crackling snow on a moonlight tour out of the Sierra Club's Peter Grubb Hut. It sleeps 15 and is three miles north of Interstate 80 across from the Boreal Ridge Resort on Donner Summit.
"A group of friends would book the lodge and bring great food," he recalled. "After a fresh snowfall, the trees were shrouded in snow.
Joyce Lynn Coker, who runs the Hope Valley Outdoor Center south of Lake Tahoe off Highway 88, is also big on moonlight ski and snowshoe tours.
"They are some of my favorite things to do," said Coker, who will offer tours this winter Dec. 21, Jan. 18, Feb. 18 and March 19. "We don't go out for long skis or snowshoe walks, so it's more about the experience rather than covering any kind of distance."
Off and on, Coker has spent almost 20 years in Yosemite National Park and learned to appreciate winter under a full moon there.
"A clear sky is nice," she said. "But a partly cloudy evening is even better because it's bright and then gets dark and then the moon will pop out from behind a cloud again.
"It's pretty exciting to be out there with the glittering, sparkling snow and it gives you a whole different perspective. A while back, when we skied through a stand of burned trees, the stark shadows made it like something out of 'The Wizard of Oz.' You almost expected one of the Wicked Witches to jump out and cackle at you."
Coker said one of her favorite tours in the park is to head out the 10-mile trail to Glacier Point and camp out under the full moon. She also recommends staying at the Tioga Pass Resort off Highway 395 and skiing in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite.
"Hope Valley is nice because it's big (2,400 acres) and open," she said. "It's not a deep gorge like Yosemite Valley, but it's much higher at 7,000 feet so the snow is more consistent and it's surrounded by high peaks in the distance."
Coker also recommends a sunset or moonlight cross-country or snowshoe outing along the shore of South Lake Tahoe at Camp Richardson Resort. Or for a higher elevation tour, try the Spooner Lake Cross Country Ski Area on the east side of Lake Tahoe off Highway 28.
Not far from Hope Valley is Kirkwood, which will offer guided full moon snowshoe treks this winter. The guided tours cost $25 and include the cost of rentals.
On the north shore of Lake Tahoe, Northstar will offer moonlight snowshoe tours with a twist. These outings, for all ages, include live acoustic music, s'mores and hot cocoa. The tours cover roughly 3 miles on Northstar Mountain.
In addition, Northstar will run snowshoe star tours on moonless nights, led by Tony Berendsen, a poet and president of the Nevada Science Coalition. He led summer star gazing tours that included a poem reading, a space quiz, a laser tour of the stars and constellations and a telescopic viewing.
If You Go
PETER GRUBB HUT: And other Sierra Club lodges, www.sierraclub.org/outings/lodges/huts/grubb.aspx; 800-679-6775.
HOPE VALLEY OUTDOOR CENTER: www.hopevalleyoutdoors.com; 530-694-2266.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK: Including reservations at the Glacier Point Ski Hut, www.yosemitepark.com/BadgerPass_CrossCountrySkiing.aspx; 209-372-8444. For Tioga Pass Resort, www.tiogapassresort.com.
CAMP RICHARDSON RESORT: www.camprichardson.com; 800-544-1801.
SPOONER LAKE CROSS COUNTRY SKI AREA: Includes two overnight backcountry cabins, www.spoonerlake.com; 775-749-5349.
NORTHSTAR-AT-TAHOE: www.northstarattahoe.com/info/ski/crosscountry.asp; 800-466-6784.
TAHOE ADVENTURE COMPANY: www.tahoeadventurecompany.com; 530-913-9212.
KIRKWOOD: www.kirkwood.com; 209-258-7248.
SQUAW VALLEY: Includes twilight dinner packages from High Camp, www.squaw.com; 530-452-7123.