Loon Lake in the Crystal Basin off Highway 50 would be an excellent destination for those planning an outing suitable for cross-country skiers and snowshoers of all levels. There are many well-marked trails of different lengths. For skiers, the trails are graded as to difficulty. When I visited at the end of January, there was about six feet of snow, and the conditions were excellent.
When you arrive at Loon Lake, you may want to visit the Loon Lake Chalet, which has a warming room and trail information. The day my friends and I made the trip, the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol was having an open house at the Chalet, and they spoiled us with hot chocolate and other treats.
Many trails start at the Chalet, but to save yourself some distance, you can drive one mile back to a second parking area, where you can access some of the longer trails. This was where our trip began.
We skied down the snow-covered road to the campground and followed the signs to the Van Vleck/Orion Trailhead. We were fortunate that someone had broken the trail before us, leaving a nice set of both ski and snowshoe tracks.
Our group decided to head up the Orion Trail to Brown Mountain, a distance of about four miles. Blue diamonds on the trees clearly marked the trail, and there was no worry of losing our way. Once we’d climbed a bit, we enjoyed breathtaking views Loon Lake and the surrounding area.
After a welcome lunch stop below the summit of Brown Mountain, we left the trail and skied through the forest to the edge of the lake below. We ended the trip with a pleasant trek along the edge of the lake and back up the road to the trailhead.
To access the entire Crystal Basin area, drive about twenty miles east of Placerville on Highway 50, and turn left onto Ice House Road just after you cross the bridge over the American River. Drive north on Ice House Road for 30 miles, and you will arrive at Loon Lake. Before visiting this winter wonderland, click here for more information, including a trail map.