Marek Warszawski

Best spots for winter's wonderland

Break out the mittens and ear muffs, inflate those inner tubes and head for the mountains.

It’s winter in the Sierra, and Mother Nature has already spread out her white blanket of welcome thanks to a series of December storms.

For all the winter recreation opportunities available within easy driving distance of the central San Joaquin Valley, the most popular snow activity involves simply playing in it. That means sledding, building snowmen and, of course, snowball fights.

As Sierra National Forest spokeswoman Sue Exline put it, “Most people have an inner tube tied to the top of their car and are looking to go out and have some fun.”

With the holidays upon us and the kids sure to be stir crazy from sitting around the house, now’s a good time for a primer on where to go to get your kicks in the snow.

Highway 168

Head up toward Shaver Lake, and you’ll see folks who pull to the side as soon as there’s a couple inches on the ground.For safety reasons, don’t be one of them.

Instead, head to one of five designated Sno-Park locations between Shaver and Huntington lakes.

Identified by their brown signs, Sno-Parks provide cleared parking lots with restrooms and trash removal, along with easy access to sledding hills and ski trails.

The Balsam and Coyote Sno-Parks are good for sleds and snow play but tend to fill up quickly on weekends. Balsam Meadows is located about 4 miles past the Shaver Lake Dam, while Coyote is about 4 miles past that.

The other three — Tamarack, located between Balsam and Coyote; and Eastwood, at the Kaiser Pass turnoff; and Huntington Lake — will do in a pinch but are better suited for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

Permits cost $5 per day and $25 per season, which ends May. 30. They can be purchased in Fresno at Herb Bauer and REI or at several locations in Shaver Lake. Vehicles parked at a Sno-Park without a permit are subject to a $75 fine.

Highway 41

The most popular snow play area — by far — along the Southern Yosemite Highway sits just outside the park entrance on the east side. It also tends to get crowded on weekends.

Four miles inside the park, Wawona is a great spot for winter revelry provided snow levels are down to 4,000 feet. After that, might as well drive the 30 extra minutes up to Badger Pass.

Highway 180

The first viable snow play area sits at the turnoff to Sequoia Lake YMCA Camp, but officials discourage it for two reasons: One, they want folks to pay entry fees; and two, they don’t want people sliding into the highway.

Instead, head to one of five designated sites inside the park and national monument boundaries.

The Big Stump and Columbine picnic area, both located near Grant Grove, have short sled hills. Or turn south on the General’s Highway and head toward Quail Flat or Big Meadows for more room and even more scenic views.

Highway 198

Just off the General’s Highway between Lodgepole and Giant Forest sits Wolverton, a former downhill ski area. The rope tows may be long gone, but the mountain remains.

Wolverton is an excellent place for sledding, though the hill may be too steep and fast for novices and young children. The closest services, including equipment rentals, are at Wuksachi Lodge.