Snow Play: Storms dump snow on Sierra Nevada

Inflate those inner tubes, snap on your ear muffs and put on those mittens.

With a string of storms pummeling the Sierra Nevada, Mother Nature gifted a December dump of powder just in time for the holidays.

That means sledding, building snowmen, carving snow angels and snowball fights.

A number of winter recreation opportunities are within easy driving distance of the central San Joaquin Valley and nearby snow resorts Badger Pass and China Peak are already gearing for action. Badger Pass at Yosemite National Park opened earlier this week and China Peak opens Saturday.

The Sierra National Forest is expecting a lot of people to make the short drive up the highways, but are quick to remind them to use common sense and be prepared.

Starting with: pack tire chains.

“That’s always the first reminder,” said spokeswoman Iveth Hernandez, “Even if you’re not planning to drive into the higher elevations, you should carry chains. You never know what can happen.”

Chains can be required at any time, even on four-wheel-drive vehicles. And pack an emergency kit with warm blankets, extra food and water and a windshield scraper.

The Sierra National Forest operates five Sno-Park areas between Shaver and Huntington lakes that provide cleared parking lots, restrooms, trash removal and quick access to sledding hills and trails.

The Balsam and Coyote Sno-Parks are good for sleds and snow play but tend to see big crowds 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; Eastwood, at the Kaiser Pass turnoff; and Huntington Lake — are also 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 $94.50 fine.

The Giant Sequoia National Monument and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks each have designated areas for general snow play as well as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

Visitors traveling along Highway 180 tend to pull over at the turnoff to the Sequoia Lake YMCA Camp, but park officials discourage this for safety reasons.

Instead, they advise using the Big Stump or Columbine picnic areas near Grant Grove; both have short sled hills. Or turn south on the Generals Highway (provided the road is open) and head toward Quail Flat or Big Meadows.

Just off the Generals Highway between Lodgepole and Giant Forest sits Wolverton, a former downhill ski area. 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.