There are plenty reasons to get outside during the holiday season. Maybe you want to give your kids a little exercise while they’re home on break. Perhaps you’d like to exercise yourself to balance out all the delicious foods that add to the festivity of this season. Or maybe you just want to find reasons to appreciate the fine weather and good snow we have around Reno. Whatever your reason, one local gem you don’t want to miss out on is snowshoeing to Chickadee Ridge.
If you’ve never heard of Chickadee Ridge, or if you’ve heard of it but never been, it’s a real treat. On a series of rocky outcroppings overlooking Lake Tahoe, near Mount Rose Meadows, there are flocks of wild mountain chickadees that create a magical experience. These small birds are year-round residents of Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada. They spend all summer and fall caching seeds for the winter (and exclaiming “cheeseburger,” as many Tahoe-raised children will tell you) and can be easily observed flitting between trees on sunny days.
Chickadee Ridge is an awe-inspiring place not only for its view of the lake, but also because of the birds after which it’s named. Hundreds of chickadees spend their winters around this sunny patch on a forested slope that’s a relatively short snowshoe journey from the highway. To find this unmarked ridge, drive out of Reno heading up Mt. Rose Highway toward Lake Tahoe. Not long after crossing over the summit, Mount Rose Meadow opens up on both sides of the highway. Expanded shoulders allow for cars to park along the side of the road.
Chickadee Ridge can be found by journeying through the trees along the southwest edge of the meadow. During the winter, no marked trails or posted trail signs will point or take you to exactly the right spot; it’s a bit of a way-finding expedition. With a pair of snowshoes strapped to your feet, and a map and compass in your hands, Chickadee Ridge is roughly a mile from Mt. Rose Highway, south-southwest through the woods. Despite the lack of signs to guide you, you’ll know you’ve made it when you pop out of the woods to areas of exposed granite and clusters of rocks overlooking Tahoe. Take a rest in the open area—and after a few minutes of silence among the rocks, the resident chickadees will start to show themselves.
With this many chickadees living along such an easy-to-reach sunny ridge, at some point, people started feeding them. But before you start sharing your lunch with these small birds, local biologists agree that feeding them human foods (like bread or chips) is detrimental to their health. Offering them foods they could find in their local environment is far better for them; this means bringing specialty items like pine nuts or (unsalted) sunflower seeds. Toting a small amount of a birdseed mix designed for an outdoor bird feeder is a reasonably healthy way to interact with these small birds, too.
If you do decide to bring some chickadee health food with you on your outing, remember to put the well-being of the birds first. Spread seeds across a nearby rock, and watch them gather while you take photos. Some of them may land on your hand, held flat offering seeds. Their striking markings and quick movements make chickadees marvelous photo subjects. Whether you take appropriate bird food or just watch and appreciate their aerial ballet, spending time with these wild inhabitants of Chickadee Ridge is a unique way to connect with Tahoe’s natural beauty.
Visiting the avian residents of Chickadee Ridge is a specific wintertime pleasure. During the warmer seasons, mountain chickadees are unlikely to venture so close to humans visiting the ridge. It’s only during the winter months of food scarcity that they become more bold and inquisitive. This makes Chickadee Ridge a great day trip over the holidays or on sunny winter mornings.
Reaching the trailless ridge requires snowshoes, wayfinding skills and 4-5 hours of daylight. Even when snow levels seem low at lake level, the snow is much deeper at the elevation of Mt. Rose Meadows and Chickadee Ridge, and it takes longer to melt from shaded groves. You can buy or rent a pair of snowshoes to make the trek; again, be sure to give yourself plenty of daylight to accomplish this bird-seeking mission. A mile of hiking in the summer typically takes less than a half-hour, but a mile of snowshoeing can take well more than an hour.
If you’re properly prepared for this 2-3 mile round trip journey, there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy your foray to see the iconic mountain chickadees in their natural habitat!