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Trading Surfboards for Snowshoes in the Sierras

After an endless summer, a travel guide escapes to the snow.


Pauline Legendre forges a path along Donner Creek.

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Legendre and Ramirez in the woods around Donner Lake.

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Ramirez and Legendre take refuge in the truck bed. “We were seeing our breath every time we talked,” he says.

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Legendre plops down for a beer break.

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Coffee from the camp stove got them moving after the chilly night in the truck.

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Jayms Ramirez and Pauline Legendre's route.

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San Francisco photographer and travel guide Jayms Ramirez spent his summer leading overland camping trips for European and Australian travelers in the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest. Then there was the shoot in Zion National Park for a clothing company out of Los Angeles. By the time the early winter came around, he was off to the Big Island of Hawaii, working on an ad campaign for an eyewear company and fitting in some surfing when he could. After eight days in paradise and a whole summer of sun and trips through the desert, all Ramirez wanted to do was get somewhere colder. “Hawaii was fun and great, but it was wintertime,” he says. “I knew the snow had fallen, and I was just craving the mountains and the trees. I was imagining laying down fresh tracks.”

Ramirez’s plane touched down in San Francisco at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday; on Wednesday morning he and his friend Pauline Legendre were waiting outside REI when it opened. Though snow was on the ground in the Sierras, it was a little early in the season to hit the slopes, so the duo opted to snowshoe instead. They dropped $30 on rentals, hopped into Ramirez’s truck, and headed east up Interstate 80. 

Ramirez had been to Donner Lake in the summer, but he wanted to check out what the surrounding meadows would look like covered in virgin snow. Three hours after the two friends had left the city—midweek traffic made the trip a quick one—they were at Donner Memorial State Park’s visitor center. Ramirez had grown up in California, so he had learned about—and been creeped out by—the Donner Party as a kid, but the museum was so engaging that the two friends ended up staying for an hour and a half. “It was amazing being right there where X marks the spot,” Ramirez says. “I got really entrenched in the details.”

Once they’d torn themselves away from the museum, Ramirez and Legendre headed straight for the untouched snowy meadows east of the lake and strapped on their snowshoes. They had planned to hike around for a while, then head down to Tahoe and stay at a hotel, but the day was so clear and the weather so great that they kept going until dark. “It was really fun to make tracks when no one else was around,” Ramirez says. “That was part of the magic.” By the time they were ready to call it a day, it seemed best to spend the night in the back of Ramirez’s truck, which had a camper shell attached. They had sleeping bags with them and, more important, beer and burritos. With the temperature dropping to the 40s, it was a chilly night in the truck bed—but since getting out of the city to a wintry climate had been the goal, Ramirez didn’t mind. And, as a travel and adventure guide, he spends too much time prepping for trips anyway. “I always see a lot of clients worrying about equipment and a plan,” he says, “but the best thing is to just go with your feeling and get on the road.”

Distance: 370 miles
Time: One night
Money spent: Under $200
Accommodations: Sleeping bags in a truck bed under a camper shell
Provisions: Some mission burritos toted up from the Bay area, coffee, and beer necessities: Sleeping bags, snow pants, snowshoes, poles, a camp stove, and the aforementioned beer


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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