Succession of aspen stands to conifer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and Nevada, USA, is being interrupted by forest managers thinning conifers to sustain aspen stands in situ. However, patterns of stand density, species composition, and regeneration prior to management intervention have scarcely been described. We established a grid of sample plots throughout nine aspen stands encircling Lake Tahoe in the central Sierra Nevada. The degree of succession to conifer throughout each aspen stand was spatially heterogeneous. Patches of pure aspen were rare. Stand density index (SDI) reached an upper limit of 1700 in pure aspen. As composition shifted in favor of conifer, SDI approached or attained a maximum of 2500 in some plots. Stand density and species composition data were tested as predictors of conifer and aspen regeneration densities in each plot. Conifer seedlings had an average density of 3261 ha-1; they were most abundant in aspen-dominated areas of any density, and in conifer-dominated areas of higher density. Aspen regeneration had an average density of 3211 ha-1 and was one order of magnitude less frequent in areas of pure conifer versus areas of pure aspen, but remained relatively abundant in most areas. Aspen saplings were rare (average density of 42 ha-1 for saplings 10-15 cm DBH), especially at high stand densities or in areas where conifers dominated. Our findings suggest that forest managers interested in sustaining aspen stands in situ will need to control stand density to promote recruitment of younger aspen to the overstory.