On the first day of summer, we’re off to Castle Peak, just north of Donner Summit off of Interstate 80 to the north. You can see it towering above the highway as you approach Donner Summit from the west. There are many ways to get there from I-80. I took this route today as I was eastbound to Tahoe City eventually. Take the turnoff for Boreal Ski Resort and turn back under the highway driving north. You will see cars parked along the road, but do notice the no parking signs for part of the road. The paved section ends in several hundred feet, then becomes a dirt access road for four wheeled vehicles.
This about 4+ hours, 7 to 8 miles for an Out-and-Back, or loop, depending on your choice of routes. Once at Castle Peak, you can either double-back on your tracks or continue on to Warren Lake Trail to Summit Lake Trail, returning to the Rest Stop on the north side of Interstate 80.
Castle Peak Summit: 9,103 feet
Distance: 7 to 8 miles
Time needed: 4+ hours (Less if you’re not chatty like me)
Elevation gain to the summit: 1,890 feet
(Note: An alternate route would be from I-80 westbound, starting from the Rest Stop area. Join the PCT behind the restrooms and West Lakes, hiking in the northwesterly direction until you arrive at Castle Pass)
This route is a mecca for mountain bikers, four-wheelers and hikers alike. It is also a popular snow-mobile road in the winter time. The road is wide enough for everybody to enjoy it at the same time. The road starts off with a gradual climb to a fork in the road. There on your right, you can see Castle Peak above you, our goal for the day. If you continued on the road to the left, it would also take you to Castle Pass, where the trail meets with the PCT. Branching off of the access road to the left is “Hole in the Ground” trail, routing you beneath Andesite Peak, eventually meeting at Castle Pass as well.
We will cross Upper Castle Creek several times on this route. Only a little runoff at this time in our drought year. It is flowing well enough as a water source for drinking after treating or filtering. After another quarter of a mile, the road intersects with the PCT or continues straight on the Donner Lake Rim Trail. Mountain bikes usually continue on to the Rim Trail, but we will be turning left to join the PCT to Castle Pass.
Castle Pass is great place to meet other people out on a day hike or thru hikers on the PCT, on their way north. Today I met up with a fellow seasoned hiker and Grass Valley local, “Mountain Goat”. She had been camping at Paradise Lake, on the other side of Castle Peak.
After a brief chat, it was time to get the show on the road. The terrain changes quickly here, from an earthen soil on the PCT to crushed and powdered volcanic ash. It can be a scramble up the hill with rocks and volcanic ash, not a great footing. I met several solo hikers and small groups coming back down the mountain for the saddle below Castle Peak. It is a good place to stop and rest and enjoy the view or continue on to the summit.
Once at the saddle below the peak, you can take in the panoramic views.
Take time to look around you and enjoy the moment… you see some flowers that aren’t everywhere in the Tahoe Basin. Some of these flowers grow in areas with volcanic soil, like here, Ellis Peak or Barker Peak. The brilliant deep purple Showy or Sierra Penstamen is everywhere here. Wolley Mule Ears, with it’s yellow daisey-like flower, the white, three petalled, and low-growing Smokey Mariposa or Mariposa Lily by another name… Firecracker flower (a type of phlox or gilia), and yellow Marumleaf Buckwheat.
I got a late start today driving up from the bay, so I only have time to climb a little more. The trail becomes steeper and more loose in traction. My Altra Olympus trail running shoes are really not the best choice today. A shoe with a Vibram sole might be better in this section. As I climb higher, Round Valley below me is lush and green. The PCT follows the meadow on the western edge. The Peter Grubb Hut, owned by the Sierra Club is there for PCTers for shelter on their way north. Our Donner Party Mountain Runners have used it in the winter time as a ski-in or snowshoe-in for overnight outings. Reservations are needed.
Can’t peak out today, time to head back down the mountain and drive to Tahoe City for the night. This was a great way to spend the first day of summer, out in my element…the Tahoe forest.
Hope you enjoyed the trip today. Whichever route you take, you will really enjoy the scenery…it’s some the best views in the Truckee-Donner area.
Until next time…