Castle Peak

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)

(Click here to view GPS Track and download GPX or KML track in Google Earth)

Click here for Topographic map of area

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…

See you on my next adventure…

Somewhere in the Tahoe Wilderness

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Tahoe Donner Snowshoeing

Happy New Year everyone! Given it was New Year’s Day and such a beautiful day in Truckee/Tahoe Donner area, I just had to get my last bit of snowshoeing in before driving back down the hill.

From Donner Pass Road, turn right onto Northwoods Blvd. in the direction of Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Resort. From there, a little jog on Fjord, then to the left brought me to Alder Creek Road, where there is limited parking off of the street, about ½ mile south from the entrance to the resort. There is a moderate size open area for family snow play, so I thought this was as good a place as any to start my hike.

The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky again with the temperatures in the mid-20s. In the sun and moving that felt pretty good. I followed some of the cross country ski marks then took off trailblazing on my own over the dry virgin powder. I came across several trail markers for snowshoers coming from Tahoe Donner resort but didn’t want to tread on their territory being a freeloader. So I just blazed some of my own trails making sure I wasn’t trespassing on private property as well. Not that many people there, and no one seemed concerned or could even see me. I was only out for about 45 minutes today, and that was enough to make sure I had fun before I left the snow.

After packing up my snowshoes, I headed for Donner Lake, as I hadn’t driven by the lake in over a year. It was wonderful to see snow covering parts of the mountain tops from lake level. I parked my car at the Vista Point turn out, just before the Rainbow Bridge. The bridge is also known as the Donner Summit Bridge, built during the 1920s. It was recently made famous in 2007 by a black bear who managed to get underneath the bridge, dangling precariously over the canyon below. Rest assured that he was safely rescued by Rangers and set free the next day, unharmed. The Vista Point is a perfect spot for photo opportunities of Donner Lake, Donner Summit and the snow tunnels for the trains that run between Sacramento and Reno.

I continued up and over Donner Summit on Donner Pass Road past the Soda Springs Ski Resort and Royal Gorge turn off. From there it was easy to pick up Highway 80 again and head on back to the bay. I’ll be back up to Tahoe as soon as we get another decent snowfall.

Until then, I’ll see you again somewhere in the Tahoe Wilderness

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Tahoe Donner Snowshoe Running

Left my friends house in Verdi, Nevada at 7 AM, where it was chilly 2 degrees. All of my bottles of water in the car were frozen solid. I headed up to Tahoe Donner ski area to meet up with Helen from the Donner Party Mountain Runners. From there we carpooled up the hill to start our run for the morning.

It was a nice straight run, a couple of rolling hills to get up which made me gasp for air early on. Helen came back to check on me as I was bringing up the rear of the group. The 5° temperatures made your nose and lungs burn a little bit until you got used to the cold air. Except for that, the conditions were flawless, not a cloud in sight, snowshoe running on a perfectly groomed trail. I got about half to three quarters of the way until I stopped wait up for the group to double back. Ran with Helen a little bit more, and then we all met up at the house for some hot cider and a warm fireplace.

Though it’s still the 31st, I’ll call it a great start for the New Year.

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Christmas Eve Snowshoeing at Royal Gorge

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Had so much fun last week, and we had a storm since, I headed back up to Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski area for more snowshoeing. What I didn’t expect, the snow on the trees from last week and the storm melted already by the time I got back up. Plenty on the ground, with beautiful blue skies, I started out down the Yuba Trail. I had to make a few of my own tracks though in some large mounds of untouched powder…well, untouched until I got there.

I did test my next step each time I trotted out into the ungroomed snow. (Prod ahead with your poles to make sure that there are no holes or branches you could fall into or get your foot caught on) Once back on the groomed portion, I tried to pick up my pace a bit and run in my snowshoes. A couple of trips to start out, but got the form and the pace quickly. With the altitude it didn’t last long before resuming my walking pace. Always takes me a few miles to get my legs and my wind before I’m good to go.

From Yuba, I picked up Sidewinder, went down Fast Draw to Hawk’s Run (both snowshoe trails, but had not been groomed yet, so it was a little slow going but great to be in the powder!) Finally back to Sidewinder, I took a right on Sleigh Ride, a large wide open area, well groomed that follows the power lines down the hill.

Arriving at a crossroads for several trails, (Palisade, Stagecoach, Snow Mountain and Hi Jinx) I took a short jog to the right then quick left to pick up the Maintenance Road. It had crusted over after the Snowcat was over it, so it was a little crunchy to walk on. It did provide some beautiful, untouched areas with up close views of small streams flowing through the snow and under the road. I was the only one around, so I took my time about getting back on track to the groomed areas. I will get an earlier jump on the trails next time so I can get down Stage Coach, a long and scenic trail passing close to Deer Lake.

Back on Palisade Trail now, I walked as far as Killy’s Cruise, taking me back to Lyle’s Lookout where I was the week before. This time, the views were more beautiful as the skies were clear and blue with no impending storm clouds. Someone had made a small snowman I called”Lyle” and had to take a selfie of us before leaving. The sun was getting lower in the sky pretty early now, with sunset at 16:41. It was already 15:00 (3 pm), and time for me to start making tracks for the Summit Station. It was getting pretty chilly and crusty in the shaded areas of the trail. Met some nice folks to chat with at Palisade and Rodney’s Run.

There was a nice, snow-covered pile of logs that was very picturesque and I had to take the photo opportunity while I had it. Palisade took me all the way back to the Summit Station, but it was just too nice to leave yet. I took off my snowshoes and sat in a big mound of snow and ate my crunchy apple, and sipped my cold bottle of carrot juice. The view, breathing in the cold fresh air and the solitude of being back in the mountains reminded me of several of the many sayings of John Muir…

“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”
― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

“Going to the mountains is going home.”
― John Muir

See you soon on my next adventure in the Tahoe Wilderness

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Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort – Snowshoeing

Sunday, December 14, 2014

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With 8.5″+ of rain in the north bay area of Marin County, it was time to head for the mountains and be the first to make my tracks in some fresh powder. The storms that dropped snow in the Sierra’s were mostly at higher elevations, near Donner Summit. Lake Tahoe level did not get any of the moisture as snow, but mostly rain.

Last October I rode my bike past the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski area, just past Soda Springs Ski Resort. Royal Gorge caters to Cross Country Skiers and snowshoer’s, with groomed and virgin snow trails to spend the day on. The terrain features gentle rolling trails, with some that would have you gasping by the time you made the summit of the trail. There are no ski lifts here to rely on to get up the hill, only your lungs and raw leg power. You won’t find any snowboarders here either, only those that are looking for some back country peace and quiet, and hard-core cross country athletes out for an intense workout.

For those of you that may wonder if you can snowshoe or not…if you can walk, you can be snowshoeing in less than 10 minutes. It doesn’t really require a learning curve or much special equipment or clothing like skiing does.  Most of your equipment you can rent from the resort or REI and other sporting goods stores. I will make a list of recommended items to bring for safety and comfort and convenience at the end of this post.

From Highway 80 driving East, take the Exit number 174, Soda Spring Exit. Follow the sign to Royal Gorge, just beyond the Soda Springs Ski area. The resort opens at 08:30 am and closes at 4:00 pm daily. You can get a slight discount if you start your day after 1:00 pm. Seniors do get a small discount, but not worth mentioning.

Since they had only been open for one day for the season, not all of the trails had been groomed for use. There are several snowshoe only trails, but they were not ready for the season. You can use the ski trails if you stay to the right of the trail and out of the ski tracks in use. I met a lady that was local to the area on snowshoes as well, and I just made friends with her and chatted while we walked along the trail.

The route we took was down James Joy to Killy’s Cruise and out to Lyle’s Lookout. From there a panorama opened up to see Devil’s Peak and the Royal Gorge to the southwest.

Dark storm clouds were also looming in the distance to the southwest, so we took our photos and rejoined the trail at Crosscut and Palisade Trails. From there we parted ways and I took the maintenance road returning to the lodge and parking lot. Along the way were gorgeous wintery scenes looking like picture postcards everywhere I looked. The snow piled up so deep on the branches of the pine and fir tree, I don’t know how they didn’t break.

Being an aspiring trail runner, I can run 10 to 15 miles at sea level no problem. But now at altitude again, wearing clumsy snowshoes, I will barely make 2 miles today when I’m done. Snowshoeing is a very aerobic sport, and you will be exerting a lot of energy and getting quite warm. Make sure to dress in layers, so that you can remove a layer or two when you work up a sweat, then put them back on when you stop for a rest.

The snow was quite fluffy, and the new deep powder was calling my name to venture out and make my own trail.This is where a word of caution is needed. With new snow, the dangers of skier provoked avalanches are probable. So before you get too adventurous, arm yourself with a little knowledge, free of charge.

The Sierra Avalanche Center evaluates areas for avalanche danger and posts it to their website. The information is invaluable and is free of charge. You can visit the website and learn about avalanche dangers, and classes that are offered in avalanche awareness if you plan on any backcountry trips by yourself or in a group.

Well, the Maintenance Road back to the lodge was quite a workout, as it’s made for the snowcat to use, so a steep incline is not a problem. I was sweating bullets by the time I got to the top, and that was what I wanted. This was a workout day like any other, and I did’t come here for a walk in the park. I wished that I could have stayed longer, but the snow was starting to fall. Soon it would be a white winter wonderland, with slick roads and chain requirements. That is not the fun part of winter travel, so I got back on the highway while I still could.

I will return to Royal Gorge soon, for another day or two’s snowshoeing adventures. Anyone wishing to join me or put a group together to have a snowshoe and picnic day at Royal Gorge, feel free to contact me on this website.

I look forward to seeing you soon, on more adventures in the Tahoe Wilderness.

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Jake’s & Maggie’s Peaks – Snowshoes in April

Fresh powder just fell up in Tahoe and I made a beeline to be one of the first to make some tracks with my snowshoes on some of the north facing peaks on the west shore. Those areas would most likely have the most snow accumulated, not getting much sun light to melt it yet. I decided that I would do two separate outings, Jake’s Peak rising above D.L. Bliss on the west shore on Day 1 and the next day I would do Maggie’s Peaks starting at the Bayview trailhead across from Inspiration Point overlooking Emerald Bay on Day 2.


I arrived at Tahoe city and the weather was perfect. Lows in the 40s highs in the 70s. Crystal clear blue sky… hardly a cloud anywhere. From Tahoe City I drove for about 17 miles south, or a half an hour on a good day, down the West Lake Blvd. to D.L. Bliss State Park and campground. (In case you needed, the TART bus runs down to Bliss also every hour, June to September 1st) The entrance is also several miles north of Emerald Bay. There is a small parking area off of the east side of the road near the entrance to  D.L. Bliss State Park and campground. Well great minds think alike and I wasn’t only one that thought this would be a great idea to go out on the mountain today. About six young “telemarkers” in their 20s climbed up to Jake’s to do some backcountry skiing with the fresh powder. Jake’s is a favorite spot of the locals, kind of like a favorite surfing spot and they get a little territorial as well. Today I only had to contend with the telemark backcountry skiers with climbing skins on their skis. I tried to stay out of the path that they made with their skis, just using their marks as my general direction.

The route starts at at just above lake level, about 6,800 feet, and is nearly straight up the eastern facing slope for about 1.5 to 2 miles up to the main peak which is closer to 9,137 ‘ from my GPS. I doubt if I will get all the way to the top today. The southern route to the ridge is the most popular route to take in the spring time. If it hadn’t recently snowed, the conditions would’ve been typical springtime corn conditions to hike and ski on. This route also gives you an unbelievable view of Emerald Bay from high above. Let’s see how far I get today.

I followed the young skiers’ tracks up through the trees… there wasn’t a defined trail, or if there was it was covered in snow now. My route was straight up the mountain making my own switchbacks along the way when it got too steep and some places. I made sure to look back often and admire the view – that was my primary purpose for being here anyway. Just like my snowshoe trip to Mount Tallac in January for my birthday, everywhere I looked was like a scene from Courier & Ives – snow drifts of fresh powder covering downed trees and boulders, sparkled like glitter in the afternoon sunshine. Behind me, Lake Tahoe lived up to its name as the ”Crown Jewel of the West”…the deep blue water, with snowcapped mountains of the Carson range behind it. With all the smells and colors of the trees, the bright white snow and deep blue sky, it was sensory overload and I was loving every minute of it.

After several hours of climbing, I sat down in the snow to take a little breather – I didn’t even bother taking off my snowshoes. I wasn’t getting anywhere fast today. Soon after returning to my climb, the young telemark skiers zipped on past me, enjoying all that they worked for that morning climbing the mountain. I’m nearly at the top now and gave it another 30 minutes before throwing in the towel and heading back down the mountain. After all, I was the only one up here and no one else knew that. I took my last pictures of the views that I earned on my way up, then made my way back down the trailhead across from D.L. Bliss. I need to go rest up for my next adventure tomorrow, climbing to Maggie Peaks from Bayview Trailhead.

Jake’s on area topo map

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Another day, another adventure. I parked at the Bayview Trailhead to begin my ascent to Maggie’s Peaks for the day. Getting there early in the morning, it was half slush and half ice. Today I brought my snowshoes, crampons, and my Kahtoola MICROSpikes. The micro spikes were the best thing to start the hike with while walking from snow to ice on the paved road to the trailhead – kept me from falling on my butt mostly. At the trailhead you need to fill out a Desolation Wilderness Permit even for the day, as it gives the Rangers a “heads-up” if they need to come looking for you if you don’t get back before nightfall.

The climb to the saddle between Maggie’s north and south peak is a series of many switchbacks up the side of the mountain. There is a great vista point along the trail, one of the lake in the background and another 100 feet more opens to a beautiful view overlooking Emerald Bay directly below – far more beautiful than the Inspiration Point view could give you… this view you will have to earn by climbing here.

The trail flattens out a bit, meandering through the trees and manzanita brush, eventual bringing you to Granite Lake, nestled at the foot of Maggie’s South Peak. This is another popular spot for backcountry skiers, the real die-hards…but not today. Today I had it all to myself, with the fresh powder from yesterday waiting for me to put the first footprints in for the day. I got down to Granite Lake that looked frozen over, but it was so calm the powder from the day before was just lying on top like goose down feathers – not a breath of wind to disturb it.

The trail was obscured by the snow, though I had been on it before, it was still difficult to know if you were on the trail or bushwhacking your own. After a while, the slope became too steep to walk up. My MSR Ascent snowshoes have “Televators”, like turning your snowshoes into high heels! You pull a little bar up under your heel, so you walk more upright ascending a slope. Many switchbacks later, I made it to the saddle between the north and south peaks.

There, the panorama of the Desolation Wilderness unfolded before me. I could see Phipps Peak and other minor peaks that were hiding the Velma Lakes  and the rest of Desolation behind it. Below me was Eagle Lake, where I had been in January. (Eagle Lake is a short, very easy hike from a trailhead off of Highway 89 across from Vikingsholm and Emerald Bay) Climbing up on a rock, I just took in the incredible “Winter Wonderland” view that I had from the top. Shame I didn’t bring my tent and sleeping bag, as it would have made an awesome sunrise over the Carson Range the next morning. (Technically, I would need an overnight permit from the Ranger Station – I made a mental note to  make sure I camp here next spring)

Ok, time to go home. My light was beginning to fade and I’m already on the shaded side of the mountain. It was easy to find my away back this time. I was the only tracks around to follow down the hill. One final look at Emerald Bay then on down to my car. Walking with snowshoes does take longer than hiking of course, so figure you’re going to make good about half of you hiking speed at best. Less if the drifts are more than about 6” deep.

Maggie’s on area topo map

http://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=38.93419,-120.10477&z=14&b=t&o=r&n=0.3

That concludes another great day in Tahoe… After a hot shower and some dinner, I’ll start planning tomorrow’s great adventure.

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See ya on my next adventure…