Not so hidden off Old 40 not quite a half-mile from Donner Lake rests Donner Summit Canyon, part of the Truckee Donner Land Trust. This hike is a true gem.
In the spring, the fast-flowing waterfalls offer a calming background to this quiet and serene hike with a varietal of wildflowers and wildlife along the way. I’ve even bumped into the occasional coyote.
From the trailhead, cross the newly built wooden bridge over the stream and onto the path. The path traverses through the woods and is nicely shaded making it great for summer hiking. The trail takes a gentle, uphill climb that levels out as you walk past Beaver Creek and into a canopy of trees and continues on moderate, undulating terrain over fallen trees and dry rock beds.
There are some rustic signs along the way to navigate your hike. There is a scenic lookout point about 1 mile into the journey off the trail with a picnic table offering beautiful views of Donner Lake.
Continuing on, the trail opens to sweeping views of Donner Peak and continues beneath the old train trestle and large boulders. Keep your eyes out for the beautiful Western Tanager. The first time I hiked this trail, I was so excited to see the yellow and orange bird, I stopped a woman running to point the bird out in the tall pine. My enthusiasm definitely caught her off guard.
Coming out of the woods, the trail gets a bit rocky and the canyon is revealed along with magnificent views of Donner Lake. At the top of the trail, you come to massive granite rocks and find yourself on the old Emigrant Trail. At the top of this part of the hike, you can cross the creek and either circumambulate the canyon or head to China Wall.
If you want to hike around the canyon, you’ll find yourself crossing large, granite slabs and then hiking underneath Old 40 for a bit. You can see some old, rusted vehicles from way back when that definitely didn’t have a good day, their remnants remind us to respect the snowy, icy turns of winter on Old 40.
Continuing on, this part of the hike is exposed and a hat and sun block are highly recommended. The downhill grade is rocky with lots of loose rock and scree, with good trail running shoes or lightweight hiking shoes are helpful. Once around the canyon, the trail pops you back into the woods and you’ll find yourself back on the original trail. From here to the parking lot is about another 15 minutes.
If you opt to hike to China Wall, it adds quite a bit more time, but is a fun hike to the top. When you reach the wall, check out the old train trestle and gaze as some of the amazing graffiti art on the interior walls. When you are ready to come back down, you can hike around the canyon or come back the way you came.
This is a great go to hike if you’re in a hurry and still want to be immersed in the awesomeness of Tahoe. To hike Summit Canyon, drive up Old 40 and look for the trailhead about 0.3 of a mile from the West End of Donner Lake on the left. If you get to the winter gate, you’ve gone too far.
Donner Summit Canyon
Easy to moderate hike
.4 miles | Beaver Pond
1.5 miles | Old Bridge Abutment
2.2 miles | Petroglyphs
2.9 miles | Pacific Crest Trail
(Mileages are one way)
For more information, visit tdlandtrust.org.