Panoramic vistas along Donner Lake Rim Trail

Castle Peak from the Donner Lake Rim Trail.

When the Donner Lake Rim Trail is complete in a few years, hikers and mountain bikers will be able to explore over granite benches and through forests of ferns and wildflowers on a 25-mile loop around Donner Lake. But you don’t have to wait, because a big chunk of the DLRT is already built.

I sampled a 9-mile stretch recently that passes incredible rock formations and waves of wildflowers while showing off frequent panoramic vistas of the Sierra. I hiked point to point from the DLRT trailhead at Castle Peak Road on Donner Summit to the Glacier Way trailhead in Tahoe Donner.

Download a copy of the Donner Lake Rim Trail map

The hike begins on the popular dirt road that provides access to the Pacific Crest Trail, Castle Peak and Paradise Lake. Take the Castle Peak exit to Boreal Ski Area and take a right. Drive to the end of the paved road and hopefully find a place to park. Unless you are lucky enough to live in Tahoe Donner, this hike requires a car shuttle. The Glacier Way trailhead is near the top of Ski Slope Way in Tahoe Donner.

Here over cornfield-like waves of corn lilies you marvel at Castle Peak high above before descending into a hearty forest.

The hike up dirt Castle Peak Road is a gentle ascent through a forest of firs and pines. After 0.6 miles the dirt road meets the Donner Lake Rim Trail, where you turn right. Here over cornfield-like waves of corn lilies you marvel at Castle Peak high above before descending into a hearty forest. In another 0.4 mile you meet and cross over the PCT, and begin a 1.7-mile jaunt to the Warren Lake Trail.

Joyce Chambers on a section of the Donner Lake Rim Trail between Castle Peak Road and Summit Lake .

The route now is a mix of rolling through granite outcroppings and dipping through fern-bordered creek crossings. It is super pretty, beautifully built and lightly traveled. Eventually in a deep forest, you meet the Warren Lake Trail and follow the DLRT to Summit Lake. The lake is shallow and just a half mile as the crow flies from Interstate 80, so it wouldn’t make my list as a place to backpack, but it is a peaceful spot for a break, before beginning a long descent.

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After Summit Lake, the trail follows an old dirt road, past a field of mule ears and lupine that were on fire with flowery color. The trail then levels off to showcase picture-perfect views toward Sugar Bowl and the Pacific Crest to the south. Soon, the dirt road veers right and the trail steers to the left and becomes single track again as it descends into Johnson Canyon through mostly treeless terrain of thick brush. If it’s a warm day like it was the day I hiked it, this is when it really starts to get hot.

Flowers near Summit Lake.

The trail winds over several bridges and minor creek crossings before meeting a dirt road. Here the route turns left and heads uphill for a short distance, before descending again on trail to a major stream crossing and a junction with the Wenden Way Access Trail. While it took us 6 miles of hiking to get to this point, you could have got here in just 1.4 miles if you had taken this Wenden Way trail from the Donner Lake Exit off Interstate 80. But then you would have missed some amazing hiking.

Either way, the crux and highlight of this hike is about to begin: A 1.3-mile fairly steep ascent to the top of the ridge and Tahoe Donner Cross-Country Ski Area’s Drifter Hut. Fortunately, since it was pretty toasty by the time we reached this spot, the trail has a lot of switchbacks that make the grade more gentle, and somehow the trail builders managed to regularly pass underneath the few groves of trees on the slope that provide much-needed shade. The trail also cruises through some volcanic outcroppings and provides views of a snippet of Donner Lake, as well as the rock massive that the poor Donner Party tried to figure out how to get over.

The view from near the Drifter Hut with Donner Lake in the distance.  Showers Lake.

Eventually, the trail reaches the ridgetop, where the Drifter Hut sits. Here enjoy views to the northwest of Castle Peak and Frog Lake Cliffs, as well as a full Sierra panorama to the south.

With just 2 miles to go, press on. The first half is a mostly level traverse to the south through the brush near the top of the ridge. The views are sublime, and hopefully the breeze on this exposed ridge will cool you down since there is no shade. The trail then hangs a left and heads east as the DLRT becomes the Glacier Way Access Trail. This wide, level trail is hot and mostly viewless, not exactly exciting, but I suppose nothing is when there is no shade, your feet are burning and it feels like it is 190 degrees. I’ve been told this section is quite popular, however, in the cooler evening hours as a quick sunset stroll for Tahoe Donner folks.

The Donner Lake Rim Trail is being constructed by the Truckee Donner Land Trust, which has also acquired much of the land over which the trail passes.

A route has been flagged for the unfinished portion north of I-80 from Glacier Way to Northwoods Boulevard and is awaiting permit approval to start construction. On the south side of Interstate 80, the Land Trust is working on the alignment for the trail and then will need permitting to build a substantial section of trail along Schallenberger Ridge. It will be a few more years before this section is constructed.

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