We were approaching the middle of a low-tide January winter when I pulled off Interstate 80, Exit 176 to the base of Castle Peak trailhead. The snow was low enough that I could drive up the short access road to park at the trailhead gate.
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In deeper snow conditions, it’s necessary to buy a Sno-Park pass and park on the other side of the interstate near Boreal Inn. Although it may be tempting to park at the highway exit, state troopers have been known to ticket there; so, the five-minute walk is worth the effort.
The Castle Peak wilderness has a way of casting its spell on wayfaring explorers.
We’d just received two wet storm cycles in the past week, which left a few inches of thick, icy crust all across the forest floor. Maybe not the best conditions for snowshoeing, but a few minutes into my hike it didn’t matter to me one bit. The Castle Peak wilderness has a way of casting its spell on wayfaring explorers, no matter what the conditions.
In spite of topping out at a mere 9,104 feet, Castle Peak feels like a much higher mountain. Perhaps it’s the formidable volcanic towers or its relative height compared to the surrounding peaks, but Castle is a beautiful and impressive objective for even the most seasoned of outdoorspeople.
As I worked my way along a well-trodden path enclosed by ice-encrusted firs, a crystal-clear creek trickled beneath the brittle snowpack and into the tranquil meadows below. A hawk swooped overhead into the forest in search of prey. We were alone: me and my 1-year-old daughter, Penelope Aoife.
After a couple steep switchbacks, 1.5 miles in, I crested Castle Pass at 7,938 feet, 700 feet above my starting point. At this point I had the choice of continuing north along the ridge toward Castle Peak or turning south toward Andesite Peak. Some weather appeared to be coming in and with Penny on my back I opted for the closer alternative.
If I’d decided to summit, which Penelope and I did during her first Tahoe summer, we’d have followed the ever-steepening ridge up to the summit plateau. The upper sections can be very icy and windswept in the winter so be sure your snowshoes have suitable spikes before venturing too far. The peak proper is the easternmost of the two towers and requires a 30-foot, fourth-class climb to reach the summit. It’s doable for most hikers in the summer, but certainly requires an additional reserve of intrepidness in the heart of winter.
Heading toward Andesite Peak, the ridge gently rose for a half mile until the final dome, which involved some steep snow technique to climb. From the top, the 8,219-foot views span Signal Peak to the east, the Pacific Crest to the south and Mount Rose to the east. Of course, Castle Peak loomed large to the north. I spotted four ski areas from my perch: Boreal, Sugar Bowl, Northstar and the backside of Squaw Valley. On a clear day from Castle Peak’s summit, one can see from the Coast Range to Lake Tahoe to Mount Lassen — a sizeable chunk of Northern California indeed.
After backtracking a few hundred feet to recover Penelope’s lost pacifier, we re-summited, munched on a of couple snacks and decided to make our way down to the trailhead by the direct back-country route. A minor snow squall blew through and it was time to get my baby off the mountain.
We descended through open snow fields and into the dense forest below. Although it’s easy to get pulled too far south toward the interstate, we stayed along the ridge, wandering by lost volcano plugs, untouched alpine streams and old-growth Douglas fir. We emerged into a virgin meadow of snow encircled by gigantic conifers that seemed to guard this place for its preciousness. I’ve never regretted leaving the path well-trodden; magic always awaits those willing to look for it.
Back at the trailhead, Penelope graciously gnawed a rice cake and I sipped my still-warm coffee from my Christmas thermos. Our three-hour, meandering, morning snowshoe had us in great spirits for the day ahead, the magic of the Castle lingering ever so sweetly in our dear little souls.