Clair Tappaan Lodge | Starting point for Sierra adventures

Entrance to the Clair Tappaan Lodge. | Courtesy Clair Tappaan Lodge

The Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge provides family-style rustic accommodations on old U.S. Highway 40 near the top of Donner Pass. Today, it is a gathering place for those seeking to escape to the recreational winter and summer playground that is the Sierra Nevada. Folks back in the 1930s had the same idea. The lodge was the brainchild of an enterprising group of skiers from the Bay Area who decided they needed an inexpensive place to stay in the Sierra.

Clair Tappaan Lodge sits high above Highway 40 in an opening of a thick forest of firs.

One of the original skiers involved in the effort was Milton Hildebrand, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, and helped the build the lodge when he was 16. In 1935 he wrote: “After a great weekend of skiing, the skiers asked themselves where to spend the night on future trips. The obvious answer was a ski-lodge, owned and operated by the Sierra Club.”


Architect Walter Ratcliff was in this ski party; he had already designed another ski lodge in the area so he assumed the task of designing this one. Horace Breed, the leaseholder of the property, transferred it to the Sierra Club, which started collecting money from members. Different branches of the club donated items such as fireplaces and hoods, stoves and plumbing fixtures. A fellow with the perfect Western name, Lewis Clark, rounded up workers who built the lodge in time for the 1934-1935 winter season.

Today, Clair Tappaan Lodge sits high above Highway 40 in an opening of a thick forest of firs. In the winter it is buried deep in snow and in the spring, the melting snow fills the adjoining creek that plunges down toward Lake Van Norden. The sound of rushing water is joined by wind through the trees, and frequently, trains emerging or entering the tunnel under Mount Judah at the top of the Sierra crest.

Living room inside the lodge. | Courtesy Clair Tappaan Lodge

The lodge has a large dining area and kitchen, living room with rock fireplace and plenty of comfy couches, several recreational rooms and a variety of sleeping accommodations. Sleep happens in dorm rooms and cubicles, which are rows of tiny rooms with two bunk beds. Restrooms are communal as are the eating arrangements with breakfast, lunch and dinner included and everyone pitching in to help with a quick chore every day. Those old wood floors creak in the middle of the night as folks make their way gingerly to the restroom, so ear plugs are recommended if you are a light sleeper.

Things to do

Hiking | The Pacific Crest Trail crosses Highway 40 at Donner Pass, about 1 mile from the lodge. Hikers can head south on the 6-mile Mount Judah Loop Trail full of wildflowers into mid-July. Or meander north through the popular climbing walls of Donner Summit 4 miles to a tunnel under Interstate 80.

Further exploration north of I-80 leads to Frog Lake Cliff, Castle Peak, Coon Canyon, Basin Peak, Paradise Lake and the Sierra Club’s Peter Grubb Hut. Trailheads to Lola Montez Lake and Loch Leven Lakes are within a 15-minute drive. Also worth exploring are the old railroad tunnels on Donner Summit. You can just take a hike right out the back door of the lodge to wind through a deep forest above a bubbling creek.

Mountain biking | Lola Montez Lake is a stop-off point along the challenging Hole in the Ground Trail that begins near Boreal Ski Area. The Donner Lake Rim Trail is also accessed on Donner Summit. It travels past Summit Lake into Johnson Canyon and then climbs up to the Drifter Hut at the top of the winter home of Tahoe Donner Cross Country.

Road biking | Old Highway 40 is one of the area’s most iconic road rides. Starting at Donner Lake the 40-mile route to Cisco Grove and back is both beautiful and challenging; much of the road is lightly traveled. It includes a 3-mile climb up to Donner Pass from the lake with unbeatable views of Donner Lake, Mount Rose and a gentle descent along the Yuba River. Be aware of the deceivingly difficult, long climb back to Donner Pass from Cisco Grove.

Builders of the Future fundraiser
July 6-8 | Featuring Milton Hildebrand

After all that summer exercise, some lake time might be in order. Donner Lake is only 5 miles away where swimming, kayaking and other boating activities abound. Find your own public pier and dive in.|