Snowshoe to sweeping Donner Summit vistas

Donner Lake from near the summit of Donner Peak. | Mike White

Armed with a daily or annual permit, winter enthusiasts can park a vehicle at the Donner Summit Sno-Park and choose from a bevy of options for potential destinations near the Sierra crest. Within striking distance are peaks to climb, frozen lakes to see, sweeping vistas to enjoy and quiet forests in which to soothe your soul. While some areas are quite popular, plenty of places still exist for escaping the crowds and enjoying the peace and serenity of winter’s hush, despite the usual hubbub at the area’s alpine resorts nearby.

Within striking distance are peaks to climb, frozen lakes to see, sweeping vistas to enjoy and quiet forests in which to soothe your soul.

Well-known objectives to the north of Interstate 80, such as Castle Valley or Peter Grubb Hut, usually allow beginning snowshoers to follow the tracks of previous parties. A much more challenging route heads to Castle Pass and then steeply up toward the summit of Castle Peak. Without the aid of a marked or tracked trail, the less visited terrain to the south lures advanced recreationists able to navigate their own way through the back country. In either direction, the visual rewards can be absolutely stunning.

For those who don’t mind the relative crowds on the north side of I-80, fellow snowshoers or skiers and their gear can be dropped at the north side of the freeway exit; the driver continues another 0.4 mile to a parking spot at the Sno-Park and then hoofs it back to meet his or her companions. Heading along the popular route on the snow-covered Castle Valley Road is usually a straightforward affair by following the tracks of predecessors — unless your group is the first to arrive after a recent storm. Almost immediately, decisions about where to go present themselves.

Castle Peak cloaked in winter’s mantle. | Mike White

After a short distance, most fellow travelers can be left behind by angling away from the road and climbing a stiff slope to the top of Peak 7605 on Andesite Peak’s southeast ridge. By continuing along the gently rising, mostly open crest northwest for 1 mile, the view-packed, 8,219-foot summit is easily gained.

Alternately, continuing along the road leads to access points into Castle Valley or farther ahead to Castle Pass nestled between Andesite and Castle peaks. The difficult route from the pass to the top of aptly named Castle Peak (9,103 feet) follows the west ridge, while another three-quarters-mile of much gentler travel to the north leads instead to Round Valley and Peter Grubb Hut.

South of the Sno-Park, intermediate and advanced snowshoers and cross-country skiers can create a 3.25-mile loop trip that offers glimpses of three of the area’s usually frozen lakes and some beautiful vistas from atop Boreal Ridge. Navigating the terrain, especially through the forested stretch to Azalea and Flora Lakes, can be a bit challenging at times — be prepared with map, compass, GPS unit and the requisite knowledge of how to use them. From the edge of the Sno-Park, head east into the trees for about one-quarter-mile, roughly paralleling the freeway to a clearing. From there, veer southeast and travel about a half mile to the vicinity of Azalea Lake, nestled into a basin bordered by rock walls and steep hillsides.

Wind-battered and snow-plastered trees on top of Andesite Peak highlight a stunning view. | Mike White

For a shorter trip, simply reversing your tracks from here back to the Sno-Park is a fine option. Beyond Azalea Lake, the loop route continues southeast by threading a narrow cleft shortly to Flora Lake. Then, travel south over a rise, pass below some transmission lines and proceed to the largest of the three lakes, expansive Lake Angela. The open terrain around the lake allows for good views to the south of the Donner Pass area. From the northeast tip of Lake Angela, head up a gully to the crest of Boreal Ridge, aiming for a point directly west of the easternmost high point, which will allow you to avoid the ski-area slopes on the north side. From the top, a marvelous view unfolds of the Sierra Crest and the surrounding terrain. Drop off the ridge into thicker forest, eventually meeting your original route from the Sno-Park. From there, turn west and follow your tracks back to the car.

Eastbound travelers have several options for a post-trip meal or a warm drink at establishments in Truckee.

How to get there

Drive Interstate 80 just west of Donner Summit and take Exit 176 (Castle Peak and Boreal Ridge Road). Continue on the frontage road (Bunny Hill Drive) on the south side of the freeway for 0.3 mile to the Donner Summit Sno-Park.

Be prepared

  • Sno-Park permits are available online and at local locations. | parks.ca.gov, (916) 324-4442
  • If you’re tantalized by the idea of spending a night in the back country at Peter Grubb Hut, reservations can be made with the Sierra Club. | com
  • Avoid traveling across lakes unless absolutely certain they are well frozen.
  • Avalanche danger is usually minimal in this mostly treed area, but some areas near the peaks may have moderate risk. Recreationists should consult daily reports. | sierraavalanchecenter.org