Coldstream Canyon: A Truckee playground

Looking down on the meadow and ponds from the fire road above. | Priya Hutner

The intermittent cloud cover provided a little break from the hot sun on a recent hike into Coldstream Canyon. With little rain to speak of, the trails were dusty. The area offers a year-round playground for outdoor activities with trails for biking and hiking during the spring, summer and fall and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter months. It is located at the west end of Truckee, at the intersection of Donner Pass Road and Interstate 80’s Exit 184, the site of the new Coldstream Road roundabout.

I set out on a hike with Elan Parti to explore the wetland and habitat restoration projects being spearheaded by Foriver: Truckee River Watershed Council and California State Parks. As we approached the trail, I noticed a bag of dog poop, a plastic fork and knife and a plastic bag with trash at the trailhead. I grumbled to Parti about trash.

Years of logging, road construction, the railroad and gravel mining have impacted the area and endangered the ecosystem. California State Parks began the habitat restoration more than a decade ago. Foriver became involved in 2018.

Parti and I hiked the trail that runs along Coldstream Creek. The watershed drains into Cold Creek, where it flows into Donner Creek and eventually empties into Truckee River. The trail gently climbs uphill and is a bit rocky. Hiking along the creek is just one of the many magical features of this area. The woods provide shade as the sun comes out. The railroad tracks run along the ridge on the north side of the creek. As a train approaches, you can hear it coming from miles away. About half a mile farther, a smaller trail drops down by an immense boulder. The trail hugs the creek.

Wonderland of wildlife

Eventually, Parti and I pop out where the trail reconnects with a fire road. The peaks of the Sierra Crest loom in the background. We came on the first of two ponds. Frogs croak in the spring and ducks and geese find refuge in the summer. I looked out at a large granite boulder that rests in the middle of the pond. A white pelican, a blue heron and two geese sunned themselves. The surrounding meadow offered shades of gold and green grasses. The second pond is larger. The heron swooped over it, looking for fish. We walked the 3.5-mile loop that circumnavigates the ponds, which can also be easily biked.

Frogs croak in the spring and ducks and geese find refuge in the summer. I looked out at a large granite boulder that rests in the middle of the pond. A white pelican, a blue heron and two geese sunned themselves. The surrounding meadow offered shades of gold and green grasses

The two Coldstream ponds and surrounding meadows are in the process of undergoing a significant wildlife restoration. The man-made ponds were created during gravel mining in the 1960s. The restoration project is transforming these areas into new wetlands, creating habitats for wildlife and vegetation.

“We’ve been working up in the canyon for over 15 years. We worked on those former mining ponds,” said Cyndie Walck, engineering geologist and head of the watershed program for California State Parks.

“It’s been a great opportunity to increase and expand wetlands habitat in that area. I’m looking forward to some of the stream restoration that has been a pretty heavily degraded area,” says Eben Swain, Foriver’s program manager.

California State Parks and Foriver will focus the next stage of their restoration and enhancement project downstream of the railroad tunnel.

“The creek basically goes dry. It should have a lot of more riparian and willow wood in there, but it just doesn’t have the habitat for that right now,” said Walck, who added that the project on the channel will begin next year and take two years to complete.

There are numerous trails to explore by bike or foot in Coldstream Canyon. Hiking along the creek when the aspens change color is stunning. |

Explore Coldstream’s trails

Most popular Coldstream trails can be accessed through Donner Memorial State Park, which has a $10 parking fee. Additional parking can be found at the end of Coldstream Road. |

Coldstream Creek | 3.5-miles | easy
The trailhead is accessed at the end of Coldstream Road. Park at the gate and walk or ride in on the dirt road until you reach a second gate, which is locked. Take the trail along the creek and hike or bike around the Coldstream ponds on the fire road.

JP’s Trail | 3.6-miles | moderate-difficult
This trail can be accessed after the gate and up the hill on the right side of the fire road. The primary trail can be biked or hiked in both directions. The switchbacks uphill are more challenging. If hiking up the switchbacks, pay attention to riders coming down.

The trail spits out at the top. From there ride or hike along up to Schallenberger Ridge or take the trail along the railroad tracks that connect back to Coldstream Road. Most people opt to ride down the switchbacks, which is way more fun. The trail offers spectacular views of the canyon below, the Coldstream ponds and the mountains to the west.

Jackass Trail | 3.9-miles | moderate
Located on the south side of Coldstream Canyon, Jackass is a popular wooded, mountain-bike-only loop. It can be accessed one-quarter mile south of Truckee on Highway 89 by the mouse hole.

Schallenberger Ridge Trail | 6.6-miles | moderate-difficult
This trail can be hiked or biked. The ridge offers sweeping views of Coldstream Canyon and the surrounding area. It can be accessed off JP’s Trail. Head west at the top of the switchback for about one-half mile and catch the singletrack up to the ridge.

Coldstream to Tinker Knob | 9.8-miles | moderate-difficult
This is an out-and-back hike starting in Coldstream Canyon. Access the trail from Coldstream Road. There’s a sign to bear right to Tinker Knob and Lost Trail Lodge. Hike past Lost Trail Lodge to Tinker Knob and back down.