Donner Peak and neighboring Mount Judah are perhaps most popular as off-piste ski and snowboard destinations in the North Tahoe area offering a wide variety of steeps, chutes, cliffs and open bowls. Located about 8 miles west of Truckee, CA, their close proximity to the year-round Old Donner Summit Road has no doubt led to popularity as backcountry settings for numerous ski and snowboard films. In addition to the popular West Slope (see below), runs include the east facing Lake Run and the north facing Heart, Shoulder, and Thumb routes. In the winter, if you're lucky, you'll find snowboarders building jumps off the railroad snowsheds above the Alpine Skills International (ASI) Lodge to do backflips and even the occasional double backflip. In addition to blissful snow descents, Donner Peak is a popular destination for snowshoers, rock climbers, and hikers. Rock climbers typically come to climb the Snowshed Wall at the base of Donner's Northwest Ridge offering single pitch trad and sport routes from 5.6 to 5.13c most of which are less than 80' and can be top-roped. During the summer months, it is possible to mountain bike this peak. Donner Peak also offers limited ice climbing, the best of which being the Norwand, a contrived 4 pitch WI2-3 route that typically forms in February and March. From the summit you are treated to gorgeous views of Donner Pass, Sugar Bowl, Donner Summit, and Donner Lake.
The easiest way to the top is via the West (aka Northwest) Slope, reaching the summit in 2.5 miles of class 1 trail during the summer and an easy snowshoe/ski during the winter from the ASI Lodge (see the Getting There section). This is also the most popular route for ski and snowboard descents. From the ASI Lodge (7098'), take the Overland Emigrant Trail / PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) SSW. In about 0.5 miles, turn left at a junction signed "Mt. Judah Loop Trail" after which you will run into several use trails. Take a left when you run into the Emigrant Wagon Trail (dirt road) before running into the trail again. Hike up to the saddle between Donner and Mount Judah (to the southwest) before heading northeast to Donner Peak's summit. Going up from the saddle will keep the difficulty at class 1, however, if you go north to the west side of the summit block, you'll run into 5th class rock interspersed with class 3 options to reach the summit.
If you desire a little extra assistance in reaching the summit, most days you can get a one run lift ticket to the top of Mount Judah at the special ticket window of Sugar Bowl for $10. From the top of the lift, head to your left up to the top of a small summit. From there, ride down the the saddle and then hike up to the top of Donner Peak. (Ref: labang)
For ski and snowboard descents, the typical "lake run" goes down to your right from the summit to the train tunnel. Walk through the train tunnel (it is extremely dark and icey) for about 5 minutes. You will come up to an open doorway on your left where you should leave the tunnel and snowboard down to Donner Lake where hopefully you have left your car. It's a very fun ride! Beware though, there is often avalanche danger and few people in the area are prepared for it. (Ref: labang)
As of March 1, 2003 there is a summit register on this peak, but it is in really sad shape. It is contained in a rusty, dented, metal tin and the pages inside were all wet. The tin is located just beneath the west side of the rock with the Donner Peak summit sign.
MAPS: Use the "Norden" USGS quad or just use TopoZone.com ;-)
The Donner Party
Donner Peak, Donner Summit, and Donner Lake are all named after the Donner Party who traveled west using the California Overland Trail in 1846. Led by George Donner, they left Illinois for California in April and by the time they reached Missouri their group had reached 87 people. Through a series of mishaps, which included taking an ill-advised "short-cut" across the Great Salt Lake Desert, they ended up behind schedule and trapped near Truckee Pass in November. They had food for a month and weren't initially worried but snow fell for weeks reaching depths of over 20 feet, the most snow recorded in 100 years. Three rescue parties were organized (mid-Feb, March, and mid-April). By the second and third rescue trips, there was so little food that people had resorted to cannibalism with reports of "half-crazed people living in absolute filth, with naked, half-eaten bodies strewn about the cabins" they had built. By the last rescue trip, there was only 1 survivor, Lewis Keseberg. George Donner's body was found but there was no sign of his wife Tasmen Donner. Keseberg admited to eating the flesh of the dead but spent the rest of his life denying allegations that he killed Tasmen for "fresh meat." In the end 40 people survived and 47 died. Donner Memorial State Park, at the eastern end of Donner Lake, has been created to remember this gruesome event in America's westward settlement.
WEST SLOPE (SUMMER): Take I-80 to the Soda Springs exist, just over 10 miles west of Truckee and the junction with CA-SR 89. Drive 3.9 miles west on Old Donner Summit Road passing a number of ski resorts to the ASI Lodge. Drive through the ASI parking lot south to the Pacific Crest Trailhead lot.
WEST SLOPE (WINTER): A popular meeting place is the ASI Lodge located on Old Donner Summit Road. To get here, take I-80 to the Soda Springs exit, just over 10 miles west of Truckee and the junction with CA-SR 89. Then drive 3.9 miles west on Old Donner Summit Road passing a number of ski resorts before arriving at the ASI Lodge on your right. The ASI Lodge parking lot holds perhaps 20 cars and they charge $5 for parking (or they will have you towed). You'll need to have a parking permit displayed on your windshield which you can get at the ASI Lodge. If you don't want to do that, you can also park at any of the nearby ski resorts (Donner Ski Ranch, etc.) or at the numerous pull outs on the road. Be careful parking on the side of the road because people have been towed, especially during the winter when the roads may need to be plowed.
NORTH FACE: Snowshed Wall, the Norwand, and north side ski routes, can be accessed at a small turn out just below the Donner Summit Bridge at 6800'. From the ASI Lodge, take Old Donner Summit Road 0.4 miles east over the bridge passing the view point to the left just after the bridge and park at the turnout on the south side of the road just in front of Snowshed Wall. The area here holds about 4-6 cars (at least during the winter day I was there).
When To Climb and Ski
Year-round. The Norwand typically forms in February and March while skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and rock climbing follow general weather and temperature conditions.
Since this peak is right by the road, camping generally not necessary, however, it is located in the Tahoe National Forest. Dispersed camping is generally permitted, however, you may want to check with the National Forest. Here are some USFS links:
Check the following resources for the latesting conditions for Donner Peak:
- Weather: NOAA National Weather Service: Reno, NV
- Weather: Weather.com: Truckee, CA
- Avalanche: USFS Central Sierra Avalanche Bulletin
- USFS Truckee Ranger Station
10342 Highway 89 North
Truckee, CA 96161
- CSAC Avalanche Incident Report
February 11, 1998 snowboarder fatality.
- AWOL's History of the Lake Tahoe Basin
History of the Tahoe Basin from the Washo and Paiute tribes of Nevada thousands of years ago to the 1990s. Includes a section on the Donner Party.