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Snowshoeing into Truckee and Tahoe’s winter wonderland.
As William Eddy strapped on his snowshoes and gazed across the frozen shores of Donner Lake, it’s doubtful he was thinking of burning a few calories or getting in some scenery suitable for his social media pages. It was December 16, 1846 and, in snowshoes crudely assembled from rawhide and wagon oxbows, Eddy’s day of adventure was more a matter of life and death than fun and sun. He was part of the “Forlorn Hope” group, seventeen of the Donner Party’s strongest survivors with their sights set on cresting the western summit and getting word of their plight to Sacramento.
Today, with a view little changed since the days of the ill-fated Donner expedition, people step up to Donner’s shores and embark on a similar path, with objectives far different than William Eddy’s. They’re here for pleasure. They’re here for family fun. They’re here in fleece and Gore-Tex and on shoes made of aluminum, not cow parts.
This year, Mother Nature has blessed winter enthusiasts with an abundance of snow. That’s putting it mildly. It’s prime time for snowshoeing and is likely to remain that way for quite some time. While Martis Camp residents may find their snowshoe fix no further away than their front doors, we’d like to present some other options that go further afield.
This one is — for good reason — a slam dunk. Parking is as easy as it gets, terrain is pretty much level, and views along the creek and shoreline are stunning. It might even be a great time and place to get a head start on capturing photos for your holiday greeting card. The easiest access is to park in the lot at Donner Memorial State Park, just a mile or so west of Truckee. Pay the $5 parking fee, maybe tour the museum, strap on your snowshoes and then head off in whatever direction grabs your fancy. You’ll find a gentle creek book-ended by snow banks, quiet forests, and a shoreline that faces the granite-clad Sierra crest and the dazzling lake at its feet.
A few miles beyond the Donner Memorial State Park and at the western edge of the lake, the Donner Pass Road begins its ascent to the summit from which you’ll have some fine choices for snowshoeing. Park at the summit and you can head south to the Donner Tunnels, a fascinatingly eerie journey into tunnels carved into the mountains above Donner Lake. Occasional windows provide amazing views and you’re likely to see a world-class display of oversized icicles. This side of the road also serves up a more challenging hike to Mount Judah with rewarding vistas in all directions. On the north side of the road, follow the Pacific Crest Trail or break your own trail to climb the granite fields overlooking Donner Lake. Picnics and cameras strongly advised.
In keeping with the Donner theme, we’ll head a few miles north of Truckee on Highway 89 to Alder Creek, where George Donner (family patriarch and captain of the party) suffered a serious wound and established a camp. Keep in mind that his wife, Tamsen, made frequent journeys here from her daughters at Donner Lake to check in on him until he eventually passed away. There’s a trail system you can follow that serves as both a peaceful outing as well as a colorful history lesson.
Glacier Way Trailhead
If a nearby slopes with steady grades and stunning views of Donner suits your plans, then the Glacier Way Trailhead may be just the ticket. The trails here slowly inch upward, eventually revealing Donner Lake off your left shoulder, Castle Peak straight ahead, and the Sierra Crest at all points of the compass. Take the trek that brings you to the top of Negro Canyon and you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of Donner Lake.
When packing up your picnic for a snowshoe across Sheep Flats to this ridgeline, you may want to pack something alongside your energy bars, water and slices of fruit. Toss in a baggie full of birdseed. If all goes well, it may well be the most enriching ingredient in your bag. You see, it’s called Chickadee Ridge for a very good reason: chickadees. Snowshoers make the trek here to dine with these little sparks of life. The journey itself is gorgeous enough as it sits in a high meadow overlooking Lake Tahoe to the south and Mt. Rose to the north. But the chance to top it off by sharing a handful of seed makes the trek even more memorable.