This hike was a very pleasant semi-loop – with extensions – around Donner Ridge, at the back (west) side of Tahoe Donner. I have explored parts of the area several times; this time I paid a little extra attention in order to complete the main loop without any wrong turns. After that I did some more exploration! The route features, at one point or another, nice views in all directions, including hills and peaks near and far and, of course, Donner Lake.
For simplicity, the description that follows refers to numbered trail markers on the Tahoe Donner Association Trail Map. I used the trailhead TM24 on Glacier Way, near the label “Glacier” on the GPS track map, at about 7400 feet elevation.
Glacier Way is a great starting point to go up to Donner Ridge, since the top of the ridge is only 400 feet higher than the trailhead and there are a number of short excursions above 7200 feet.
After 0.4 mile I turned right at TM20, headed past TM19A toward TM19 across Sunrise Bowl. In this section there are nice views to the north and northeast across Tahoe Donner.
Throughout the hike I came across thistles. By seeing blossoms in various stages of the life cycle, it was interesting to see how they change from purple to lighter-tinged white puffs.
At the TM19 junction, in a gully at a crossing of Alder Creek, I continued straight for a very short distance to TM18A and turned left. TM18A has separate signage indicating that it is Intersection 11 for the cross-country ski area. From here the trail climbs, and after about 0.3 miles leaves the Tahoe Donner property, so the junctions are not as well marked. After another 0.2 mile and 100 feet of climbing, there is a somewhat complex junction. From here I could see what turned out to be Drifter Hut, perhaps 100 yards away, just at the edge of the Tahoe Donner property, and at the northwest end of Donner Ridge. I walked over to take a look. There was a wonderful view down the side of the ridge, with the Donner Lake Rim Trail making its way up from Negro Canyon.
From the so-called complex junction there were a couple of options to go southeast along Donner Ridge: the actual Donner Ridge Loop Trail and the Donner Lake Rim Trail. The latter has signage, so I took the other option, more to the left and uphill. The Donner Ridge Loop Trail climbs to about 7800 feet, where it re-enters Tahoe Donner. From the top of the ridge there are beautiful views in many directions, including Castle Peak, Northstar, and south toward the peaks that line the Pacific Crest Trail south of Donner Pass. This picture to the south was taken a bit later, as the trail descended from the ridge.
About 0.7 mile after re-entering Tahoe Donner I reached TM21 and took a short (0.2 mile) detour to TM22, where there is a picnic table from which to enjoy views to the west (see lower left of GPS track). From here I had a great view across Negro Canyon to Castle Peak and Sierra skyline.
Returning toward the trailhead, I would close the Donner Ridge Loop at TM 20. Just before that, however, another trail departs from TM20A, generally down the hill toward I-80 and Donner Lake. I went that way, hoping for lake views. It turns out that there is an extra trail, not marked on my map, at an unsigned junction. Continuing straight, about 0.5 mile from TM20A I came upon a very impressive cairn, nearly as tall as my hiking poles.
It turns out that this trail basically dead-ends here, but there is a wonderful view of Donner Lake around a rock formation. So the view was even more impressive than the cairn!
Since the trail appeared to be a dead-end, I returned to TM20A and continued back toward the trailhead past TM20 (and completing the Donner Ridge Loop). Barely 0.1 mile past that is another junction, TM23, with a trail to the right and down the hillside. I started down this trail with the intention of figuring out a couple of smaller trail loops on this hillside overlooking I-80. Just after passing TM23A there is a Tee junction at TM25, where I turned right (lower right on GPS track). About 0.25 mile later there is a bench marking a Donner Lake Overlook – this is actually what I was looking for when I found the cairn and its view. The view from the official overlook is still impressive, even with power lines in the foreground. A charred tree is a reminder of a forest fire in this area several years ago. Northstar’s ski runs are visible behind Donner Lake.
I knew the trail should connect up with the trail to the cairn, so I followed it far enough to convince myself that it would, indeed, arrive at the unsigned junction. After I was convinced, I turned around to return to the trailhead via TM25. At TM23A, mentioned above, instead of going back to TM 23 I went right at a Y junction to TM24A, just a short distance from the trailhead at TM24. These trails are all in the lower right of my GPS track.
Throughout the hike I was serenaded by mountain chickadees. Usually they don’t sit still long enough to get them in my viewfinder for a close-up photo, but one individual cooperated nicely. There are several species of chickadees, and the white eyebrow stripe definitively denotes a mountain chickadee.
This was a very enjoyable moderate hike, with beautiful views. I feel fortunate that it is virtually in my backyard and I can return often.