Hole in the Ground Trail

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Hole in the Ground Trail (HIGT on some signs) is a popular mountain biking trail near Donner Summit. This was a group hike on the same trail. On a weekday in late October, we only encountered two solo mountain bikers; on a midsummer weekend the trail would be full of bikers. We did the hike as a point-to-point hike with a car shuttle. The trail is about 11.7 miles; the hike was 1 mile longer since we took two side trips to visit nearby lakes.

After climbing to a ridge near Andesite Peak with terrific views of Castle Peak, the trail drops down and makes a big loop mostly through pretty forest, with a few stream crossings. Most of the last 3 miles are on dirt and gravel roads. It was easy to see why the trail is so popular with mountain bikers, with twists and turns around rocks and trees and, in many places, rolling elevation changes.

The GPS track shows an overview of the route; the orange dot indicates the starting point, reached via a fire road from the Boreal Ridge exit from I-80 near Donner Summit. The trail is within the Tahoe National Forest. The trail’s name apparently refers to a tiny lake that the trail passes close to; however, the lake is not visible from the trail and it is not clear that any trail goes to the lake.

GPS track

GPS track

The afternoon before the hike there was fog and light rain over Donner Summit. At higher elevations there was a dusting of snow, I think the first of the season. The overnight temperatures were low enough that we encountered quite a few shallow, iced-over puddles on the trail, primarily above 7000 feet elevation. This is an example – I especially liked the oval symmetry of the cracks.

photo of ice puddle on Hole in the Ground Trail

Ice puddle on Hole in the Ground Trail

The most significant climb of the hike was right at the beginning, followed by a descent to the initial elevation. After about 6 miles there was a descent of around 1200 feet, followed by a 200-foot climb to the Soda Springs trailhead.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The initial climb was to the ridge where Andesite Peak is located; there is a spur trail (which we skipped) to the top. As we climbed, the views of the Castle Peak area across Castle Valley got better and better. Near the ridge there were a couple of clear areas where the entire ridge from Castle Peak to Basin Peak could be seen, with the upper areas showing off a dusting of snow.

picture of Castle Peak viewed from Andesite Ridge

Castle Peak viewed from Andesite Ridge

Looking more to the east, fog could be seen lifting from the Martis Valley and other low-elevation areas around Truckee and Donner Lake.

image of fog over the Truckee area

Fog over the Truckee area

As we walked along the top of Andesite Ridge, the wind was fairly strong. One member of the group estimated that the gusts were above 50 mph. It was actually a bit challenging to make headway and stay reasonably centered on the trail. A couple of times I almost thought I could blow off the trail, especially if I were silly enough to open my jacket to make a small sail!

The ridge-top descends as it falls away from Andesite Peak. By the time we were 1.5 miles from the start of the hike, the trail was in the forest and the wind subsided – or was high above our heads in the tree-tops. There were many areas in this section of trail where there were honeycombed trail pavers wherever the slope was a bit steeper and around the curves of switchbacks. The switchback shown in the picture was quite a bit more steeply banked than we hikers needed!

photo of honeycombed trail pavers line a steeply banked curve

Honeycombed trail pavers line a steeply banked curve

About 1.8 miles from the start the trail passes rather close to Castle Pass, where another trail leads to Castle Peak.

Most of Hole in the Ground Trail passes through pretty forest. In general the trees were so dense that the trail should be cool and shady, even on otherwise hot summer days.

picture of dense forest surrounding the trail

Dense forest surrounding the trail

About 3 miles from the start, at the dip in the elevation profile just above 7500 feet elevation, the trail crosses Castle Creek. Fortunately there were sufficient rocks, as well as a down tree trunk, to facilitate the crossing.

About 4.4 miles from the start and around 7750 feet elevation there is a side trail to Sand Lake. The lake is only about 0.3 miles from the main trail, so we hiked over to check it out. It is quite a pretty lake, with its calm surface reflecting the trees on the far side and blue sky overhead.

image of Sand Lake

Sand Lake

The long, downhill portion of the trail began 6.4 miles from the start of our hike. In this area there is a sign reminding mountain bikers about appropriate riding technique for the downhill sections: ride, don’t slide.

photo of riding technique for downhill sections

Riding technique for downhill sections

The trail passes by numerous large rocks: sometimes the trail just goes around the rock and other times the rock is a short distance from the trail. I thought this rock was especially interesting because it was practically a cube. It almost looked as though Mother Nature had sculpted it with a rock saw.

picture of nearly cubical rock near Hole in the Ground Trail

Nearly cubical rock near Hole in the Ground Trail

The first part of the descent drops about 700 feet in 2½ miles, so the grade is quite nice for hikers. In this section the trail passes by Sand Ridge. Later it goes next to a stream and crosses it. In this more humid area we passed a huge upside-down mushroom on the trail, and shortly thereafter a tree festooned with large fungus masses. My hiking poles give a sense of the scale.

image of large fungus on a tree trunk

Large fungus on a tree trunk

From 8.7 to 9.0 miles from the start the trail temporarily levels off. This is the area of closest approach to the tiny lake called Hole in Ground. My GPS mapping software places the lake about 0.15 miles away from the trail. We didn’t notice any side trails in the area.

The trail crests a small rise and the descent continues. At about 9.2 miles there is a signed side trail to Lower Lola Montez Lake, barely 0.1 mile from the main trail. It is a little bigger than Sand Lake and also very pretty. We had a long, relaxed lunch break on a rock promontory that extends slightly into the lake. This would be a great swim spot in warmer weather, and the dogs that accompanied us all had some play time in the water.

photo of Lower Lola Montez Lake

Lower Lola Montez Lake

There is an Upper Lola Montez Lake about a half mile northwest of the lower lake. There does not appear to be a trail connecting the lakes, though unimproved roads do access the upper lake.

Shortly after leaving Lower Lola Montez Lake the trail starts to follow an unimproved road, signed Lola Montez Trail, most of the remaining 3 miles to the trailhead. There are pockets of private property in the area, so it is important to pay attention to the signage to avoid trespassing. Along a section of trail that is farther from the area’s streams there were quite a few ferns that had dried up during the long dry summer season. Clearly, at some times of year there is adequate moisture to support the fern ecosystem.

The trail bottoms out just below 6500 feet elevation, crossing Lower Castle Creek before climbing about 200 feet to the trailhead.  Just at the creek crossing we happened to encounter a local resident in a pickup truck pulling a trailer that was holding a snowmobile. It appeared that he was getting ready for the upcoming snow season.

picture of snowmobile arriving for the snow season

Snowmobile arriving for the snow season

After the creek crossing the road climbs 200 feet in 1 mile or so. The last 0.2 mile was on a trail rather than on the dirt and gravel road. At the trailhead on Sherrit Lane we arrived at the cars that had been stashed prior to the hike.

This is a pleasant hike, particularly for a day when there are few mountain bikers and no one is in anyone else’s way. It was interesting to me to finally experience a trail previously known only by reputation.

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