Cross-country skiing at Tahoe Donner XC to Drifter Hut

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Recently I went cross-country skiing at the Tahoe Donner cross-country (TDXC) ski area in Truckee, California, for the first time in three years. Usually I get out at least a few times per season, but the last few years have been very difficult due to the ongoing drought. In fact, in the 2014-15 season TDXC barely was able to open for only a few days due to nonexistent snow. This season the snow seems quite plentiful, though I don’t know that the amounts are appreciably above average: we just haven’t enjoyed even an average year recently.

I often tend to climb up for views when the weather is clear, as it was this day. At Tahoe Donner that often means going up Hawk’s Peak, which I’ve done many times via showshoe or by hiking. This time I decided to try my luck with a different destination, one I hadn’t reached previously over snow: a warming hut called Drifter Hut. At an elevation of 7635 feet, it is only about 100 feet lower than Hawk’s Peak.

I should note that the higher trails immediately around the top of Hawk’s Peak were closed due to snow conditions. A few days earlier at least a foot of new snow had fallen after some rain, and the snow on steep terrain was considered unstable. The upper trails would be groomed and opened only after the conditions were safe.

I started at the brand new Alder Creek Adventure Center, which opened a couple of months ago and replaces the old cross-country ski center. It’s located at the orange dot on the GPS track.

GPS track

GPS track

There are two main areas at the cross-country ski area: the Euer Valley, which is at a lower elevation than the Adventure Center, and the area around Hawk’s Peak, which rises up to 1100 feet above the Adventure Center. To get to Drifter Hut you first climb about half the elevation to Hawk’s Peak, then circle around it on Crazy Horse trail, climbing gradually to a ridge that leads to Drifter Hut. The climb is not quite monotonic, but I thought the grade was quite reasonable: in spite of not having skied in three years, I found that I was able to climb mostly in the groomed tracks.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

I followed Rough Rider to Intersection 5, then Big Dipper to Intersection 6 (trails and intersections are marked on the trail map). From Big Dipper I had a nice view roughly northeast toward some distant hills. The snow conditions were nearly perfect, and it seemed like I was the first skier of the day in the tracks.

photo of ski trail with a nice view

Ski trail with a nice view

A short distance farther along there was a break in the trees that afforded a view across part of Tahoe Donner with Prosser Hill at the right.

photo of Tahoe Donner and Prosser Hill

Tahoe Donner and Prosser Hill

Mt Rose’s familiar and distinctive profile was visible on the skyline, almost 20 miles away due east. At 10,709 feet elevation, Mt Rose is the highest peak in the north Lake Tahoe area and the third highest in the Lake Tahoe region.

photo of Mt Rose vista

Mt Rose vista

After climbing Big Dipper I continued up Boot Hill to Intersection 10, shortly after which I reached Crazy Horse, which is a big loop. I went to the left, continuing uphill. After 1½ miles on Crazy Horse I reached Intersection 11. As I paused at the intersection I heard a woodpecker, and then shortly I saw it feeding on insects on a big tree next to the trail. I could clearly see the head, which told me it was a white-headed woodpecker (Dendrocopos albolarvatus), which is relatively common in the area during the winter.

photo of white-headed woodpecker

White-headed woodpecker

At Intersection 11 I left Crazy Horse to head up Drifter. The Drifter trail is rated black diamond, so I really wasn’t sure how much farther I’d be able to go. I just kept climbing, stepping out of the tracks to continue herringbone-style when needed. After barely half a mile on Drifter I reached one final intersection with a trail called Far Side. This trail had not been groomed so, even though there was supposed to be a nice view from the far end, I didn’t even consider the possibility of going out that way. Instead I continued to Drifter Hut, which was only 0.1 mile or so further.

I have previously hiked to Drifter Hut from the Glacier Way trailhead via Donner Ridge, but this was the first time I skied there. From the area around the hut there is a spectacular view of Castle Peak, near Donner Summit on I-80, here viewed across Negro Canyon.

photo of Castle Peak viewed from Drifter Hut

Castle Peak viewed from Drifter Hut

There is an equally spectacular view of the Pacific Crest skyline south of Donner Summit, including Tinker Knob, Anderson Peak, and Mt Lincoln; Donner Peak is out of view to the right. It is amazing and humbling to contemplate the seasonal changes that occur in this beautiful high country: snow-covered peaks in the winter, and wonderful hiking in the summer.

photo of Pacific Crest skyline viewed from Drifter Hut

Pacific Crest skyline viewed from Drifter Hut

After enjoying the views and a quick break I started downhill. Not far from the top of Drifter trail I noticed some heavy snow clumps in nearby trees. This is a great example of what I call fairy trees, with snow nicely contrasting with the evergreen boughs. It was so peaceful being out on the trail with pristine snow surrounding me on the hillsides.

photo of beautiful fairy trees along Drifter trail

Beautiful fairy trees along Drifter trail

After passing the dip and subsequent 100-foot climb on the way down Crazy Horse I paused again to take note of a nice view eastward toward the northern part of the Carson Range. I think the two peaks on the skyline are Ladybug Peak and Verdi Peak, both of which I have summited while hiking. The clouds overhead were exceptionally pretty: I think they are lenticular clouds.

photo of lenticular clouds over peaks of the northern Carson Range

Lenticular clouds over peaks of the northern Carson Range

I must confess that I’m not a fearless downhill cross-country skier: one of my main goals is simply to remain upright. So I negotiated all of the steeper downhill sections in what I refer to as a “death wedge:” basically a pronounced snowplow position without very much speed. By the time I reached the bottom of the hill I had received quite a workout involving certain leg and foot muscles! However, the outing was a great way to enjoy perfect snow conditions. I can hardly wait to get back out on the trails.

This entry was posted in North Tahoe, snowshoe hikes and cross-country skiing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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