Fresh Tracks: Donner Pass to Squaw Valley on the Pacific Crest Trail

08/07/2014 12:00 AM

08/06/2014 8:41 PM

Tell me, is it so really wimpy, so utterly emasculating, to have a healthy trepidation about beginning a challenging trek at (gulp!) Donner Pass?

I mean, knowing its history and all.

My fears, of course, would prove unfounded. The 15-mile journey mostly along the Pacific Crest Trail to Squaw Valley is on a well-trod path for thru-hikers, distance runners and daytrippers alike. While most assuredly not easy – traversing steep ridgelines and plunging, granite-strewn switchbacks amid elevations reaching to nearly 9,000 feet – it is eminently doable and exceedingly beautiful, a trail not to be missed.

And summer is the perfect time to tackle the Sierra section of the PCT. The snow is mostly gone, though pockets still block the trail at higher reaches. The morning temperature is cool but hardly fleece weather, and afternoons warm but breezy. As long as you bring provisions – you know, water and a Clif Bar or two – you won’t be reduced to forms of sustenance made infamous by the Donner Party during that accursed winter of 1846.

It’s best to tackle this popular stretch of the PCT now, too, because, by this time next year, the trail may be overrun with Reese Witherspoon-seeking moviegoers inspired by the film version (to be released in December) of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, “Wild,” which chronicled her thru-hike, 2,663 miles (she actually did less, but who’s counting?), from the Mexican border to the Canadian border on the PCT.

Some may take a cursory look at this “Fresh Tracks” offering and think, Wait, doesn’t “crest” mean “high point,” and isn’t “Donner” just shorthand for “starvation?” and lose all appetite for adventure. Even someone as stout-hearted as Strayed had doubts, musing in her memoir, “The clamor of ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out.”

Of course, we all know how transcendent Strayed’s experience proved to be – or we will once the movie comes out.

I’m not guaranteeing anything similarly transformative on this trek. Then again, you’ll be covering 2,648 fewer miles than the author, so that means 2,648 fewer squirts of endorphins and serotonin released in your cerebellum. But I am promising you’ll be impressed by the views along the way: buoyed by the brilliant sight and whooshing sound of mules ears billowing in the gusts on the ridgeline; enraptured by the sweeping vistas in all directions; enveloped by the fir and hemlocks that, in an eye blink, give way to stark, lunar granite surfaces; and heartened to see others partaking in this secularly sacred pilgrimage that John Muir called “going home.”

And if that isn’t enough to get you out of the house, then I don’t know what.

There is effort involved, beyond the 3,000 feet of climbing and unstable footing along loose granite slabs with sheer drops below.

You must plan ahead. Unless you are a masochist and want to complete a 30-mile death march from Donner Pass to Squaw Valley and back, you’re going to need a car shuttle with a trail buddy or find some kind soul to drop you off at the Donner trailhead and pick you up at trail’s end at the Squaw Valley ski resort. Point-to-point treks are quite liberating, actually, because you know that every step you take leads that much closer to your goal, avoiding the psychic bummer of knowing that long switchback you just trotted down is waiting for you to ascend on the way back.

It’s important in summer to start early on any Tahoe trail. That’s especially true on this portion of the PCT, because there are long stretches where shade is just a rumor. I arrived at the Donner Pass trailhead at 8:30 a.m., a half hour after I planned because finding the trailhead is not as easy as the guidebooks make it seem. You exit Interstate 80 at the Soda Springs exit and continue on Donner Pass Road for 3.6 miles. Then there is a quick right and then left before a parking lot materializes either before or after the trailhead. Not the trailhead, actually; it’s the path leading to the trailhead. Look for the arrow.

Your reward for finding the trailhead is an immediate steep, rock-strewn set of switchbacks. Nothing like easing into it, eh? Take it slowly and watch your step, because there’s more of this to come. In less than a mile, though, the trail smooths out and the climbing gets more manageable. You can safely look around you and, already, the views are stunning. Look to your right, and you see Lake Mary below; to your left, in the distance, Donner Lake. Keep looking ahead on the trail and you see huckleberry oak shrubs lining the way and, beyond the scarring left by a Sugar Bowl ski area chairlift, mountain hemlocks and red firs.

A mile in, you already are tempted by side trails that will give you even better views but add mileage and effort to the task at hand. I chose to pass on the Mount Judah (8,243 feet) Loop Trail offshoot to the left as well as the faint side trail that leads to Mount Lincoln peak (8,383 feet). I felt it more prudent to reserve strength for the long haul to Squaw, congratulating myself on my conservative thinking when I shortly thereafter got to a shady saddle with a historical marker.

The plaque read: “Roller Pass,” bearing this quotation from one Nicholas Carriger, on Sept. 22, 1846: “We made a roller and fasened (sic) chains to gether (sic) and pulled the wagons up withe (sic) 12 yoke oxen on the top and the same at the bottom.” He, of course, was part of the ill-fated Donner Party, which thought they had it made after ascending a steep incline from Emigrant Canyon and reaching this pretty spot peering down on Donner Lake. Then the snows came.

Ward off dire thoughts of stranded pioneers and keep pushing on through the hemlocks on the eastern side of Mount Lincoln. Soon, the trees dwindle and you’re high on a ridge, where the wind picks up and you bear it by distracting yourself with killer views into ravines and distant vistas still scattered with snow.

Just when you think the ridge is devoid of life – including a glacial stretch where the trail is obscured by snow and you tramp through to pick it up 40 feet beyond – you take a few switchbacks and emerge upon a lush patch of mules ear, those squat plants with flapping green leaves sprouting bright yellow buds that seemingly can thrive in even the most volcanic of soil.

You won’t want to look down at this point, because the dropoffs are steep. Better to look up the trail to Anderson Peak, your next stop along the way.

Approaching Anderson, you’ll be stopped in your tracks by one of the few trail junctions not marked. All that stands is the remains of a wooden post, devoid of arrows or writing. You will want to veer right at the post because a slight left on the other trail leads uphill to the Benson Hut, a Sierra Club shelter (reservations required) and the peak. Feel free to make that detour and ascend to Anderson’s summit (8,374 feet), but I chose to move around the base of the mountain on the PCT, through jagged granite slabs in spots, onto the ridgeline for a 2-mile push to Tinker Knob.

Tinker Knob, at 8,949 feet, is the highest point of the trek. It’s hardly a peak, in the traditional sense, more like a jutting hunk of granite, with some lingering snow clinging to its sides. I was feeling strong at this point and made the climb to the top, only 0.2 of a mile. It was nice to say I’d done it, but frankly, the views were not much better than below.

Moving on, the terrain is mostly treeless but dotted with yellow wildflowers until you reach a saddle and the junction with the Coldstream Trail to your left. That path looks tempting – flat and not that rocky – but it leads 7 miles back to Truckee, where no ride awaits you.

Instead, you descend sharply on switchbacks from the saddle into a canyon some call the Royal Gorge, a tributary of the north fork of the American River. Early on, the trail became obscured by a stubborn snow drift. I figured this was another instance when I’d have to trudge through the snow to rejoin the trail, but I noticed that, unlike earlier snow detours, there were no other footprints leading the way. I scrambled to the other side on all fours, trying not to think Donner Party thoughts, and emerged on the other side. But I couldn’t pick up the trail. I looked back from whence I came and I saw that the trail took a sharp right before the snow. I scrambled back and then descended into a valley brimming with fields of mules ears and streams to cross.

You’ll descend as low as 7,500 feet, and that’s where you’re liable to find day hikers and dry campers. The temperature rises about 10 degrees in the canyon, so the shade provided by pines up ahead is a welcome sight. For the next 1.2 miles, you’ll climb 700 feet out of the canyon, the imposing face of Granite Chief Mountain looming ahead. The trail levels out at the junction with the Granite Chief Trail on the left, with an arrow denoting Squaw Valley. The sign also gives the option of continuing straight for another 1.5 miles to Granite Chief Mountain, but I’d gone 11.5 miles at this point and was looking forward to Squaw.

Over the final 3.5 miles, you lose more than 1,500 feet of elevation. Great news, right?

In reality, it was the most painful, if not taxing, part of the trip. The granite rocks that dominate the single-track trail thrash your feet, already tender from traversing the granite slabs earlier. You’ll find yourself reaching for hemlock and fir tree branches to steady you on the descent. It flattens in parts, especially when you reach an expansive granite bench – large, denuded slabs of granite – where the trail becomes faint. Stop a moment to look at the Squaw Valley resort below, then keep moving. You’ll eventually pick up the trail again, some of it nice, soft sand. You’ll cross several tributaries of Squaw Creek close to the valley floor and emerge right in the middle of the resort’s parking lot.

Tired, hungry and footsore, I looked forward to a nice meal at one of Tahoe’s fine restaurants – trying to tamp down thoughts of the Donner Party’s protein-rich victuals.

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