An ideal winter retreat on Donner Summit |

An ideal winter retreat on Donner Summit

Clair Tappaan is the ideal winter retreat for outdoor lovers.
Photo by Laura Petersen |

This January, for the first time in five years, snow is up to the roof at Clair Tappaan Lodge.

Kids make ice forts near the front entrance and hoop and holler on the new sledding hill. A roaring fire warms the lounge and the dining hall is full of laughter and conversation. The tables are set with steaming soup bowls of roasted pork and vegetarian chili and plates mounded high with cornbread. Couples on snowshoes hike groomed trails through the red fir forest, snap photos and quietly watch a white-headed woodpecker on the trunk of a tall snag searching for insects.

Just a short drive from Nevada City — at 7,000-feet-elevation high atop Donner Summit, tucked away in the snowy woods, newly renovated and busier than ever — the rustic flagship lodge built by Sierra Club volunteers in the 1930s couldn’t be a more perfect winter getaway.

“It’s a real cool, quiet nature experience with no neighbors near by. There’s a huge playground out here,” said Bryan Allegretto, general manager of the lodge, which is managed by Miramar Hospitality.

The adventure starts with a trek from the parking lot.

Located in Norden on historic Donner Pass, Clair Tappaan is now the only lodge in operation on the summit.

“I love the ambiance and the shared family meals where we can meet new, like-minded people. I love the casual atmosphere and shared love of the mountains,” said Olivia Diaz, who has been going to Clair Tappaan Lodge since 1983 and each year attends the annual summer fundraiser.

This season marks the first time Clair Tappaan has become a lodging partner for neighboring Sugar Bowl Resort.

Ski and stay packages start at $109.

“They’re now sending overflow guests here. That’s helping to keep us busy,” said Allegretto, who has a history working in the Tahoe region’s hotel industry.

In recent years, a succession of snowless winters and a drained Van Norden Lake has hit the local economy hard, shuttering nearby Ice Lakes Lodge and Rainbow Lodge.

But Clair Tappaan has weathered the storm.

In danger of being sold eight years ago, the lodge is now experiencing a revival.

With the first real snow in five years, a new website with online booking, an aggressive marketing campaign targeted at a broader recreation-based audience, five-star reviews on Yelp and a fresh new look, the lodge is busier than ever.

This year, the phones are ringing off the hook for hut rental, too.

Clair Tappaan Lodge manages four back-country huts — all of which are booked every weekend this winter.

“We just had the busiest year on record,” said Allegretto, of the 11,000 guests that stayed at the lodge in 2015. That was a year without snow.

So far, January of 2016 is shaping up to exceed projections.

Some old timers — who remember the days founded on volunteerism — grumble at the changes.

But the lodge, now run like an efficient hotel, has managed to stay afloat, turn a small profit and is no longer at risk of being sold.

“We tried to make the changes slowly. Things are better than ever now,” said Allegretto.

The place has kept its European alpine charm — with bunk-style rooms and communal bathrooms — while getting some modern upgrades.

Those include all new paint, a new leak-proof roof, replaced shingles, new mattresses, new linens, a bigger staff and better food.

Prices have gone up, but camp-like dorm beds can still be had for as little as $35 a night.

Since Sierra Club volunteers raised the funds to save Clair Tappaan, the club has sold off 20-plus acres and a warming lodge to nearby Donner Ski Ranch.

It retains about 70 acres of prime mountain real estate within two miles of easy access to the Pacific Crest Trail.

With the highest average snowfall of the entire Sierra Nevada range, the area is a mecca for winter sports.

Boreal Mountain Resort, Soda Springs Resort, Donner Ski Ranch, Sugar Bowl and one of the largest cross country ski resorts in North America — Royal Gorge — are all nearby.

No longer subsidized, the rustic mountain retreat is thriving with twice as many visitors — families from the Bay Area and Sacramento on the weekends and, in the summer months, environmental education groups and weddings. Backcountry hikers and skiers remain mainstays, with about 40 percent of lodge visitors Sierra Club members.

With access to miles of groomed trails right outside the door of the lodge, visitors can easily explore the area on snowshoes.

Grass Valley outfitters Mountain Recreation sells and rents a full line of snowshoes, waterproof footwear and outerwear, including gaiters and gloves.

Rental rates are $15 a day and includes travel time — a pick up Friday afternoon and return by Sunday morning is still considered a one-day rental.

“The big appeal with snowshoeing is the extremely fast learning curve, unlike cross country skiing, where it takes a little more skill and practice. You can tackle most any terrain on snowshoes provided you are physically capable,” said Mountain Recreation owner Jason Auld.

He recommends first-timers keep the emphasis on fun by being prepared with the right clothing, selecting a comfortable route and remembering to stay hydrated and fed.

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe. It is just like hiking. You can go for a leisurely stroll or you can hike a peak. Both can be a great time — it just depends on what you are up for,” Auld said.

For more information, visit and

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at or 530-913-3067.

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