Castle Peak – October 1998 |

Castle Peak – October 1998


MILES: 9 miles R/T


MAP: Tahoe National Forest

Early fall is one of my favorite times on Donner Summit. The crowds are gone, the weather is still clear and warm, the fragrant, drying leaves of mules’ ears and pennyroyal rattle in the breeze. Castle Peak is one of the top three most heavily used trailheads in the Tahoe National Forest – but rarely in October.

On Sept. 20, I lead my annual Hiking Club hike from Sugar Bowl to Anderson Peak. Dan had drive up from Reno for that hike and never done Castle Peak, so we crashed in the woods that night and bagged it the next morning.

Take Highway 80 to the Castle Peak/Boreal exit. Go left, back under the freeway then up the frontage road to park near the open gate. Immediately, you’ll see a sign indicating a split for cross-country skiers and snowmobiles; follow the skiers’ sign.

We began to enter Castle Valley but took the high road to the left, crossing a couple struggling streams dotted with remains of senecio, aster, lupine and paintbrush. The three “castles” loomed above us in dramatic light cast by scudding thunderheads. After about a half mile, we stopped to study the Hole-in-the-Wall trailhead map on the left, then continued up the edge of the valley.

We traversed up to Castle Pass, passing a sign on the right for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Once, I encountered a pack train of llamas here.) The ridge is marked 7,881 feet elevation, and a sign points to the Sierra Club’s Peter Grubb Hut down in Round Valley.

We headed right, up the obvious but unmarked trail to the ridge with its expansive views of the mountains and lakes across 80 to the south and the Grouse Ridge area to the northeast. Like so many of our local high points, you can see Shasta and Lassen from here on a very clear day. We spotted the sloped roof of Grubb Hut, doll-house-sized in the trees on the edge of the valley.

The elevation gain got serious as we wound in and out of conifers. We climbed over the back of the summit’s rough volcanic crags for an “Oh, wow!” view of the valleys and creeks below Red Mountain and Frog Lake Overlook.

The center “castle” is the highest at 9,103 feet. We climbed its Class 2-plus face hand-over-hand, just for fun.

Splashed across the rocks is vivid yellow, green and orange lichen. Carolus Linnaeus, the father of the binomial nomenclature system, called lichen “the poor trash of vegetation,” but he certainly had never seen our gorgeous Sierran species. What appears as a single plant is actually a symbiotic blend of two: alga and fungus. Lichen is the most widespread plant species in the world, and some colonies are older than bristlecone pines, over 4,500 years.

You can go back down the way you came, but we took my favorite alternate route, which adds a mile or two. Head along the northwest ridge toward Basin Peak then traverse cross-country down into Round Valley, over serpentine creeks, to the hut. About five years ago, a man and two teens were killed when their small plane smacked square into this ridge in a snowstorm. We looked in vain for the bronze plaque on a rock that memorializes them.

We checked out the stone-and-timber Grubb Hut with its second-story doors for entry in deep snow, then headed back up the marked trail to Castle Peak.

This article was originally published on 10/15/1999.

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