Trekking in Tahoe National Forest |

Trekking in Tahoe National Forest

Kristofer B. WakefieldAnne Carlstedt of Tahoe City (front) and karen Bleuel of Auburn walk back from Mt. Judah on a day hike.
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Difficulty level: Moderate to strenuous

Length: 14 miles round trip

Map: U.S. Forest Service, Tahoe National Forest, available at any TNF office


The Donner Summit area is resting in early fall. The riot of “spring” wildflowers – at 7,200 feet, spring arrives in June – is toned down, and mules’ ears rustle in the pennyroyal-scented air.

The hike from one of the oldest ski resorts in the West up the fabled Pacific Crest Trail to Anderson Peak and the Sierra Club’s Bradley Hut is a great, last-gasp-of-summer trek. Bring a quart of water, lunch and the Tahoe National Forest map.

Take the Soda Springs exit off Highway 80 and pass by swampy Lake Van Norden on the right. On the left after a couple of miles is funky Clair Tappaan Lodge, a labyrinthine, 60-plus year-old structure built by Sierra Club volunteers.

Continue beyond Sugar Bowl resort on the right and Donner Ski Ranch on the left. Turn right at Alpine Skills International. After about 300 yards, you’ll see a left fork with a Pacific Crest Trail sign. Park off the road.On the road behind API, go left before the Pacific Crest trailhead sign down the Old Emigrant Road, now blocked by boulders. Go left under the abandoned railroad tracks then immediately look back at the China Wall. Chinese laborers built this tracks’ support without mortar, but it was sturdy enough for rail use for more than 100 years. Veer to the left and look for a large, very faded hotel advertisement painted on the flat granite. Why is it in such an odd place? It was meant to be viewed by passing train passengers.

Snake downhill and begin to closely examine the granite expanses just up from the highway for very faint American Indian petroglyphs.

This area was a meeting place for traders from the both sides of the Sierra – foothills people brought acorns to trade for the eastern groups’ obsidian to make arrowheads. The glyphs are simple abstract, curvilinear, zig-zag or rectilinear designs. Walking on, making rubbings from, and even touching the glyphs destroys them, so look only.

Return to the trailhead. The trail switchbacks up with increasingly pretty views of lakes Van Norden and Mary, mountains Disney and Lincoln, and Castle Peak. Take a left at the “Mount Judah Loop Trail” sign and continue uphill to Coldstream Pass, marked with a railroad tie marker as an emigrant route. Do a short, easy rock-scramble up to Donner Peak on the left for views of Donner Lake, Schallenberger Ridge, Mount Stephens and the Donner Pass bridge.

Go back down to the pass to the trail on the back side of Judah.

Below is Emigrant Canyon, up which weary pioneers dragged their

wagons to Roller Pass. The Pacific Crest Trail goes over the top of Judah for a 360-degree view. A cairn with Tibetan prayer flags marks the 8,243-foot summit. The plants are shutting down for the season, changing to reds and yellows and whispering in the strong wind about the approach of winter.

A few more switchbacks through forest bring you to a yellow sign leading to Roller Pass, so named because emigrants winched their wagons 400 feet up its 30 percent grade by wrapping cables around large trees. This is a good place to stop for lunch. Seasoned hikers can be at this point in 90 minutes; slower hikers may take up to two hours.

From here, the trail goes along a rolling ridge with drop-dead gorgeous views. Go up and to the southeast along the back of Mount Lincoln. You’ll pass a sign: “Anderson Peak 4 miles, Tinker’s Knob 6 miles”; those mileages seem exaggerated to me.

The ridge affords classic photo-taking opportunities of Royal Gorge on one side and Emigrant Canyon with Donner Lake peeking out on the other. Beyond that are the ski slopes of Tahoe and mountain ranges of Nevada rolling on and on. The trail rises and falls, then switchbacks up to the base of 8,683-foot Anderson. A sign there indicates the trail turns left; go straight up the hill toward a curious stone-and-timber structure, the Sierra Club’s Bradley Hut.

Go into its smoke-blackened interior to see the old Franklin stove, dented pots and mountain of firewood split by volunteers. Take the steep ladder up to the second level to check out mattresses that weary skiers can sleep on.

Up here, a door seems to open onto thin air – not so, when there’s 20 feet of snow. This is also the reason the outhouse is reached by a ladder and has a hatch door in its roof for foolproof entry.

Retrace your steps to Roller Pass and turn left on the trail. At the yellow sign just after Roller, go down the hill on the Judah trail’s Sugar Bowl side. About halfway down, the trail crosses a ski lift maintenance road; bisect the road and continue down, eventually coming to the point again where the trail around the back of Judah takes off.

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