It’s getting pretty dusty here in Truckee! The trails are still fun, even if they’re loose and beat up. I did a lap on Truckee’s most popular trail, Jackass and one on A1, the new-ish trail in that network.
Donner Peak: Hiking to the top of Donner Peak is one of my favorite short and sweet hikes that still works up a sweat. It’s just under 4 miles round trip and just under 1,000 feet of climbing, with a unique view of Donner Lake through a “window” in the summit. You can check out my Hiking Donner Peak trail guide here. Note: I wrote that guide for hiking it in the spring/early summer. By fall time, there likely won’t be much, if any, running water on the trail.
Sawtooth Loop: I’ve mainly done the Sawtooth Loop as a mountain bike ride, but it’s also a popular hiking trail. If you want a longer hike, you can do the full loop, which is about 10.75 miles and ~650 feet of climbing. For something shorter, just treat it like an out and back. Start by parking at the Sawtooth Trailhead parking area here. The trail is pretty well marked, but there are a few social trails as well, so it’s good to have an idea where you’re going. To do the full loop, start on Lower Ridgeline. I’d recommend hiking it counterclockwise, so continue on to Upper Ridgeline, then Martis Creek Meadow, Bald Meadow, and finally back on to Lower Ridgeline.
Tinker Knob: For a long hike with a scrambly summit, I’d recommend hiking to Tinker Knob on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s about 15 miles with 2,500 feet of elevation gain. The views on this hike are among my favorite of any hike I’ve done in the area. If you’re interested in a most-of-a-day hike, here’s my guide to hiking Tinker Knob.
Summit Lake: The out and back to the gorgeous Summit Lake is another route I’ve mainly done as a mountain bike ride, but it’s a beautiful spot to hike into. The way I go, it’s about 900 feet of climbing and 6 miles round trip, mainly uphill on the way out and mostly down on the way down with a beautiful lunch spot at Summit Lake at the midpoint. Park here, at the Castle Valley trailhead and head up the Castle Valley Fire Road for about 0.57 miles before turning right onto Donner Lake Rim Trail/Castle Valley East, which is usually signed. The DLRT crosses the PCT (don’t turn here!) and becomes the DLRT Castle Valley section and then the DLRT Summit Lake Trail which will bring you to Summit Lake. You can also get to Summit Lake via the PCT Castle Valley and the Summit Lake Trail, which I’d like to do someday!
Castle Peak: I think that this is the most challenging hike on my list, even if it isn’t the longest! The incredible rock outcroppings and miles of views make it totally worth it though! It’s about 7.12 miles round trip, with about 1,900 feet of climbing, though a lot of that climbing happens in just a couple of miles. The downhill on this hike is almost as challenging as the climb, and I’d recommend trekking poles for this one. Here’s my guide to summiting Castle Peak.
Fall is such a great time to go hiking in Tahoe. The mornings are crisp, the afternoons are sunny, the air is (hopefully) clear of wildfire smoke, and the trails are less crowded. Most of the fall hikes in the Tahoe area can be done with pretty simple gear – basically hiking clothes and the ten essentials. While hiking clothes and equipment can be really expensive, they don’t have to be. Below, I share some of my favorite gear at a variety of price points.
The temperature can swing pretty wildly throughout the day, so having layers is critical. In the fall, I usually wear a sweat wicking, tech tee – either a Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily ($45) or the REI Coop Shift which goes on sale frequently. I think I paid less that $20 for mine. Next up is a long sleeved, light layer. Since last summer, I’ve been all about sunshirts for this layer. I love not having to re-apply sunscreen on long hikes! I have the Patagonia Tropic Comfort Hoody ($69). I love the slim fit, back zipper pocket, and the hood that adds even more sun protection. For a cheaper option, I also have the REI Coop Sahara Button Down (currently on sale for $36). I actually bought the men’s version for extra length (I’m 5’11”), and I am very sad that they didn’t have the plaid options when I got mine! We don’t tend to have a lot of rain in the fall here, so I usually skip a raincoat in favor of a slightly water resistant windshirt. I bring my Patagonia Houdini ($99) basically everywhere. Right now seems like a great time to buy a wind breaker – there are a ton of options on sale at REI right now. This Ultimate Direction Breeze Shell for $31 seems like an amazing deal! For early morning, evening, and late fall hikes, I also add a vest. I have a Marmot down vest that’s a few years old – the Women’s Highlander ($123) seems to be the current version. If you don’t want down, they have a synthetic Women’s Featherless Avant ($105). REI Coop also has a down vest, currently on sale for $56.
My bottom layers tend to be way more simple! If the temperature is above 45 degrees, I wear shorts. I usually stick to running or athletic shorts – I’m not sure if I even own “hiking” shorts anymore. I alternate between the REI Coop Active Pursuits 4.5” ($40). They frequently go on sale, and I think I paid around $15 each for mine. This summer, I bought long spandex shorts for yoga, and I discovered how much I love hiking in them. I bought this 90 Degrees two pack ($40), and they’ve held up really well. I like the high waist to reduce rubbing from a backpack, and the legs are tight enough that they don’t roll up, but don’t dig in. On colder days, I wear leggings, usually cheap ones like these CRZ Yoga Naked Feeling Leggings ($24), so I don’t feel too bad about snagging them on a bush or scraping on a rock. These ones have held up really well for the price, though!
I exclusively hike in my trail runners at this point, even in pretty rocky terrain. My current favorite is the Salomon X-Mission 3. It fits my duck feet (wide forefoot, narrow heel) really well, and I have been very impressed with how well they’ve held up over the years. They’re currently on sale for $86 from Salomon, and you can find them even cheaper in limited sizes on Amazon and at REI. The other trail runners I’ve had and liked were the Saucony Peregrine ($120). They were comfortable and stable, but they wore out faster than my current Salomons. The Saucony Peregrines are also on Amazon for as low as $72.
Since I want somewhere to stash my layers and need a way to carry my safety gear, I need some sort of pack. If I’m planning on a shorter hike or doing any trail running, I use the Ultimate Direction Race Vesta. I have version 4.0, which is on sale on Amazon ($70) and REI ($87). This is an incredible deal, and the 4.0 version is awesome. In fact, when I bought mine from Tahoe Mountain Sports, the woman helping me said she preferred the 4.0 over the 5.0 that was about to come out, because of the additional pockets in the 4.0. The Ultimate Direction Vesta 5.0 ($139) is available now, too. For a longer day hike where I want more food and water, I repurpose my mountain biking hydration pack, a five year old Camelbak Solstice ($135).
I haven’t always been the best about carrying the ten essentials on familiar day hikes, but something unexpected could happen anywhere. For navigation, I tend to rely on my iPhone and the Trailforks app. There are some GPS tracking watches that have route uploading capacities and navigation aids. Greyson has an older version of the Garmin fenix ($690), but we haven’t really figured out how to use that feature very well. For sun protection, I ALWAYS have sunglasses with me. I’m hard on my sunglasses, so I like ones that aren’t too expensive but can handle some abuse. For warm weather hiking, I love the Goodr OGs ($25) because they have a non-slip pad on the bridge of the nose. For sunscreen, I stick to the ones with physical blockers like thinksport ($9).
I have a small first aid kit like this Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight one. Be sure to check in on it every six months or so. More than once, I’ve discovered that the band aids are gone when I really need one! In addition to the water I carry, I also have a Lifestraw ($15) for emergencies. Also in the category of things I hope that I don’t have to use, I have a lighter and matches, a space blanket ($5), and a Petzl Tikkina headlamp ($20).
Later this week, I’ll share some of my favorite fall hikes to do in the Tahoe-Truckee area, so be sure to check back! Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale as compensation – at no additional cost to you. I promise to only recommend products that I use and enjoy!
Tahoe Donner is the largest neighborhood in Truckee, full of second homes and vacation rentals on a ridgeline north of Donner Lake. It’s big enough that it has a golf course, rec center, forestry department, and a bunch of awesome mountain bike trails. While you can access the trails of Tahoe Donner from a few different trailheads around town, I’m highlighting three fun routes that all begin at the Alder Creek Adventure Center. Note: unless you are living, visiting, or staying at a rental in Tahoe Donner, park on the road outside of the fence where there’s usually plenty of parking.
Hawkes Peak Loop
This is the most challenging loop I’ve ridden in Tahoe Donner. It’s got great views, a section with more technical downhill than most of Tahoe Donner, and a super fun descent with lots of great little rock rolls and jumps. All of these routes begin with the same first few trails: Alder Creek Northern Terminus (0.34 miles) to Randy’s Ramble (0.33 miles) to Cinnamon Twist Connector (<0.1 miles) to Cinnamon Twist Upper. These first few segments aren’t well signed, so it’s nice to have the Trailforks app on your phone, but it’s also hard to get too lost, because eventually you’ll pop out on a fire road (or at least I always have) Once on Cinnamon Twist Upper, you’ll follow that for about 0.24 miles until it crosses the Sundance fire road where you’ll turn left and start the long climb up.
After about 0.3 miles on Sundance, the trail will fork and you’ll keep left to stay on Sundance until it splits at about 0.7 miles in, where the fire road crosses True Grit trail. Take the right turn on to Crazy Horse fire road for a 0.5 mile, steep climb before taking the right fork and continuing the steep fire road climbing on Andromeda fire road. (I definitely got off to push at a couple of the steep parts of this fire road climb and got very jealous of the group that passed us on E-Bikes.) After about 0.5 miles on Andromeda, the climb flattens out and you’ll bend right around the shoulder of Hawkes Peak. Keep a look out for a singletrack trail to your right at about 0.6 miles.
Hawk’s Peak (Upper Section) is the last bit of climbing. I ended up pushing up some of this 0.28 mile section too; it’s not overly technical, but I was tired! You’ll be rewarded with a summit and an incredible 360 degree view of Truckee. It’s (literally) all downhill from here! The first and most technical downhill segment is Mother Lode (Upper Section). I’ve ridden quite a few trails in Tahoe Donner, and I generally think that the trails are easier than their rating on Trailforks. This one is an exception, or at least it was when I rode it in early August of 2020. The trail was dry and loose with off camber turns and chunky rocks. For this loop, you won’t ride all of upper Mother Lode. At about 0.9 miles in, take a hard right onto the very short True Grit/Mother Lode Connector, which will dump you out onto True Grit (Upper Section).
While I enjoyed the views from the top and the challenge of Mother Lode, True Grit was when I really started having fun. Even though the trail was still loose and dusty, this part was holding together a bit better and it was fun and flowy. Trailforks separates True Grit into two segments, splitting them where it crosses the Sundance fire road, but while you’re riding it, it really doesn’t feel like two different trails, even though they have different difficulty grades. True Grit (Lower Section) starts at about 0.75 miles in. My favorite part of True Grit is the little features sprinkled throughout – rock rolls, small jumps, etc. They all have ride arounds if you’re not interested in features, but if you made it down Mother Lode, you can definitely handle all the features. The lower part of True Grit ends after about 0.85 miles at Alder Creek Road. Here, you can ride Alder Creek Road back to the parking area or (if you want a bit more time on the trails) ride about 0.15 miles before turning right onto Pony Express fire road for about 0.39 miles and getting back onto Alder Creek Northern Terminus.
True Grit Up & Mother Lode Down
This route is less technical than the previous one, and it avoids the steep fire road climb for a challenging but doable singletrack climb. This route also startsAlder Creek Northern Terminus (0.34 miles) to Randy’s Ramble (0.33 miles) to Cinnamon Twist Connector (<0.1 miles) to Cinnamon Twist Upper. On this route, you’ll only be on Cinnamon Twist Upper for 0.1 miles before it crosses True Grit (Lower Section) where you’ll turn left and start the real climb. After about 0.7 miles, the trail crosses a fire road and turns into True Grit (Upper Section) which climbs for another 0.75 miles before ending at another fire road. Go straight onto the <0.1 mile True Grit/Mother Lode Connector which is the last bit of climbing before the intersection with Mother Lode.
Turn right to start going down Mother Lode (Upper Section). This trail section is rated as advanced, but I think that’s mainly due to the top half and the part you’ll ride on this route is more of a challenging intermediate. It’s got great views, but feels a little exposed and the rocks are a little chattery. After about 0.25 miles, the trail becomes Mother Lode (Middle Section) for about 0.4 miles before it dead ends on Hastings, which is a fire road turned double track. Turn left, and after <0.1 miles, the double track turns into Mother Lode (Lower Section). The lower section of Mother Lode is bermed and flowy so it can get pretty loose and dusty in the late summer, but some fun rooty areas and twisty sections. At about 0.8 into lower Mother Lode, there’s an intersection with a trail called Fool’s Gold – don’t take this. Keep going and just before the 1 mile mark, lower Mother Lode turns into Hidden Gem at the crossing with a fire road, which is a pretty similar type of riding.
Hidden Gem ends at South Eur Valley Road at 1.1 miles where you’ll turn right and gently climb for about 1 mile. Keep a look out for a trail on your right – Cinnamon Twist Upper. Climb back up Cinnamon Twist and retrace your ride on Cinnamon Twist Connector, Randy’s Ramble, and Alder Creek Northern Terminus back to your car.
Mustang Sally is considered one of the best trails in Tahoe Donner and I definitely agree. While it’s rated as advanced on Trailforks, I think that’s a bit of an overstatement and is really more of a challenging intermediate with no mandatory features, steep drops, or difficult rock gardens. Again, start on Alder Creek Northern Terminus (0.34 miles) to Randy’s Ramble (0.33 miles) to Cinnamon Twist Connector (<0.1 miles) to Cinnamon Twist Upper. This time, you’ll ride the full 0.65 miles down Cinnamon Twist Upper to South Eur Valley Road. Turn left and look for Cinnamon Twist Lower at about 0.2 miles.
Cinnamon Twist will end at about 0.37 miles at Alder Creek Road. Continue straight and after about 0.3 miles, East Mustang Sally trail will be on your left. (Don’t turn onto the first trail you see on your left at about 0.2 miles, Mustang Sally has a trail sign.) East Mustang Sally is the main climb on this route – you’ll gain ~680 feet in under two miles. There’s a bit of a false summit at about 1.65 miles though. I was very disappointed to realize that I had more to climb after a short downhill! The actual top of the route has some cool big boulders and a nice view.
You’ll go a bit downhill on East Mustang Sally before you pop out on a fire road. Make a sharp left after a swing right to get on the real downhill, West Mustang Sally. This part of Mustang Sally drops ~540 feet in just under a mile, and like I mentioned earlier, it’s very rideable and fun. It dead ends at another singletrack, Sidewinder, which is about 1.25 miles of rolling hills and a couple of punchy climbs. Sidewinder dumps you back out on Alder Creek Road, and from there you’ll just retrace your ride: Cinnamon Twist Lower to South Eur Valley Road to Cinnamon Twist Upper to Randy’s Ramble to Alder Creek Northern Terminus.
If you’re looking for a short but fun packed section of the Truckee River to paddle or float, I have a great suggestion. Check out the stretch between the confluence with Donner Creek and the East River Pedestrian Bridge. It’s more fun and challenging than the booze cruise that starts at Tahoe City, it’s a little easier than the stretch from the Truckee Regional Park to Glenshire, and it goes right through downtown Truckee!
One of the best things about this stretch of the Truckee River is that the logistics are easy, making it great for a weeknight or after work paddle. From our house, Greyson and I can do the whole thing door-to-door in under 2 hours without rushing. We do this as a self shuttle (there are definitely no commercial crews running this short but sweet segment). We drop one car off at the gravel parking area near the pedestrian bridge at the end of East River Street in Truckee. Click here for a map of the location. Then we drive the car with our rafts and gear to the put in spot at the confluence of Donner Creek and the Truckee River, which is just a little east of the Donner Creek Mobile Home Park. There’s street parking near the confluence here.
The entire stretch is super fun – we always take our Kokopelli Nirvana packrafts on it, but you’ll definitely see people doing it on gas station floaties. For us, it’s been a great way to learn to paddle in features that are challenging, but aren’t super high consequence. The rating for this segment is Class I/Class II, but, like I said, plenty of people do it on innertubes. The stretch is just over 2 miles, and takes us around 30-35 minutes, which includes at least one stop to re-inflate our rafts when they get low.
Another really nice thing about this route is that the take out point is super obvious and easy to manage. You’ll see the pedestrian bridge a good ¼ mile away, and when you get to the beach, you can easily paddle to the left bank and hop out. Even if you end up on the wrong side, it’s shallow enough that you can cross right there. There will most likely be toddlers wading there, even.
From there, it’s just a short walk back uphill to your car! While this Truckee River stretch is great for beginners, it can get pretty boney in the late summer/early fall, so be sure to check the flows. We like this Dreamflows Site, and we’ve had good luck when the flow is between 200-400. Have fun, and let me know if you like it!
Last time I rode the Tyrolean Downhill, we did it with 100+ runners during a trail race. This time, we went back for an emptier trail and session-ed some of the technical sections I rode around.
Summiting a peak via mountain bike is a cool experience, and riding the Royal Gorge Rim Trail to the top of Rowton Peak is great! Plus, the downhill is even more fun. The trails in Royal Gorge are an overlooked gem in the Truckee area, and I made a video of the ride up and down Rowton Peak.
A few weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to tackle a hike I’d never done before and tackle a new-to-me peak, Tinker Knob on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tinker Knob is a landmark peak on the Sierra Crest between Truckee and Squaw Valley. It’s odd, nose-like shape is visible from Donner Summit and I-80. It’s apparently named after James Tinker, the proprietor of the hotel at Tinker’s Station (now known as Soda Springs) and his prominent nose.
There are a few ways to access Tinker Knob – from Olympic Valley via the Granite Chief Trail and the PCT, from Coldstream Canyon via the Coldstream Trail, and from Donner Summit via the PCT, which is the way I went. This route was about 15 miles, 2,300+ feet of climbing and it took me a little under six hours. (I started my Garmin a little late on the Strava track below).
I started my hike parking at the Donner Peak/Pacific Crest Trailhead. This area can get really crowded, especially on summer weekends, so the earlier you arrive the better, and be sure not to park in no parking areas.
The Donner Peak section of the PCT starts with a stout climb up rocky granite “stairs” cut into the hillside before transitioning into a dirt trail through Sugar Bowl Resort. This section is about 540 feet of climbing in a little over a mile before a trail intersection.
Turn right to continue on the short Mount Judah section of the PCT (the left junction heads toward Donner Peak). After less than a mile, there’s well-signed a trail intersection where you could take a sharp left to detour and summit Mount Judah. This route had enough climbing for me already, so I decided to skip it for this trip.
The next section Judah to Tinker Knob, will take you to your goal. Shortly after the intersection with the Judah detour there’s a very short digression that’s worth taking. It leads you to a beautiful overlook at Roller Pass, named because wagons could be winched up this pass, not disassembled and carried like they had to be over Donner Pass.
After some more hiking through the trees, the trail opens up along the shoulder of Mount Lincoln and you can see for miles and miles. This is the start of a long, exposed section with no shade so be sure to have sun protection. I imagine it can be pretty hot up here if there’s no breeze or really windy. I got lucky and had just enough of a breeze to be comfortable, but I wasn’t being blown around or anything.
The entire section climbs about 1,450 feet in five miles, but it’s not straight uphill. There’s a significant downhill that drops you over 250 feet about 0.85 miles in. There are also some really nice, flat portions of the trail that are easy to cruise on. Additionally, most of the trail is nicely packed dirt, though there are some sandy sections and loose rocky areas where paying attention to your feet (especially when you’re tired!) is important.
The PCT does not go over the top of Tinker Knob, so if you want to summit you’ll have to detour and be comfortable with a little class 4 scrambling. The trail to the summit isn’t on Trail Forks, but it exists and it’s pretty obvious, when you’re below the summit. The first half of the trail is just a steep hike, but then you’ll have to do a little route finding. I needed to use both my hands and feet to climb the last little bit to the summit. I didn’t think it was too difficult, but I was extra careful since I was hiking solo.
The 360 degree view from the top is incredible! It gave me a perspective on the area that I hadn’t had before, and I could even see into the Lake Tahoe Basin. After hanging out for a bit, I (very carefully, very slowly) picked my way back down to the trail and started back towards home.
Once off the sketchy part, I realized that I forgot to take a summit selfie, so I made do with a slightly-below-summit selfie that included the Knob itself.
Even though this hike is an out and back, the views as I headed north were very different, so I wasn’t bored. I especially loved looking into the huge and impressive American River Canyon, which I rarely see on my typical hikes.
I hiked along, occasionally breaking into a slow run to give my hiking muscles a break, until I arrived at the last real climb of the hike. I plodded up this, stopping occasionally to stretch and catch my breath, and finally made it to the top. I was super tired after this exertion, but my hips and knees were even more sore, so I did occasionally break out into a “run” in the smoother sections.
Once at the granite step downclimb section I slowed down considerably. I was so tired and I definitely couldn’t run on this technical section, so I just took it as gingerly as I could. When I got back home, I joked with my husband that I was going for an “SKT” or slowest known time on that segment. Finally, finally, after at least 6 hours, I got back to my car and collapsed in the driver’s seat.
This is the longest hike I’ve done in a long time (maybe ever?) and exhausting, but so worth it. If you’re looking for a gorgeous hike that introduces you to a great section of the PCT with ever changing views and great wildflowers, I’d highly recommend the hike to Tinker Knob on the PCT.
Greyson and I rode from our house to the trails on Waddle Ranch Preserve in Martis Valley on our gravel bikes in the spring. We found some fun fire roads, but much of the single track was a little too gnarly for the gravel bikes. I can’t wait to get back out there on my full suspension, though!