I climbed to the top of Hawkes Peak in Tahoe Donner and rode down Upper Mother Lode and True Grit. In typical August fashion, it was dusty and loose.
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!
Truckee and Tahoe are full of amazing mountain bike trails, ranging from easy beginner options to incredibly challenging choices. I think it is especially a perfect place to develop for intermediate riders to develop their skills. Over the last few years in Tahoe-Truckee, I’ve moved from an intermediate rider to someone who feels confident on most black diamond trails in this area.
Here are my recommendations for trails in Truckee and Tahoe that are great for intermediate riders who are looking to challenge themselves. Some of these trails are completely rideable but challenging to ride fast and smooth, some have sections that I still need to walk and all have features that are great for sessioning and skills development.
Big Chief Upper & Lower, Sawtooth Trails, Truckee, CA: Big Chief is one of the newer trails in the Truckee area, just being finished in 2019. While the lower segments of the trail are much easier than the top third, all segments have technical features and impressive rock work that you can challenge yourself on. I’m still a long way from clearing all of the features on the top third, and the middle section has optional rock rolls and jumps to session. Check out my in depth trail report here and watch my video of Big Chief here.
Tyrolean Downhill, East Shore, Incline Village, NV: This super fun, super sandy and shuttle-able trail has great Lake Tahoe views and lots of optional features to practice jumps and rock rolls. It’s also a great route to take a group with mixed abilities on, since almost every feature has a fun and smooth ride around for beginners. Click here and here to watch my videos of the Tyrolean Downhill.
Animal Trail, Prosser Trails, Truckee, CA: This is a new favorite! It’s really rideable, with no major technical features. The challenge is to ride it smooth and fast, even in the steep, tight switchbacks. Click here to read my trail report for the Animal Trails and click here to watch my YouTube video.
Kingsbury Stinger, Kingsbury Grade, Stateline, NV: Thanks to the hard work of TAMBA, Kingsbury Stinger feels like a classic South Lake Tahoe mountain bike trail! It’s got great views, fast flowy berms, and natural and built rock features to test yourself on. Here’s a write up of my experience on the Kingsbury Stinger, and you can watch the video here.
Donner Lake Rim Trail: Castle Valley, Truckee, CA: Eventually the Donner Lake Rim Trail will be a 23-mile, fully bike-legal route around Donner Lake. Currently, the Truckee Donner Land Trust has completed 12 miles of trail and it already has something for everyone. The Castle Valley segment is what I think is the most challenging section. It’s full of natural granite features like steps, rock rolls, steep climbs and sharp turns. You can ride this as a shuttle and include the Wendin Way Trail for a fun and flowy downhill. Click here to read my trail report for Castle Valley and click here to watch my YouTube video of this ride.
Armstrong Connector to Upper and Lower Corral, South Lake Tahoe, CA: I have a special place in my heart for the Corral Trail Network. This is where I spent a lot of time riding and improving as a new rider when I lived in South Lake. Armstrong Connector has great views of Lake Tahoe and features like granite slabs that don’t show up on a ton of other trails in the area, Upper Corral is still a challenging trail for me – steep rock gardens and sharp corners in loose decomposed granite, and, of course Lower Corral is an excellent place to practice your jumps (all rollable tables still as far as I know) and lean into the berms. Click here for my route recommendations at the Corral Trail Network.
Mustang Sally, Tahoe Donner, Truckee, CA: I’ve just started exploring the fairly vast network of trails in Tahoe Donner. There are enough trails in that area that you could put together a fairly epic ride, plus they connect to the Donner Lake Rim Trail and the Prosser Trails! Mustang Sally is definitely worth seeking out. It’s on the easier side for a black diamond trail, and the tight switchbacks are great for working on your turns. Click here to see my Strava Route and here for my video of some of the Tahoe Donner trails, including Mustang Sally.
I hope these recommendations are helpful, and you get to spend some time out on the trail this summer! For some hot weather mountain biking gear, check out my recommendations here.
If you’re looking for some great beginner mountain bike trails in the Tahoe-Truckee area, click here!
The Sawtooth Loop is a classic XC-style mountain bike loop in Truckee, and I always have a great time on it.
Last week, I climbed a new-to-me peak in the Truckee area – Castle Peak. If you’ve driven east into Truckee on I-80, you’ve probably seen this unique peak jutting into the sky. It’s noticeable mainly because of the distinctive south facing cliffs and turrets, leftovers from an ancient volcano. In the winter, Castle Peak is a popular snowshoe and ski destination and in the summer it’s great for hiking. When I went in mid-July, it was snow free and the wildflowers were incredible.
Castle Peak is a doable, but challenging summit off of the Pacific Crest Trail. There are a couple of different ways to access Castle Peak, and the route I took was around ~1,900 feet of climbing in just over 7 miles. While this hike doesn’t require any technical climbing, it’s a tough, steep hike at altitude with uneven, loose terrain, exposed to the heat of the sun and there are spots where a fall would result in serious injury. Plus, to get to the actual summit there is some class 3 scrambling. You should be in pretty good shape and have some technical hiking experience. Be sure to bring lots of water and the 10 essentials.
I started my hike at the parking area for the Donner Summit trails, just north of I-80 off of exit 176 for Castle Peak/Boreal resort. (For a longer hike with more time on the PCT, you could park on the south side of the freeway by Boreal Resort and get on the PCT right away.) From the parking area, head up the Castle Valley Fire Road. Pretty quickly past the gate, there’s a great view of Castle Peak to the right, but it’s kind of intimidating to see how far you’ll have to climb!
After about 0.56 miles, look for a double track trail to the right. There should be a trail marker for the Donner Lake Rim Trail, where you’ll head down for a bit before beginning to climb. After about 0.4 miles on the DLRT, the Pacific Crest Trail intersects the DLRT, and you’ll turn left and start heading north. Here the climb is pretty mellow and shaded – enjoy it while it lasts! When I hiked it, there were a ton of corn lilies in this section. At about 1.2 miles on the PCT, there is a sharp right uphill to a signed intersection.
Follow the signs to Castle Peak and take the trail on the right, Castle Peak West Trail. Now this is when things get challenging! The trail climbs 1,100+ feet in just over a mile, and much of the trail is loose and sandy, making footing a challenge. I took a ton of breaks in this section, stopping to catch my breath, check out the unique rock formations, drink water and enjoy the views. Unfortunately, it was a little hazy the day I did the hike with smoke from a fire near Susanville.
There’s a steep climb to a small saddle before the final push to the summit – be sure to take advantage of this relatively relaxed section to take it easy. There are lots of little social trails to the summit from here. It seemed to me that they all reconnected fairly quickly, as long as you keep heading towards the summit. The trail is steeper on the last push, but at least there are some shady spots. If you want to get to the true summit of Castle Peak, you’ll have to scramble down past the west summit and back up again with some class 3 climbing up to the top.
Once you’re there, enjoy a snack break, soak in the 360 degree view and get mentally ready for the hike down. Honestly, I struggled more on the hike down than the climb up. The loose, sandy steep sections took nearly constant attention not to slip and fall. It was stressful! I didn’t bring trekking poles, but I wished I had, especially on the sketchy downhill. However, the hike down gets a lot easier as soon as you’re back on the PCT, and then it’s easy sailing back to your car.