Donner Summit Railroad Tunnel Snowshoe

One of my Winter Bucket List goals was to try new winter activities. I went on a fairly typical snowshoe earlier in the winter, but a couple of weeks ago, I had a pretty unique snowshoe adventure!

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On Donner Summit, there are some old train tunnels that the train used to run through. The train has since been re-routed and the tracks have been pulled out, making it an interesting destination for a snowshoe (winter) or hike (summer). The tunnels are technically on railroad property, but I didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs, and my friends have visited dozens of times over the years. Just be warned! They’re pretty easy to get to – we parked at the pull out a few hundred yards below the Donner Summit Scenic View Area (on your left when you’re heading up hill). Even in the winter, there was parking for at least 10 cars, but it is a popular sledding area and can get full.

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View from Donner Summit

Most of our group had snowshoes and poles – it gets icy in the tunnel so you’ll want something with grip. Greyson just wore hiking boots and carried poles and made it pretty well, but I wouldn’t recommend this to people not used to hiking on ice. It was warm for February when we headed up; it was in the 50’s and sunny, but the tunnels are at least 20 degrees colder inside. I appreciated by soft shell and gloves on the return trip. We all brought headlamps and flashlights, but didn’t need to use them. There’s enough light in the tunnel to see fairly well during the day.

It’s pretty straight forward once you’ve gotten out of the car – put on your snowshoes and head up towards the very obvious train tunnels. It’s a pretty steep climb, but the only hard part of the whole hike.

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Heading into the tunnels.

Since there’s not a lot of scenery inside of the tunnels, the natural ice sculptures and human made graffiti are the attractions.

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greyson ice sculpture

I was really surprised by how much light made it into the tunnels! There are some sections with windows cut into the concrete, and sunlight travels far from the openings. I was expecting the whole inside to be concrete, and loved that many of the tunnel walls were simply exposed granite that the tunnel had been cut through.

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Along the way, there are several spots where you can pop out of the tunnels and enjoy the view.

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Myself, Reyna, and Kelly pose outside the tunnels, overlooking Donner Lake.

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The entrance back into the tunnels looks more foreboding than it actually is. After less than a mile of hiking (which is slow going on all the ice), you’ll get to the end of the accessible tunnels. We hiked around on the snow some, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, before heading back towards the cars.

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We hiked back the same way we came, through the tunnels, but we did see other groups snowshoeing along the outside. I imagine it would depend on snow levels if there is enough room on the outside to do that. Of our group of five, Greyson was the only person who had been to the train tunnels before, and we all had a great time. To be honest, Greyson had suggested doing this snowshoe or hike a couple of times before, but I didn’t really have much interest. In my head, it was just going to be a cold, slippery walk in the dark where I couldn’t see anything. It definitely was not on my Tahoe bucket list. I’m happy to report that I was totally wrong! While not exactly strenuous, action packed or filled with “best of” views, this hike is totally unique and worth doing!

Happy Groundhog’s Day

While Punxatawney Phil did not see his shadow, and that should mean that spring is coming soon. Well, I hope that Phil is wrong and we still have a couple of months of winter left to go. The Sierra snowpack still needs it! This is the most snow we’ve seen on the mountains in several years, and I think I forgot how truly gorgeous it is.

The light was beautiful, so I drove up to the Donner Lake lookout after work and took a few pictures on my Iphone.

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Trestle Peak and the old train tunnels
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Grouse Peak. There’s some fun bouldering up there!
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Donner Lake from Above
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Looking up towards the scenic view point. You can barely make out the Old 40 Stone bridge in this picture.
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Looking up at Donner Peak from the Donner Canyon Trailhead.
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Donner Scenic View Point Panorama

I hope that these scenes only get snowier for the next few months, and stay snowy until June!

Happy New Year + a Winter Bucket List

Happy 2016 everyone! I thought 2015 was pretty great, but I’m looking forward to the new year with my eye on a few goals. I made a Fall Bucket List, but between sickness and business, I didn’t check off too many. Now that the snow has begun to fall (already more than fell ALL of last winter), I have some goals and experiences for my Winter Bucket List.

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Join a Gym and Start Swimming: So, I didn’t join a gym, despite it being a goal for the fall. With winter’s early darkness, cold temperatures, and icy trails, it’s definitely time for me to join a gym. I’m going to go along with all of the other January Joiners and start working out after work. Relatedly, I’m going to find a public pool for lap swimming. My trip to Indonesia is coming up (in March!), and I want to be in good swimming shape by then.

Try Out New Winter Activities: I’ve gotten decent at snowboarding over the last five winters, but there are a ton of winter and snow sports I’ve never tried or only done once. Some ideas: cross country skiing, snowshoeing (I actually tried this one last week), fat biking, downhill skiing, ice skating, skijoring, etc.

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Snowboard Twice as Much as Last Year: This should be easy – since I was mountain biking at 7,000 feet in February last year.

Take an Avalanche Safety Course: I want to get into backcountry snowboarding, and step one is learning how to stay safe. There are a bunch of avalanche safety courses in the Tahoe area. I just need to pick one and go.

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Photo by Greyson Howard

Try Backcountry Snowboarding: After I get educated, I’ll be ready to try backcountry snowboarding! I’ll hopefully be able to borrow most of the gear I need, before I invest a ton of money. I’ve already got a snowboard and snowshoes, so I’m partway there! There’s a ton of great backcountry riding in Tahoe, and I’m excited to start to experience it.

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Try Out New Resorts: The last few years, I’ve had a Vail pass that let me ride at Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood. This year my pass is at Sugar Bowl, and comes with a few tickets at Squaw/Alpine Meadows. I’ll hopefully be able to ride with friends at a few new resorts this year – Diamond Peak, Mt. Rose and Homewood.

Snowshoeing in Cold Stream Canyon

Like I said before this is my sixth winter in Tahoe, but somehow I’d never been snowshoeing. Since our Sugar Bowl passes are blacked out for the holidays, we couldn’t go snowboarding/skiing at the resort, and we decided to try something different. I decided it was finally time to try snowshoeing.

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Greyson got out his backcountry set up and lent me his snowshoes, and we headed to the nearby Cold Stream Canyon. This is a popular area with lots of snowshoers, cross country skiers, sledders, and people accessing backcountry skiing and riding. We were able to park pretty close to the gate and started the walk in.

Cold Stream Canyon Trail

I was worried that snowshoeing would be pretty miserable, slogging through the snow in an inefficient manner (these pre-conceived notions were the main reason I had never tried it before), but I was surprised by how easy it was. We started off on a very packed down fire road, which made things easier. I had a difficult time adjusting to using the poles – I ended up just carrying the poles on the hard packed sections, and only using them when we got to the untracked sections and steep downhills for balance.

Cold Stream Canyon Profile

The Cold Stream Canyon trail started with an ~180 foot climb over 0.4 miles, the only significant climb of the whole trail. It wasn’t too hard, but I worked up enough of a sweat to strip to my capilene base layer which was perfect for the rest of the hike.

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It was a gorgeous day, and the views were beautiful, snow sparkling on the trees and clear views to the peaks in the west. The temperature was around 33 degrees, perfect in the sunshine! We walked on the frozen pond, which has been restored from a polluted gravel mining remnant, and parallel to it before reconnecting with the main fire road and heading back to the parking lot. (Cool side note – if you continue on the main Cold Stream Road, which is not drivable in the winter, you’ll reach The Lost Trail Lodge, a backcountry lodge. You can rent it and stay there, winter or summer. I’ve never been there, but it’s on my bucket list!)

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While the parking area had seemed full, we only ran into a half dozen or so people and a few dogs on the trail. We made it nearly back to the parking area before we got to any sort of a downhill. Greyson stopped to remove his skins and set up for the (.4 mile, 180 foot downhill) while I trekked on on the snowshoes. This area was definitely more well trafficked, and the snow was packed down and a little icy. I found myself using the poles a lot for stability on the downhill.

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Before I knew it, Greyson came whooshing by me, and we were back at the gate. It was a perfect introduction to snowshoeing – great weather, gorgeous scenery, hard enough to feel like I was working but not miserable. I doubt that snowshoeing is something I’ll get really into, but it’s definitely a fun way to get into the backcountry.

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P.S. Greyson got me this amazing shirt for Christmas. I wore it today on our adventure, even though I was on snowshoes instead of a bike.

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How to Get There: Cold Stream Canyon is just a couple of miles from downtown Truckee. From downtown Truckee, head west on Donner Pass Rd for ~2 miles. Turn left at the four way stop on to Cold Stream Rd and park near the gate. Note: you can park further up the road if the gate is open, but the gate might be closed and locked by the property owners. I don’t think it’s worth the risk and park outside.

 

Resort Report: Sugar Bowl

This is my sixth winter in Tahoe! I can hardly believe it sometimes. It feels like I was just finishing grad school in Santa Barbara, like, last month. Over that past winters, I have been able to snowboard at five of Tahoe’s resorts, and I hope to try a couple of new ones this year.

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Photo by Greyson Howard.

All of Tahoe’s resorts have their pluses and minuses, and I thought that I could do a Resort Report with a local perspective.  I decided to start with my favorite: Sugar Bowl Resort.

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I was only introduced to Sugar Bowl a couple of winters ago, when I started dating Greyson, and I started hanging out in Truckee more. It quickly worked its way up to the top of my list! I’ve written before about some of my fun days at Sugar Bowl.

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First, a few facts:

  • Sugar Bowl is one of the oldest ski resorts in California. It started running its lifts in 1939, and celebrated its 75th Anniversary last year. One of Sugar Bowl’s initial investors was Walt Disney, and Mt. Disney and the Disney lift are named after him.
  • California’s first chairlift was built here, and lift tickets were originally $2!
  • Sugar Bowl has 4 peaks, 103 trails, 1,650 skiable acres, 1,500 vertical feet, with 17% beginner, 45% intermediate, and 38% advanced terrain.

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  • Since Sugar Bowl is located on the Western Slope of the Sierra, it often gets hammered by winter storms. It averages ~500 inches a year, the most in the Tahoe Basin (so they claim).
  • It’s Godzilla El Nino, and Sugar Bowl has the most snow of any resorts so far. 152″ this season!
  • Sugar Bowl also has a cross country ski area, Royal Gorge. Last year, I got to try fat biking there!

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Now, here’s my take on Sugar Bowl:

Pros:

  • Sugar Bowl has the shortest lift lines of any of the big resorts! Even on a “busy” powder weekend day, I’ve waited in line a max of ten minutes. Compared to Heavenly, where you can wait in line for an hour+ when things are busy, Sugar Bowl lift lines are amazing.
  • Related, Sugar Bowl is not usually crowded. It feels much more like a “locals” resort. Even on busy tourist weekends, Sugar Bowl has a much mellower feel.

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  • There are incredible views! From the top of Lincoln, you can look towards the Sierra Crest, towards Castle Peak, down on Donner Lake, and, if it’s a clear day, you can even see the Coast Range!
  • Sugar Bowl is a great resort if you want to advance from an intermediate to an advanced rider/skier. I found myself getting a lot more comfortable riding off piste once I started riding here.
  • I was used to riding at resorts that had mostly two settings: easy to fairly easy groomers and difficult tree & mogul skiing. It’s hard to make that jump! Sugar Bowl has a fair amount of terrain that will ease you in. They don’t groom every run, so there’s plenty of places where you can practice your off-piste technique.
  • There’s also a ton of advanced terrain and great access to the backcountry. I haven’t gotten to ride any backcountry yet, but that’s a goal for 2016!
  • Sugar Bowl is not usually very crowded, so it’s also a great place to learn. I know that when I was learning, other people stressed me out way more than steep terrain, so Sugar Bowl seems like a great place to learn.
  • They have the best Bloody Mary in Tahoe. Sugar Bowl also has their own beer, Sugar Bowl Pale Ale. Their food prices have gone up in the last couple of years. You used to be able to get a beer for $5! It’s still pretty reasonable compared to most resorts.

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Cons:

Obviously, I love Sugar Bowl, and I think there are way more pros than cons. It’s my favorite resort in Tahoe, but I look forward to exploring more to compare.

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How to get there: Sugar Bowl is off of old Highway 40. If Highway 40 is closed, you can get there via I80. The resort is about 20 minutes from downtown Truckee, 90 minutes from Sacramento and under 3 hours from San Francisco.

Where to eat: Here are my favorite Truckee restaurants.

Tahoe Winter Essentials

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Well, we’ve gotten more than a couple of feet of snow in the mountains over the last few days – I’d say it’s definitely winter! While we haven’t had a ton of snow the last few winters, I’ve figured out a few things that make the winter more enjoyable.

Winter Essentials

    1. A warm blanket. Greyson got me this Nemo Puffin Blanket for my birthday and I love it. You can even button up the bottom for a cozy foot pocket.
    2. A stylish beanie. Dry, cold winter air does not do the nicest things to my fine, straight hair – neither does stuffing my hair in a snowboard helmet for hours. A cute hat can cover up post-ride hair and keep your head warm. Krochet Kids has a bunch of cute options.
    3. Helmet and Goggles. Protecting your head and eyes is just as important in the winter as it is during the rest of the years. I like helmets that have vents so you can close them when it’s colder out and open them on warmer days. I have an older version of the Smith Sequel Helmet. I’m getting these Smith Squad Goggles with interchangeable lenses.
    4. Dry Shampoo. My hair gets super flat in the winter, and I can’t always throw on a hat. For those times, I swear by dry shampoo. I’ve tried a bunch of different brands, and my favorite has to be ROCKAHOLIC dry shampoo. It makes my bangs not-greasy, adds volume, doesn’t leave nearly as much white residue as other brands, and I love the smell.
    5. Down everything. There’s nothing better for cold, dry air than down. Patagonia now has 100% Traceable Down, so you know it is ethically collected. I have a Patagonia Down Sweater, a Marmot vest, and a hooded Marmot coat that are all great for different situations. Greyson even has down puffy pants that I occasionally borrow.
    6. Warm Base Layers. The most important part of staying warm while outside in the cold is a good base layer. I like natural fibers for their wicking abilities and their odor prevention. Anything from Icebreaker is super high quality like this long sleeve top and these leggings. For a cheaper brand that I’ve had great luck with, I recommend Stoic’s Alpine Merino Line. I have two pairs of bottoms and a long sleeve top, and they’ve held up really well. I find them on sale on Steep and Cheap fairly often.
    7. Coffee & Coffee Accessories. I drink coffee all year round, but there’s something special about a steaming hot cup of coffee when the temperature is below freezing. I’ve mentioned my love for the insulated Klean Kanteen before, which will keep your coffee hot for up to 6 hours! To make the best coffee, I like to use a pour over coffee maker or a French Press. Etsy also has a ton of adorable ceramic pour over coffee makers if you’re looking for something handmade. Last year, I splurged on this automatic Burr Mill for amazing, fresh ground beans.
    8. A Super Nice Ice Scraper: At one point, I had a really nice long handled scraper with an attached broom, but I lent it out, never got it back, and now make do with a regular scraper and cold hands. I also wouldn’t say no to this ice scraper with mitt attached.

These essentials would make great gifts – for yourself or anyone who needs help staying warm this winter.

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!