Monday, September 05, 2011

Donner Lake Rim Trail - PCT Loop

Trail: 75% Technical singletrack, 25% dirt road.

Distance: 28 1/2 miles (partial loop)

Difficulty: Challenging

Trailhead: This "loop" requires a short shuttle, so you'll want to leave a car at the finish. From I-80, exit Donner Pass Rd. in Truckee. For westbound traffic, turn left across the freeway and left at the blinking light. For eastbound traffic, go straight through the blinking light. Park on Coldstream Rd. near the 76 station and the Truckee Donner Lodge.

To reach the Teton Way trailhead in Tahoe Donner to start the run, head east on Donner Pass Rd., then turn left on Northwoods Blvd. Turn left at the blinking light (Northwoods) and left again on Ski Slope Way. Look for the trailhead on your left after you cross under the power lines. 

Season: July to October

Water: In early season, there are creeks along the DLRT and always at Summit Lake (~mile 9). There is typically little or no water on the PCT. In summer (mid-June through late August) you may be able to fill up from the spigot at the Sugar Bowl Academy on Donner Summit (mile 16). There are creeks along the Coldstream Trail (~mile 24 to 26) all season.

Notes: If you want a more scenic finish than Coldstream Canyon and don't mind a slightly longer shuttle, leave a car parked at Squaw Valley (behind OVI and next to the fire station) and skip the Coldstream trail. Continue past Tinker's on the PCT and drop down on the Granite Chief Trail for 3 miles into Squaw.

Looking out at Anderson Ridge and Tinker's Knob, 2 miles into my run.

Trail Description:

I ran this route as a loop, since I am lucky enough to live in the forested area between the two trailheads. By connecting three miles of unofficial trail and about two miles of pavement, I got in 33 miles right out my door.

Running through Tahoe Donner from the Teton Way trailhead, I kept my eye on the map at the well-marked trail junctures. When I hit the Donner Lake Rim Trail on Donner Ridge, I dropped down into Negro Canyon toward Castle Peak.

Looking down into Negro Canyon from Donner Ridge with Castle Peak in the background.
On this Monday in August, the DLRT was blissfully deserted. I had it all to myself.

Water can be had at several streams through Negro Canyon, but most are usually dry by late July. (This year was quite an exception!)

The next water source is Summit Lake, about nine miles in from Teton Way.

Summit Lake
After the rocky, exposed granite near Summit Lake, the path again becomes forested. Upon reaching the trail junction with Warren Lake, I headed south on the PCT (the opposite direction from Warren Lake).

In less than two miles, I crossed under I-80 via two easy tunnels.

Running under semi's!

I had taken this day as a solo effort because my weekend was full, and no one could join me on a Monday. I couldn't recall the last time I had done a long run by myself, and it seemed a beautiful way to celebrate summer's near end.

There was a time when I did all on my training alone because I simply didn't know anyone who wanted to run so far. Now I am blessed with many wonderful training partners, and I feel truly lucky. But it was nice, on this day, to remember the girl who always used to be alone, and to revel in the joy that I still find in my wilderness solitude. I know and love these trails. I feel safe here. And even though 33 miles was a tall order for me on this day, I had not a shred of concern that I wouldn't make it.

Looking back at Castle Peak from near Donner Summit.

Donner Lake and Old Hwy 40 at Donner Summit.

After crossing Old 40, I stopped at the Sugar Bowl Academy to refill my water from their spigot, located on the east side of the parking lot. This is fine during summer months, when school is not in session, but be respectful at other times and stay off campus.

I followed the road behind to school to where the trail again resumed it's rocky, singletrack personality. Here, the trail climbs up Mt. Judah through the Sugar Bowl ski area.

This trail can be quite crowded on summer weekends, but I saw only a handful of people.

Climbing over the shoulder of Mt. Lincoln, I looked across Anderson Ridge to see my destination, Tinker's Knob, where I would leave the PCT.

Anderson Ridge

Looking toward the back side of Squaw.

The wildflowers, still thick along the trail, were a testament to the big winter and late summer!

At Anderson Peak, I took a short detour on a side trail to the Benson Hut. This Sierra Club hut is a great ski touring destination in winter!

The Benson Hut

Tinker's Knob, viewed from Anderson Peak.

The trail around Anderson and Tinker's is quite rocky!

At Tinker's, I left the PCT to follow the Coldstream Trail back down to Truckee.

A quick glimpse of Tahoe before leaving the ridge.

The Coldstream Trail was a new one for me, and I was pleasantly surprised at its beauty. It was clearly little-used, but the singletrack followed the spine of a ridge with excellent views for the first three miles.

Soon, I was down in the canyon and back into familiar territory near the Lost Trail Lodge.

The Coldstream Trail

The Lost Trail Lodge

Crossing over the tracks at horseshoe bend, I knew I was almost home.

The last few miles were a slog, as I knew they would be. That's what happens when you run all your miles for the week in a single day. I'd taken it quite easy and enjoyed myself immensely, but was definitely pushing the limits of my fitness.

The last two miles were on hot, flat, hardpacked, dirt road. I let myself take walking breaks because, what the heck. Why not?

Self-portrait on Coldstream Road


  1. What a great loop and photo tour. There are some weeks left, but I'm already missing the running high-season.

  2. Looks like a fantastic run! Thank you for capturing the beautiful photos and sharing your day. I would love to join you sometime!

  3. It's so pretty I can't stand it!

  4. Nice! 33 solo miles, eh? Sounds fun :) It's been so long since I've done a solo long run. Those always made for a leathery mental state in races. Me'thinks I need to incorporate more of those these days as I think I've gone soft, lol :)

  5. Hank - Yep, I hear ya. Time to get those long runs in while we still can!

    Nicole - You're welcome! Let me know when you're up here for a run.

    Meghan - And that's saying something, considering all the beautiful places you have been recently!

    Paige - It really was fun. I don't even think running long solo is any more challenging than doing it with friends. It just feels different. It's good to mix it up!

  6. I stumbled across this run on the internet or really from the hardrock twitter where you did a pre race write up. Hope hardrock went well. I wanted to thank for the new run. It was amazing. I hope to check out more you have put up.