Secrets of Truckee: 16 things you may not know

When most people think the High Sierras, they probably think Lake Tahoe. And that's for good reason. Lake Tahoe, after all, is the largest alpine lake in North America, and easily one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the U.S. But just beyond Lake Tahoe is the charming, historic town of Truckee, conveniently located minutes from several of California's best ski resorts, and even boasting its own lake (albeit much smaller). 

But after years of traveling and living around California, there's perhaps no town that's as unique and fascinating to me as Truckee. It's altogether quaint, yet quirky, beautiful, yet mysterious. So today, I'm sharing a photo essay and some of my favorite, most unique things about Truckee.

1. Truckee is one of the coldest, snowiest towns in America.

Truckee has frequently been ranked in past years as one of the snowiest, coldest towns in America. While that was possibly debated in past years, there's no debating it now, especially after January saw record-breaking amounts of snow, and ski resorts are breaking snow records left and right. According to The Telegraph, California is the snowiest place on earth right now.  

2. Truckee was the setting of one of the most infamous stories of the 19th century.


But to understand just how cold and snowy Truckee can be, you needn't look any further than the Donner Party, which was anything but a party. During the winter of 1846-1847, the group of pioneers fell victim to that coldest, snowiest place in America. Their story lives on here at Donner Memorial State Park

3. Truckee has a free inter-mountain gondola that rides to The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. 


That's right, there's a hidden, quasi-secret gondola that connects the Village at Northstar to The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. And, it's free! To find it, head toward the entrance of the Village, veering off to the right toward the back of Northstar Lodge, where you'll find the Highlands Gondola, which runs late in the evening most days.

4. Northstar California snowmaking pipeline stretches more than 22 miles.

22 miles! That's nearly the distance from Truckee to Reno. And that's just what's required to turn Thanksgiving Holiday Weekend into Thanksgiving Ski Weekend.

5. Avy dog programs like the ones at Northstar California are life-saving, non-profits.

Those cute dogs you see trotting around the mountain? They aren't show dogs, but rather some of a ski resort's most important personnel, and what many resorts (including Northstar California) and local authorities depend on during rescue operations. However, to operate, they depend on the help of people like you.

6. Northstar California has a ski-up Champagne bar (and they serve free Champagne!).

Who doesn't want a little bubbly? So give the people what they want! Northstar California’s ski-up Champagne bar, tōst, boasts warm fire pits, comfy lounge chairs, and a VIP area, Platinum tōst. However, you will have to work a little bit for it. After all, tōst is located off the East Ridge Trail (Blue), which means you'll need a pair of skis or a snowboard to get there. Once there, you can lounge all day, stop by in-between runs, or show up just before 2pm for the daily complimentary glass and toast to the mountain.

7. Free s'mores are given out daily in the Village at Northstar California.

What's better than free champagne? Well free s'mores, of course. And you can find those daily in the Village at Northstar at 3:30 p.m. during the winter. Furthermore, several mornings per winter involve "S'mornings," when Northstar's executive chef greets the first skiers and snowboarders of the day at the Big Springs Gondola with bacon-wrapped s'mores. 

8. Northstar has off-piste ski terrain beyond the groomed ski runs.

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Just beyond Northstar's corduroy is a number of off-piste areas. Take a short (but strenuous) hike off the Challenger ski run, and you’ll reach Sawtooth Ridge. Even if you make the hike on the busiest days, you’re sure to find freshies, such as at White Rabbit (open only when conditions are just right), tucked between Lookout Mountain and the Backside. Furthermore, you can explore it with the help of Northstar's expert private guides, offered through the Adventure, Guiding & Learning Center

9. Truckee is home to the only Burton Academy in the world. 

Only in Truckee, and only at Northstar California, can aspiring snowboarders enroll in the snowboarding academy of one of the foremost snowboard brands in the world, Burton. What's more, Burton Academy is available, too, for current snowboarders, thanks to perks like access to exclusive terrain park features, including mini rollers and a mini halfpipe.

10. One of the longest trails in the world meanders above Truckee.

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Atop the mountain peaks and amidst the thick forest surrounding Truckee is one of the longest hiking trails in the world, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). And it just happens to be one of the most beautiful sections of the trail, with the trail crossing over Donner Pass Road at Donner Summit.

11. The Truckee River is the sole outlet of Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe isn't the only important waterway in the High Sierras. Enter the Truckee River, a 121-mile river that flows from Lake Tahoe, through Truckee, down to Reno, and all the way to Pyramid Lake in the Great Basin. 

12. Perched high above Truckee are century-old abandoned train tunnels. 

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One of the coolest places in Truckee, the Donner Pass abandoned railroad tunnels are full of intrigue, mystery, and graffiti. These tunnels once made up one of the most difficult sections of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Today, however, they are a fun walk with some of the best views of Donner Lake.

13. Donner Summit is considered the most important square mile in California.  


Few square miles in America have the intrigue and history that Donner Summit has. In addition to being a part of the first Transcontinental Railroad, Donner Summit was also part of the first transcontinental highway, Lincoln Highway. But before important railways and highways, it was the backdrop of the fateful Donner Party, and long before then, it was passage for scores of Native Americans, some of whom even left petroglyphs that you'll still find around the summit. That's a lot of history for one square mile.

14. Truckee is home to one of the best stargazing destinations in California. 

What often makes a great stargazing destination is high elevation, low light pollution, and wide open, cloud-free skies. And that's just what you get beyond the town lights of Truckee. Truckee even has its own star guide, Tony Berendsen, who organizes stargazing tours.

15. The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe has a 55-foot-tall stone fireplace. 

Dubbed, the "Tree Trunk," The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe's fireplace was the first structure built on-site, requiring 20 local masons and 200 tons of stone that were hand-placed. Standing below it and looking up feels much like standing at the base of a massive tree. Now that's a serious fireplace.

16. Complete the California Double in Truckee. 

The "California Double," as it's frequently called, involves snowboarding (or skiing) and surfing in one day. But that's not just something you can do anywhere. Yet with Truckee's location off I-80, you could surf in the morning in San Francisco, hop on the 80, and be on Northstar's slopes by lunch.  

Southern born and bred, Spencer was bitten by the travel bug at a young age, flying on a plane for the first time at age five and by himself for the first time at seven. While he continues to travel around the world in search for the best whiskey, Spencer now calls Reno home, where his search is for the best cocktail (and first tracks, naturally). He has written about travel, food, and drinks for a number of publications that have included the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and Travel + Leisure, just to name a few. See a more candid version of Spencer on his website,, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.