Simply put, there's nothing that compares to ripping down the slopes around Lake Tahoe, especially after the last month of snow we've had. But when I'm not shredding downhill, I'm trekking uphill, exploring any number of the great peaks around Lake Tahoe. So today I come to you with five of my favorite North Lake Tahoe peaks to summit.
Donner Peak – 7988’
Perched atop Donner Summit, Donner Peak stands alone, just waiting for you. Standing just below 8,000 feet, Donner Peak's climb is inviting during all seasons, but particularly this time of year, offering a special, snowy view for those willing to summit during winter’s kiss. A medium-grade ascent, it requires snowshoes only, although I always suggest poles, proper layering, and a spare first aid kit. While this is not a hand-over-foot climb, with adequate cardio and ambition, this four-mile roundtrip is a very doable hike for all ages. Winter trails are less restrictive, so I’d recommend bearing southwest from the Pacific Crest Trail Trailhead atop Donner Summit.
Castle Peak – 9,104'
The symbolic entrance to North Lake Tahoe, Castle Peak welcomes all who are caravanning on I-80 East with a wide bluff of volcanic rock that can't be missed. Located off the Boreal Ridge Road exit, Castle Peak is a local’s favorite for 360-degree views of the Sierras. To the north, there are the Buttes (and on a clear day, Mt. Lassen), to the west there's the Sacramento valley (again, on a clear day Mt. Diablo), to the east there's Mt. Rose, and to the south, Desolation Wilderness. A six-mile roundtrip trek through wilderness floor before the wind-scoured Sierra Ridge, this winter ascent is not suitable for beginners, but a breathtaking reward awaits any who conquer it. The trails in the valley below can be heavily-trafficked, but especially be aware if you choose to make the difficult climb to the top. Once there, full cell service is your lifeline to North Lake Tahoe patrons below in Truckee. Give them a ring, do a FaceTime dance, and then meet up at Mellow Fellow for a brew and tale to tell!
Hawk’s Peak – 7,729'
A Tahoe Donner classic, Hawk’s Peak is a perfect day hike with the family and a picnic box. A Caterpillar-groomed trail beckons you from the north side of Ski Slope Drive, signaling what type of difficulty you seek.
- Black Diamond: Head off trail and straight up.
- Blue Circle: Navigate off-trail, zigzagging up the slope to the sounds of your favorite Iggy Pop song.
- Green Square: Stay on the groomed path, although be watchful of cross-country skiers (some may have a bark, but none bite).
One of the best parts of Hawk’s Peak, perhaps more than any other North Lake Tahoe peak, is the element of safety. With proper layering and outerwear, you can nearly walk up in your day shoes (though that may come with some laughs from fellow Hawk’s hikers). I recommend using a pair of snowshoes, or at a minimum, lace up your Sorels. With views from every angle, Hawk’s Peak is a surefire 3-mile out and back hit!
Tamarack Peak – 9,897′
For every time you’ve flipped on RSN or Lake Tahoe TV, you’ve undoubtedly been entranced by scenes of the Lake from a pilot’s view. More often than not, they are frames from Tamarack Peak, perched high above Lake Tahoe. To get there, take Mt. Rose Highway (from Lake Tahoe) and park just shy of Mt. Rose Ski Area near Mt. Rose Highway’s summit. The trailhead will lead you west with a gradual two-mile, one-way hike through high alpine forests before the trail climbs above the tree line. You'll follow the gut of the valley in between a ridge to the left and right (do not be concerned if the touring ski tracks lead in different directions; they all lead up). Upon entrance to the hourglass bowl (one of Tahoe’s last great off-piste downhill terrains without a ski lift), you'll be faced with the decision of whether to burn 400 or 600 calories within a half-hour. For a 400-hundred calorie burn, hang starboard and navigate the ridge. For a 600-hundred calorie burn, head straight up. With a small 100-yard jaunt to Tamarack Peak from this point, you’ll find yourself fighting the fatigue and lack of oxygen by gasps of utter amazement – the most spectacular view of Lake Tahoe.
Lookout Mountain – 8,120’
If you’re seeking a grand ski affair in North Lake Tahoe, dismiss the lines and crowds elsewhere and head to the 40-degree pitch of Northstar California’s Lookout Mountain, where the ski trails are unbeatable and the view is bar none. Thrill seekers are easily satisfied with groomed terrain and tree skiing, while the whole family can be entertained not only by vista, but by the value add of a ski lift. A north facing slope, the snow is always quality and the Martis Valley resting below is always memorable.