Trip Ideas

Donner Summit – Gateway To The Backcountry This Winter

Find deep snow, quiet off the beaten path locales, and a hardy community that loves its paradise up high. Here's what to do, places to eat, where to go and stay.

Tips & Resources

Get ready and start planning by exploring the adventures available to you on the Donner Summit Association’s Adventure page.

For even more things to do and more about its history Visit Truckee-Tahoe’s Guide To Donner Summit

If you’re craving a more authentic experience, one that leaves you with a feeling that you truly got to know Nevada County’s hidden gems then check out our article – Stop & Smell The Pie – Explore Lincoln Highway Donner Pass

By Laura Petersen

From Castle Peak to the headwaters of the South Yuba River, Van Norden Meadow and Serene Lakes, Donner Summit is a recreationist’s dream. With miles and miles of hiking and biking trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail, world class granite walls for climbing and six ski resorts, visitors have access to world class adventures every month of the year.

“It’s quite beautiful, has breathtaking views, is historically fascinating and is a great place for recreating,”

said Christopher Parker, President of the Truckee Trails Foundation and Vice President of Real Estate and Resort Development for Sugar Bowl Corporation.

Christopher has worked on the summit since 1987. He enjoys Donner Summit for the winter sports, high elevation backcountry skiing and snow play, beautiful Fall hikes and biking, trail running, summer hiking, dining and Spring birding.

When he has guests he takes them to the Judah Loop Trail. Other favorites are a hike from Sugar Bowl to Palisades on the Pacific Crest Trail, a hike north on the trail toward Castle Valley or mountain biking on the Hole-in-the-Ground Trail.

Explore Rich History

Snow shed Donner Pass Summit Tunnels
Image taken by: Chief Ranger BY CC 2.0

Donner Summit is a place of many important historic firsts, including transcontinental crossings that linked California to the rest of the U.S. via railroad, highway, air route and telephone lines.

“The history of Donner Summit is deeply tied to its geography, weather and role in human mobility. From the ancestors of the Maidu, Miwok and Washoe tribes, European immigrants, Chinese railroad workers to modern-day travelers, Donner Summit is quite possibly the most historic piece of ground in California,” said Christopher Parker.

The holidays are here and residents and businesses on Donner Summit are gearing up for another busy winter season.

Old Mountain Flair

 Looking north toward Castle Valley, Basin Peak and Castle Peak in winter.
Photo by Bill Stevenson, courtesy Truckee Donner Land Trust

Visitors looking to beat the weekend crowds can find outdoor bliss with a midweek winter visit to Donner Summit, the local’s best kept secret for some quality chill time.

One minute off Interstate 80 and 10 minutes from downtown Truckee, Donner Summit is steeped in California history, surrounded by breathtaking mountain views and an adventurer’s playground.

“Donner Summit is the gateway to the backcountry and the outdoor splendor we all want in our lives,”

said Nevada County Supervisor Hardy Bullock, who represents the area.

“It’s a diamond in the rough. It has that old mountain flair. It’s iconic,” said Bullock who has lived in Truckee for 30 years. The County Supervisor has a soft spot for Donner Summit. It’s where he worked as a night ski patrol at Boreal when he was a student at University of Nevada, Reno and where he met his wife of 25 years at the summit while rock climbing.

An Unspoiled Gem

A mountain biker near Rowton Peak, Photo by David Bunker, courtesy Truckee Donner Land Trust

Bullock believes Donner Summit is an unspoiled gem. Like many locals, he wants long term sustainability and economic development for the region and is working hard to strike the right balance.

There’s a lot at stake and it’s a delicate dance of attracting thoughtful visitors to the outdoor mecca while providing affordable housing for the resort workforce, building a sense of community for year round residents and preserving the history, natural beauty and authentic charm of this special place.

“I think there is a tactful way to enhance the community without losing its character,” he said.

Always challenged by the extreme forces of nature, terrain and weather, Donner Summit is a place for survivors. Last winter’s record breaking snowpack and tumbling rockslides wreaked havoc on a section of Donner Pass Road and led to months of closures of the popular scenic drive during the height of summer’s outdoor tourist season.

Though it’s one of the snowiest passes along the Sierra Crest, Donner Summit is accessible year round making it a rare and welcome retreat for outdoor lovers looking for a more rugged and authentic mountain experience.

Forest resiliency, specifically forest health and wildfire protection, and securing a reliable internet service provider remains some of the top challenges for the summit.

County officials are working to support businesses in the region struggling from the challenges of winter storms, wildfire smoke, road construction and closures, and the lingering impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While Donner Summit has a small population, it is a perfect spot for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Real Deal

Van Norden Meadow at sunset, photo by Bill Stevenson, courtesy Truckee Donner Land Trust

People who live and work on Donner Summit are resilient, says Cheryl Paduano who runs the Soda Springs General Store seven days a week with her husband Tony on the west end of Old Highway 40 just past the gas station.

Even during harsh winters, the couple keeps the store humming, serving up favorites like steaming bowls of chili made from scratch, their famous quarter pound hot dogs and Lobster rolls on Fridays. It’s a place to stock up on provisions, buy snow gear or sip a glass of wine, cocktail or beer on the front porch.

“We’re open every day even if there’s no electricity, we have generators,” said Cheryl, who recently celebrated the General Store’s 20 year anniversary. Despite the hard winters, Cheryl says she never tires of the gorgeous views or the friends she has found in the tight knit community.

Cheryl wants visitors to know that the business district of Old Highway 40, west of the ski academy and climbing wall remains open, even when there are road closures on Donner Pass Road near the overlook of Donner Lake at the Rainbow Bridge.

She says a midweek vacation to Donner Summit is a great way to relax and slow down.

“We’re in the wilderness. We’re the real deal. No matter which direction you look, you’re surrounded by pine trees, mountains and Castle Peak.”

Visit Donner Summit Historical Society to learn more.

With so many options, visitors will want to visit again and again. Get ready and start planning by visiting the Donner Summit Association’s website.

Know & Go Break Out Box

Where to Eat

Old 40 Bar & Grill at Donner Ski Ranch

homemade strawberry rhubarb pie
Image appears courtesy: Donner Ski Ranch – Old 40 Bar & Grill

This favorite local dive bar is the place for fueling up after a long day playing outdoors. Choose from classics like pizza and burgers, cocktails and Janet’s legendary pies.

19320 Donner Pass Road
Phone: (530) 426-3635

Soda Springs General Store and Deli

A one-stop shop for fresh deli sandwiches, groceries, produce, dairy, snacks, beer, wine, seasonal apparel, gifts, automotive supplies and more.

21719 Donner Pass Road
Phone: (530) 426-3080

Little Truckee Creamery

Housemade natural ice cream and espresso await in the quaint scoop shop on Donner Pass Road at the west end of Donner Lake.

15628 Donner Pass Road
Phone: (530) 263-2680

Donner Lake Kitchen

13720 Donner Pass Road
(530) 587-3555

A breakfast tradition for many and vegetarian friendly!

Where to Stay

Clair Tappaan Lodge

Built by a dedicated group of Sierra Club volunteers in 1934, this historic, rustic mountain hostel can accommodate up to 140 guests and offers miles of trails perfect for snowshoeing from the backdoor.

19940 Donner Pass Road
(530) 426-3632

Rainbow Lodge

This historic lodge with a backdrop of 114 acres of pristine landscape and the South Yuba River is the idyllic setting for up to 120 guests.

50080 Hampshire Rocks Rd
(530) 562-5060

Find more lodging options at Donner Summit CA

Time for Winter Play

In winter, Donner Summit offers some of the most authentic skiing left in the Sierra.

Schuss down the slopes at Soda Springs, Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch and Sugar Bowl resorts. Or bring a picnic and enjoy the scenery while cross country skiing at Royal Gorge, the largest cross country ski area in North America!

Backcountry more your thing? Check out Castle Peak, Basin Peak, Andesite Peak, Mt. Judah, Donner Peak, Mt. Lincoln and Anderson Peak. Find more great ski and board trip ideas at

If the kids want to go sledding, head to Kingvale Resort. This premier sledding and snow play venue features 12 different lanes. There’s a smaller hill for the more timid sledders and a designated snow play area.

Ready, Set, Snowshoe!

Discover red fir forests, massive boulder fields and incredible vistas, all beginning right out the back door at Clair Tappaan Lodge.

Take a Scenic Drive


The Lincoln Highway and Rainbow Bridge (Donner Summit Bridge)

When the weather allows, take a scenic drive up Old Highway 40 to the iconic Rainbow Bridge, also known as the Donner Summit Bridge. Its unique arch and curve made it the first of its kind when completed in August 1926. A century later, it’s still a sight to see.

Stop at the Donner Lake Overlook where interpretive signs tell the learn the history of this area.Take in the gorgeous 360 degree vistas of Donner Lake, rock climbers on granite walls and the historic train tunnels tucked into the side of Donner Peak.

The Lincoln Highway or Donner Pass Road cuts through the Pacific Crest Trail and is a good access point for backpackers and day hikers during the warmer months. The Pacific Crest Trail is a National Scenic Trail spanning 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington.

Find more attractions at Donner Summit Association.

How To Get There:

Donner Summit is accessible via Interstate 80. Take Exit 174 and head east for trails, skiing and restaurants.

From Historic Downtown Truckee, take Donner Pass Road heading west, passing Donner Lake and ascend up toward Donner Summit, marking the start of Old Highway 40. Check road conditions before taking this route!

Be prepared. Always remember to plan your trip by checking weather and road conditions before you head out. Dress appropriately and be sure to stock up on winter gear.

Find more adventures!

Explore Donner Summit Adventures
Visit Truckee-Tahoe’s Guide To Donner Summit
Stop & Smell The Pie – Explore Lincoln Highway Donner Pass


Laura Petersen

Laura Petersen has a passion for storytelling and for two decades has chronicled the people and places of Northern California. Fascinated by folk who make a rustic livelihood from the land, her writing examines the complexities of human relationships with nature through topics such as sustainability, food and farming, arts & culture and outdoor recreation. In 2018, she founded Hiking For Good and can regularly be found hiking on trails in Nevada County. Read her work at and contact her at

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