Day: Friday, July 22nd 2016
Miles: 1129.7 – 1153.4
Remote Camp 1129.7 – Donner Pass (Clair Tappan Lodge) 1153.4
There was a beautiful full (or near to full) moon last night. So bright in fact, that from the exposed ridge I was camped on, it was difficult to sleep with the flashlamp-bright beam in my face. I ended up getting the best and soundest sleep for the last hour or so before I wearily realized the exposure was also going to ensure a happy sunrise met a harsh morning grimace from my camp. On the other hand, today I would be reunited with two places that are familiar to me, Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley ski resorts – two places I was lucky enough to visit back in March when this entire region was cloaked in a snowy jacket.
As I hit the trail, the excitement had grown to a level where I had a good bounce in my step, only assisted when the trail hit the ridge-top and followed that alignment for the entire journey to the summit at Alpine Meadows around 5miles distant.
Finally arriving at the summit, the entire area was unrecognizable, the ugliness of ski resorts out of season really being quite remarkable. I was able to peer down to the base area and identify a few places where some fun runs or a speed wobble or two were had back in March!
Beyond the excitement of Alpine Meadows, the trail followed a deep valley as it twisted and turned to align with the bowls behind Squaw Valley ski area. Both of the ski areas owned by the same company and are right beside each other however somehow they are unconnected, likely thanks to a really pretty area of forest that blocks the valley between them. I think I can understand why they haven’t been connected Asa result although it would be a sweet ski area of there was even a single connector!
As the valley dropped to a pleasant creek, I refilled water and talked to some other section hikers about the fun of thru-hiking. The trail then ascended towards Squaw and specifically the Granite Chief Wilderness area, named for a mountain of that name at its pinnacle. I was excited to reach this area as I had ridden the Granite Chief ski chair at Squaw Valley back in March, crossing the Pacific Crest Trail whilst sitting on the lift! The trail wound up the valley quite steeply, ranging from switchbacks to beautiful meadows populated by particularly well fed marmots. When I reached the area close to the summit, I sought out a specific tree that I had photographed back in March, a gnarled dead tree that looked spectacular in the snow and chills of a Sierra winter. I excitedly found the tree right by the point where the trail crested the Granite Chief – a huge nerd-out moment for me!
The trail then moved beyond the granite chief and after a series of descents, rose to another spectacular ridge affording views to Tahoe in the southeast and across to the town of Truckee as well as a distant mountain I now know to be Mt.Lassen volcano, around 150 trail miles distant. The main target was a butte named Tinker Knob which was at the highest point on the ridge.
Finally having summited, my excitement began to focus on the possibility of making it to Donner Pass by the early afternoon. The Donner Ski Ranch at Donner is a well known ski spot (as one of the first lift served areas that allowed snowboarding) and also offered food and drinks right off the trail. If I made the ski ranch then a greasy dinner and a free beer was assured! My steps hastened as the ridges descended towards Donner, the fulcrum of highway, rail and historical road access to California from the interior (as well as the final destination of the ill fated Donner party). As I eventually met the road through the pass, a passing motorist pulled over and asked if I was a thru-hiker, after answering yes he popped two cans of an IPA I’m quite fond of, out the window to me and wished me happy trails! Trail magic!
Arriving to the ski ranch it was clear that a few people beat me to it. Regardless, a beer, greasy dinner and pie was enjoyed in the company of a few nice hikers – some I knew and some were new(!)
After this ski ranch, I hitched with a local lady in her trusty early-90s Subaru about two miles west to the Clair Tappan Lodge, a lodge owned by the Sierra Club and operated similarly to the AMC hiker lodges in the east (although in my experience the Sierra Club lodge was a lot more hiker friendly and very well priced). Arriving too late for dinner, the chef and night manager looked after me by allowing me to have some of the dinner leftovers – a big full plate of hearty food and importantly potatoes! I completed some laundry before retiring to a nearly empty dorm and a comfy bed for the night after solid day of diverse hiking and social activities. Getting to Donner Pass unscathed was another big milestone for me!