PCT: Donner Pass to Sierra City

Downieville

Lake Tahoe

A meandering course over consecutive ridges and valleys, with no shortage of vast views or comfortable camps.

Hiking Moderate

Distance
65 km
Ascent
1.8 km
Descent
2.6 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
1.4 km
High Point
2.6 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Donner Pass to Sierra City Map

Description

Between Donner Pass and Highway 49 at Sierra City, the PCT covers a convoluted swath of the Sierra Nevada. Here the peaks are somewhat subdued, at least compared to the behemoths farther south, but these glacially ground volcanoes march away in every direction from the trail. The Sierra Crest remains well defined here, often as a bald ridge snaking between opposing basins. On this section, the trail folds back and forth along the divide, rising and falling in a pattern of forest shroud and mountain vistas. The elevation changes are never too severe, making this a relatively friendly stretch of the PCT, at least in late summer when the snow has melted and the weather is favorable. During that time, even the casual section hiker can enjoy this underrated stretch of the trail, walking the airy crest each day and descending to sheltered camps each night.

From Donner Pass, the trail immediately strikes across a granite balcony, above the road and beneath a crag that’s popular with rock climbers. The view is tremendous of Donner Lake and a Truckee below. Next, aggressive switchbacks climb a brushy slope beneath another granite headwall, then the trail levels out and passes a small bench lake (NB mile 1154.6). From there, it’s mostly downhill, but through a rugged maze of rocks and trees, until I-80 where a culvert delivers the trail beneath the freeway (NB mile 1157). Note that this is the official end of CA Section K, and Section L proceeds northward from here.

On the other side of the road, a trail junction leads to the westbound rest area, which has restrooms and drinking water. The PCT turns and soon enters Castle Valley, a popular place for car camping and day hiking. The trail works its way uphill, through boulder-strewn forest with some seasonal streams, to Castle Pass (NB mile 1159.9). Trees dampen the view, but Castle Peak rises impressively in vertical bluffs above.

From there, the trail goes down into Round Valley and passes a backcountry hut of Claire Tappaan Lodge (NB mile 1160.8). There are good campsites nearby, but maybe no water later in the season. From there, it’s uphill again, surpassing 8000 feet on slopes flecked with yellow flowers. Basin Peak Spring (NB mile 1162.2) may produce water late season, but more reliable sources come once the trail zigzags back down into a forested valley. There you’ll find several campsites near a stream and a pond at the edge of a grassy meadow (NB mile 1164.4)

The trail rises to another windswept mountain shoulder, then descends into another valley with flowing water in White Rock Creek and excellent campsites (NB mile 1167). From there, the pattern continues, but this time with steeper uphill to a bald ridge followed by a gentler descent, across a meadow in an alpine bowl. After intersecting a dirt road (NB mile 1169.2) the trail swings out to a rocky point, overlooking avalanche chutes at the head of a forested basin.

From there, the PCT meanders along a sparsely treed ridge, then drops into a valley to cross Lacey Creek and unpaved Meadow Lake Road near some campsites (NB mile 1172.3). Then it’s yet another climb, on a yet higher ridge to sweeping views above the timberline. Water may be scarce for the next several miles, but Mule Ears Creek (NB mile 1179.3) usually holds at least a trickle.

The next major descent reaches a pass with a dirt road (NB mile 1179.6), then a slight uphill turns to a lengthy descent, all the way to Pass Creek, where the trail crosses the stream on a road bridge (NB mile 1183.6). Jackson Meadows Reservoir is not far away, with a handful of developed and primitive campgrounds near its shore. From here, water becomes plentiful once more, as the trail works its way down to the North Yuba River.

Leaving paved roads by the lake behind, the PCT rises to a gap between ragged volcanic domes, where there are several dry campsites (NB mile 1184.7). From there, the trail twists briefly downhill, only to crest another ridgeline a mile farther. Finally, the uphill ends as switchbacks lead down toward Milton Creek. Once at the creek, it’s crossed by one wooden bridge (MB mile 1190.7) and then another about a mile later. Each spot has a decent campsite nearby.

Continuing down through this steep valley of thickening forest, the trail next crosses Haypress Creek on a sturdy metal bridge (NB mile 1192.9). The real treat comes shortly after, however, at the steel arch bridge over the North Yuba River (NB mile 1195), where a three-tiered waterfall tumbles below. Shortly after is the highway (NB mile 1195.4), and Sierra City is a mile and a half west. It’s a tiny town, but has ample services, including a grocery and post office.

Permits: This segment is within Tahoe National Forest, where no permits are required for hiking or backcountry camping. However, the California Fire Permit is generally required for campfires or use of a camp stove (barring any seasonal restrictions). Also, section hikers may need to pay fees or present a recreation pass for parking at certain trailheads.

Sources: https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/maps/ https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://pctwater.com/

Difficulty

Moderate

Hiking along trails with some uneven terrain and small hills. Small rocks and roots may be present.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

2 out of 4

Away from help but easily accessed.

Best time to visit

June, July, August, September, October

Features

  • Alpine
  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Summit Hike
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area