For trail running in North Lake Tahoe, there are few hubs like Castle Valley. Castle Valley rests atop Donner Summit a mere fifteen minutes from Truckee. With easy access just off Interstate 80 and a plethora of loops, routes, and trails to choose from, Castle Valley is hard to pass up. And when you then add the craggy and scenic Castle Peak looming above, a massive mountain meadow choked with wildflowers for half the summer, and sun-kissed pines releasing sweet coniferous perfume into the air, Castle Valley at Donner Summit transforms into something more –it's a veritable trail runner’s paradise.
What Makes It Great
There are three main loops in Castle Valley, all utilizing Castle Valley Road (Forest Service Road 80-50) as the main stem.
The first loop begins on Castle Valley Road near the mouth of Castle Valley. Head up the road for approximately .75- miles. Castle Valley Road will begin to rise above the valley floor. Turn right on the first dirt road with a sign indicating it accesses the Donner Lake Rim Trail. This road will drop back to the valley floor, cross Castle Creek, and rise again. Within a few turns the road crosses the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Turn left onto the PCT. The PCT runs all the way to Canada in this direction, but follow it only uphill to Castle Pass and the head of the valley. At Castle Pass, the saddle between Castle Peak to the east, and the much smaller Andesite Peak to the west, leave the PCT and follow the unmarked trail west along the ridgeline toward Andesite Peak. After a short, steep pitch this trail “T’s” into the Hole in the Ground Trail. Hole in the Ground Trail is a popular mountain biking trail. Turn left onto the Hole in the Ground Trail, gain the ridge, then descend back to Castle Valley Road through a series of switchbacks beneath a thick red-fir canopy. Most bike traffic will only be slowly climbing the hill toward you, but still, be aware of your surroundings. Turn right onto Castle Valley Road to end back where you started. This loop is approximately 4-miles.
The second loop begins the same as the first, but when you get to Castle Pass, continue on the PCT and descend into round valley, yet another lush, wildflower-filled haven. Just past the flats of the valley, and before the PCT begins to climbs the shoulder of Basin Peak, turn left onto the Sand Ridge Trail. In a few short minutes, the San Ridge Trail “T’s” into the Hole in the Ground Trail. Again, turn left on the Hole in the Ground Trail and follow it back to Castle Valley. This loop is approximately 8.5-miles.
The third Loop, not for the faint of heart, utilizes the beginning of the first loop, and the end of the second. The major difference is this: Once Castle Pass is reached on the PCT from the Castle Valley side, turn right and follow the unmarked trail east along the ridgeline toward Castle Peak. This trail will eventually fork: the trail to the right runs to the summit of Castle Peak. The trail to the left gains the ridgeline between Castle Peak and Basin Peak to the north. Running along the ridgeline between these two peaks is a tour de force and represents high alpine route-running at its finest. Once Basin Peak is near, follow the trail away from the summit, wrap the peak’s shoulder, and the trail will bring you back to the PCT. Turn left (south) on the PCT, descend into round valley, find the Sand Ridge Trail (a right turn this time) and return the same way as described in loop two. This loop is approximately 14-miles.
Who is Going to Love It
Trail runners of all ability will love the potential for different loops, views, and routes starting in Castle Valley. There are many out and back potentials as well; grab a map and add one or two to a loop for extension in miles or diversity. Try running up the Slab Rock OHV trail, or out along the Donner Lake Rim Trail toward Summit Lake, to name just a few.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Truckee, proceed west on Interstate 80 for 9.8 miles to the Castle Valley/Boreal exit. Turn right (north) off of the exit. This is Castle Valley Road. The road starts uphill and turns to dirt within several hundred yards. For ease of parking, and less wear on your vehicle’s shocks, park just off of the pavement. Parking is free. Additional dirt pullouts can be found by proceeding up the road past the green gate.