Peaking over Castle Peak |

Peaking over Castle Peak

Sylas Wright/Sierra SunAbove: Four ski resorts are seen in this photo looking south from atop of Castle Peak: Boreal (lower right, with its halfpipe visible and I-80 below), Donner Ski Ranch (above and to the left), Sugar Bowl (with Mount Lincoln in the center) and Squaw Valley (with the palisades visible in the upper left portion of the picture, beyond Anderson Peak). Below: Castle Peak is seen from just above Castle Pass, at 7,880 feet in elevation.

Traveling eastbound on Interstate 80, it’s hard to miss Castle Peak looming above Donner Summit at 9,103 feet. As a landmark that at first glance turned me into a reckless-driving gaper more than a year and a half ago, I have since felt ashamed for not reaching its summit.

Well, on Friday I put those guilty thoughts to rest.

A bit fatigued after being recruited for a two-person, wooden beam-hauling session that morning, one of my neighbors, Stephanie Matt, knocked on my door.

The time had come to hike Castle Peak, she informed. The only thing missing: Doug Hood, the third neighbor slated for the trek.

No more than 20 minutes later, Doug’s voice carried through my open door. He was home from work and ready to go. So we went, departing our Donner Lake homes around 2:30 p.m.

Leaving Doug’s car at the Pacific Crest Trail parking area near Boreal, we were officially Castle Peak-bound by 3.

Stephanie, who carried the trail guide and thus served as our hike leader, caught flak less than a half-mile from the start after leading us to a rest stop along the south side of I-80. A good sport, she accepted the razzing, identified her wrong turn and got our group back on track.

The first Kodak moment came soon after, as Doug and I felt it necessary to document our passing through two large culverts that cross under 80. Once on the north side of the highway, now about a mile from our starting point, it felt as though we were finally making progress.

Clearly lagging on our mission, we moved along swiftly, heading north toward Castle Valley. The gradient was mild and the trail scenic as we walked through mixed forests of red and white fir, lodgepole and western white pine and mountain hemlock, among others.

Our trio silent as we marched ahead, a small- to medium-sized animal ” my guess is that is was a marmot ” went airborne across the trail and into a bush directly in front of Stephanie, who was leading the way. As would any non-expecting person, Stephanie bunny-hopped backward while emitting a half-audible gasp. Whatever the daring blur of an animal was, it was not large enough to eat us. So we continued.

The only sign of life after that was a man hiking to the Peter Grubb Hut using a ski pole in lieu of a walking stick. Quick on our feet, we passed him shortly before reaching Castle Pass, at 7,880 feet. There we learned of his destination while realizing the reality of reaching ours.

See our trail guide rated the Castle Peak hike a 5 out of 5 in difficulty. The fact that our first 3.3 miles was a breeze, and that we were craning our necks to look up at the craggy volcanic peak less than a mile and a half away, suggested some steeper going the remainder of the hike.

That it was. Not only was it steep, the loose volcanic rock made for some dicey footing. But that wasn’t worth worrying about until the decent.

Upon reaching the gnarly spires that make up the summit of Castle Peak, at 9,103 feet, the burning in the legs gave way to 360 degrees of jaw-dropping views.

“Wow,” perhaps is the best word to describe it.

After a good half-hour of taking it all in, and with the time now reading 6 p.m., we backtracked down the volcano.

Minus Stephanie’s bruising butt plop ” I’m glad it wasn’t me ” the steep decent posed no problems.

Setting another quick pace, we jammed back to the car, arriving somewhere around 8.

When all said and done, we concurred that our legs were indeed tired and that Castle Peak was well worth the time and effort.

West of Donner Summit, take the Castle Peak/Boreal Ridge Road exit off Interstate 80. Drive to the frontage road on the south side of 80 and proceed east 0.3 miles to the Pacific Crest Trail parking area.

Another option is to park near the start of Castle Valley Road and walk along the dirt road to Castle Pass, or drive with a high-clearance rig up Castle Valley Road to a parking area near the Hole in the Wall trailhead. From there a short hike along the road leads to Castle pass.

From the Pacific Crest Trail parking area, follow the signs to a pair of large culverts that cross underneath I-80. Continue until reaching a four-way junction point about a mile from the trailhead. Remaining on the PCT, proceed straight through the junction following the Castle Pass signs. Continue on the well-beaten trail until reaching Castle Pass about 3.3 miles from the trailhead. To reach the top of Castle Peak, take a right at the three-way junction and ascend the rocky ridge approximately 1.5 miles to the summit.

Sylas Wright is the sports editor of the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at

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