If a short skin, amazing views, great powder, beautiful graffiti, and terrain ranging from mellow to extreme sounds good, the Lake Run is certainly worth a go. Typically accomplished with a car shuttle, the run is accessed from one of multiple locations within Sugar Bowl Ski Resort after leaving a car 2,000 feet below in the Donner Lake neighborhood at the end of Tinker Court.
The riding options outside of Sugar Bowl's open gates are vast. However, this write up focuses on the most popular run, known as the Lake Run. While the Lake Run technically starts from Donner summit, Judah ridge can be easily accessed during the approach, adding another 200 to 300 feet of descent before skinning back up to Donner Peak. This write up references skinning as the main mode of hiking; however, people often boot pack the route because of the short hiking distances required.
Sugar Bowl has an open gate policy with the Forest Service, making it an amazing location to explore the backcountry of the Sierra Crest. Single ride tickets can be purchased, allowing you to access the gates from the resort or purchase a full day ticket and explore the backcountry as well as taking some laps at the resort. The Lake Run is a great way to end the day after skiing Sugar Bowl's great terrain.
There are three gates that provide access to the Lake Run. From the Mount Lincoln gate, accessed from the Mount Lincoln lift, ski the east-facing Crowley's Traverse down until it makes a sharp left. The gate is clearly visible, so continue through the gate up the prominent Judah ridge to the east. The summit chair gate puts you right on top of Judah ridge, making it a very short hike to your desired drop-in point, anywhere along the broad Judah ridge. The lowest gate, accessed from the Judah lift, is east of the chair right past the ski patrol shack. From the lower gate you can skin straight out to Donner Peak or climb 300 feet up to Judah ridge and ski back down before climbing up to Donner Peak. Lastly, an uphill pass can also be purchased from the resort, and you can skin from Judah lodge to the top of Judah lift and out from there.
Unfortunately, Sugar Bowl's lift service is often undependable, especially during weekdays. Be open to accessing the Lake Run in whatever way possible. Each option is fairly low effort for the amount of skiing to be had on the way down to Donner Lake.
The Lake Run itself is pretty straightforward; however, there are often large cornices on top of Judah ridge and very complex terrain on the north side of Donner Peak. Therefore, it is important to have good visibility and/or be very comfortable navigating complex terrain when first exploring the Lake Run.
From Judah Ride, drop east into the bowl. Then skin north back to Donner Peak after the terrain flattens out. On the approach to Donner Peak, be sure to take note of all the gnarled old-growth trees. The Sierra juniper, reminiscent of bonsai trees, are 1,000 to 2,600 years old in the High Sierra. Their stunted growth and wind-swept tops allude to centuries of perseverance in this harsh landscape. From the summit of Donner Peak, ride in a northeasterly direction toward the railroad grade and the west shore of Donner Lake. Use extreme caution on this pitch, as the northerly aspects of Donner Peak have very complex terrain with cliffs, numerous avalanche paths and terrain traps. The eastern aspects are very mellow and easy to navigate. Once at the railroad grade, walk toward and into the decommissioned train tunnel. Bring a head lamp with you and continue into the tunnel until you see a corrugated gate on the left; this is your exit. Once outside the tunnel, a fall line descent brings you right back to Tinker Court. The last pitch of the lake run has great pillow-like terrain, making it a very playful way to end an already unique backcountry run.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.