The Donner Peak and Mount Judah Peak snowshoe trail transforms the popular dry-season hike into a less-crowded trek. One can expect some moderate climbing along with a few short scrambles that open up to views over the Donner Lake basin along with the Summit Valley and Donner Pass areas. Though this trail can be done as a loop in dry conditions, winter snows tend to bury the trail and make it much more easily navigable as an out-and-back under these conditions.
From the trailhead you'll follow a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail as it initially leaves a wooded creek area of snowmelt. The trail begins climbing through a series of switchbacks up the mountain's northern face that hint at the upcoming views over Donner Lake to the east. As the trail ascends you'll overlook Lake Mary, which often freezes over in the winter, and climb toward views of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort to the west before veering in and out of stands of fir and Jeffrey pine. Many tracks venture to and from the trail along this section as the thick snow over rolling terrain offers great opportunities to blaze one's own backcountry routes.
At about three-quarters of a mile, the trail intersects the slopes and lifts of Sugar Bowl. Here you'll split with the PCT and bear left and up a forested slope in order to avoid actually venturing onto the ski slope. After a brief climb you'll emerge into a clearing and notice several signs that mark the ski area boundary to your right as you head north away from the slopes and back along a defined trail into a thickly wooded area.
A short time later, the granite formations leading to Donner Peak can be seen behind the trees to the west. Veer off from the trail at this point and find a spot to remove your snowshoes for the last short climb to the top of the rock stacks (though it's best to avoid this last climb if the granite is icy) and a view over the Donner Lake and Truckee basins.
From Donner Peak you can look to the west and see the radio reflectors atop the final scramble to Mount Judah. Retrace your steps back to the trail and begin the final 300-foot climb to the area immediately behind the radio reflectors. From here it is a short walk along the ridge south to Mount Judah and a sweeping 360-degree panorama of lakes, mountains, lifts, and ski slopes. After you've taken it all in, or when the wind becomes too much, retrace your path back to the trailhead.
Parking is allowed at the trailhead, though the parking area is small and can be hard to reach with low-clearance cars during the winter. In this case, you can park along the side of Old Donner Pass Road and walk the 0.2 miles to the trailhead. Make sure to park completely off of the street and pay attention to gates and signs marking private property alongside the road.
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.