Accessing Donner Ridge from Johnson Canyon entails a rugged 1,500-foot elevation gain that makes the route best for intermediate snowshoers and backcountry skiers. The trek will take you from the trailhead just beside I-80 to the summit of the ridge, where you'll have expansive views of all the surrounding high peaks of the Northern Sierra.
Unlike the popular nearby Castle Peak Trail that can feel like a freeway of backcountry winter adventurers, the Donner Ridge Trail is a little-known hiking trail recently completed to access the in-progress Donner Lake Rim Trail, and you shouldn't be surprised if you have to trek through virgin powder as you climb up Johnson Canyon.
The parking area and west side of Johnson Canyon are popular for snowmobiles, and you may hear highway and snowmobile noise for the first mile or so. As you trace the east side of the canyon further up, however, that noise begins to disappear and is replaced by the sound of the flowing creek just down the slope on your left.
The trail follows the base of the ridge, and it is a steady uphill grade that follows the wide hiking path. Some of the trees are marked with trail blazes, though these are few and far between and act as occasional reminders that you are headed in the right direction rather than reliable navigational aids.
After about 1.25 miles the trail enters a thicker stand of forest and begins to climb a steeper elevation gain. You'll encounter a shallow bowl and a saddle at the top, and this saddle will be the only level portion of your trip. From here, catch your breath before you begin the steep climb up the north face of the ridge, the most moderate of the routes to the top.
At the top of the climb, beyond the Drifter Hut marking the edge of Tahoe Donner Ski Resort's backcountry trails, it is only a little bit further to the windy northern summit of 7,881-foot Donner Ridge and, eventually, the 7,956-foot southern summit of the ridge.
Sweeping views of Freel Peak and Northstar Ski Resort to the southeast, Donner Peak towering above the western edge of Donner Lake, Boreal Ridge further west, and Castle Peak to the northwest reward you. Some brave skiers may choose to carve down the most direct route back to the trailhead. For everyone else, turn around and retrace your path back to the bottom. Alternately, if shuttling cars is an option for you, continue on to the Glacier Way Trailhead about 1.4 miles and 500 feet of elevation drop further on.
Note that the the parking area has no facilities of any kind, so be sure to plan ahead.
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.