Basics: Castle Peak (9104′) is a prominent mountain close to Donner Pass on I-80. It’s a popular destination for summer hiking and winter snowshoeing or backcountry skiing. The summit is about 3 miles (and 1800′) from the trailhead. In the winter, much of the trail is well graded and easy to follow. The last half mile or so up to the summit is pretty steep. Most people we saw were using snowshoes, but if conditions were really icy, crampons and an ice axe might be a bit easier.
Directions to Trailhead: Castle Peak is visible from I-80 – you’ll know when you are getting close. Exit at Boreal/Castle Peak (pretty hard to miss) and turn north. The trailhead is just north of the westbound on and off-ramps. There is limited parking at the trailhead. More parking can be found at the Sno-Park near Boreal Inn on the south side of the freeway. A permit is required for parking (November 1 until May 30), but can be purchased online – see link at bottom of page.
Trail Description: We haven’t had much opportunity to get up to the snow this season- it’s a little far from Santa Barbara. With the March snowpack at near record lows, we decided our one opportunity would be better spent hiking than skiing. Castle Peak was an easy choice – it’s close to the freeway, not too long, and the perfect place to use our new snowshoes! It’s also really pretty, like almost everything in the Tahoe area.
Six of us, plus one black lab, planned to meet at the trailhead before 9:00 am. Five of us made it. The last member of our group (and the dog) overslept and caught up to us later in the day. We parked the car, spent time shuffling around snowshoes, jackets and gear, then hit the trail.
At the gate near the trailhead, a snow mobile trail splits off to the left and goes around Andesite Peak. We continued straight on the cross country trail. It was still early- the snow was solid and crunchy. I used microspikes but everyone else managed to hike in boots without slipping or postholing.
After about a half mile, we came to a fork in the trail. Our path continued upwards and to the left towards Andesite Ridge. Another trail headed straight for Castle Peak but descended down into Castle Valley. The ridge trail appears to be less direct, but it’s actually much easier and possibly shorter.
We began climbing and eventually made it to Andesite Ridge. We turned right and headed towards Castle Peak. The ridge trail is relatively easy and provides great views to Basin Peak, Castle Valley, Round Valley and the surrounding Tahoe National Forest.
About a half mile from the summit, our trail began a steeper climb. It was still pretty icy. I worried that I would lose my balance and go sliding down the mountain. I suppose it wouldn’t be a normal hike if I wasn’t panicking about something. Luckily the snow provided plenty of traction. We hiked up and across the slope towards the backside of the peak. We made one large switchback and finally reached a slightly flatter area. From there, our destination was close – less than a quarter mile.
After pushing past one shorter, steep section near the top, we were standing on the summit. It was windy and cold at the top, so we didn’t plan to stay too long.
We ate a quick lunch, snapped a few photos, then headed down. We navigated back down the steep part of the trail. At the bottom, we met up with the last member of our group. Not only had he slept in, but he had taken the “shortcut” through Castle Valley. Turns out, it was quite a difficult hike, but the dog certainly enjoyed it. We took a break for some celebratory beers (it was too cold to drink them at the top).
The rest of the hike back to the car was flatter, warmer, and more crowded. Everyone had a great time.