A 20 mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) between Webber Lake and Donner Summit makes a great two-day backpacking trip that is not overly strenuous and has beautiful vistas and lake-side camping at White Rock and Paradise Lakes. Though much of it is not in true wilderness, being served by jeep roads, it’s relatively untraveled. It’s a perfect trip for older kids as well as adults who might want to take a leisurely pace.
The route starts at an obscure spot in the road on Forest Road 86 between Webber Lake and Meadow Lake, marked only with a small, blue, triangular PCT marker (see detailed directions at the end). It could be a one or two night backpacking trip but two nights allows for camping at both White Rock Lake and Paradise Lake. White Rock Lake is larger but Paradise Lake is prettier—both are accessible by jeep roads. It works best with two cars, leaving one at the PCT parking lot at Donner Summit and the other at the starting point.
Day 1: Forest Service Road 86 (between Webber and Meadow Lakes) to White Rock Lake (~6 miles)
From Truckee head up I-80 North, then take Highway 89 North toward Sierraville. Set the trip odometer to measure 17 miles on Highway 89 and turn left on FS07 toward Independence Lake, then left again on FS86 to Meadow Lake. When the elevation starts rising on FS86 look high in the trees to find the tiny PCT marker.
Instead of the usual Tahoe trail that immediately ascends without any time to acclimate this one has a gentle beginning. Bluffs tower over moderate sloping hills destined to melt into the grassland of the huge Sierra Valley to the northwest, a high mountain basin that, but for the absence of water, mirrors Lake Tahoe. Looking east, toward heavily forested, interlaced ridges, is the trail.
The route goes through a forest thick with western white pine and red fir before breaking out to vast, panoramic views of the Sierra. This section of the PCT is well maintained and well signed so even in areas networked with a web of logging roads it is obvious where the main trail is. To reach White Rock Lake keep going past the jeep road that goes to the west shore of White Rock Lake and turn left at the sign for the Mt Lola Trail that follows White Rock Creek. The trail ascends moderately steep terrain before reaching the dam at the west end of White Rock Lake. Take a right, to the east side of the lake, to avoid campers accessing the lake from the jeep road. A small, sandy beach with some good campsites along a section of smooth rocks is a good place to stop.
This lake can get warm enough to swim in during summer, more so than other Tahoe area lakes, so it’s a good place to soak tired feet and wash off the trail dust. It has a fairly firm, sandy bottom.
Day 2: White Rock Lake to Donner Summit (~5 miles)
The section from White Rock Lake to Donner Summit is a short 5 miles, which is great for kids because it leaves plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of Paradise Lake without the burden of a pack. Retrace your steps to the PCT and resume the trail you were on the day before. The trail continues to alternate between deep forest and open ridges, offering a lot of variety. Be sure to turn back to see the high crest you descended from the day before. A couple of hours of hiking will bring you to the junction to Paradise Lake, where you will turn left to reach the lake. It’s a well-defined jeep road but is not well signed from this direction. It is obvious from the other direction so if you’re not sure keep going while looking back to find the sign.
Paradise Lake is always a delight, like a Disney ideal of what a mountain lake should look like. Smooth rocks line the near shore, dotted with stunted trees where various campsites are naturally designated by the shifts and turns of the granite, inlets and streams. The far shore is bounded by a protective ridge rising steeply from the edge of the water. Tiny islands scattered around the lake beckon though the water is always icy despite the air temperature. The bottom of the lake is thick with mud but it is deep enough that you can get away from the mud after a few good strokes and it’s fun to swim to each of the small islands.
For anyone with energy left over after the short trip from White Rock Lake it is possible to find a tentative trail around the entire lake. Looking toward an immense, jumbled rock wall hundreds of feet high you’ll see a collection of large rock formations in the foreground. You can scramble up and over but there is also a trail around this obstacle in the brush. A faint trail leads to the eastern ridge above the Paradise Lake where you can peer over the other side to see cliffs tumbling down to the glittering blue waters of Warren Lake, so close but yet so far away. Looking up you can see the smooth swale of the Round Valley Ridge between Basin Peak and Castle Peak dropping down a massive, crazy clutter of broken granite and shale to Warren Lake. Looking down from this perch are colossal, house sized blocks of granite. The guide book says there are trails down to Warren Lake from both Round Valley Ridge and Paradise Lake but they aren’t obvious from visual inspection. Continuing to circle Paradise Lake the trail peters out at another rock wall just opposite from the campsites. However, it is possible to scramble over the wall to find the resumption of the trail. The brushy end of the lake looks formidable but the trail winds right through it, with more hidden campsites.
Day 3-Paradise Lake to Donner Summit (~9 miles)
Head back out to the PCT and turn left to continue down the trail toward Donner Summit. There is a long ascent but the reward is another stunning, panoramic view of the Sierra, with sunlight glinting off tiny cars far below, speeding along on I-80. The Peter Grubb Hut, which is unfortunately currently boarded up awaiting repairs, is still a convenient place to stop for lunch or a snack, with enticing views of the Round Valley. There is only one more, shorter, ascent to Castle Pass before the long descent to the car.
This is a lightly traveled route in late summer, when the PCT through-hikers are long gone, that offers varied terrain, attractive vistas, serene lakes and isn’t too arduous if you take your time and stretch it over three days. Kids with some Sierra backpacking experience can enjoy this route if they have some time each afternoon to swim in mountain lakes and explore the nearby terrain.
Guidebook: The Tahoe Sierra: A Natural History Guide to 112 Hikes in the Northern Sierra. by Jeffrey Schaffer.Wilderness Press: 2001.
Permits: Permits are not required for overnight visits in this area. However, California Campfire Permits are required if using a portable campstove for cooking or building a wood fire. Permits and information about current fire restrictions are available from any Ranger Station or California Dept. of Forestry office. Permits are available online after completing a short, 4-question quiz.
Forest Service Ranger Station: 10811 Stockrest Spring Rd, Truckee, CA 96161 http://www.fs.usda.gov/tahoe
Start: To reach the trailhead near Meadow Lake from Truckee, CA (near Webber Lake):
- Take I-80 to Hwy 89 heading north. Travel 17 miles on 89.
- Turn left (west) at the Independence Lake/WebberLake sign (marked Forest Service [FS] Road 07/Jackson Meadows Road on map, not marked on highway). Stay on the main track.
- Keep going past the turnoff to Independence Lake and continue on FS 07. You may spot Webber Lake on the left.
- Turn left at the sign to Meadow Lake (FS 86), which is an unpaved logging road. 2WD ok, but the high clearance of an SUV is helpful.
- When the road starts to ascend more steeply look carefully in the trees for the PCT marker, a small, light blue, triangular marker. Just after the trailhead there is a large clearing on the left where you can park your car. GPS waypoint: Lat 39°25.502'0" N. Long 120°26.911'0"W. Elevation: 7537 feet.
- GoogleMaps link (the end point isn’t exact—this is just meant to give road directions): http://goo.gl/maps/PqPVw
Finish: To reach the Pacific Crest Trail parking lot near Boreal Mountain Resort from Truckee, CA (near Webber Lake):
- Head south on I-80 and take the Castle Peak/Boreal Ridge Rd exit.
- Cross under the freeway.
- Turn left on Boreal Ridge Road (away from the ski area) and drive a short distance to a large parking area equipped with toilets and prominent signs with maps and information.
- GoogleMaps link: http://goo.gl/maps/ndpfq